One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Book Rave: Nothing compares to his sister.

It's time to effuse about a book I've just finished: 'Star of the Sea' by Joseph O'Connor'. It's the best book I've read in a long while.

I'd come across it several times in charity shops (my theory is that there's a law that compels every charity shop to stock certain titles. Have you ever seen one that didn't have Pamela Stephenson's 'Billy' biography? I rest my case.) For some reason I mistakenly believed him to be a respected, elderly 'man of letters' types writing Lawence Durrell-y prose, but it turms out he's the brother of baldy warbler Sinead, of whom I'm irrationally fond. (see previous post). I don't know if the siblings are still estranged following disagreements over her allegations of maternal abuse.

I'll not give much in the way of plot summary - you can get that in the usual places - other than that it concerns a coffin ship sailing from Ireland to New York during the famine of 'The Black '47' with a cargo of desperately starving passengers in steerage, more and more of whom succumb each day, and a handful of dysfunctional toffs dining well in first class. Synecdoche, and all that. Episodes over the course of the ship's voyage are interwoven with the back story of the principal characters, which in one case has something of the picaresque.* The characters are well and even-handedly drawn: the English are not shown as inherently evil, some of the Irish are shown to behave badly. Oh - and a murder plot unfolds as the voyage progresses.

What really impressed me are...what I call the 'formal' aspects of the book. I don't know whether that's the proper LitCrit word, but what I like is books which play around with the form or structure of the novel**. SotS uses multiple narrative viewpoints and intersperses real-time with flashback, plus a post-modernistic collage of things like newspaper stories, extracts from the ship's log, etc. These are all held together under the mantel of Victorian chapter headings ('In which we learn of the DREADFUL EVENTS...' &c &c), etchings of famine victims, racist Punch magazine portayals of Irishmen and extracts from letters, newspapers, etc. The book appears to be well reseached***, with lots of sources in the endnotes, so one assumes this material to be genuine. One item that shocked me was an entreaty that the poor of Ireland should do the patriotic thing and hang themselves from the nearest tree.

But we've seen all that multiple-narrative, multi-textured stuff done before. Whats really impressive is the way O'Connor pulls it all together and makes the form crucial to the backbone to the book. I don't want to give spoilers...but there's a reason why one person is aware of the viewpoints and why all the material is collected together, and that reason is central to both his character and (I think) his role in the key event of the voyage.

So basically it's a very gentle, very subtle collapsing wave function thingy, done in a totally unshowoff-y 'look at me aren't I a clever novelist' way.

And did I mention? It's a rattling good yarn!

Next up are 'Fathers and Sons' by Turgenev and 'Oryx and Crake' by Margaret Atwood.

*Get him, showing off his literary terms!

** Provided they do it for a reason. I hated Zadie Smith's 'White Teeth' for a different reason (I found it patronising, bordering on racist, to some of her characters.) But I believe she does clever things with the likes of chapter titles, gives each character she introduces a name starting with successive letters of the alphabet, etc. Well...If I didn't notice, what was the point? David Mitchell also, apparently, uses mathematical structures in 'Cloud Atlas' and 'Revolution No 9'. I shall reserve judgement not having read them...but I understood he did the same in a watered down way in 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'...and I didn't notice even though I knew in advance. Although I did enjoy the book.

*** O'Connor has said in interviews that he read lots of sources, but he admits in the notes that he took liberties with a few things. One anachronism I caught him out on, though, was frequent references to 'hygeine'. But would this have figured in minds before Joseph Lister? Cleanliness at best, but that was more an aesthetic thing to do with first class not being able to smell steerage.


Anonymous said...

Wow!Welcome back to the blogosphere. And what a prolific return. Clearly the muse is upon you.

It's an interesting review. I rarely read fiction these days, and when I do, it tends to be very light, to soothe me to sleep. But you do tempt me.

Anonymous said...

Doh! And I've only belatedly caught the allusion in your title.