Sunday, 15 April 2012

Uninvited cliches (& general reading round-up)

Apologies once again for a long gap between posts. I've been on holiday for a week and managed to finally catch up on some non-PhD related reading. I started off with The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, which is reviewed below, then went on to Look at Me by Jennifer Egan. I very much enjoyed her universally-acclaimed A Visit From the Goon Squad, and this earlier novel didn't disappoint. Its exploration of the ways we create, wear and alter our social and personal identities felt incredibly current for a novel which was written more than ten years ago, and in many ways anticipates phenomenons such as Facebook and Big Brother. I'm now looking forward to reading more of her work, probably starting with The Keep.

After a glut of fiction, I turned to three works of non-fiction, which are equally brilliant in very different ways; Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines,
Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes and Diarmaid MacCulloch's A History of Christianity. The former is so fantastic, I can't stop raving about it and will be reviewing it shortly on the blog (and probably even more shortly, going out to grab a copy of her earlier work, Findings). Nature writing seems to be an increasingly popular genre, and almost everything I've read in this broad category has been good; however, a book as outstanding as this is rare. Edmund de Waal's book on the history of one group of his family heirlooms, Japanese netsuke, and their journey over a hundred years from Vienna to Tokyo (via Tunbridge Wells), is also highly recommended; I avoided it for some time because it seemed to be so hyped, but this was a mistake.

As for the MacCulloch, I'm still proceeding through it at a stately pace (at 1000+ pages of tiny type it's not a light read) but I've been impressed by how I've found the periods and people that I know something about already as well-handled as the ones I'm totally ignorant about, a difficult feat for a historian (and especially difficult for the historian who is attempting a broad-brush approach and stepping outside his specialism, as MacCulloch does here - I haven't read anything on the Reformation yet, so he's not simply riding his earlier success!)

Proceeding to my review of The Uninvited Guests:

I enjoyed Sadie Jones' first two novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, but with reservations; I thought the quality of her writing was consistently let down by curiously old-fashioned tendencies in her exploration of her characters, so the novels seemed fresh and cliched by turns. The Uninvited Guests is a very different beast, and didn't work, for me, for different reasons.

The opening of this book was a pleasure to read, and convinced me of Jones' ability to handle a very different type of storytelling. Sterne, the stately home in which the novel is set, appears quirky and slightly surreal by turns as we are introduced to the Torrington family, Emerald, Clovis, and Smudge, their mother Charlotte, and their kindly stepfather who represents a
link to prosaic reality. When he departs in an attempt to take out a last-ditch loan to secure Sterne for the family, reality begins to feel increasingly flexible as the Torringtons' invited guests - old friends Patience and Ernest, and upstart, new-moneyed John - arrive.

Initially, Jones manages to handle this sense of unreality in a light and playful way, allowing the reader to continue to engage with the characters; Emerald and Smudge were particularly vividly drawn. However, when a group of largely working-class survivors from a train crash turn up at the house, the story swiftly lost its attraction for me. Blurring into heavy-handed symbolism (the unfortunate passengers moaning 'Hungry' at their privileged hosts? Really?) the supernatural element here invited unfavourable comparison with another recent country-house novel of class and ghosts, Sarah Waters' wonderful The Little Stranger. I felt completely distanced from the narrative, and from the characters I had begun to appreciate, and unable to care what happened next, except perhaps in the amusing side-plot of Smudge's 'Great Undertaking'. When Jones falls back onto a hackneyed climax of 'family secrets revealed' near to the end, I felt that this novel's initial spark had completely gone - and perhaps, ultimately, this cliched feel is what The Uninvited Guests has in common with her earlier novels.

Jones is definitely a gifted writer, and there's much to admire in all of her work so far. I hope that in her next novel, she manages to discard some of the traditional trappings of plot and motivation she favours and fulfils the promise she clearly has. For now, I can only recommend this book as interesting, but flawed.

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