Tuesday, July 06, 2010

TBR Challenge (Book Four)

Mantel. Hilary. The Giant, O'Brien. New York: Henry Holt. 1998.

"Yes, you can judge a book by its cover. I have never read a book with a gorgeous cover that I didn't like." That was Emily, before she read this book, proving, yet again, that "Never say never" is not a mere cliche (sorry, don't know how to get Blogger to put an accent on the "e").

Look at that cover. Isn't it fantastic? And then, read the jacket copy, where it says, "In this eagerly awaited new novel, Hilary Mantel tells of the fated convergence of two worlds: Ireland and England, poetry and materialism." Can you think of a book that seems to scream "Emily" more loudly?

Nor could I. I had such high hopes for it. So many people love Hilary Mantel. I was sure this was the book that would explain why, that would help me understand that my not being able to get past page 30 in Beyond Black (another one, I realize, for which I had extremely high hopes) was merely a fluke. I was convinced I'd be racing out to get more by Mantel.

It didn't happen. Instead, this book clinched it for me: I don't like Hilary Mantel. It's comforting, really. Now that I've finally had this fact verified, I can move on. I need wonder no more whether or not I ought to give her another try.

At first, I thought I was merely suffering from expectations that couldn't be met. The premise of the book was fantastic: the giant (poet and grand story teller -- I will give the book this much. I loved reading O'Brien's stories) falls into the clutches of John Hunter, a doctor dying to get his hands on O'Brien's corpse for his own experimental purposes (which immediately negates that jacket copy. O'Brien, yes, is Irish, but Hunter is Scottish. They do all wind up in London together, but it's a Scot driving the materialistic forces, not an Englishman).

To top it all off, Bob and I had picked up our copy of this book at one of those many fabulous independent bookstores we used to frequent before Evil Empire Bookstore (this time, it was Barnes & Noble in Westport, CT) came to town. It was a dream bookstore: books on the first floor, stationery and pens on the second floor. One-stop shopping for all my shopping needs. This book had been a "staff pick," and well, that staff had never led us astray.

Critics say that Mantel is marvelous, that she reinvents herself with every book. I was convinced that this was the book that would make me fall in love with her. Maybe our first date had been disastrous , but she'd make it up to me.

So, you see, as I began to get that same queasy feeling I'd had on our first date, why I might have begun to think that maybe I'd set her up for a fall. Fall she did. Way down into the depths of Loch Ness, I'd say, and she's lost forever.

Why don't I like her? Two reasons:

1. She's vague. And she is vague in that pretentious way that so annoys me, when an author seems to be saying, "I know my history. You probably don't. Too bad. I'm not going to fill you in on my little secret, and I'm just going to write to satisfy my own whimsy. There will be a few in my club, those who get it. The rest of you be damned."

I don't like to read and reread two pages and still find myself going, "huh?" I don't want to have to wonder exactly what it was that happened to that character with whom I was so empathizing. Mantel's the sort of author who leaves you wondering, "Is she pregnant, or does she have a tumor?" or maybe, "Did he get married, or did he just spend the night with a prostitute?" (I'm being facetious, but it really is almost that bad.) I consider myself to be somewhat bright, and I don't at all mind a good reading challenge. However, there are challenges, and then there are impossibilities.

Half the time I was reading this book, I found myself thinking, "Thank God I've read Ian Rankin's The Falls and Mary Roach's Stiff. Otherwise (having very little knowledge of scientific history), I would not at all have understood the need to beg, borrow, and steal corpses for science (both those books having explained very well to me that, back in the day when The Church was very against such experimentation, there was a real black market for dead bodies). I kept waiting for her to bring things into focus, to quit giving me faint lines and telling me to fill in the rest for her. Finally, I gave up. She wasn't even going to give me heavy lines. It was faint lines all the way, and I had to get used to it, because if I planned to wait for her to enlighten me, I was going to be waiting around until I was a prime candidate for being dug up by John Hunter and his students.

2. She's vulgar. Why should that bother me? Lots of writers are vulgar. I don't tend to hold that against them. It's because, unlike many another vulgar author I might tell you I love, her vulgarity seems somehow to be carefully planned. She isn't vulgar because, well, life is vulgar. Her characters don't just do the naturally vulgar things we all do from time to time. No, she seems purposely to be longing to shock. She's the kid on the playground who would get others to circle around her with the promise of something great and would then pull back a scab to reopen her wound and make it bleed, laughing at those who turned away.

The trouble is, she doesn't shock me. She isn't really presenting anything I don't already know, haven't, somewhere, already imagined through some other writer's offering (Patrick Suskind's far superior Perfume sprung to mind while I was reading this, not because the tales are similar, but because he does vulgarity right, knowing how to bring an old city in all its hideous glory to life). Not only is she the child who pulls back scabs, she is the teenager who thinks I'm not going to understand those ugly red slashes all over her arms and so purposely pushes up her sleeves while we are talking, showing them to me without saying anything about them. I just don't need that.

I will give her credit where credit is due: she writes well. And she gave me a very sympathetic character in O'Brien. I was extremely fond of that giant, doomed from the moment the book began. She doesn't write well enough for me to see if "three's a charm," though. I've given her her two chances, and I'm done.

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