Friday, February 1, 2008

From the Bookshop, February 2008

By Quillhill

Three days ago we received in the post a package addressed to "Christopher Morley, Mad About Books". As we view our blog we see in the sidebar a mask of foolishness followed by some philosophy from the fine writer Christopher Morley. Though the name of our blog is taken from his writing, and we adopted his column style of addressing ourself in the second person, and we
may even have a bit of his spirit within us or inhabiting our shop, we are not the man himself. We could be mistaken for someone much worse.

The package we received was not expected. The postman said it had been mailed from New York. Neither of our two readers hail from New York, so this delivery was a mystery. When we opened the package we found advance reader's copies of The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe, and Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Included was a letter from a Sales Coordinator at Random House explaining, "I've been reading and enjoying your blog for the last few months. I wanted to reach out and share two wonderful and much-loved books coming this Spring from Knopf."

We began reading Mr. Coe's novel immediately, and finished in three days. The novel begins with a framing narrative within which is told the first-person account of a dying woman, recorded on cassette tapes, about her family, the women in particular. According to the publisher, it is "about motherhood and family secrets, about how memory weaves tapestries both transcendent and tragic, and about the way we hold our most intimate stories
up against the past."

Rosamund seems haunted by regret as she nears the suicide she has planned to
relieve her from the pain of a fatal illness. In an attempt to redeem herself, she records a family history for her first cousin twice removed.
I am reaching the end of my life and for reasons
which will, I hope, become apparent to you as you listen to this recording,
I feel an obligation towards you, a sense of duty which has not yet been
fully discharged. ... What I want you to have, Imogen, above all, is a sense
of your own history; a sense of where you come from, and of the forces that
made you.
Rosamund selects twenty photographs which she will describe vividly and lengthily to Imogen, who was blinded in a childhood accident. Each description of a photograph constitutes a chapter. Rosamund, of course, does not stick strictly to what she sees, allowing her narrative to follow all the connective memories that are stirred up. This part of the novel is its strength, and Mr. Coe succeeds in telling an interesting story that keeps us reading. The one criticism we have of Rosamund's narrative is that it sounds more like a written rather than an oral history. She
expresses a sense of failure several times, and one might also have expected her to repeat herself, to tell the same event or fact in several different places. Her speech also sounds too modern, or not old enough, for example when she references skinheads. And though the quality of the story is not affected, there are several points where Rosamund admits her memory is
different from the photograph she sees, and we wonder if we are meant to take everything she says as truth.

The framing story serves to introduce the oral history, and to wrap up the loose ends of that history, and is otherwise purely decorative. Though the protagonist of the frame seems meant to discover the meaning of it all, she discovers instead that there is no higher meaning--no framing meaning--at all, only meaning that one gives to each moment of one's life. Still, all
the women in this novel, whether in the past or present, seem to be grasping for something to hold on to, to ground themselves, to make sense of their lives.

About this novel, the publisher writes that "[e]veryone at Knopf is certain it will win Jonathan the wide readership he has long deserved...." The publisher also quotes Bret Easton Ellisdescribing Mr. Coe as "the most exciting young British novelist writing today." He might be, and wealthy and handsome and charitable as well. Unfortunately, for us, the novel he has
written is not exciting. We were not left with a sense of awe. We did not marvel at theauthor's skills. Most of the novel presents a coherent, interesting story, and it doesn't add up to anything lasting, except a feeling that something is missing. Despite the fact the package was addressed to someone fifty years dead, and the enclosed letter begins "Dear Bookseller-Blogger," we would not be surprised to find out we are not the targeted audience. We make no attempts to hide a decided preference for older literature, what many might term classics. If The Rain Before It Falls is representative of modern fiction, our own manuscript will never survive outside the desk drawer.

Be the first to comment that you want to read this book, and Mr. Morley will forward it to you.

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