It’s not that the Berwick Book Group members can’t cope with a heavy tome. Some of us positively relish a doorstopper of a book. But given that we all have busy lives, maybe two very lengthy books in succession wasn’t a good idea.
Last month’s choice, A.S.Byatt’s The Children’s Book, had a better reaction than I’d expected but, to confound my predictions, responses to Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize winner The Lacuna were not as universally positive as I’d thought. The sheer length of the novel was certainly an aspect that bothered several members – even Helen, who generally enjoyed it and sent her comments by e-mail:
“There were clever things, like the symbolism of the Lacuna, the missing puzzle piece etc., and I liked that. I still think these big bulky novels would be better if they were chopped in half… I thought the idea of it was clever, liked the ending, and found myself wanting the protagonist to have escaped from persecution and live out his days in sunny Mexico.”
The Lacuna has been one of my favourite reads of late, so I was not impressed by the review in The Observer that said Barbara Kingsolver was ‘typical book club material.’ This seems to have been based entirely on the fact that one novel, The Poisonwood Bible, became something of a UK book group standby and disregards her earlier novels, which are very different again. I also resented the implication that book groups can only cope with the middlebrow.
For Margaret, the character of Harrison was a problem, particularly when he went to America, but she liked the historical context and the observations about the power of the press. “Brave but too ambitious,” was Mike’s verdict, adding that he hadn’t thought it possible to write a boring book about the likes of Trotsky and Kahlo. In general, he doesn’t rate Kingsolver as a good enough writer.
Jacqui, who has spent time in Mexico, felt the novel started well but she found the diary form hindered her suspension of disbelief. For her, there was an absence of characterisation and “trouble with the narrative drive.”
Fortunately, my enjoyment of the novel was shared. Paula enjoyed the lacuna motif and Kingsolver’s concerns about the power of words and their ability to destroy a person; she also admired the author’s use of characters like Kahlo as a cipher for themes like the persecution of writers by the McCarthy era press.
Ann is also enjoying the way huge events unfold alongside small domestic ones, and Kingsolver’s use of nature and animals as metaphors.
Sadly Jill found she was not engaged with the novel and didn’t finish it – but after listening to the discussion may have been convinced to try again.
Similarly lukewarm responses came (via e-mail) from Anne and Janet. Anne said:
“At times I really admired the quality of the writing. I note that she has published poetry and in places there was a distinct poetry to the writing. I quite enjoyed the evocation of the boy’s relationship with his mother and then with his father, but felt a loss of interest once we were introduced to Kahlo. Things started looking up when Trotsky arrived with Natalya, but somehow they just weren’t made quite interesting enough, and didn’t come to life as far as I was concerned. Had the book been shorter, I think I would’ve persevered to the end, but with more than 400 pages left to get through, I decided that I didn’t care enough about what would happen next and wasn’t prepared to invest that much more time in it all! There seemed to be an absence of plot, or perhaps the story was just too slow for me. Neither was I keen on the ‘collage’ technique (notebooks, diaries, archivist’s notes etc). I suppose it showed me that if the reader can’t engage fully with the main character or characters, even the most authoritative writing begins to lose impact after a while. However, my edition hasn’t gone to the charity shop yet, so who knows?”
And Janet said: “I think the problem I mainly had with it was that I couldn’t engage with the main character and be interested in his life. I like the idea of using diaries to tell a story, and would expect to get close to the narrator through this, but it was impossible in the case of The Lacuna. And I was particularly irritated by the conceit of never using ‘I’ but having him refer to himself in the third person or by the names that others called him. I know this is probably regarded by those who enjoy literary fiction as an effective tool to illustrate the narrator’s sense of self, detachment from his own life, etc etc but once I’d spotted it, it just jarred.
The times when he was talking to the artist and his wife, things got a lot more interesting, but that didn’t seem to happen often enough. And I’ll admit that some of the imagery and use of language was impressive, but not enough to keep me going past about page 200.”
Mischievously Mike posed the question to the group: which did they prefer, The Children’s Book or The Lacuna ? (I tried hard not to lower the tone by shouting: “There’s only one way to find out…Fight!!”) It led to quite a lengthy discussion and I think the final answer was….Wolf Hall.
Next meeting: Tuesday 1st March, 6.30pm at Doolally’s, Marygate, Berwick upon Tweed. Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson.