Friday, 11 February 2011

10/111 - The Still Point by Amy Sackville

I wanted to love this. Really wanted to. Especially after my last post lamenting the lack of female authors on my massive list of books. So all I wanted to do whilst reading this novel was to enjoy it. But I just… didn’t.

I bought this novel, once again, while I was working at Waterstone’s. I had picked it up because of it’s unusual size and had liked the cover design, with bits of paper snipped into an ocean design, because I’m a bit of a sucker for crafts. Looking closer, I discovered that the author was a girl around my age and that it had been the Radio 4 ‘book at bedtime’ and so I pretty much picked it on all those points.

I want to take a moment to pause here and reflect on what to do now. I don’t know what to do about reviewing a book I didn’t like. I dislike it immensely when critics write insulting or scathing reviews, because you’re talking about someone’s art, here. Something that someone put a lot of heart and soul into. And I therefore believe that you should treat that work with some respect, even if you didn’t like it much.

The novel contains two stories. The one we are first introduced to is the story of Julia and Simon, who are a contemporary married couple. Julia is the great-granddaughter of Emily and Edward. Edward was a famous explorer who went to seek the North Pole and got lost and never came home, leaving Emily, his young bride, behind. Julia spends her days chronicling the life of Edward, while Simon works as an architect or something. His job is unimportant. Their stories are sort of told in tandem.

My main problem was that I fundamentally disliked the style of narration. The use of an omnipotent narrator is nothing new, but I disliked the way in which the narrator seemed to address the reader. I think that this can work in some cases, but very few. Not in this case. The narration also felt very over-bearing. There is very little dialogue in this book, and I was exhausted by it. Lots of description, and little action. On the back of the book, there is a quote comparing Amy Sackville with another great meander-er, Virginia Woolf. The comparison is suited, but I dislike reading Virginia Woolf for the same reasons. However, I tried to continue.

I didn’t like Julia, Simon, Edward or Emily, but more importantly, I wasn’t compelled by them or their actions. They came across as flat and a little inconsequential. I didn’t feel I had any reason to care about any of them. The title, The Still Point, seems to have some significance here, because all the characters seem still, and some of them are stuck. Stuck in the past, stuck in an old house, stuck in their relationships, stuck with bad memories and worse decisions. It seemed to take itself very seriously. There were no moments of levity or lightness – if there were any intended then they were drowned out by the narrative voice. There were many observations of human behaviours and characteristic, but they weren’t held together by anything. There was no story. No glue.

There were also moments where darker memories were alluded to – a descent into depression; the death of a child - but only half-revealed later in the book – a tactic that as a reader annoys me sometimes. If it’s done right, then it builds suspense, but this just seemed like withholding information to try to create a sense of mystery. Unfortunately these dark hints never amounted to anything substantial. An infidelity fizzles out without consequence, and Julia's dark moods seem to be an unthreatening lifelong problem.

However this is not to say that the writing isn’t beautiful. It often is, and there were several passages where I went back and read them again because they had conjured such a lovely image, but unfortunately that’s not enough to sustain me for 300 pages.

Ugh, I hate writing about something I didn’t like. It wasn’t shitty – it just wasn’t for me, that’s all.

Next time: The Beaufort Diaries by T. Cooper

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