Unpredictability

Reading really is a strange and unpredictable business, isn’t it? This week I began two books, which you can see displayed in the currently reading section of the side bar. You by Joanna Briscoe I saw in the bookshop and pounced upon. The story of a young woman’s adolescent obsession with her English literature teacher, told twenty years later when she returns to her old home to deal with her estranged mother and the aftermath of that illicit relationship. I thought it sounded right up my alley, and a friend of mine had already recommended Joanna Briscoe to me as a good novelist. The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haase I bought online for a penny plus postage and packing. I noticed it was one of the readalong books for Dutch Literature Month, and thought I’d join in for no better reason than I already own one Hella Haase novel with a truly gorgeous cover that I ought to get around to reading one day. There were a few mutterings of uncertainty in the blogs about Hella Haase generally, not much really to encourage me to pick it up, but I thought I would anyway.

And of course, it turns out that I’m thoroughly enjoying The Tea Lords whilst feeling somewhat ho hum about You. Both would be classified as literary novels, but there is a notable difference in style. I’m finding You a bit overwritten, although you could equally call the prose rich or lush or some such term. There’s a lot of description that strains for effect, freighting the sentences with a heavy burden of emotions. One step further and it’s at risk of being purple, although in all fairness there are some lovely turns of phrase and the author works the slender story for all it’s worth. The Tea Lords, by contrast, is written in the sort of cool understated prose I personally enjoy. I’d call it elegant, although I wouldn’t be surprised if others found it dry. But set in the late 19th century and focalised through the consciousness of a young and quite uptight man, desperate to fulfil his ambitions of a successful tea plantation in Java, it feels perfectly in keeping with the period for me. And I’m really enjoying the story of his entry into the colonial lifestyle and a large and powerful family full of secrets he has yet to uncover.

I would never have guessed it. I was expecting to race through You and plough through The Tea Lords and it’s the other way about. It still strikes me as odd that despite all my years of reading I can’t tell which book is going to really please me and which will be an also-ran. And things could change again, depending on how these two novels unfold. It is such a strange and yet fascinating dynamic, the interaction between reader and story, constantly shifting, constantly transforming. What motivates our attachment to one story and not another? It feels to me as if voice is all, that what actually happens falls a distant second to the way that the story is told.

One other slightly strange thing: when I was idly looking around the internet for reviews, You by Joanna Briscoe had pretty much a full crop of the main national papers. Now I also happen to be reading The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan, which I’ve put to one side for the moment as it wasn’t quite what I’ve been in the mood for. Stylistically, I’d probably put it alongside the Joanna Briscoe. Although it doesn’t go in for outmoded expressions to evoke the 16th century, the cadences of the prose are distinctly old-fashioned. I thought it was quite cleverly done, in fact. But there are no newspaper reviews for it at all that I could find online, only reviews from bloggers. So does this mean that this novel is considered genre, whereas the Joanna Briscoe is considered literary? I suppose it must. Ah well, back at the start of the 20th century, the Russian Formalists tried to define what constituted literary language by close analysis of poetry. They never really managed it, which goes to show what a thorny problem it is, deciding stylistically what creates a literary effect.

23 thoughts on “Unpredictability

  1. This was so much fun to read–it made me think about all the times I’ve been surprised by what I’ve loved and what I haven’t. I’m always interested, too, in the way different readers respond, equally intelligent, careful, thoughtful readers can love and hate opposite books. It’s fascinating, just as you say. Now I’m curious about The Tea Lords.

    • Lilian – I know it’s sort of self-evident, but it never ceases to amaze me, how many different views you will get of a book from a roomful of readers. It’s like we all read completely different books at times! I’m sure there’s good sociological and psychological research to be done on that!

  2. Back to the genre/literary definition.🙂 I would always have presumed Jude Morgan writes historical genre novels. Very well written but genre all the same.
    I feel I’m not so in the mood for overwritten books, as you call it, these days, I like a bit of air.
    I haven’t read all that many raving reviews of The Tea Lords but got it as well and now I’m tempted.
    That Briscoe cover… I find it almost always annoying when they use photos of people. If it was a genre novel you would see the face, when it’s not, often parts are missing. Or am I just making this up? No, I think it’s true.

    • I know – I should let it go, shouldn’t I?🙂 I find more and more I don’t like overwriting – lyrical and poetic is SO hard to do well, because it requires immense accuracy with the language, and that is hard. And I think you’re quite right about cut about images of people on covers. I suppose it suggests a trickier, more complex relationship to the characters than in the genre novel, but in all honesty I’m not terribly keen of photos of real people on covers anyway. That’s just my preference, however, and I’m sure there are exceptions where it’s done well.

  3. It’s so strange, isn’t it, what ends up capturing our readerly imaginations? On the recommendation of both my mom and dad I started reading Cut for Stone, which takes place in Ethiopia and is set in a Catholic hospital. I never considered myself particularly interested in Ethiopia before but the way the book is written has me berating myself for past ignorance and so, so eager to learn more – such heart in this book! Great reviews and I have to say, for whatever reason, I am interested in reading You…

    • Courtney, it so depends on the voice, doesn’t it, and which parts of the story the writer chooses to focus on. I think it is such an ability on the part of a writer to instinctively know which scenes will create the most gripping and intriguing story. And I do think there are huge differences between authors in their ability to scene select.

