When I created this blog, I set out to review one good book a week, and I didn’t plan to include anything I thought was boring, sloppily written, or had trouble holding together as a novel. I didn’t want this site to be about panning bad books; I wanted it to be about highlighting the good ones. So I decided that I would only include positive reviews on this site, and if I didn’t like a book, I’d just find another one I did like and use that review for the weekly post.
I’m changing my position, and I’ve only been at this for a month.
This week, I picked up two titles at work that looked quite promising, but ultimately were near misses. The first was The Infinities by John Banville. I love his writing – The Sea, in particular – for its understated, lyrical style, and I hadn’t yet read this work about the family of a dying patriarch gathering in their manor home, only to be visited by a motley assortment of mischief-making Greek gods. I was hoping for something like A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets Downton Abbey, but found the novel clunky and overwrought instead. Even the character names were overdone – the beautiful daughter in law is Helen (of Troy), her salt-of-the-earth husband is the biblical Adam, and the family surname is Godley. I thought that Banville focused so much on symbolic wordplay and on the perspectives of the gods that the actual story blurred into the background, which made it, for me, an unsatisfying read.
Discouraged, I then moved on to my second choice, which was Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. I haven’t read anything else by this author, but decided to give her story a try because the reviews described it as a successful retelling of the Bluebeard story, set in America in the 1930s. I like folk and fairy tales, like modern interpretations, and have a soft spot for this particular tale because I lived quite near Bluebeard’s castle in France during my third year of university. Oyeyemi’s version features a successful writer, the eponymous Mr. Fox – also known as Reynardine, his jealous wife Daphne, and his imaginary muse Mary Foxe, who eventually becomes real. The novel is divided into titled chapters, each one an adaptation of the Bluebeard tale, usually featuring the three main characters, but not always, and usually considered to be the published works of Mr. Fox, but not always. Mr. Fox works if it is read as a collection of adaptations of the Bluebeard tale, but I didn’t find much of an overarching story to unify the isolated stories into a cohesive whole.
I’m including both of these reviews on this week’s post because these books taught me something.
I like quirky writing. One of my favourite books of all time is at least partially narrated by a three hundred year old tortoise, and another one is narrated by a Mennonite teenager who wants to avoid the fate of working in a chicken slaughterhouse. I have learned, however, that quirky writing works best if the highly original apects serve to infuse the work with surprise and humour. It’s the reason why The Office was never just about Dwight.
So for this week, I’m going to recommend a novel I read just before I began this blog. Like The Infinities, it features otherworldly visitors, and like Mr. Fox, it’s written with a heavy dose of magic realism. I’ve posted a version of it on the 49th Shelf.
Things Go Flying, Shari Lapena
Brindle & Glass, 218 p.
In this first novel, Shari Lapena paints a portrait of a quietly despairing man working his way through a midlife crisis. He has recently been diagnosed with a heart condition and appears to be depressed, spending too much time sitting in a ratty bathrobe doing nothing. He is acutely aware of his impending 49th birthday, particularly ominous as his own father died at 49, and has taken to reading the obituaries where he learns of the recent death of a friend from his youth. At the funeral, Harold collapses, and soon after, begins to hear the voices of his late mother and newly deceased friend. China knickknacks get broken as ghosts take over the living room. This affirmation of the afterlife only serves to heighten Harold’s anxiety; not only is life depressing and futile, but it goes on forever. News of his wife’s infidelity, the antics of his teenage sons and a looming million dollar lawsuit do nothing to improve his outlook.
An irrational outburst at work prompts Harold to seek professional help. Rather than consult a psychiatrist or a psychologist, he sets up an appointment with a philosopher at the University of Toronto who recommends a course of readings, followed by discussions of the various philosophical approaches to dealing with the void. Harold emerges from the sessions with a more hopeful perspective, a more effective set of coping strategies, and a new willingness to listen to what the ghosts have to say.
Lapena writes in a highly conversational voice, mixing plain language with wry humour and a touch of the otherworldly to lighten an otherwise weighty topic.
Winner of the Globe and Mail’s Great Literary Project Contest and shortlisted for the 2006 CBC Literary Awards and the 2009 Sunburst award, Things Go Flying brings together the fantastical and the ordinary in a compelling exploration of the meaning of life.