Sunday, April 6, 2008

Speaking of literary...

I've just finished reading Peter Carey's new novel, His illegal self.

Carey is one of Australia's best known literary novelists, and I really wanted to like this book, which has been described as possibly the best fictional work to explore the militant radical underground of the late 1960s and early 70s.

It wasn't the era or political content that attracted me, but the story at the novel's centre: of a seven-year-old boy on a journey of discovery about his identity and his need to be loved.

Che is a seven-year-old boy raised in isolated privilege by his New York grandmother, who also happens to the son of radical student activists. Yearning for his famous outlaw parents, and denied all access to television and news, he thinks his dreams have come true when a woman whose smell he recognises appears at his New York apartment.

What's meant to be a brief visit turns into something else entirely, as Che and the woman he calls Dial end up on the run. After passing through several cities, their life on the run takes them across the world to tropical Queensland, Australia, where they take refuge in a hippy commune.

Carey's narrative style has its own unique rhythm, and he plays with chronology to keep the reading guessing. The other effective tactic he employs is to switch viewpoints between Che and Dial, so the reader gets to the glimpse events through both sets of eyes.

And yet … I felt no connection to these characters. I wanted to empathise with them, but so often found myself struggling to understand them. Often, I felt like I was groping in the dark to follow what was going on, but then, so were the characters, so perhaps this was the author's intention.

The whisper of menace throughout the story left me uneasy for most of the journey, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and again, perhaps was intended to give the reader a greater sense of what the characters were feeling.

The jacket blurb said the book may make me "cry more than once". It didn't - I didn't even come close, which is unusual for me.

So now I'm wondering why I didn't connect enough to be moved to tears. Is it a generational thing? The attitudes of militant radical underground and its commune-dwelling hippy cousins are the driving force in the plot. As a Gen-Xer, I have only read about that time in history - I have no emotional connection to it. I imagine readers who remember - or participated in - that era may respond quite differently.

I thought the human element of the story would be enough to engage me, but on this occasion it wasn't. Having said that, I devoured the book in three days, so it certainly wasn't a difficult read.

Perhaps the story, on this occasion, is as much about making the reader feel, rather than understand. And in that case, maybe I experienced exactly what the author intended...


BooksPlease said...

The last book I read by Carey was "Theft" and I wasn't too keen. I didn't feel much empathy with either of the main characters, but I still had to finish the book. It just made me feel uneasy. I learned quite a bit about art and forgery, though.

I haven't read "His Illegal Self" but it sounds as though it's written in the same style.

Paula Weston said...

Uneasy - yes, that's a good way to describe how I felt throughout the book!

Glad I'm not alone.