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The Glass Ocean Kindle Edition
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Top customer reviews
The trouble is, it's difficult to really care about either Leo or Clotilde, or their daughter, and thus their obsessions and abandonment have very little dramatic weight. Granted, Baker can certainly write. Her descriptive language is powerful, and elegant, and some of the descriptions of the sea voyage, of Argument's glass workshop and magical toys and of the bleak Whitby landscape are very fine. But this is one of those historical novels (rather like A.S. Byatt at her more pompous, without the really engrossing insights into character Byatt can provide) where the author is so keen to show how good her research is that she overloads the historical details and factual descriptions, and neglects the characters, who become strangely lifeless. Thus, we learn a huge amount about 19th-century explorers and the art of glassmaking, but the characters who do the exploring and glass making are oddly caricatured and lifeless. Indeed, most of them are either loathsome or very boring. Leo is a mystery, someone who seems able only to exist by being obsessed with 'things' and unable to make human contact (we read that he cares deeply about his sister Anna, and loves his daughter, but there's no evidence of this in the text). Clotilde is a spoilt brat, a stereotype of a femme fatale who can only damage others. And if I'd heard another reference to her 'dear papa' I'd have screamed. Thomas Argument and Felix Girard, the two men who let her down, are completely unknowable - I had no idea why they made the choices they did, or why both at various times abandoned Clotilde. William Cloverdale is a stereotyped 'old salt', the maid a parody of the 19th-century domestic (all 'la madam' and insolence) and Carlotta, the narrator, oddly pompous and staid-sounding for a 16-year-old girl. Baker's so busy describing Felix Girard's explorers' findings and the glass made by Thomas and Leo that she badly neglects whole aspects of her story: how Carlotta was educated if she was so neglected, how the family survived financially, and what exactly happened to Leo's sister Anna, who suddenly popped up at the end of the book having been forgotten for most of it. And having Carlotta as the narrator for the whole novel was not in fact ideal - as she wasn't present for most of the scenes described, it meant that a lot of the story remained shrouded in mystery (what happened between Clotilde and Argument, for example, and how Clotilde and Leo got together). This may have been a clever device (the 'unreliable narrator') but to me it was simply irritating, as was the very flowery dialogue - 19th-century people didn't talk in this stereotypical arch way (you've only to read a Dickens or Trollope novel to realise this). And the ending felt rushed and unbelievable - would Carlotta really have wanted to find a mother who'd only ever rejected her, and called her 'it', and how could she find her father if he'd drowned himself (no spoiler - we witness what happens to Leo in chapter 1).
I felt this book had some interesting potential - the material on glass-making was certainly well written, and the idea of writing about Victorian exploration could have worked well. But the caricatured, unpleasant characters and self-conscious, flowery style put me off - despite some beautiful moments, I found the book as a whole rather pretentious. I'm glad I read it, but it's not a book I'd care to return to.
Essentially, The Glass Ocean relates little more than the question of how Carlotta - a ginger giantess in Victorian Whitby - became an orphan. That's however is not as straightforward as it might sound, the story related in fragmentary impressions with temporal shifts from the perspective of the 18 year-old Carlotta taking on the presence of her unborn state. Nor is it as complicated as that makes it sound either. While you're waiting for the book to come back to where Carlotta is fleeing at the start of the novel however, you soon become drawn into the horrible fascination of the bizarre non-marriage and eventual disappearance of her desperately mismatched, eccentric and slightly-disturbed parents.
Wrapped up within the very fabric of the work however is her father's obsessive preoccupation with the mysteries of naturalist discoveries, and attempts to replicate them in glass. This feeds very much into the writing itself, which is dreamlike, fragmentary, splintered and reflective, a kaleidoscopic swirl of constantly rearranging pieces. There's an impressionistic tone that reflects the subject to a large extent, short sentences hovering and batting about like a hummingbird, paragraphs swelling and heaving like the tide, conversations playing like a game of mirrors reflecting infinity, distorting characters and their mad thoughts to otherworldly larger than life proportions.
