Friday, November 30, 2007

But how do you pronounce that Welsh "ll"?

I'm pleased to say I've never had such rough going with a YA fantasy novel. My unfailing good taste failed once but The Owl Service's formidably "elliptical" writing style -- conversations are brief, emotionally fraught scenes are written with no dialogue, and important ones take place off-page -- provided a kind of reading experience I just didn't expect from a teen book.

I will not blow its subtlety out-of-proportion. The truth is that I took one look at the plot, read the first two pages, and at a glance wrapped and labelled it as a fun ol' quest through Welsh mythology, with thrills and chills and a gripping end. I was even a bit concerned that I wouldn't be able to come up with much of a post at the end of it all. It's so short (155 pages)! It's why I left it for so long. Usually I start a Slaves of Golconda book a month before the deadline: I gave The Owl Service only two weeks -- keep in mind that this is along with my usual 2 - 3 other fiction reads and Life.

The first reading was...not great. Everything started swimmingly, then characters started getting pissy with each other, kicking rakes and books, apparently Gwyn and Ali were (trying to be) an item, Roger and his Dad were elitist buttholes, Nancy was psycho, Huw really wasn't making any sense, there were killer paper owls on the loose, and I had no idea how to pronounce any of the proper names except Birmingham, Roger, Alison and Clive. (Do you know how distracting that is?) Plot developments seemed to leap out of hitherto non-existent corners and the ending was a big question mark. What is this book? I thought to myself as I slammed it shut. W.t.f.?

My reaction not only stemmed from displeasure but frustration. I sensed that the bewildering experience was not insignificantly my fault because I came in with a set of expectations that the book stubbornly rejected. I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have to the details, expecting that I'd still grasp a fair enough portion of the book's offering. It was a perilous mistake because this is a book that is entirely created out of small details, superficially unassuming moments, of single sentences and lines that carry great importance not only thematically, but on the most basic level - plot. I read up on the Blodeuwedd, oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet on Wikipedia (which kinda helped), searched for a trusty guide on Welsh pronunciation (simpler than English my butt) and embarked on a quick reread against the (alleged) author's expressed wishes. (That comment worked as a challenge rather than an admonition.)

I emerged from the darkness a second time clearer, my mind changed on most things and along with a better grasp on what I still found fault with. I find my negative criticisms on this score a bit galling -- especially after having to eat humble pie and admit the book wasn't that opaque if you just paid attention -- because they pretty much boil down to this: most of the characters were not pleasant to be around. There's Clive banging on about "barrack-room lawyers", the children's scornful attitude towards adults and, in Alison's and Roger's case, their utter lack of regard for those beneath their social class, Gwyn's violent temper, Nancy's crazy harridan routine -- all of it. Let the valley's power blow 'em up and have done with the lot; the sheep are peaceful and (could possibly) go well with curry.

I'd hate to think I fall into the class of readers who can only enjoy books that contain "likeable" characters with whom they can "relate". I know that the valley's antagonistic power was influencing the trio's behaviour, most obviously Alison. But much of it still felt inexplicable and lazy. Nancy is a one-dimensional psycho who hates her son (so he believes) and his father and doesn't mind smacking the former around to have things done her way. In the one moment when she mellows enough to give Gwyn some information on the house's former owners she comes off as a schemer rather than slightly mental. "But there isn't the pound notes in London to pay me for losing my Mr. Bertram, just when I had landed him high and dry," she said. Not very romantic, is it? Some may want to argue that it's due to the supernatural consequences of her generation's avoidance of their responsibility but I'm not one of those readers who can put everything down to the fantastical. "Oh, it's the valley, that's why she's mad!" doesn't cut it.

The women come off the worse in this book and no few understanding lines from Huw Halfbacon -- to be expected, as he seems to be the only sensible person in the lot -- when he and Roger talked about the Blodeuwedd myth can change that. Alison is little more than a passive conduit for nature's desire to have things set aright, and must be saved. I could understand and was sympathetic to her conflict between pleasing Gwyn and her mother when her own self-identity was in flux -- and this is more ably shown as not being all down to magic plates and pebble-dashed paintings. In her singular confrontation with Gwyn in which he again insists that she defy her mother's wishes to meet with him she shouts,

"Stop it...Stop it, stop it! Stop tearing me between you. You and Mummy! You go on till I don' t know who I am, what I'm doing. Of course I can see! Now. But afterwards she starts, and what she says is right, then."

"I only want you to be yourself," said Gwyn.

"And what's that?" said Alison. "What you make me? I'm one person with Mummy, and another with you. I can't argue: you twist everything I say round to what you want. Is that fair?"

That outburst gave her character and circumstances more dimensions than any other scene before or since that included her or any other character. It breathed life into her, made her seem more human over Gwyn's overblown operatics and Roger's flat insolence and tabloid past. Even during the first reading it stood out. Then she went back to smelling petrol and being possessed.

Her mother and Roger's exist off-page. From various character reports the first holds the family's best interests at ransom in the interest of her delicate sensibilities and the other caused some kind of scandal that the tabloids flogged, and about whom Roger is sensitive and very close-lipped. Unfortunately, his reserve works so well I could only muster some token sympathy and curiosity for what I imagined someone in his (vaguely) difficult situation must be going through. On the other hand, he's quite outspoken about his disdain for the Welsh, never hesitates to verbally lash a "servant" if she doesn't instinctively revere his precious photographs, and holds about 10 ml of respect for his father.

Then there's Gwyn, my darling Gwyn. I liked him best of all and it is his and Roger's privy thoughts to which readers are given the most access. He has a temper (wonder where he got it from? Couldn't say), an anguished, feebly returned attraction for Alison and an inherited connection to a centuries old myth, the reverberations of which could be fatal. He's ambitious, intelligent and resourceful. He's quite proud so when he willingly bares his vulnerabilities to Alison you can't help but melt. (Ok, I can't help it.) He thinks his mother hates him, and he never knew his father! You just want to hug him up. (Ok, I do.)

Lest you think he's perfect he also has a penchant for picking up a thing or two (or five) that don't belong to him. (Garner admirably resists moralising his behaviour or going to painstaking lengths to present it in as sympathetic a light as possible -- he puts it out there and you make of it what you will.) He's insolent to everyone and anyone at any moment, young or old. As a Jamaican perhaps I find this sort of thing more shocking as I find adult-child relationships here far more...casual, let's say, that I'm used to. It's not even deference I require here -- out of sheer frustration with the Halfbacon's seeming lack of corporation in solving the owl plate mystery Gwyn walks right up and kicks the rake out from under him; and I just couldn't buy that one would do something so physically aggressive for that reason. (Good thing he didn't have a taser -- Halfbacon would have had a heart attack by page 60 and then where would they be?) There are little moments like this peppered throughout the book in which characters show a basic lack of disregard for each other: it gave the book a general antagonistic, unpleasant tone. (I would not reread it again.)

But, but, but -- beyond characterisation I found the thematic development, the writing style and the reworking of the myth in the contemporary setting fairly excellent (despite the objections earlier comments implied). Garner is not the sort of author to lay all of his cards on the table. Plot points are revealed in indirectly, relationships are established in silent scenes, such as when Gwyn and Alison, near the beginning of the book, met each other in the hall, exchanged silent looks until she joined Clive and Roger, while Gwyn stalked into the kitchen to lower his head and grip the counter.

Garner also doesn't bother with what he judges as unnecessary description. I'm used to a more expansive writing style where movements and setting is told in some detail. In one scene Huw told Gwyn to descend from a tree in order to search for something underground -- in the very next line we read Gwyn's response after looking for it. Not one is used to describe the climb. Garner only describes rooms when entered and only goes into detail if it's helps to establish a certain mood or develop a point. Scenes that one would not have been surprised if they were included, like Gwyn writing and leaving Alison notes (or even a line or two about him thinking of it), are relayed second hand. Even the dialogue often had this abbreviated quality in which I felt gaps of information were missing even though the characters were on top of everything.

It's an appreciable change from the sort of books where the the effect is reversed and reader is the one with close to omniscient knowledge and the characters are the ones struggling, or both reader and character are armed with comparable knowledge of the conflict. Perhaps the most singular feature that built this experience was the notable absence of the author in the novel. It's one of the most limited third-person narratives I've ever read. Garner strictly keeps himself to minute descriptions of scene and action and let's the characters move the story along. No hand-holding here. In a sense it's a very generous kind of writing and is perfectly suited to show just how divergent reader reactions can be to the same book.

Final verdict? I appreciate The Owl Service but I don't like it. It's a demanding read and has the sort of flaws that cry out for engagement rather than in despair. For such a little thing it manages to contain a lot of meat to pick over and is, in that sense, not unlike Mercé Rodoreda's stories. Thanks so much, Ann, for recommending this read.

Cross-posted at The Books of My Numberless Dreams


Rebecca H. said...

I agree completely about appreciating but not liking this book. There's a lot to think about, which is fun, so I don't mind not liking it. And I like your points about women -- I was thinking along those lines too but got tired of writing my post and didn't include it -- but I thought the women got a really bad deal in this novel. "Alison is little more than a passive conduit for nature's desire to have things set aright, and must be saved." -- yeah, that's it.

Stefanie said...

Imani, excellent assessment. I had the same reaction to the book as your first read. I didn't read it a second time though. Maybe if I did I would have liked it better. Don't know. I liked Gwyn best too. Perhaps because he was the most rounded of all the characters.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Imani, for such a thoughtful and insightful reading. Like you, I want to like Gwyn best, but then there is the ending.....! If there is one point where I wonder if Garner is imposing himself it is there. With memories of that time still reasonably clear in my mind I have to ask if there isn't a certain amount of English stereotyping of the Welsh as a race that can't let go of the past and bear a grudge against the English that goes back to Anglo-Saxon days.

Imani said...

Dorothy, you know, I don't think I ever even had those kind of reading experiences until I started my blog -- where I don't like a book but it's still fun to think about it.

Honestly, the female thing didn't really hit me over the head until I started writing the post, which is why it kinda went on and on there.

Stefanie, thanks! After reading everyone's reactions, I'm not sure if you would. At the beginning I thought I was a thick-headed ninny for not getting a YA book in one reading, but I see that it's not entirely my fault.

I'm really curious about how children react to this book. (Litlove mentions not liking it when she was younger.) I remember YA blogs discussing whether M.T. Anderson's Life of Octavian appealed to adults more than children, and it seems an even more apt description to Owl Service. Maybe the UK kids would get the dialogue better though...(that really blocked me the first time).

Ann, oh, I was determined to wrestle this book down to the ground. ;) I find your readings from a socio-cultural perspective very informative and provocative. Now that you've mentioned it,it does read in a more awkward light.

Maybe that's also a part of the weird tension I found with how Garner balanced the nationality issue. At times it seemed as if he were indirectly trying to undercut the English's condescending attitude of the Welsh, but really all you have to pin such things on is Gwyn and in the end it's Roger and Ali with him on the outside supposedly filled with hate.

I wonder if there's been any critical studies done on it, as they like to do for His Dark Materials, since The Owl Service seems to be highly regarded on your side of the pond?

I found a kind of reversal of that in a book by a (Caucasian) American author. She used her African-American character as a mouth-piece for all her opinions on what it should *really* mean to be black in the USA. (But it was fine, you know, because the character was black!) The transparency was both sad and amusing.

litlove said...

This is just a fabulous reading, Imani, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. That Nancy is a one, isn't she? I was hoping she'd come to some horrible end as she struggled off over the mountains on her own, but sadly, Garner didn't give us that scene! I loved Gwyn too, and just felt for him at the end when he had been wounded too deeply to rise to the task of saving Alison.

Imani said...

Litlove, I actually felt sorry for her -- for whatever reason I was sure there was a more reasonable woman toiling under Garner's pen, trying to break free.