I’m putting this one aside and may not come back to it. Much praise has been lavished on it, but it has too little narrative thrust for me, and I find that its charm can be overbearing to the point of preciousness.
I’m dropping this at 35%. After the polar bears and second rape of a child, I’m done. The sample dazzled me when I read it: rich language, dark, and a favorite subject (whaling, remote places). I’d thought I was in the mood for it, having recently gone on a bit of a vengeance binge. But the language became too much; I don’t need to constantly know how nasty everything smells. As I read I realized this would be one of those books that is about how ugly people are. Current events are reminding me of that enough.
This is the second novel in a row I’ve read (after Enchanted Islands) that’s written as a sort of memoir from the perspective of an older person looking back. I’m not overly fond of traditional memoirs and wonder if this may in part account for my less than enthusiastic reaction upon finishing.
What this book does have going for it is a charming, somewhat unreliable narrator. Her asides and style as a storyteller often delighted and amused me. Mary is a naive girl at the start, and as an adult seems not much wiser. As a reader you may arch your brow at the gaps in her knowledge or what lies beneath her personality quirks (e.g. as a woman in her 50s at the end, she has developed a kind of fetish for reverends, owing to her first love, explored throughout the book). Mary is so plucky (and often critical of others) that I assumed she was still a child when the story began (in fact, she’s a young lady already).
Returning to what I’m describing as memoir-ish–and an author’s note explains that Mary’s father was a real person, if not the whole family–there’s only so much narrative thrust to the story. The plot advances in short chapters interspersed with others that give some background to the characters and to whaling. Essentially, Mary relays an account of a particular whaling season in Australia, most significant for her because she meets her first (and only romantic) love.
The novel was pleasant enough to read, but I needed something more and was also left confused by the end. Why end on that moment?
From the Tournament of Books longlist.
What a hot mess. Judging from reviews on Amazon, I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I found it difficult to follow protagonist Frances Conway’s arc through the story. There’s a huge gap between her 16 and 50-something year-old selves, decades briefly highlighted, and the two did not connect for me. Frances/Fanny goes from naive teenager to something of a resigned spinster in few pages. I never quite caught up from that whiplash.
The novel spans Frances’s whole life, from child of Jewish immigrants in Minnesota, to Chicago with her best frenemy, Rosalie, to a farm in Nebraska, then onto California where she works at the Office of Naval Intelligence peri-WWII and is eventually asked to marry officer Ainslie Conway and move with him to the Galapagos Islands, where there are an awful lot of Germans (an awful lot for such a small, wild place), to engage in spycraft. The book’s title indicates that this period will be the story’s focus, but it comes in much later than expected. The first third or so of the novel therefore feels like it’s treading water as we follow Frances and Rosalie’s friendship, their “break-up,” and reunion years later in San Francisco. I wish the book had been either larger, to more fully explore Frances’s journey, or shorter, narrowing in on the time on the Galapagos.
I never came to care much for any of the characters or to get a grip on Frances and her shifting emotions. Add to that some cliche prose (though, judging by the highlights, often the very moments other readers found profound) and bizarre, unbelievable (even when true) additions to the plot, such as FDR’s non-appearance of an appearance and the fact that, oh, by the way, Frances wrote some books (Enchanted Islands is based on a real person who did in fact live on the Galapagos and write about her time there, a fact which I learned only after completing the novel and doesn’t excuse the haphazard way in which her writing is introduced), and you have a novel that I periodically considered dropping. Each time I’d think, “But I’ve already read this far, and I want to get to the Galapagos,” or, “I want to see how this spy stuff plays out and what happens with Frances and Ainslie.” I should have trusted my instincts and quit after the second eyeroll.
Another book with a fantastic premise and strong start that doesn’t quite live up to its potential. The novel establishes 1954, post-Korean War, Jim Crow America as Lovecraftian horror for its African American characters.
Each chapter/section explores the point of view of a member of the (extended) Turner family and their dealings with some batshit white people who are wizards of a sort. I’ve seen some readers refer to the book as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, but the stories are too closely connected narratively and chronologically. The upside of the structure is that each member of the family has a moment in the spotlight, a chance to illustrate how living in this time as a black person has shaped the extent to which they can pursue their dreams. The downside is that you may prefer some characters’ perspectives than others and feel as if you don’t get to know any one character enough. Though the chapters are connected, the novel can also feel disjointed.
Another plus is the black SF fans in the book whose love of the genre is complicated by its persistent racism (Lovecraft himself wrote racist material). It is a sort of sweet revenge to put these characters in charge and watch them respond to and take control of the very forces being used to make them tools.
(This bit is a tad spoilery, but I’ve kept it as vague as possible). I struggled with one chapter in which the protagonist is able, through magic, to transform physically into a white person. Predictably, she is treated radically different, even in a northern city like Chicago, where much of the novel is set. However, I feel this chapter plays into the notion that all black people secretly want to be white. It also illustrates something we already know: that white people in America are privileged. The white characters are the ones who need to get woke.
Mostly this book made me think about how little has changed in some respects. A few characters in the novel work on something called The Safe Negro Travel Guide whose purpose is to help black people know where safe(r) spaces in the country are while traveling (or conversely, where to steer clear of absolutely). The guide is based on a real thing, The Negro Motorist Green Book. Jim Crow may be over, but as events in the past decades indicate, it is still less safe for a black person to travel or simply be in this country.