“A novel is a collection of anxieties held together, more or less well, more or less interestingly, by the chicken wire of plot.” So says Andrew Miller, author of this month’s book choice and Costa Book of the Year 2012, Pure. In one of the very few meetings the Berwick group has ever had in which the verdict was (almost) agreed, I think we felt that he did the job “more or less well” – although that’s rather an understatement. This book was my personal choice after I was hugely impressed by it last year and it didn’t disappoint on a second reading. In fact, the sensuous language and the symbolism of the narrative only seemed even richer.
Ann C “absolutely loved it.” She was very taken by the character of Jean-Baptiste and the way he developed into a man by the end of the novel. The characters, she felt, were almost Dickensian, but with a harder and darker edge. She very much enjoyed the writing and use of language, and found the descriptions of Versailles also reminded her of Alice in Wonderland. Paula too agreed, picking out themes including a tribute to hard work and the way labourers like the miners were almost dehumanised. With her medical knowledge, she enjoyed the matter-of-fact descriptions of the bodies, although wondered whether such old corpses would smell quite in the way that author suggests.
Helen “couldn’t put it down,” finding it a very visual novel with a great sense of place. She enjoyed the way it was a historical novel that did not make the reader feel they were being lectured. The characters were believable and readers were drawn into their world partly because of Miller’s clever use of the present tense. We had a short discussion about this, as it is difficult to make a sustained present tense work throughout a novel, but we felt that Miller succeeded.
Margaret found the narrative built up very carefully, with good strong events and great period detail. She liked the symbolism and the intimations of the impending Revolution – although it was not overtly political, it was clear that “history has been choking us long enough” (Pg. 124). She too singled out the sensory details such as the taste of the food. Mike, who read Miller’s earlier novel Oxygen and was disappointed, found Pure one of the group’s best choices this year. The metaphors, he said, were obvious but beautifully written and he was reminded of Dickens and Zola. He could not understand why it was not a Booker nominee.
Josie also found it a good read and “very evocative,” pointing out that Miller’s father was a doctor which may be why the medical knowledge came across as very authentic. “A strange subject, but not too distasteful.” Jill too found it very well-written, although she was unclear about some parts of the plot and the arrival of guests meant she was unable to finish the book!
Only Martin really took issue with this month’s choice. Although he generally enjoyed it and would like to read more, he found it flawed, because for him there were too many unanswered questions, such as “the story of patronage in pre-Revolutionary France, why the young girl attached the engineer, who was the organist and his mistress, what happened to the engineer and the courtesan” and many others. Most of us did not agree about the unanswered questions, but his point that few of the female characters were fully depicted did get general agreement. Ann L “hated it” but wasn’t at the meeting to say why!
On a different note, this was our first meeting at The Barrels and we agreed it was a great new venue, so we’ll meet there from now on. The next meeting is on Tuesday 1st May when we’ll discuss S.J. Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep. Keen readers may like to know that S.J. Watson and novelist Rachel Joyce, author of The Strange Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, will be speaking at Berwick Library on 25th April. This will be my last Book Group blog for now – but the blogs will be written in future by Ann C and other Book group members, so keep reading! And hope some of those Easter eggs are book-shaped.
Next meeting: Tuesday 1st May 2012, The Barrels, Bridge Street, Berwick upon Tweed. Discussing Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson.