Friday, 13 April 2018

Post 72: Truth, Art and Fiction: The Goldfinch Reviewed

Second post in a month must mean it is school holidays! I have had a beautifully laid-back fortnight,
edging the grass (not in anyone's estimation is it a lawn!), weeding and digging the borders and nearly crippling both Child 2 and my car by making them carry nigh-on a tonne of compost and bark in one sitting! Getting adventurous in the garden, hubby and I have started a patio at the needs to be finished soon because I have bought a little greenhouse-shelf-construction for my seeds.  Monty Don would be aghast to realise that I haven't got round to sowing any yet... salad and chillies might be a bit late in the Martin kitchen this year.

With the wedding of the year later in August, I also made my first attempts at an outfit.  I had great fun with two friends: one trying on hats (all a bit ludicrous to be honest!) and one buying a full regalia.  And then the inevitable return of said full regalia as I reconsidered... just proving that I am, at heart, such as girl!  Traumatised by the whole mother-of-the-bride pressure, I am resolved to give up for a few weeks before re-immersing myself in the High Street!

Now other forms of real enjoyment have been the decadence of  being brought a cuppa in bed in the morning and a subsequent hour's reading.  That is the way to start every day! And further enjoying the freedom of not too many scheduled events, I have done some writing. That at least gave me some relief that I can put a sentence or two together for the gap-year-mid-life-crisis MA I'm doing in the autumn.  The course is a year, but the book I have just finished reading took the author eleven years to write...that is real dedication to a story-line!

In writing this review I am fully aware that I come very late to the The Goldfinch party.  I have had it downloaded as an audio-book for months and had a couple of abortive listens to the opening chapter.  Abortive, not because I didn't like it, but because I did and I needed to commit to listen regularly, rather than haphazardly between Radio 4 comedies and a premature penchant for The Archers Omnibus!

So Easter baking gave rise to my third attempt at listening.  It is a deceptively simple opening.  Young Theo Decker is with his Mum on the way to a meeting with the school Principal. He doesn't quite know what is going to be discussed; his guilt spans several misdemeanours and the reader is immediately empathetic with his agony over which of his infringements have been discovered. The more arresting and compelling hook however, occurs in the Frick Art Gallery in New York.  Theo's Mother decides to kill time before the appointment doing something she loves: exploring art galleries.  A particular painting, The Goldfinch by  Fabritius was being exhibited and she particularly wanted to see it. It is evident from the title that the painting will have far-reaching significance and this begins when a bomb is detonated in the gallery. Trapped and separated from his Mother, he forms a crucial bond with a dying man that leads to Theo taking the painting from the debris.  This act reverberates through the rest of his story and can be seen to be a fundamental link to his Mother and a central pivot around which his development turns.

This book is long: after listening to the opening chapters, I bought the novel on my Kindle and switched to reading.  I like audio, but even when I listen to certain sections whilst cooking, if it is a book I am invested in then I re-read the pieces I have already heard.  This won't be the same for everyone, but I am essentially a kinaesthetic learner and auditory processing is my weakest area of retention.

So, with my Kindle noting 868 pages, I was grateful that the hours were per chapter rather than per the novel as a whole!  And because this is so long, it needs to be read with momentum.  I don't advocate racing through a book, but a steady reading rhythm will make even the thinnest of plots have more resonance.  A story needs to be told, and weekly episodes do very few novels the justice they deserve.

And so back to Theo Decker.  This is a bildungsroman told in the first person and spans his life from thirteen to his mid-twenties.  The voice is thus youthful and at times, naive. There is an essential goodness about Theo and I found myself hoping that the denouement would move him from a Pawn to at least a Knight in his own game. Motherless in a family where the Father had long gone and any Grandparents had surrendered interest years ago, he begins as a victim.  Cornered by well-meaning social services, Theo blurts out the name of a family whose son had been a friend in Elementary School, and so he begins his life post-Frick-explosion with the Barbours.

It is a story that is difficult to predict, and it sweeps the reader with a wide narrative arc that moves from New York to Las Vegas back to New York and then to Amsterdam.  In every episode of Theo's life he makes friends or has a significant character who is important to him, but he remains essentially alone.  At one point in the story he takes a long and lonely bus journey, and this, for me, perhaps more than the at-times contrived metaphor with The Goldfinch, summed up his character.

The book spans Theo's maturation: it is perhaps inevitable that with his background and the influence of those around him, he will find drugs, alcohol and intensity of friendship that eclipses sense. But the central relationship with Boris always has some tenderness at its heart. In his fearlessness Boris retains a primitive affection for Theo which means that readers always tolerate him even when they see his influence over the protagonist is not good.  Their relationship is in some jeopardy in the final stages of the novel, but I won't give any spoilers to the ending just in case there are any of my readers who, like me, have come very late to The Goldfinch party.

There are two delightful characters who resonated fully with me: Welty, whose dialogue takes place over only a very small number of pages, and his business partner and friend, Hobie.  These old men are, like the antiques they restore, from a bygone age of trust, simplicity and mutual respect.  They act as ballast in the storm of Theo's life and they are a simple juxtaposition to the seedy and tortured worlds of drugs, gambling and crime that become Theo's normality in Vegas and beyond.

Alongside this cast of characters there are female figures.  The most important remains Theo's mother who represents love and stability; a safe place.  It is made clear from the outset that her death changed everything for Theo.  Indeed, very early on in the novel he states, "It would have been better if she had lived." But despite her absence being her very presence in the novel, Tartt rightly creates other female characters for Theo. These are not as fully realised as any of the male characters, though Pippa, despite a certain aura of mystery, is the most tangible.

This novel is acclaimed: it won the Pulitzer prize for Fiction in 2014 and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. But it is not without its critics. I really enjoyed the book.  I was convinced by the protagonist and though I resisted some of the changes of scene and significant characters at different points, I found each element of the novel compelling.  Some have said that it is not well-written and is overly dependant on cliche. This I don't agree with.  What I found challenging was the persistent metaphor of life and art.  This is fully expounded in the closing chapter and reads almost as a philosophical essay on the subject. This seems to have been the authorial purpose to the novel as a whole, but Tartt created Theo Decker in order to provide a context for the viewpoint.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch
I prefer to remain character-centrist and see the purpose of the story as one of self-discovery.  Integral to Theo understanding himself is his attachment to the picture.  But I doubt he would have formed such an affinity with The Goldfinch had it not been for its associations with his Mother. There is no doubt however, that Tartt evokes the painting well.  I was certainly curious to see it online and would be very happy to encounter it in a gallery and see it for real.  So here, she truly succeeds.  She awakens our artistic curiosity and perhaps encourages readers to experience art in a way that they have not considered before.

Comparisons have been made between this novel and the style of Charles Dickens.  I can see that Tartt writes at length, but her detail is not in the description nor in evocation of mood.  Instead, I found myself comparing more with the episodic nature of Jane Eyre.  Whilst the bildungsroman connection is obvious, both texts do have similar blocks of story.  Bronte utilises Jane's childhood, Lowood School, Thornfield, the Rivers' house and then back to Rochester.  In The Goldfinch, there is the accident, the Barbours' house, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and then its almost worldwide conclusion. Like Jane Eyre, each story is dependent for its context on the one that went before, but it reads almost as a series of cameos.

Ultimately, Donna Tartt conveys that life is fleeting and that we have choices to make.  She makes interesting assertions in defining what might be perceived to be morally good and what might be its opposite.  Voicing these thoughts through Boris, Theo and Hobie at the conclusion of the novel makes the viewpoint persuasive.

I really enjoyed this book.  It needs to be read at a pace so that its gargantuan length doesn't put you off.  I recommend the Kindle for this (or any other electronic reading device of course!) as it disguises the thickness of the spine! Having said this, I might give it a place in my physical library as I quite like the visual of all the books I have enjoyed being ranged in my shelves!

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Post 71: Reservoir 13 and other musings

Family Easter stroll!
You find me in the first week of the holidays where I have deliberately kept my diary relatively free in order to read and breathe following a chaotic term. Easter weekend was lovely, with all the family together. 

I had eagerly ordered all the Costa Prizewinners in January and so far I have read Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and dipped into the poems of  Helen Dunmore in her last anthology Inside The Wavewritten in the months leading up to her death. The latter is a contemplative collection, made poignant by the circumstances surrounding the writing.  As poetry is not my forte, the link will take you to the Guardian review.

And to bring you right up to date, I have allowed an hour to pass since completing Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor in the hope that I can be excited about it.  Alas, I cannot. It is original, but not in a way that I found helpful. There are no "natural" paragraphs, making the pages dense and demanding.  Any dialogue is embedded within the sections, with no graphological breaks.  There are no speech marks and no line breaks.  This forces the reader to concentrate to keep the sense of the page.  Whilst this is no bad thing, it is, to me, a bit of a gimmick that detracts from the beauty of the prose.

And the narrative is beautiful: several commentators have likened it to poetry, and it certainly has
both lyricism and rhythm.  I felt however that the rhythm got a little tedious.  Each chapter spans a year and charts the seasons in this Archers-esque village that seems to be situated somewhere generically near the Peak District.  I imagined Bakewell without the tourists combined with the Damflask Reservoir in the Peaks near Sheffield.  The setting, as indicated by the title, is nestled in quarry territory with thirteen reservoirs near the village. 

The chapters open with New Year celebrations and their observation is enthusiastic or muted depending on the circumstances redolent in the village in any given year. The year is then measured by the natural world. There are badgers in their sets, fish in the rivers, foxes and their cubs and goldcrests in the yew trees in the church yard whose appearance usually signalled the ending of a chapter...

The background to the story is a missing teenager, who disappears whilst on holiday in the village. But this novel is less about the human story than the world in which human stories take place.  Throughout the book, it seems to me as though the characters, though carefully constructed and cleverly matured over the period of the novel, are always superimposed onto the landscape they inhabit.  This means the humanity of the book never really gets centre-stage.  Lack of connection with character makes this book difficult for me to enthuse over.

I don't normally give spoilers in my reviews and if you want to read this novel you may wish to look away now...I'll put a few line breaks in so that your eye doesn't travel, but just this once I want to comment on the ending of a story. 

                                                   **********Spoiler Alert!**********

The fact remains that the ending changes nothing,so commenting on it doesn't seem like a spoiler.  There is no resolution to the event which hooks readers in the first instance.  The disappearance of "Rebecca or Becky or Bex" remains just that.  We find a shoe, a reference to her hoody and frequent reminders of her parents, but not at any visceral level.  I appreciate that the novel communicates that no matter what tragedies or disasters occur, life goes on.  The emphasis on the natural world reduces human behaviour almost to an irrelevance. Rain keeps raining, the sun keeps shining, the birds sing, nest and mate, the foxes roam and the badgers nose their way into the undergrowth.  Nature is beyond and above human tragedy.  That I get, and as such, it is beautifully written and conceived.  On another level, the people also turn their backs.  Babies are born, people die, change jobs, get married and divorced, grow up, leave home and come back again.  Spanning the years, we are almost as predictable as the land around us.  But there is a malevolence lurking there: secrets, lies, disappointments, perversions and threats, as mistakes are made and sinful natures revealed.  Again, a story as old as time itself, and one that remains unexplained and unexplored in Reservoir 13.

The Costa judges of the Novel Award said that the book was “Hypnotic, compelling and original..." And whilst it is hypnotic in its evocation of place, I didn't find it compelling as a novel. The cyclical chapters and the minute observations I found a little soporific if I'm honest.  I would have preferred it as a short story or novella...thirteen chapters was too much hypnosis for me! I also accept its originality: in form and in content.  However, I prefer stories to have greater engagement at a character level, and the narrative voice remained too detached for me to invest fully in any of them.  The originality in form I found distracting.

However, Jon McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham and a Costa prize-winning author.  As I prepare myself to write under scrutiny at Warwick next academic year, I am looking at this book and getting ready to learn, to discover new ways of thinking about and responding to texts.  But for now, this one has beauty and poetry...and to me they are less compelling than empathetic human and political stories.