Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011.

Photo copyright Jon Crispin 2011

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Who said that?

Ivy Compton-Burnett has one of the most intriguing and baffling styles of writing that I have ever encountered. Written almost entirely in dialogue minus tags or attributions, the book challenges the reader to follow along.

Trying to sort out the dialogue of nine (!) children, their parents, grandparents, family friends (I think) and assorted nannies, nurses, and staff, including one child who refers to himself by name in the third person, dares the reader to follow the thread. If you didn't like Wolf Hall, you will hate Parents and Children. If you had no trouble realizing that every time Mantel wrote 'he,' she meant Cromwell, you might be able to wend your way through the thickets of dialogue and find the treasure at the center of this labyrinth of dialogue.

The effort is worth it, though, and the payoff is huge. I was amused that Compton-Burnett is one of the writers offered to Queen Elizabeth in Alan Bennett's novella The Uncommon Reader. I hope Her Majesty enjoyed Compton-Burnett as much as I do.

When I finished the book, I immediately started reading again, and when I finish this time, I will be going back to the well for another book to savor.

Ivy Compton-Burnett DBE 1884-1969

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Nature or nurture?

$9.99 is my top limit for Kindle books, unless they are books by Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, or GRR Martin. Not that I worry too much about overspending on that last one. I'll probably die before his next Game of Thrones book comes out. In the world to come, the books are free, and you have all the time you need to whittle your TBR stack down to size. 

I exceeded this self-imposed limit to buy We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I have a library copy, but I would have to race through it, putting aside all other reading, to finish it before my renewals are used up. I’m willing to do that for quick reads, cozy mysteries by favorite writers, and lighter material, but not with this book. This is not a story to race through. The protagonist/narrator is so astringent, and the writing so masterful, I want to savor it slowly  in small doses, spread over time. Shriver is magnificent.

The book started so slowly that I almost returned it unfinished, but then something happened to me while I was reading, and I was hooked. This is a book I will read more than once. It is dark, dark, dark. So is the best chocolate. The book was written in response to the school shootings that shock us out of our complacency and belief that we know our children. The childless Shriver dares to address the question of whether a child can be born evil (Bad Seed) or becomes that way because of inadequate parenting, mostly on the part of the mother. Nature or nurture? Neither? Both? Shriver doesn't try to answer the questions she raises. That task is left for the reader. I’m toying with the idea of bringing this novel to my book club, but I’m afraid it might end in a shouting match between the mothers and the childless members.

Because I haven’t finished the book or seen the movie, I’m not sure whether Eva is reliable or unreliable as the narrator. She appears to be honest, but how honest can a mother be when her child has committed such horrific acts? Surely there must be some self-serving elements in her account of the events leading up to that Thursday.

I have the film from Netflix sitting on my desk. Tilda Swinton makes me swoon, but I was going to put off watching it until I’d read the book. I changed my mind. Now I’m going to watch it before finishing the book. Inconsiderate reviewers have already ruined any element of surprise by not labeling their spoiler reviews. Shriver’s writing doesn’t depend on shocking actions but craft and careful character building to achieve the effect she wants. It’s not what happens, but how the story is told that makes this book important.

If you like The Almost Moon by Sebold, I think you will like Kevin, although Moon was a comedy and Kevin  is pure horror. They both challenge the reader to go beyond the initial reaction and search out what the writer is attempting to accomplish and ponder your own reaction. The number of reviews that hate both these books would indicate limited success on the authors’ parts, but I love them both.