There are three pages of quotes from positive reviews at the front of this book; some of them have even been written by people of whom I’ve heard. I referred to them a few times while I was reading the novel to check on what it was I was missing, and there was always a ‘the Lady doth protest too much me thinks’ whiff about it. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realise that only the first page relates to this book, the rest are about the author’s first novel; in my own defence, I have to say that none of the comments on any of the three pages bear any relation to my experience of the book.
Set in an unspecified composite country on the verge of anti colonial violence, the novel is a fable about a father and son losing control of the land and their lives. The father one of the early settlers had claimed a large tract of land on which he has lived for 40 years, wealthy from the fish he has bred in the river. Tom, the son, has grown up under the weight of his father’s power and knows little of what goes on in the outside world. A girl arrives, ostensibly to be affianced to the son, but instead takes to the father’s bed. Meanwhile a civil war starts to encroach on the farm.
The most interesting thing about reading the book for me was the style of writing, which is cool and distancing; it tells rather than shows, and is staccato. With short sentences. Where a more standard approach would be to punctuate between phrases with a comma. A full stop is used instead. It is very effective in making the reader aware of the book as a contrivance, as a thing of its own; it discourages an immersion into the tale, instead you are always aware of an edginess to the proceedings.
However, given that the land, and possession of the land, is, we are told, so important to the characters, it is surprisingly sketchily drawn and I had no picture of it in my minds eye. Nor did I have any insight into the psychology of the characters. The father is allegedly a strong man who has hewn enough of a living out of a piece of land that he can afford to import lobsters for dinner, and yet he surrenders the farm without fighting for it. It felt like an exercise in writing about a landscape that doesn’t exist, peopled by characters with no self awareness nor interior thought.
The only reason I read this book to the end was to see if I could fathom what the people who wrote so positively about it had seen in it. In the end, I did grow to quite like the cover.
Have you read it? Did it engage you?