At the weekend, I (mostly) read. No surprise there. The only real shocker was that I only read one book. It was a book I thought I’d love, one I picked up and paid for without even reading the back cover blurb, and which I settled down to read without any hesitation, sure in the knowledge that I’d devour it.
But it didn’t quite work out that way.
I’d heard nothing but good things about this one. I’d read so many reviews which told me, in glowing terms, about its ‘fairytale roots’ and its ‘innovative style’ and its ‘refreshing narration’. I read about its brave and adventurous heroine and its feats of imagination. None of this was untrue – the book does have all these things, and more. It has wonderful ideas. It has twists of cleverness and whole passages that are so beautifully written that I found myself caressing them with my eyes, reading and re-reading and getting every last drop of joy out of them. Every reviewer mentions the same passage, in fact, when they’re describing the writing style – there’s a scene when a character is blowing a kiss after September (the protagonist), but she runs too fast for the kiss to catch her. The passage ends with the beautiful lines:
‘As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.’ (p. 210)
This is undeniably beautiful, and it’s the most poignant scene in the whole thing. I did love that bit, unreservedly. Nonetheless, I struggled with the book overall. The funny thing is, though, it’s actually a book I’d recommend to other people – but I think I’d choose who I suggested it to with great care. For me though, from about halfway through the book, reading it just felt like work. I forced myself to finish it because I refused to give up on a book that I so desperately wanted to love.
The book (and this might shock some of you) is Catherynne M. Valente’s ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’.
It sounds like something that’s tailor-made for me to love, doesn’t it? You’d think so.
I’m so disappointed with myself. This is a book that deserves to be loved. It’s definitely a book I admire. It’s a book I’m glad I’ve read. It’s a book which, if I met it at a cocktail party, I’m sure would keep me entertained for a while (though, no doubt I’d depart from its company with a slight headache). If it was giving a lecture, I’d pay to attend, and I would really try to listen to every word. I would make copious notes.
If it’s possible, this is a book that I respect, but not one which I love. I respect the way it was made (the author crowdfunded it before it was picked up by a mainstream publisher, which is amazing), I respect the author’s talent, and I respect the world and characters she has created. But I just couldn’t warm to the whimsical, deliberately ‘old-fashioned’ style of writing. I thought it was fine – charming, even – for the first while, but after about ten chapters it began to wear on me. It felt deliberate, it felt laboured, and it felt contrived. It kept distracting me from the story and bringing me out of the imaginative world of Fairyland, and September’s adventures there. I’m wondering if the problem is with me – perhaps I wasn’t in the ‘right’ frame of mind to read this book – because no other opinion I’ve read has concurred with mine. I’m a bit worried for myself. I’m worried for my future as a reader.
This anxiety is being compounded by the fact that I’m currently just under halfway through another book which everyone else in the known world loves with a passion. I’ve been halfway through it for about a week, and I might well stay halfway through it for a long time. It was another book which I picked up without hesitation, knowing I’d love it because it ticked all the boxes – great story, great style, strong female characters, adventure, &c. It’s Elizabeth Wein’s ‘Code Name Verity’.
I really hate myself for not eating this book up. It should’ve barely had a chance to gather dust before I’d read it right through to the end – yet it languishes beside my bed, unfinished. What’s not to love, I hear you ask? This is a book about female WWII pilots captured in Nazi-occupied France, a woman tortured for her knowledge of British intelligence, doing her best to string out her own execution, Scheherazade-style! It’s clearly a work of genius!
I can’t even begin to explain what’s holding me back on this one. I do enjoy the book while I’m reading it, but it’s an effort to pick it back up again after I’ve taken a break from it for a day or two. The latest break has been the longest yet. I do hope I will pick it up and give it the respect it’s due, though. I will finish it, but I suspect it’ll be similar to the Valente book. It will be a book I admire, but not one that I love.
The problem, just in case you’re wondering, is not with my ability to read. I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ in one sitting earlier in the week. I had no trouble focusing on it, on shutting out the world until I’d reached the end, and I enjoyed every word. So, it’s not that my brain has packed its bags and decided it’s going to sit beside a pool in Marbella for a while. I’m still in full possession of my faculties.
So what else could be wrong?
All diagnoses gratefully accepted…