Sunday, 16 June 2013

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife's beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

I was totally torn by this book. I should have loved it - it is poetic, it is mythic, which are both things I normally love, and yet I couldn't get into it. I found the non-specific nature of the book unnerving. For example the writer does not give his characters names; they have only titles - wife, foundling, bear. I suppose this was because Matt Bell was myth-making, but even so most mythic characters are identified.

Maybe my problems were because I was approaching the book thinking it was magic realism. As you know, my definition of magic realism is the commonly held one that "magic realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction." This book, although tackling real issues such as parenthood and the relationship between man and wife, does not have enough realism in it to my mind. Other people may differ and have - some reviewers have talked of this being magic realism and indeed compared the writing with that of magic realist writers such as Marquez. I leave you to decide for yourself, but to me Bell is writing ambitious mythic fiction.

The mythic elements of the book are strong. Bell creates a strange world where objects can be sung into life, where man literally battles with beast, where a child can exist inside his father. Animals and nature play an important part in this mythbuilding. But for some reason I found myself detached from this world when I wanted to sink into it.

The language is lush, extremely poetic at times, with the result that the book can't be read at a rush, but rather savoured and revisited. There is a section in which the writer lists a series of rooms that the wife has sung in to being, and in which the husband finds her secrets. This was extremely successful. But at other times Bell's style was just too slow and repetitive for me and I found myself losing the plot and my interest.

Ultimately this is one of those books that some people will love (and have done, given the rave reviews) and some will hate. But, as I hope I have made clear, it is not always obvious which camp you will fall into. If you decide you do want to read this book, give yourself time. One thing is certain: this book cannot be rushed.

I received this book as free review copy via Netgalley.

No comments: