Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Rossetti Letter, by Christi Phillips

Christi Phillips' The Rossetti Letter is a valiant effort for a first novel. It tells the stories of two women; the modern day Claire Donovan and the historical Alessandra Rossetti. Claire Donovan is a PhD student writing a paper on the Venetian courtesan Alessandra Rossetti who wrote a secret letter to the Venetian Council warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian Republic in 1618. When she discovers a rival historian is presenting on her very topic at a prominent Venetian university she takes the opportunity to play chaperone to the 14 year old student of a friend in order to attend. Her story is mingled with the tale of Alessandra Rossetti herself. We learn her story as Claire's research progresses.

The story itself was gripping and engaging, although incredibly formulaic. The writing brought nothing new to the genre of historical fiction, and followed a linear narrative that failed to surprise. Many of the plot twists were contrived to the point of being unbelievable, and yet somehow still managed to be predictable.

The historical portions of the novel where descriptive and well researched. The same however could not be said of her modern context. All her modern characters were awful cliches. Each person in the modern context was nothing but representatives of the stereotypes of the countries from which they hailed. I felt that very little thought went into rounding them out as characters, in fact most of them weren't even likable.

Where the author loses most credibility is in her protagonist, Claire Donovan. I don't think a more bland character could ever have graced our pages. She lacks personality and flair. She is never adequately described, and yet we are meant to believe her beautiful. Frankly the fact that she is an academic who has never visited the city she is writing a dissertation on defies belief. Not only has she never visited Venice, but she also reads abridged and translated versions of her most important texts and expects to have credibility in the academic world. Quite frankly, for such an otherwise well-researched book, Phillips completely fails to write about the academic world in a believable, or even realistic fashion.

This aside however, it was a joy to read the historical portions of the novel. Phillips describes the sites and sounds of Venice in such a way as to make you feel part of the history. Her historical characters are accessible, and properly motivated, making them believable and sympathetic.

Ultimately this book is an enjoyable read. It's entertaining and fast paced, although rather superficial and contrived at times. It's worth picking up and reading for the entertainment, but it is certainly not a brilliant work of fiction.


Spook Country, by William Gibson

Let me first state that I have always been a fan of William Gibson. I found Neuromancer wholly original, and Pattern Recognition an absolute joy to read. With this in mind Spook Country left me entirely underwhelmed.

Perhaps this feeling I have comes a lot from the way I approach this book. By this I mean my cultural milieu. I approached it from the point of view of a ‘young Australian’. It felt like there were so many things in this book I could simply not relate to. My youth made the language seem strained, almost like Gibson was trying too hard to be ‘hip’, and the consumerist driven action was far too – for wont of a better word – ‘American’.

The Plot follows three groups of people; Hollis Henry and her employers Blue Ant, as well as the rock band she used to be part of; Tito, a young Cuban-Chinese man (or is it boy? His age is only passingly mentioned, and then as a ‘he looked like’ not a ‘was’) and his underground crime family; Brown and Milgrim, a claimed DEA Agent and his captive. These stories seem separate but naturally are working to the same conclusion which will lead them from their bases in America to the final showdown in Vancouver, Canada. This said however I think Gibson failed to give each group enough of a story or background. There are connections that are hinted at, but too cryptic for the reader to be certain. Perhaps this was intentional, but throughout the whole work I felt that I missing some fundamental point to each of the characters.

The characters themselves I found empty. I got no sense of motivation, or even appearance, from any of them. Rather than give his characters any personal definition Gibson instead chose to define them by the products they used, consumed, or had the money to acquire. Once again this was most likely intentional, but it made the characters very hard to relate to. The protagonist, Hollis Henry, is the only character with a defined past, but even that is superficial and shallow. Perhaps Gibson was attempting to draw attention to the culture they are currently in, rather than the characters themselves, but as a reader I personally find it difficult to relate to a novel, or even enjoy it enough to want to grasp its meaning if there is not even a single character with whom I can identify. I was irked by Gibson’s failure to let me know what the characters looked like, what their personalities were, or even where they were situated or what time it was. I could never tell if it was day or night. The ‘noir’ was simply so much that I just assumed all the action of the novel took place at night.
All motivation in this novel was pure which with a huge undertone of ‘because I want to’, or ‘because I can’. While this is a criticism of today’s Western society it is a very shallow look at a very complicated world. There were parts of the narrative that excited me, like the GPS driven locative art created by the artists it is originally Hollis’ objective to investigate. For me this was completely original and I wanted more investigation into this side of the world from which the characters originated. Imagine my disappointment when this wonderful concept turned out to be completely incidental to the plot, which drives us toward an ultimately disappointing conclusion.

The plot is so full of incidental information. I felt often it was placed in just to give the characters some rudimentary sense of identity, rather than to say or advance anything really substantial. The only thing I could derive from these hastily constructed artistic backgrounds was that art needs to enter commerce to survive. Was this the amazing revelation that this book claimed it would give me about the society in which I live? I certainly hope not. I am not above admitting that there may be a deep and complex point that I simply may not have understood. I am however an intelligent, educated human being. I very rarely feel that a book is ‘over my head’ so to speak but perhaps this one is. If I delved deeper into it perhaps I might find the promised revelation of my reality staring me in the face, but to be frank the book was not constructed in a way that gave me any interest or inclination to re-read it, let alone pull it apart and find its hidden meanings.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘terrible’ book. I simply found it un-engaging and alienating. The constant product placement made me even more unable to relate. I don’t wear Adidas, I don’t us a PowerBook, and I simply don’t think that using an iPod for data storage instead of simply music is an original concept.

Frankly Spook Country is readable, but far from Gibson’s best work. The overall experience was underwhelming and disappointing.


The Historian

Elizabeth Kostova’s novel The Historian is a work that spans many centuries, as well as numerous settings and cultures. The narrative opens in 1972, in Amsterdam, when the young protagonist finds in her diplomat father’s library a pile of yellowed letters, and medieval book containing nothing but a woodcut dragon. Over the course of the novel her father gives fleeting glimpses into the convoluted tale, and his search for Dracula, or Vlad the Impaler. When her father goes missing, leaving only a note, she is forced to take on the search for herself, which leads her into dangerous and uncharted territory.

The book is well written, with a brilliantly conceived and researched storyline, and yet one gets the impression that Kostova had simply far too much information than she knew how to deal with. The ensuing result is a convoluted plot that stretches from the 15th century to 1972, from the East Bloc to London. The plots are not at all difficult to follow, showing Kostova a very capable writer, and yet many of the characters seem to become superfluous. What we end up with is a story, within a story, within a story. Her main character is in fact the most unnecessary of all, serving nothing to advancing the plot, and in fact making it more confusing than it needs to be.

The research is vividly evident. The images of real historical horror are perhaps the most astounding of the book. Our narrator says of her father; "For all his attention to my historical education, my father had neglected to tell me this: history's terrible moments were real. I understand now, decades later, that he could never have told me. Only history itself can convince you of such a truth." Kostova masterfully blends the horror of history with the human element in each of her characters, resulting in a gripping read.

Although its narrative structure could have been tweaked a little, The Historian is an astounding novel. It is historical, real and full of human emotion, with a satisfying ending that makes the novel a pleasure to read.