This is literary fiction with big black bold capitals. Sometimes literary fiction can be defined as telling a story through oblique methods, filtering it through more than one prism. Done well this can be an ingenious device that opens up multiple levels of the story, a way of making the present answer to the past, one narrator finding clarity in relation to another. Not done so well and it can come across as pretentious obfuscation, sterile auditing or plain over ambition, like a pole vaulter choosing to open his competition at a height he has never in his life jumped. For me this novel was a slightly uneasy balancing act at times – straining just a bit too hard to be unerringly profound, sagging at times under the weight of its relentless clutter of forced symbolism.
At the heart of this novel is a fabulous story with compelling characters and big important themes. It’s conventionally written and it’s supremely powerful as narrative. We are given a piece of Canadian history. The Woodman family found a timber and ship-building empire on an island where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River. This involves cutting down all the island’s trees and changing the topography of the landscape. The pursuit of material riches by successive members of this family will do catastrophic damage to the ecology of the island. The author peoples a microcosm of manmade environmental damage with tremendously engaging characters and conflicts. But the author gives this story another existence. How it reaches us in the modern day. And all the problems for me were with the modern day characters, all of whom seemed like constructs rather than living plausible people.
The novel begins when an artist on a retreat discovers the body of a man frozen in ice. Anthony Woodman, it turns out, had Alzheimer’s and returned home. He was a landscape geographer; the artist who finds him is a photographer who imaginatively reconstructs how landscape might once have looked. Anthony’s lover, Sylvia gets in touch with the artist after reading about the body preserved in ice in the newspaper. She’s essentially an unhappy housewife but to make her more interesting, more profound, she’s given an unnamed mental health condition – a kind of combination of OCD and agoraphobia (her real problem, if you ask me, is she doesn’t have a sense of humour). She builds texture maps for a friend who is blind. Basically we now have three people engaged in an almost identical (and wholly obscure) occupation, the first sign of how overcharged this novel will be of symbolical synchronicity. Less really is often more. The multi-layering of the same motif can be a form of insecurity rather than a sign of unanimity of purpose. Often there was a lack of subtlety in the design of this novel as if the author was continually seduced by images she couldn’t bear not to insert even though they duplicated other images. I could never fathom out how these texture maps worked or why there was a blind character in this novel, except that we equate blindness with spiritual profundity and spiritual profundity seemed the author’s default setting in this novel. (It’s likely Anthony Doerr got some of his ideas for All the Light from this book – blindness, the models, agoraphobia, except he uses them for purposes of dramatic tension and not as somewhat hollow emblems of spiritual complexity). When Sylvia goes to see Jerome, the artist, we learn about her affair with the dead man. Another problem I had was that the author never acknowledges her depiction of romantic love is essentially adolescent. Sylvia’s pious descriptions of her exalted relationship with Andrew is merely the experience all of us have when in love. I needed a bit more irony here. She’s describing what’s essentially a commonplace experience but as if she’s been singled out for some rare and historic achievement. At this point I was asking myself why does this novel need Sylvia? Or if it does why not simply portray her as an unhappy housewife who finds salvation through love – why does she have to have this affliction that sets her apart as otherworldly? At this point this novel really needed to be brought down to earth for me. Her husband, the only down to earth character in the modern part of the novel, is merely sketched in as a pantomime villain. For one thing the presence of Sylvia determines that the story at the heart of this novel reaches us through notebooks, a hackneyed device. Broadly speaking, the novel is about our vain attempts to preserve the past. The presence of the notebooks contradicts this premise.
Anyway, we then get by far the best part of this novel – the account of the Woodman family. The narrative here takes the form of a conventional historical novel (it resembles in form no notebook I’ve ever seen so the notebook motif seems gratuitous). In this part of the narrative we get the sprightly humour and mischief that was missing in the over-earnest overcharged modern part of the novel. We get characters we can identify with who are likeable and, more importantly, plausible unlike the thematic constructs which serve as characters of the modern part.
Finally, I realise this is a harsh review because there was much more to like than dislike about this novel and I’m going to read another of her novels. It would be easy to imagine her in a creative writing class with Michael Ondaatje as her teacher but ignoring his advice not to get led astray by arresting images or clutter her narrative with symbolical signposts.