A sea of words, a tide of impressions, Lori Banks' writing however is also beautifully poetic and wonderfully descriptive, the writing itself attempting to transmute words into something living. It's far from overblown however, the writing achieving a remarkable precision in its observations, drawing the characters and the source of their obsessions with an economic means of expression. Perhaps too economic for anyone expecting a conventional plot or linear progression, but like any delicately crafted object, the true quality of the beauty, shape and arrangement of the Glass Ocean, its purpose and its intent only becomes apparent when its viewed as a whole, and you only have that when you get to the end. And even then, it still leaves you longing for more.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The book begins two years after its conclusion. Carlotta is eighteen, it is the early 1860s, and she is an orphan. Carlotta--a six-foot-two-inch, redheaded giantess--is somewhere in the Caribbean; she and another woman are about to embark on a voyage. Carlotta is consumed with writing the history of her father and mother, Leo and Clotilde Dell'Oro. She hopes to discover herself through rediscovering them: the book is the story she writes.
Carlotta has been researching her family history using her father's and grandfather's papers. She pieces together what she can from these sources and fills in the rest using her potent imagination. And oh, what a vivid imagination she has!
Carlotta writes: "There is such complexity in this thing, of orphaning and being orphaned; of leaving and being left behind." But this is a young woman fully ready to take on the complexity of the task. She has inherited a great deal of intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and artistic sensitivity. In addition, she possesses psychological understanding beyond her years. "It is not that I'm angry. They couldn't help themselves, my parents; nor could anyone else have helped them--they were, like all of us, each in our own way, doomed right from the start, just by being who they were."
Up front, Carlotta tells us this about her parents. "The problem is they should not have met at all, at sea or anywhere else, neither on the street nor in a room, in a field, on a beach, he and she, Leo and Clotilde, two opposing elements."
Carlotta's narrative includes the story of her French maternal grandfather, Felix Girard. Formerly a successful and affluent Parisian surgeon, he abandoned his career to follow obsessions with fossil hunting and the polymath collecting of naturalist specimens. His obsession eventually takes him to the fertile fossil hunting grounds of Whitby, England.
Carlotta also tells of her Italian paternal grandfather, an extraordinarily gifted goldsmith who abandoned that calling to follow an obsession with carving stunning, flesh-like, erotic objects of intimate personal significance and intense beauty out of coral. He flees this obsession to carve jet in Whitby.
And what about her father's and mother's obsessions? We discover that Clotilde was a totally self-absorbed woman--a woman obsessed with her own needs, a woman who had little interest for anything except possessing her father's complete love and attention.
And Leo? His obsession (we find out from the author's notes) is the reason why Lori Baker started this novel: she wanted to create a novel very loosely focused on the work of the famous Victorian glassmaker, Leopold Blaschka. So it turns out in Carlotta's story that her father, Leo, has two obsessions: he is obsessed with Clotilde and he is obsessed with fabricating glass replicas of invertebrate marine life. Carlotta describes her father's subjects as "those ephemeral creatures" of the sea, those "soft, struggling, ambiguities that wink, pulse, glow, retort, subside." Leo sees them as "translucent bodies, electrical sparks, fiery snowflakes, palpitating stars. Ephemera. They will be gone by morning: gone, as if they never existed at all." And that is the reason behind his obsession: he is consumed with a passion to capture these ephemeral creatures, seemingly alive, through the artistry of his glass sculpture.
"Glass Oceans" is a difficult book to read. Frequently, I had to look up the meanings of archaic and little-used words (but this is forgivable in a book with a Victorian narrator). What bothered me more was that the book required two readings to understand it fully; that's basically why I am not giving it five stars. It also required a lot of up front knowledge that I didn't have. Between the two readings, I found it necessary to do significant online research. In particular, I examined the visual artistry of Leopold Blaschka. I read Wikipedia articles on the life of Victorian era women, the history of jet carving in Whitby, the history of Whitby fossil findings, the true story behind the Whitby ichthyosaur, and tried to find out everything I could about everyday life in the squalid beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. I recommend this; it helped significantly.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to serious literary readers. It is an exquisite and powerful book...a serial tragedy about obsession and longing.
Rating: Four-star (I like it)
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