Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill

Five thousand years on - and the Minotaur, or M as he is known to his colleagues, is working as a line chef at Grub's Rib in Carolina, keeping to himself, keeping his horns down, trying in vain to put his past behind him. He leads an ordered lifestyle in a shabby trailer park where he tinkers with cars, writes and re-writes to-do lists and observes the haphazard goings on around him. Outwardly controlled, M tries to hide his emotional turmoil as he is transported deeper into the human world of deceit, confusion and need.
Amazon Description

This book is totally unlike any of the other magic realism books I have read on this challenge so far. It is incredibly realistic in its approach to the tale of a few weeks in the immortal life of the M. The book follows M's sad and mundane life. The point of view (POV) is entirely M's and as is appropriate to a creature that is half human and half bovine this tends to make the pace slow as M tries to understand the world of humans. Sherrill shows in great detail the practicalities of life for someone whose upper torso and head are human - the problems of speech when one has a bull's tongue and lips, the sore area where human skin meets hide, the grooming requirements when one has horns. 

I found this book hard to read at times, not only because of the pacing but also and more importantly because I cringed for M. He is almost paralysed with his incomprehension, embarassment and expectation of rejection, yet hoping for some sign of affection. 
The architecture of the Minotaur's heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps - the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his lif - is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster's veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love.
Gone are the days when he was feared, now he's trailer trash on the margins of the world. This is not one of Neil Gaiman's American gods, still playing with human lives, but a sad creature burdened with immortality and tormented by humans who once he would have torn limb from limb. He is not alone: we catch glimpses of other immortals trapped in modern America - a satyr in a scrapyard, a dryad in a gas station - all demoted to the edges of society. 

The book is extremely well-written with M's world expertly captured. But, and this is a big but, Sherrill has written himself into a corner by the limitations of his protagonist's POV. He sees people's reactions but doesn't understand and empathise with them, and so nor do we. In particular I wanted to know more about the girl M falls for and why she responds to him. Is it because her epilepsy makes her feel she is also an outsider?

For the same reason the book is very slow and reading a number of readers' reviews I see that some people did not finish the book for that reason. When the pace quickens it comes in a rush at the last tenth of the book, which felt unsatisfying. I wanted more. 

Nevertheless this book is worth reading.

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