  4. I’m glad to hear you are enjoying The Tea Lords unexpectedly! I was, and still am, a little nervous about hosting a readalong of the book. I remember liking it well enough when I was a high school student, but I did find all the historical detail a little dry back then. I am enjoying that part of the novel more now, but I wonder if it is because I studied a Dutch colonial setting. I had some difficulty gettiung into the book now, but past page 40 or so the book really pulled me in. Anyway, I’m glad I’m not alone.

    As for unpredictability, that happens at least a few times a year. I think it is what makes planned reading so difficult. It also makes me wonder how reading moods can affect my enjoyment of a novel. I might buy a book and feel incredibly enthousiastic about it, and then turn to it a few months later and only manage to feel “meh” about it.

    • I find that too Iris! I have books I bought enthusiastically years ago, and now suspect their moment has passed. It’s not always the case though – recently I read a book I’ve had for almost ten years and really enjoyed it. We’re lucky I suppose that books don’t rot or explode after a certain lapse of time.

      ‘It feels to me as if voice is all, that what actually happens falls a distant second to the way that the story is told’ – I agree absolutely. Although I find my reaction even to this can be altered by mood, expectations, what I’ve just read…

      • Helen, I had a couple of books last year that I read after 20 years on the shelf! I do believe their moment comes along again, but it’s hard to know exactly when that moment will come… I hate to cull any book that I haven’t read for that reason. And I agree that expectation and mood have a huge part to play in reader response.

    • Iris, I’m really enjoying The Tea Lords – still! But the responsibility of hosting a readalong is always a tough one. I’m sure it will provoke an excellent discussion! I know just what you mean about mood. I’m wondering at the moment if I’m just not in the right place for the books I’m reading. But if I put books down, I do rarely pick them up again… I’m facing a couple of tough calls in my reading at the moment, and wish I could make a decision whether to carry on or cut my losses!

  5. Funny how that works out, isn’t it? The book you think you’ll like most is the one you end up not liking as much as the one you didn’t think you’d like. I supposed our expectations have a lot to do with it. That would be an interesting psychological study.

  6. I think I’m pretty good at predicting which books I’ll like but sometimes they will suprise me! Sometimes it’s the books I drag my feet on the most thinking I don’t want to read it but agreed to read along that are the best ones. And then there are the books that I’ve owned for years and years and put off reading and then pick up and wonder whyever didn’t I read them sooner. Still, sometimes timing is everything! I’m going to have to try and get a copy of the Haase book–won’t manage it for the readalong, but for later. I love seeing your recently acquired books by the way–a little dangerous, though, as then it just give me ideas…..May have to add them to my own wishlist!

    • Danielle, I have found that often too. I dragged my heels forever over Camus’ The Plague and then it turned out to be completely brilliant. Perhaps when books begin to look a bit good after we’ve been dreading them, we are disproportionately relieved! But it is a funny old thing, reader response. About a quarter of the books I have in my tbr probably have something to do with your blog; it’s very dangerous to visit!😉 But I don’t think that will stop me……!

  7. …Oh, and judging by the covers and description I would have made the same assumptions as you–just goes to show I shouldn’t be so quick to judge a book by that first glimpse.

  8. “I’d call it elegant although I wouldn’t be surprised if others found it dry.”

    I always appreciate your awareness of how different books affect different people differently, and I’ve been enjoying your recent thoughts on genre vs. literary work.

    I feel very strongly that reactions to books are largely personal, and the best sort of criticism conveys the details of the book’s plot, language etc. so people can tell if they will like it based on their own preferences, not the critic’s. Of course, the critic’s impressions can be helpful when one is familiar with the taste of the particular critic and how it relates to one’s own, but just because an individual dislikes a book or style does not mean it is more or less valuable in general.

    • Well that is pretty much exactly how I think. When I write reviews I try to give a good account of the book first, because my own opinion will by no means be that of a great many other readers. Very nice solidarity, thank you!

  9. Interesting how you noted the difference in style between the two… one is ‘overwritten’ while they other, spare. That reminds me of two of my recent reading, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Hemingway’s <A Farewell To Arms which I listened to the audiobook. But surely I am not saying the Brideshead being ‘overwritten’, rather, I’ve quite enjoyed the poetic descriptions of Waugh’s writing. And Hemingway, yes, spare, but sometimes I wish he could write more into the story.

    I’ve enjoyed your review here comparing the two. And isn’t it true, we always have surprises (pleasant or not), when a book isn’t what we’ve expected it to be.

    • It is my purely personal preference, for simpler writing in a novel, mostly because I think it is incredibly hard to do lyric or poetic writing well. The author has to be extremely accurate with language as well as being inventive, and it takes a special genius to do that. Not that authors don’t do it, of course, but my own feeling is that there is more room for error. But as I’ve been saying, my opinion won’t necessarily coincide with anyone else’s! And there are obvious exceptions – like Colette, for instance, who is distinctly a lyric writer, and a brilliant one.

  10. I’ve just put The Tea Lords on my wish list at Amazon! lol

    You’re right about the Jude Morgan, the only reason I know the book is out is because of a book blogger.

    I think it’s fun when a book surprises you in a good way and you race through it!!

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