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I so wanted to like this. It was looking out from the shelves looking so much like one of this year’s favorites. But our tepid relationship only lasted a little over half its 451 pages and then I moved on.

Sickly, sensitive aristocrat Olivier de Garmont and most of his family got through the French Revolution and are now trying to survive Bonaparte’s regime. But when the monarchy is restored, their situation doesn’t improve and for his own protection, Olivier’s family sends him to America against his will. The excuse: France desperately needs a report on the American prison reform and Olivier is the person to do it. His travel companion is Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer. Parrot is also not very keen on the trip or becoming Olivier’s servant, especially because at the same time he’s spying on Olivier for the mysterious one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, whose presence haunts the novel.

Even writing this summary makes me want to know more about the rest of the story!

The historical detail is there. The setting allows interesting themes of culture, politics and class division to be explored. So why did I find it so uninteresting? I think the problem is that Carey was so keen on making Olivier and Parrot the embodiment of their country, class and education that they became mere caricatures. And since they were caricatures surrounded by a realistic background, it just didn’t work. Especially if the book is, in the end, not about America or France, but about Parrot and Olivier… in America (which they reached only 200-pages in by the way).

Because the novel was written using a first-person narrator, Carey went for a baroque prose, making the story slower than it could have been. You’ll find beautiful, poetic language in each paragraph, but it’s a bit too much for an entire novel. The whole thing felt too dense, too over-engineered and just not that funny.

It’s my first Peter Carey. Do you recommend any of his other books? I think I might enjoy his more prosaic language.

It’s not that it’s very bad, it’s just that I was fifty-odd pages in and couldn’t help constantly listing all the other books I would like to be reading instead. Ever got that feeling?

(At least up to the point where I gave up) the text is very much the one from the original P&P, only England is in the midst of a strange plague that turns people into zombies. To survive, men and women have to become experts in combat. The Bennett family gave preference to the ninja arts and Mr. Bennett even took the girls to the East for training.

The problem here is that Grahame-Smith decided not to change the storyline, but just inserted zombies and battles once in a while. I think he picked up the text, a highlighter in hand, and stated to choose the parts where he could insert an attack (walks to Meryton, end of the Assembly Ball) or a reference to e.g. katanas and Shaolin masters. It felt too artificial.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to be more ruthless about dropping a book that’s not working for me. It will still look nice  in my dedicated Jane Austen shelves, but I’ll wait for the movie with Nathalie Portman (!!).  I’ll have to choose a replacement for the RIP Challenge eventually, but right now I’m happily moving on to Parrot and Olivier in America.

PS: An afterthought – although the concept didn’t bother me (and in many ways I’m an Austen purist), one thing did: the women’s dresses in the illustrations seem to vary from the 18th century all the way up to the Industrial Revolution. How about some research Mr Smiley?

GNRT

This was the third book this year that I gave up on. The other two so far were:

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough – Oh Colleen… what was going through your mind? How could you? As Laurel said in the AustenProse blog: “Any Janeite who makes it to the third chapter of The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet is in my opinion free to think author Colleen McCullough an impudent rapscallion.” I made it to the fourth.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass. I know this is going against the big majority, but there it is. It just plainly got on my nerves. I have low tolerance to surrealist literature – the whole premise that anything can happen without any reason gives me the same feeling as those dreams where you run and run and get nowhere. Alice also constantly reminded me of one of the most spooky and haunting books I’ve ever read: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro.

By Grand Central was my bookclub’s May book. In the end we ended up talking more about the author’s life than her book. It’s considered a classic of poetic prose, a long love letter from the author Elizabeth Smart to George Barker, who was also a poet and the father of her 4 children. Unfortunately, he was also the husband of another woman and the father of a total of 15 children by different women. So you can see how this might be an interesting topic for a group of 8 women over a glass of red wine…

I read about 25 pages of the 112 pages-long book until I realised I was reading the words, but nothing was being captured by my brain. By Grand Central is all about the language: language is the plot, the character and the setting. Smart’s is a word-crafter, but the baroque type, who stuffs layers of meaning/imagery in every single sentence. I Googled the book and the general impression seems to be clearly favourable, but me being me, I like a good story. And of course the melodrama also didn’t help. The pages I read and the ones I skipped through just felt a tinny bit too self-centrered – WW2 is turning the World into pieces , but let’s talk about ME! Here’s a nice example of her writing:

I am over-run, jungled in my bed. I am infested with a menagerie of desires: my heart is eaten by a dove, a cat scrambles in the cave of my sex, hounds in my head obey a whip-master who cries nothing but havoc as the hours test my endurance with an acclimation of tortures.

YIKES!

It’s true that in general I don’t enjoy reading poetry – except when it comes in the shape of song lyrics – but once in a while a poem strikes me. For instance, one of my all-time favourite poem is Ithaca by the Greek contemporary poet Constantine P. Cavafy. I actually came across it by digging more into Leonard Cohen’s song “Alexandra Leaving”, which was inspired by Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony”. Yeat’s “When You Are Old” also always gets to me, especially when it’s read by Matthew Macfadyen.

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