When I started this little blog over a year ago, I did so as way for me to communicate with myself and others about the books I read. I love to discuss books, and I don't really have a chance to do so in real life. Using a virtual medium, I let my thoughts pour out. Some people must be reading this, because the stats on my account say so. To all of you, thank you! You are much better than talking to myself, if only because you are keeping me out of the psycho ward. A couple of those in the audience have said I need to publish these reviews somewhere other than a backwater blog, and to them, even more thanks. It would seem you are correct, and that the Universe has taken notice of my ramblings.
A couple of weeks ago, a gentleman from the marketing department at Doubleday books sent me a message asking if I would be interested in an advanced copy of a book by a new author. I was totally flabbergasted! I wrote back immediately to agree to the offer. Another author that I greatly enjoy has already reviewed the book, and it would seem the writing styles are similar. I received the book about a week ago, and I was even more intrigued. It is a novel in the gothic style, blended with Greek mythology, an epic adventure with a female heroine. Set in 1859 on the coast of Connecticut at the end of the whaling era, the story follows the travels of Mercy Rathbone as she tries to piece together the ancestral mystery of her family and their fates. I love mythology, epic stories, female heroines, stories about the ocean, and historical fiction. My aunt lives near Mystic, where the author is from; I spent many happy summer vacations on the Connecticut coast as a kid and adult. This sounds like it should be exactly my kind of story!
The thing is, even when every piece seems to be in place, and every note seems to be right, it doesn't always make a song to sing. TheRathbones, by Janice Clark, is well-written and compelling, if only because the author left you wanting to solve the mystery. I deeply appreciate the story that has been crafted, much as I would almost any other piece of art. I am still unsure if it's something I want hanging in my mental gallery. The imagery is full and tangible; I can see it in my head like film playing on a projector screen. In fact, I felt like I was watching a foreign film, one with a good storyline and puzzling characters. However, I kept snagging myself on the slight cultural nuances that I was missing. The author notes she was inspired by Moby Dick, The Odyssey, and Edgar Allan Poe. The inspiration was apparent, but then my sense of OCD would kick in, and I would keep puzzling over which pieces fit into which source of inspiration. Obviously, this gets distracting after awhile, detracting from the flow of the story. However, with each new piece of vivid imagery, my mind would race along, trying to fit everything into a coherent backdrop.
The voice was altered between first person limited and third person omniscient, as the story was told by both the heroine and others sharing their stories with her. The quality of the voice was different from almost anything else I've read, in that it was emotionally stark (as opposed to emotionally raw, which is a whole other discussion). As the story unfolded, events of dramatic and deeply emotional proportion would occur, and I felt both shocked and intrusive by reading them. The heroine herself was deeply emotionally damaged, but she didn't seem to realize it, or that her viewpoint was not the emotional norm. I felt like an intruder for seeing these events with her, knowing the psychological importance of them, and knowing that she saw them with a more flat and dispassionate eye (at least on the surface). Maybe the emotional content was too much for her, and she had to filter it through an objective lens before being able to deal with it. It is also possible that my own modern sensibilities were getting in the way; everyday life to her look like traumatic events to me. Whatever the reason, it made the character more puzzling than sympathetic. That sense of puzzlement and confusion stays with me even now.
Because of the dispassionate voice used by the heroine, my own mind would continually be lulled into equating her objectivity with a sense of realism. This would throw me for a loop every time something fantastical happened. I kept having to recalibrate my suspension of disbelief to different levels throughout the story. The reality of whaling, living in a coastal community, and the jargon of the maritime world kept me on the level of realistic fiction. Then something extraordinary would happen, like a character being completely psychically in-sync with the natural world, or crows carrying small girls in their claws, or ghosts telling their stories through their bones. My mental equilibrium would slip, and my suspension of disbelief would shudder on these imaginary shoals. The story would pull me on, but the paint continually got scratched up on my mental dinghy.
Ok, so maybe foreign film was a little strong. It is more like an arthaus film, or better yet, a Kubrick film; the closest thing my mind can relate it to is the movie The Usual Suspects or the French noir classic, Diabolique. You keep questioning everything that is unfolding before you; parts of it make sense, and other parts make you feel like maybe you're in the wrong theater, or that you missed some piece of the story even though you've been there the entire time. The symbolism is as deep as an ocean, and just as complex to comprehend. The coming-of-age aspects vie with the classic elements, and the gothic is splashed liberally over every chapter. Either I am looking too deeply at all the metaphors, searching where none exist, or this story is far past my comprehension of American classic literature. As a friend pointed out to me, if I'm struggling with the symbolism, how much hope does the average person have of understanding this story? In some ways, I think they might fare better, as they probably won't be examining it as closely as I am.
I feel like all the elements are present in this story for me to be in love with it. Maybe this book needs more than one read. Some of my favorite albums are like that; when I first listen to them, I might find one or two songs I like. I force myself to listen to the entire thing over and over, three or four times, so that I truly get into the experience the artist created. This book may be just like that. I need to set it aside for a bit, let my mind try to digest what it's read, and then come back to it when I have a different perspective. I'm actually curious to see what others think of it, to see how they experience this work. Will they "grok it in fullness", as Robert Heinlein once said? Or will they be left just as bewildered and foggy as I am? Perhaps the author's only goal in telling this story in this style was to force the reader to slow down and puzzle through every step, examine every nuance, looking for clues that would give light internally to their epic quests in life.