Two new books by authors I love show that, well, you just can’t be great all the time.
Both novels suffer from different faults, but the end result of each was disheartening and left me with the question: “If this had been submitted to a publisher without the great name as author, would they have been published?”
Let’s start with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose work I have admired for years. She’s not easy to read, sometimes because of the subject, sometimes because of her treatment, but in most cases I feel like I’ve just read something worth reading. Her books have been getting shorter over the years: 2013’s “Home” came in at 160 pages and her newest, “God Help the Child” is just under 200. Usually I like this, as regular readers of this blog may know, but i”God Help the Child” felt more like an outline than a fully realized novel.
This may be because it is the first novel Morrison sets in present day. Her novels set in the past—even the recent past—evoke such a world, a reader can’t help but be drawn in. This novel, set today but in places that seem trapped in the past.
Morrison’s usual focus on race takes a backseat to the theme of childhood. Nearly every character carries the scars of child sex abuse, some personally and others tangentially. Those scars, never far from the surface, inform the lives and loves of the characters, who make lots of bad decisions.
Ultimately, though “God Help the Child” is a love story between Bride and Booker, but it’s an unconvincing one. Bride, whose extremely black skin has defined her (though how, Morrison never clarifies) rose from poverty to become a high-powered cosmetics executive. This is never clearly drawn, readers are just supposed to buy it like they do in a CW show aimed at teen girls. When Booker breaks up with her (his last words “You’re not the woman I thought you were”) and disappears into the extremely rural South, she follows him to her own peril.
Her technique of telling the story though various viewpoints seems a shortcut instead of something that deepens it. That’s not to say there aren’t nice passages of beautiful writing throughout. It’s just that they don’t add up to much.
Kazuo Ishiguro has been a favorite of mine since I stumbled across his Booker Prize winning “The Remains of the Day” in 1989. It was a book that drew me in like few others, though it took a bit to get there. (Whenever I recommend it, I tell people they have to give it 30 pages, then they’ll be hooked.) It’s also one of the few books I’ve reread. His “A Pale View of Hills” and “Never Let Me Go” are also lovely, with “Never Let Me Go” being a book I still think about because of its disturbing vision of the future.
“The Buried Giant” is set in a past where dragons and knights roamed what became England and legend was indistinguishable from truth. It’s an examination of guilt and memory—themes Ishiguro has explored for years—and has all the elements of a great tale, but goes nowhere.
Axl and Beatrice (can authors please stop using this name for characters who lead people on journeys? We get it, it’s Dante’s “Inferno” and the world you’re building for us is Hell) are a married couple devoted to each other after a lifetime of love. To escape an unexplained shunning by the others in their village, the two go off into the unknown world to search of their son, who left them years ago. Along the way they meet one of King Arthur’s Roundtable Knights, a young boy and a warrior who make the journey with them.
Why their son left them is of great concern to the couple. They, like most people in the world they come in contact with, have a very fuzzy memory. It’s something they call “the mist” and their memories come and go. While Axl and Beatrice believe they’ve been devoted to each other forever, memories surface that make them doubt it. Even the existence of their son is, at times, in doubt.
I finished it, which was a bit of a chore, even on CD. There were times I thought “wow, this is brilliant” and times I thought “is this going anywhere?” It’s somewhere in between. And like the mist, my memories of it are already fading.