Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Sebold, Shute and Shriver

I've just finished reading The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold and have found my reaction to it intriguing. I think I would classify it as literary crime, if only because it involves a crime. It reminded me in parts of Sex Crimes by Jenefer Shute, a favourite writer of mine. Both stories are told in the first person by women who have committed terrible crimes. Both stories use flashback to draw the reader gradually into the past, the unfolding of which provides an explanation for the shocking "conclusion". Shute's book does it better, despite the naff title she chose to give it which must have turned off swathes of female readers and picked up several unwanted male ones (I like to think they got a hell of a shock reading about the crime in question). Sebold's book lacks the disciplined structure of Shute's. The flashbacks are not given to us sequentially and I found at the end that I had a very muddy idea of why things happened the way they did. In part, I'm sure, this was deliberate. Sebold is writing about mental illness and she wanted to do justice to the lack of black and white, the toxic melting pot of need and resentment, love and hate. I enjoyed turning the pages of the story but at the end I felt disappointed, overall and in one particular instance. I'll come to that particular in a moment.

My reaction to The Almost Moon was a little like the frustration I felt after finishing We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Both books are page turners, Shriver's relentlessly so. She uses every trick in the plotter's handbook to keep us reading despite the increasingly disturbing subject matter. At the time of reading, she had my undivided attention. The book gripped me, completely. It was only afterwards that I started to resent the manner and extent of her manipulation.

Sebold, it seems to me, wants to "explain" the awful mess at the end of the story by telling us that everyone in the family is insane, to one degree or another. The mother, the father, the daughter. There is no-one to "blame" or, rather, everyone is to blame. It felt to me like a get-out-of-jail free card, rather than a truthful telling of the complexities of her subject matter. It was a compromise, a very flat one. It also raised the question why two people diagnosed with severe mental illness should decide to try and raise a child. Perhaps the questions I am asking are pedantic, but that's the territory you tread if your novel earns the peg of "crime". You may play in the shadows, in the shades of grey, but ultimately there must be an iron core of logic, of black and white.

Shriver's story has an even more fundamental flaw. She spends half the book telling us how much her heroine hated getting pregnant, resented every second of her motherhood, failed to connect to her monstrous offspring. In the second half, this mother decides to have a second child. There is no explanation as to what on earth persuaded her this was a good idea. The second child is a pathetic, pliable female with Victim written right through her. The only purpose of this second child, as far as I could tell, was to provide yet more weaponry in Shriver's war of manipulation. Great trick for a crime writer, this. You see it all the time, most especially in that sub-genre I've heard called 'Brutalise the Girl' (with good reason). I kept on turning those pages, to the very end. But my lasting impression of the book was one of resentment, anger even, at the heartless way in which Shriver deployed her craft. As a thriller, it worked. As a work of literature, it failed. Because Shriver broke her own rules, dodged logic in pursuit of effect.

Of the two books, Sebold's is the better, I think. She remains true to the core of the story, which is concerned with the difficult relationship between mother and daughter. In order to arrive at a variety of peace between these two, Sebold sacrifices the sanity of the father, an act which removes from the mother the blame for his death. Too neat, to my mind. Better had the daughter been forced to reconcile her muddled emotions for her mother, blame being a part of these emotions. By pointing out too clearly the MC's inherited insanity, Sebold then removes the need for a proper conclusion. The reader is left with nothing but the sense that all of life is struggle, which is a foregone conclusion after all.

Shriver's crime was cruder. She took the main ingredients of a great thriller and put them all together, hoping we'd forgive the lapse in logic because the second child is such a TERRIFIC victim and gives us such excellent TWISTS towards the end of the story that of course she HAD to exist in order to serve exactly such a purpose! This, I think, is both arrogant and lazy. Another get-out-of-jail free card but this one stinks because it's so unforgiveably cruel. My overriding impression of Shriver is that of a great manipulator, not a great writer. Of course it didn't help that I went on to read her re-issued earlier novel, about tennis players, which was quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Double Fault, it's called. I won't link to it because, trust me, you do not want to read it. Apart from anything else it features some of the worst sex writing in the world, all about musty jockstraps and the like. Brrr.

Shute, now. Does not put a foot wrong. Her heroines are never likeable, the things they do are often abhorrent, but they are consistent. Shute is honest in the way she deals with the characters, and her readers. Her Life-Size is excellent, and Freefall also. Neither is a crime novel.

Sebold, I will read again. I have reserved The Lovely Bones at the library because I want to see how she executed that story. And I like her writing very much. Not as much as Shute's, but very much.

In the meantime, bliss! I am reading Alice Munro's The Beggar Maid. Not a crime in sight, and I'm loving it.

12 comments:

Gay Degani said...

What a fabulous review. I've read "The Lovely Bones" and you share that aesthetic in your own writing, except your use of language is far superior to Sebold's. I will now read her Lucky book and Shute's too. Never heard of Shute before but am very curious.

Gay Degani said...

HMMM, The Almost Moon is the one I'll read. Didn't she write something about Lucky too? Have you read that?

Sarah Hilary said...

Aw, Gay, you say the nicest things! Definitely read Sex Crimes, because it more than lives up to its rep. Shute is an amazing writer and she does mother/daughter discord like no one else.

Sarah Hilary said...

Lucky is Sebold's biography, in which she relates a brutal sexual assault. I'm not too keen to read it, I must admit, but am looking forward to The Lovely Bones. The librarian warned me that her son read it and found it "very harrowing". I'm trying to avoid getting spoilered by the movie chatter.

Madeline said...

What "movie chatter" re THE LOVELY BONES???

"Harrowing" is a good description for BONES, but I still think it's a better read than ALMOST MOON. I "felt" the story and the characters in BONES and was more observant/distanced in MOON.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Madeline, that's exactly what I'm hoping from The Lovely Bones. It's been made into a movie, is the chatter. There's a website here:

http://www.lovelybones.com/

Brian Keaney said...

God, I hated 'We Need To Talk About Kevin'! I thought it was lazy, trite, manipulative, trash masquerading as literary fiction. Everybody else in my reading group loved it. I felt like an alien.

Sarah Hilary said...

It's awful when that happens, isn't it, Brian? You should get your revenge by suggesting you all read Double Fault. Then, when they all loathe it, you can pretend to be the only one who likes it, just for a laugh. It'll take some pretending, though.

sonia said...

'We need to talk about Kevin' made me think. I can't remember anything about Lovely Bones though did read it to the end. I couldn't finish Lucky as it felt like the narrator was dictating how someone feels/ reacts to an attack.

Chimene said...

I agree absolutely and completely with your reading of We Need to Talk About Kevin. The narrator's dramatically under-explained decision to have a second child - that was the point at which I just lost faith in the narrative.

I prefer to see the novel as an exploration of the writer's own fears about procreation. Which may be interesting enough, but has fuck-all to do with actual procreation and the experience of parenthood.

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Sonia, interesting what you say about The Lovely Bones - I'm looking forward to reading it!

As for Shriver, it made me think too, so maybe I should give her points for that. Mainly, though, what it made me think was "Let's Never Talk About Kevin Again" so I dunno..!

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Chimene, yes! Absolutely that's what I thought about Shriver's motive in writing it. She spoke at length in an interview about how she doesn't have any children but all the things Kevin did (well, before he started killing people) were based on the experiences of friends and their children. I ought not to judge her on her lack of direct experience because that would make me a hypocrite insofar as I don't hold with the "write what you know" edict, but I do think that decision to have a second child simply destroyed all credibility in the character of the mother. A bad call on her part although the "thriller" angle was exploited by her to terrific effect by doing it.