4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Promising first novel with a great central character,
This review is from: Idiopathy (Hardcover)
'Idiopathy' is primarily a character study, with gestures in the direction of being an oblique portrait of a generation. It's in this sense that the medical term 'idiopathy' - a condition that arises spontaneously or from an unknown cause - is germane.
The three central characters, each in a different way, are failing to cope. Daniel has settled for a relationship that may be not just second-best but actively hollow. Katherine, Daniel's former partner, is possessed by rage and helpless in the face of a perverse instinct to sabotage her own, and everybody else's happiness. Their friend Nathan, newly emerged from institutional care, is struggling to find a viable way of being that doesn't end in self-harm. All three have parents who are variously absent, self-absorbed or actively toxic. In the background, a new disease of cattle is causing increasing disquiet.
Sam Byers has been extensively praised for this first novel, and it's easy to see why. He can create complex, believable characters - a skill that many more experienced writers have yet to master. (Katherine in particular is wonderfully drawn, but even the minor figures are clearly characterised and memorable.) He can write sharp dialogue. He can handle comedy and satire without resorting to cartoon-like exaggeration. He's intelligent enough to understand that a good fictional experience doesn't depend on the reader liking the central characters: there are several memorable monsters here, and Byers is particularly good on the seemingly endless capacity of human beings for hypocrisy, moral cowardice and lack of self-awareness. In 'Idiopathy' all these strengths are displayed.
He also has faults. His structural sense is much less acute than his feeling for character and his grasp of psychology. This lack manifests itself in different ways. For me, the weakest aspect of 'Idiopathy' was the plotting, which proceeds by fits and starts and culminates - if that's the term - in an anticlimax. Readers expecting much about cattle, unusual diseases thereof, or the sins of 'big food' are particularly likely to be disappointed: this is not the eco-novel that the cover and blurb might lead you to expect.
Older readers may notice what appears to be the excessive influence of R.D. Laing (of 'Knots' fame) on the endlessly ramifying analyses of contradictory and self-defeating thought processes: how much patience the individual reader will have with this will vary. There is a also a general tendency to a complacent sub-Jamesian elaboration of sentence structure that didn't add much to this reader's experience. Tougher editing would have disposed of this. At 310 pages, the book is probably fifty pages longer than it need be.
That said, 'Idiopathy' is serious, readable, amusing, perceptive about aspects of contemporary life, above the standard of most first novels, and at its best promises better to come.