August 26, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Laura Miller at reviewed Sarah Water's fifth book, The Little Stranger, in terms that I can only completely agree with - this is a "masterly, enthralling new novel", and a serious must-read. I'm including the link to Miller's review here. There are only a few other things that I would add.

The first is to comment on the subtlety of Waters' plotting and execution. For a writer who successfully mastered the art of explicitly wrought, Dickensian plotting in Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith, Waters has done something truly impressive here - she has mastered, with equal or greater facility, the tightrope walk of the implicitly driven plot. Whereas her first novels were rendered in a fully Victorian style with complicated twists and last minute revelations, The Little Stranger builds slowly, implying much, confirming nothing, all the while gently stoking a tangible feeling of dread. This is a gothic ghost story sustained at perfect pitch. I doubt even Henry James could have made The Turn of the Screw work at 300 pages, and yet Sarah Waters does, drawing the reader into the decay of Hundreds Hall and unraveling its inhabitants inch by creepy inch.

The second thing I want to mention is the narrator of The Little Stranger, Dr. Faraday, whose first name we never learn. This is interesting and something I'll have to think about. Anyway, I can't say much about him without allowing my interpretation of the book to color another reader's experience, but I will say is that rarely have I ever seen dramatic irony so skillfully and thoroughly employed. Her characterization of the kindly, stable Faraday is brilliant and sad and unnerving, thanks to the ambiguity ruling the book. Faraday alone is worth the read, but it would be short-changing Waters' skill to say that he is the only reason to read The Little Stranger.

I have been a fan of Sarah Waters ever since I read her first novel, Tipping the Velvet. It was a raw and exuberant, heart-breaking book, which she followed with the emotional gut-punch of her second book, Affinity. Waters' early novels reveal a young writer tapping into and exploring her prodigious talent. With The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters has given us a fully mature work, a master-stroke in the form of a controlled, slow burn that delivers on the full weight of her potential.

August 23, 2009

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I finished The Blind Assassin, the novel for which Margaret Atwood finally won the Booker Prize, about a month ago, but I was so completely and uselessly fan-girled by it that I wanted to wait a while before writing up my thoughts. I figured that way I'd have more to say than just "Oh my god, oh my god, that was... I mean... wow!"

I do have more than that to say after a month of rolling the book around in my mind, but it still all boils down to "wow." The book is successful in so many ways that I can't address them all without boring anyone who doesn't live in my head, so I'm going to focus on structure for this little write up.

Structurally speaking, The Blind Assassin is a perfect novel. A structurally perfect novel is impressive no matter how you slice it, but it's especially impressive in the case of this novel, which weaves together four different, yet inter-related narratives. There are no last minute revelations in The Blind Assassin, as one might expect from a novel that is, in a sense, a bit of a jigsaw. Last minute revelations would disrupt the novel's elegant lines. Subtlety is called for, and that what Atwood uses, guiding the reader along implicitly, so that when something is revealed explicitly, the reader finds that they were already subconsciously aware of it.

The four threads that form The Blind Assassin are the modern, day to day dealings of the elderly protagonist, Iris Chase, Iris' remembrances of her childhood and early adulthood, and the whole text of a novel, also called The Blind Assassin, that her sister, Laura Chase, supposedly wrote before committing suicide in the 1940's. Laura Chase's The Blind Assassin is also set in the '40's, and tells the story of two lovers doomed to be separated by circumstance. In that novel-within-the-novel, the unnamed man writes a story for his lover, a rich society bride. It tells the tale of a blind assassin and the woman he rescues from death.

These are a lot of threads with very disparate contents, and one would think it nearly impossible to keep them operable and without using literary "cleverness" or falling back on trite and obvious tricks. What amazed me about The Blind Assassin, is that Atwood never makes a false move, not once, through the entire thing. Each of the threads elucidates the others, each narrator passes the narrative burden as if it were something light and delicate, like a teacup. The execution is flawless - literally, without a flaw. Incredible.

I've always liked Margaret Atwood. I deconstructed a number of her short stories when I began teaching myself to write, I gobbled up The Handmaid's Tale and I'm in the middle of loving Alias Grace, but The Blind Assassin is something different. It stands out to me as being that rarest of rare things: the Important Book that is also a genuine, keeps-you-up-until-dawn pleasure to read. This is why, after all of the babble that went into this post, and all of the thinking that preceded it, in the end, all I can say is "wow."

August 6, 2009

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill

The Risk of Darkness by Susan Hill, is the third in her Simon Serrailler crime series, and I'm afraid it's the last one I'm going to read.

Her first book in the series, The Various Haunts of Men, was brilliant. Here's a link to my review of it last year. I loved how edgy it was, how Hill never coddled the reader, trusting in her audience's intelligence and emotional strength to get them through a rather disturbing and, at times, very sad read. The plot was taut, the characters compelling, the omniscient point of view (which is tricky to pull off) used to good end. I'd never read a mystery/crime novel that gave the reader so much emotional credit. I loved it, and I really looked forward to the next in the series.

That was The Pure in Heart. I didn't find it to be half so strong as The Various Haunts of Men - it wasn't bad, it just wasn't the Holy Cow! good of its predecessor. Here's the link to that review.

So, on to The Risk of Darkness, the third (but not last, as there's another on the way) in the series. By now, Hill's use of the omniscient third-person narrator is starting to wear thin. It's a difficult thing to pull off successfully in a novel-length work. That's why I was so impressed by The Various Haunts of Men. Usually moving to a new point of view in every chapter is exhausting, but it worked in the first Serrailler book, because the narrative arc was so taut. Used well, the technique demands the reader's emotional investment, but it requires a bold rising action and climax to work, two things that The Risk of Darkness lacks.

The Risk of Darkness picks up where The Pure in Heart left off - on the track of another serial killer in idyllic suburban England. Woven into the main plot is Serrailler's disconnect from people in general, his sister's worrisome disconnect from her husband, a young woman dying of variant CJD (mad cow disease), her husband going off the deep end, a young female priest with surprisingly little agency, her mother's victimization at the hand of burglars and a woman who's a jerk to her kid. There are other narrative threads in addition to these, but I think you get the idea.

The omniscient third-person no longer serves its purpose the way it did in The Various Haunts of Men. It pulls the reader in too many directions at once. We cannot invest in Serrailler - we're not with him long enough and, frankly, he's just not that compellingly drawn. We cannot invest in the dying young woman and her mad-with-grief husband - we're no with them long enough. Etc. etc. etc. In fact, rather than making me care about all of these various characters, I found myself doing the opposite. By the time I finished the book, I was glad to be out of the heads of such myopic, fatalistic, pathetic, cauterized and/or vaguely tiresome people.

I do have to say that Hill's approach to crime fiction is non-standard, which is refreshing. But the narrative convention that worked so well in The Various Haunts of Men is stunting the other books in the series. The Risk of Darkness should be edgy, compelling. It's not. It's ultimately tiresome. The omniscient third-person point of view has rendered Hill's characters two-dimensional. Despite a great deal of potential, they have become cookie-cutter people made to type and manipulated, and sadly not worth the investment.

So, the verdict? If you want to read a fantastically strong crime novel with structural integrity, read The Various Haunts of Men. Skip the rest of the Serrailler series - they'll only make you miss the excellence of the first book.