Saturday, August 09, 2008

Holiday by Stanley Middleton

One shelf of my library now holds a nearly complete collection of Booker Prize-winning novels which date back to 1969. The short list for the 40th award for 2008 has just been announced, and Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence is there. I have never been disappointed in the Man Booker Prize, awarded annually for English-language novels from the British Commonwealth and Ireland. This 1974 prize winner bears a striking resemblance to the 2005 winner, The Sea by John Banville, so I catapulted it to the top of my TBR list.

This was a tough read. The style is difficult, largely due to strange word order and comments dropped at the end of a line of dialogue. It took a while to become accustomed to this strange wording, but the story was absorbing; however, it was nothing at all like Banville’s “elegant and lyrical language so rich it takes the breath away” as I wrote in my review of The Sea. After about 100 pages, comfort set in, and it was no longer a problem. There were occasional flashes of brilliance, for example: “The sun-bars angled down packed wild with dust-specks so that the air danced alive with energy between the areas of dim cleanliness” (2).

Perhaps Middleton has matched his language to the confused state of mind of the main character, Edwin Fisher, who has escaped from his wife, whom he now detests. Before leaving, Edwin seemed genuinely to have tried to smooth things over and save his marriage – at least from his version of the story told in a series of brief flashbacks. Like the character in The Sea, Edwin travels to a seashore vacation resort of his youth to grapple with a life-changing event, but Edwin also has to contend with the memory of a stormy relationship with his father.

The ridiculously formal meeting of Meg and Edwin at the end seemed too contrived to be realistic. I did not get the impression that this meeting was “in character” for either of them. Placing this novel in time was difficult, assigning an age to the characters even more so. This might all be attributed to a setting in the middle to late 50s. An annoyingly intrusive father-in-law seems to sympathize with Edwin, but his condescension should have caused Edwin to send him packing.

The novel was also peppered with words and phrases I have never heard. My library contains a lot of British fiction – old and new – and this is not usually a problem for me. One intriguing word (biro, biroing) appeared quite a few times. After three, I surmised it was some sort of writing instrument, but I could not be sure. It was not in my large Random House Dictionary, nor was it in the O.E.D. 3-1/2 stars because I had to work so hard without much reward.

--Chiron, 8/9/08

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