Saturday, April 15, 2006

The book problem

I am having is something I've alluded to several times recently, namely that I'm leaving this place on May 18 and must return all library books by then but have a huge, huge number both for work and for pleasure that I would like to read first. It is just galling to return library books that you still want to read, not a pleasant thing at all; and at least in the case of work ones, it is reasonably sensible to go to the library again later and get them afresh, they are mostly not the kind of things you can buy, but the pleasure ones you are just kicking yourself for not buying in the first place. So some sort of triage will be called for, I expect the first thing to do is go through and sort out the ones that I really don't so much want to read & go ahead and return them. Only of course there are not many of those, why would I have gotten them in the first place? The next part of the strategy is to read like a demon; I realize it's slightly perverse, to tackle my pleasure reading with this sort of grim determination to consume in large quantities, but it seems inevitable.

So I picked up the book that looked the most fun off the pile and read it this afternoon and it was great! Reminded me how fun novel-reading really is. It was a very enjoyable novel called The Family Tree by Carole Cadwalladr (here is a page with a lot of review links if you are curious, I find myself increasingly impatient with the whole idea of plot summary), a novel I made note of when it was published last year not just because it sounded entertaining and interesting but also because it sounded like the absolute twin of my novel Heredity.

The twinness is not in dispute now that I've actually read it (unhappy grown-up daughter narrator, interpolations on genetics, meditations on nature and nurture and determinism, etc.), but of course what I was struck by (these nature-nurture questions are of endless interest to me) was how different this novel is from mine in spite of the fact that they have a bizarrely large amount of overlap. And that led me to have other musings (and I was thinking about it in the context of the shape of Muriel Spark's career, and of Joyce Carol Oates's), so banal as to be really not worth stating I'm afraid, about the funny & appealing way that any book a person writes is like him- or herself in the deepest and most unexpected ways, just as the shape of the career as it is represented by publications and other accomplishments (teaching, child-raising, life, what-have-you) is also so distinctive and personal and must be understood in terms of character or personality as well as of strictly intellectual profile or productivity.

Anyway The Family Tree is best when it's doing the childhood reminiscences from suburban-provincial England in the 1970s, it's very sharp about class stuff and about what it was like to be a girl (there are no boys, somehow, in this book!) in that time and place. The novel's first-person voice is also appealing, though I felt Cadwalladr's strengths are more as an observer than as a sentence-writer per se. The present-day story of the narrator's relationship with her husband falls a bit flat, he is too much the caricature of the unfeeling scientist. ("He sounded like a voiceover on a BBC2 documentary," Rebecca Monroe comments about her husband after one of his remarks; "Alistair's the only person I know who speaks in complete sentences." Only this means that while she tells us she's in love with him, we can't at all see why this should be the case, and the way he represents reason & she represents the emotions seems to me not just overly schematic but also of an earlier generation--part of the appeal of this book lies in its rather depressing portrait of life's unfairness for women, but I do not believe that it is so much the case for women born in the late 60s and early 70s as it was for their mothers' generation that they had to be absolutely uncomprehending in the presence of science and rationality, and I now and then wanted to shake Rebecca and tell her to use her perfectly good brain.... but of course this speaks to the vividness with which she's characterized, it's really very good.) The 1940s backstory feels a bit thinner and more stereotyped, it's not nearly as convincing for instance as the postwar chapters in Andrea Levy's Small Island (another victim of the library thing, I had it this winter & read the first half & then it was recalled; haven't got around to getting it again, not sure when I will, but I thought the writing was very good). In sum the novel's pleasures are very reminiscent of Kate Atkinson or of Barbara Trapido (I was particularly reminded of Temples of Delight and Frankie & Stankie).


  1. I think I have taken Small Island out TWICE and not read it, and I have no idea why.

  2. Funny, I am a huge fan of Barbara Trapido and Kate Atkinson, and just read The Family Tree. Have you ever read Clare Chambers? She also writes in this style. I'm always looking for writers like Atkinson et al.