Lori Baker's debut novel (she's written three collections of stories previously, none published in the UK) pays tribute to the scientific and geographical explorations of the 19th century, while also exploring a dysfunctional marriage. Baker's narrator, Carlotta the 'ginger giant', is 16, living in 19th-century Whitby. Carlotta tells us the story of her vanished parents Leo dell'Oro and Clotilde Girard, trying to make sense of their disappearance before she herself vanishes to search for them. Leo and Clotilde meet when Leo enlists as a ship's draughtsman with Clotilde's father, an explorer. The only thing the pair have in common is that neither quite belong in England. Leo is an Italian, brought to Whitby (why Whitby not London?) by his father Emilio after Emilio, a goldsmith and sculptor, became obsessed with one of his carvings, who turned out to have a real-life version in the person of a woman from his town. Leo cannot forgive his father for this obsession, and refuses to work in the family jet business. Clotilde is French, the daughter of the famous French explorer Felix Girard. Her mother, weary of Felix's long absences and Clotilde's Electra-complex (manic obsession with her father) has abandoned the family and returned to Paris (there's a lot of abandoning mothers in this book) and Clotilde, brought to Whitby by her father for his geographical explorations there, has decided to travel with him. Leo and Clotilde set off with Felix Girard and his motley crew of explorers (who read like a rather weaker version of the explorers in Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World' and other such books) to try to reach a mysterious island in the Caribbean. The voyage goes horribly wrong, and eventually Leo and Clotilde end up married, back in Whitby, with no money. Clotilde strikes up a friendship with master glassmaker Thomas Argument, strong enough to make her think of something else other than her 'dear papa's' absence, and persuades Leo to work as Thomas's apprentice. Soon a bizarre love triangle, which may not involve any action on Thomas's part, is set up, which eventually leads Leo to get revenge by leaving Thomas to work for his revival William Cloverdale, a maker of glass eyes. He does well - but his life becomes complicated both by his obsession with his wife (which he can never declare to her, being an inhibited sort of man) and by an even greater obsession - with replicating the drawings he did for Felix Girard on his doomed voyage in glass. Leo's obsessions will have terrible consequences - as will Clotilde's strange relationship with Argument.
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.
You can't really judge a book by its cover recommendations, but when the author endorsements are from Thomas Pynchon and John Banville, it does at least give you some idea of the kind of content and style inside, but it also sets up very high expectations for The Glass Ocean. If it were judged on plot alone, Lori Baker's debut feels like it's over before it's really started, but it's an enthralling piece of writing that just dazzles throughout and leaves you wanting more at the end. If only this were the first installment of the life of the intriguing and compelling character she has created in Carlotta Dell'oro!
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.
on 19 November 2013
Lori Baker's The Glass Ocean explores and measures the many ways in which the human condition bends toward sadness and loss, and how our minds do everything possible to create alternative narratives, to overcome (or explain away) each disappointment, each loss, each devastation. The heartache builds, but also the sense of hope in the face of despair. This is a riveting, emotionally charged work of exceptional craft through which Baker builds profound energy and focus. The intersection of art and science, the natural and the human-made -- this is a beautiful and deeply engaging book of high literary art.