Saturday, June 21, 2008

Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones

Jay, Charlotte. Beat Not the Bones. New York: Avon, 1952

This book was the current selection for the detective book club, and well, here’s one for those of you who have pleaded with me to quit adding to your TBR pile. I won’t beat around the bush: I didn’t like it. I would have given up on it if I hadn’t been reading it for the book discussion group. To give you an idea, at one point, when I picked it up, I put it down about three minutes later and started asking Bob where today’s Sudoku puzzle was and whether or not he’d like to play a game, he said,

“You’re not much into that book, are you?”

My answer? “Well, I keep hoping I’m going to get to the good part.” Just to let you know: the good part never comes, despite this great promise from the back cover copy, “Sudden, violent death enshrouded the island port of Marapai. The kind of death known only to voodoo cults and savages. On this island Europeans lost their civilization, their innocence – and their sanity.” Oh man, how can something that sounds so, so promising end up being oh so dull?! And take a look at what the New York Herald Tribune had to say about it (again, according to the back cover copy): “A writer of rather astonishing capacity…most persuasive – hair raising. All-and-all a most unusual and compulsive proceeding.” Umm…hair raising? Only if you consider Goodnight Moon a book not to be read in the dark.

I wonder if I should just bullet point all the things I found wrong with this book. Nah. That would be lazy (and about as scintillating as the book itself). What I do want to do is to apologize to whoever chose this book, because I’m about to trash it (some more). I hope you don’t take that personally, as I've certainly recommended my fair share of books to people and had them turn around and tell me they hated them. The joy of reading is that it’s subjective (something the most snobby of book reviewers don’t seem to understand), and I would never claim to be someone whose opinion should really mean a damn to anyone else.

Now, apologies out of the way, I will continue. First of all, I’m convinced Charlotte Jay must have attended the Elizabeth Bowen school of minimalist writing (the one, I mean, that produced Friends and Relations. My final opinion on Bowen is still out, as I haven’t yet read a second book by her. Uh-oh, I’ve just realized I have to read a second book by Charlotte Jay – ugh! – to give her her due). As when I read Bowen, I kept finding myself, way too often, thinking, “Huh?” This was followed by, “Please, please, just a few details,” a starving bird following someone eating a croissant and pecking desperately at every dropped crumb. Thus, we have such things as a seemingly loathsome, despicable man suddenly proclaiming that his real problem is that he’s in love (probably for the first time ever). We have in Emma, the main protagonist, a young woman barely out of her convent school, married to an older man who spends the first two months of their marriage off in the wilds of Papua, New Guinea. Based solely on the odd behavior of her dying father, after he receives a mysterious letter, this naïve wife, when she hears her husband has committed suicide, is determined to fly off to the jungle, where she’s never been, to prove he was actually murdered. We also have a man all the women are mad over who seems to be nothing but a malicious, paranoid fool. And we get absolutely no real explanation for any of this.

Then again, maybe I was nodding off (a distinct possibility given how not into this book I was) or something during the detailed descriptions of how a woman can be both innocent and dense enough to be someone whose

“…own view of such things was beautifully simple. People who were kind like David, her father and Trevor Nyall, one loved. People who were cruel, who went out of their way to wound, like Anthony and apparently, too, like Philip Washington, one hated. She had no notion of the horror of loving a persecutor.” (p. 109)

and yet, who would climb into cars with those she despised. Not only would she climb into cars with those she despised, but she would head off into the jungle alone with such people.

That’s one of my biggest problems. I found her completely unrealistic. She wasn’t one of those characters who arrives on the first few pages of a book as a child and then learns and grows throughout it, becoming someone wise and knowing (or maybe someone cruel and cold and calculating herself) by the end. That, although predictable, is at least believable. We all, most of us, grow up at some point, or change when thrown into unfamiliar environs. But no, that’s not Emma. The Republicans would have a heyday with her, as her character just flip flops throughout the book. It’s as if Jay couldn’t decide what she really wanted Emma to be: kind and naïve or tough, brave, and wise.

Oh, and talk about predictable. I didn’t find a single unpredictable character in the book. You just knew Emma was getting it all wrong with each new person she met. I know she was meant to, being the inexperienced soul she supposedly was, and in the hands of one of the many authors I love, it would have worked, but it didn’t work here. I just found myself getting extremely annoyed with her cluelessness. When it comes to predictability, though, one positive thing I can say for the book was that when the truth of what had happened was revealed, I was surprised. That part, at least, wasn’t predictable. I’m glad it was there. Without it, I don’t know how I would have made it through the last forty or so pages of the book.

Not only were all the characters predictable, but also I didn’t find any I liked too well. The most interesting character was a woman named Sylvia, but poor Sylvia’s role seemed mainly to be a means for filling in a few details (maybe that’s the reason I liked her. After all, without her, I would have had even fewer rewards for my desperate pecking). I suppose she was also meant to be Emma’s contrast, but that didn’t work too well for a character with such a bit part.

