Top critical review
25 people found this helpful
I'm not going to say "don't read this"...
on 17 July 2015
I can see the appeal of this book for many readers. From the description and reviews, I thought it was going to be one for me. The opening chapters were intriguing, leaving you with that "Ooooh" feeling. Little hints and implied statements that "nobody knows where he comes from", "We do not know what language he speaks", "there is something unseen at its base." These are great teasers, that should draw you in to the intrigue.
However, Morgenstern uses these teasers so much, almost on every page and definitely in every short chapter, that I soon got fatigued by them. And, then, some of them don't even makes sense: "We do not know what language he speaks" is a cracker. Erin, you're the writer and narrator of the story. So, you must have some idea. It doesn't even make sense that you (we) don't know. More and more of this "mystery" is piled up - but we aren't actually given a mystery to puzzle over, we are just told "you are mystified by this".
The mystery is drowned in a sea of its own mystery, and nobody knows what the mystery was and where it is now because it is a mysterious thing full of mystery. STOP IT!!! PLEASE STOP IT, ERIN, YOU'RE DRIVING ME CRAZY!!!!
So, after a while I was thinking: "You know what, Erin, I don't care if there's a mystery in this bit, because there's a mystery in all of it, and I've got that, so thanks, you don't need to keep badgering me about it. Just get on with the bloody story."
The novel is Rococo in its design. It builds baroque trope on baroque trope until the narrative is severely impaired by what are essentially tricks. It's marvellous that Celia can turn one thing into another. I mean, actually, it is a marvel. There's magic in creation. Yup. Get all that. But after a while there is no marvel left because you've had so many marvels. It's like continuing to have sex post-orgasm. What should be a joyous event chafes. That's what happens here. There's no character development and no character development. No stopping all the chafing to have a chat and find out about each other, and enjoy each other's company. Nope, just more shagging, chafing, oww, please stop, yowchiness.
So, what makes a narrative interesting? Well, one such thing is a great character. Just one would be a start. But even the main protagonists, A. H. and Hector Bowen are sketched so slightly that one has no idea why they do what they do. A. H. is a bit of a psycho really, who brings a child up in isolation, with study only. Then Hector is a bit of a psycho, wilfully breaking his daughter's wrists to teach her lessons.
The rest of the crew become indistinguishable. Like cartoon characters. The sisters with an eye for design. The contortionist who speaks in cryptic short sentences that really don't convey anything. The impresario who throws extravagant dinner parties in London where you might expect one - at least one interesting person - to turn up.
But you don't get anyone interesting. Ever. What you get instead is people who look interesting but are dead inside. They have no inner life. No sense of individuation or personality, but are clearly symbols allegories and ciphers placed there to add a bit of background colour to a narrative that simply doesn't move onwards.
One of the other problems in this book for me was the writing style. It's lush, visual and has a very slow rhythm, with elongated sentences. And that should be great, but becomes a problem. Because without a short snappy sentence from time to time to wake me up, I feel like there's a nerd whispering in my ear just boring me to an early grave. I have trouble breathing when I read this book, that's how visceral my response to her writing is.
So, I'm not going to say don't read this. I read Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy where others threatened to slash their wrists - so I get that a book can be loved by some and hated by others. But I will say, be aware that you're not going to read a thumpingly driving narrative, or meet interesting people along the way.
What you will get is cinema. A long slow dream sequence that you may well fall into and become beguiled by, if (unlike me) you are lucky enough to get drawn on by the fairy light in the woods that leads you onwards to nothing.
Enjoy it on that level.