So, I was bored; I was annoyed; I was waiting for something worthwhile to happen; but I was also quite offended. The racism in this book was hard to ignore. Usually when I read books written during certain eras, although I get a bad taste in my mouth, I’m able to move past the racism and to think of the book as an interesting historical/sociological piece. I found I just couldn’t do that with this book. Jay didn’t seem to be detached from the racism or to be observing it with any real critical eye, or just presenting it as a matter of fact of the times. Yes, she provides a few nods to the plight of the natives, but it’s all quite condescending and viewed with the notion that the Europeans are “civilized” and “advanced,” and the poor natives aren’t. It’s a bit of a precautionary tale, too: Europeans had better be careful when they come to these places where “savages” abound, because such places just might turn them into savages themselves. And, of course, the “good savages” were those who had learned to adopt the ways of the Europeans. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and hope that all this really may have been commentary on her part, a way of helping us to understand that this was the way her characters thought, a way to provide us with a few details (hope, hope!) about them, and not necessarily her own view of the situation, but again, in the hands of a different sort of author (think Mark Twain, for instance), if that had been the intent, I’m sure it would have been made more clear.

So, there you have it: a book you need not add to the TBR list. I have to stick in one disclaimer here, though. I picked up this book right after finishing The Book of Lost Things. That’s tantamount to being the poor kid who’s handed a basketball as Michael Jordan walks off the court. No book should have to be the book to follow such an act. I just may have felt differently about this one if, say, I’d been reading an auto mechanic’s manual before cracking its spine.


raych said...

I know, right? I always wonder how much my enjoyment (or lack) of a book is due to the suckage (or greatness) of the book previous. My guess is probably lots, since I rarely pause for breath between books. What we need is a mental palate-cleanser...

Anonymous said...

I must finish the book today, sigh. But from what I've read so far, I am unable to construct much of a defence.

Anonymous said...

I really liked this review, and the fact that I don't have another book to add to my TBR pile! I won't be beating the bones if there's no detail, inexplicable character development, racism etc. I had to laugh at your growing irritation with it - well described. Good luck with the next one.

Emily Barton said...

Raych, yes, a mental palate cleaner. What a good idea. Perhaps it should be some sort of a picture book that is completely neutral (no suckage and no greatness). I can't think of one right now, though.

MFS, hope you'll let us all know how the discussion went and what your final take on it was.

Pete, glad to be of assistance in the not adding to TBR pile. I've often thought someone ought to start a "Take This One Off the TBR Pile/List" blog, but a part of me thinks that might be a bit too mean (not really fitting with the nature of most of the book bloggers I know, who all seem to be very kind).

Rebecca H. said...

I didn't particularly enjoy this one either. I remained puzzled about Jay's take on colonialism and racism, and to a certain extent I still am -- it doesn't seem clearcut to me at all. I'll have to think about it more ... but mostly I was bored. It wasn't an easy book to stick with. I agree with you about how the characters never quite made sense.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, it's so funny how boring it was , and I can't quite pinpoint exactly why. Just very slow-moving, I guess, and maybe without the details to get me really interested in characters, I just tend to get bored.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm jumping in quite late, but I had to say a few things in defense of Charlotte Jay and Beat Not the Bones.

First, I thought it was genuinely scary, atmospheric and evocative.

I also did not think the book was at all racist. I thought it was a relentless critique of colonialism. It was uncomfortable to read because it is told from the point of view of the colonizers and they are nearly uniformly despicable.

From the crass racism of Jobe to the paternalism of the main character, Stella, the white characters in the book fail to truly "see" the PaPauns, which is why I think Hitolo is able to exact revenge on his brother's behalf (ruining the end a bit - sorry).

At our meeting, there was a great deal of disagreement over how complete Jay's critique of racism and colonialism really was. Was she pointing out that even Stella is wrong in her urge to "civilize" the Papauns, as I thought, or is Stella voicing Jay's own paternalistic brand of colonialism, as some of the other club members thought?

I agree the book was a bit tough going. It read like a very promising rough draft with some well written passages and some very clumsy transitions, particularly when she jumped too quickly from one point of view to the other within the frame of a few short sentences. The beginning was particularly slow-going. And the romance was a clumsy mess.

Still, it was such an unusual take on colonialism from an area of the world you seldom see depicted in Western literature (especially, I think, genre literature) that I think for folks who like atmospheric writing and literature as social criticism, which I do, it might be worth a look. I think there may be potential contemporary fans waiting to discover this seemingly passe book.

Emily Barton said...

Lisa, oh goody! Someone who disagrees with me. Wish I could have been at the discussion. You're right that it was an unusual take on colonialism, and I wasn't sure that Jay wasn't doing nothing but criticizing it, but ultimately, I decided she was feeding into it rather than criticizing it. I've read so many other books that did it better, "it" for me being a critique of racism through the racist eyes of others.

Auntie Knickers said...

Hi, I found your blog while Googling the book. I started a project a year or so ago to read all the Edgar Best Novel winners in order from oldest first. This book, I felt, was so bad I almost gave up (it was the first book to win the award). The only thing I could think was that it seemed so "literary" that the MWA chose it to "legitimize" their genre. Your review was excellent and covered all the same points I thought of as to why I disliked the book. Thanks!