You could say no one is boring if you truly get to know them. But what happens if an author doesn’t really get to know his characters? This novel taught me just how dependent a novel is on its characters. It doesn’t matter how well you can write or even how potentially compelling your story is – if your characters are pasteboard creations without an imaginatively powered inner life they simply won’t animate any circumstance they are led into.
Early on I thought this was going to be a great read. It begins with a Mafioso setpiece: a Sicilian shepherd is told some of his landlord’s sheep will be stolen that night, at the behest of his landlord. The writing is gorgeous. Foulds is brilliant at sentence writing.
Misgivings began when the second and especially the third characters were introduced. Will is an English soldier, a stickler for propriety, the kind of man who gets incensed if people don’t form an orderly queue. Ray is an even more nondescript American infantryman. Soon you begin to suspect Foulds himself wasn’t very inspired by this pair and even the prose began to lose its heightened poetical qualities. Especially dull was the American Ray. I never believed he was American; he was like Mr Nobody from Nowhere. He has no background, no pulse, no inner demons or angels by which to recognise him. He wants to make films but rather in the way children would like to fly. When he’s stationed in Africa I didn’t believe he was in Africa nor did I understand why the novel was in Africa. You have to create a self in order to show it being punctured by the horrors of the war and I’m afraid Ray never had a self for me. When we return to Italy the mafia in the form of a character called Albanese hijacks the novel. Ray meets a movie princess but of course doesn’t get her. Will is now a Field Security Officer but will be helpless to hold back the tide of corruption of the old order. Foulds suggests the mafia is more deeply rooted and enduring in Sicily than any political system. And that’s about it.
Shame because Foulds has the sensibility of a poet and at his best writes thrilling searing sentences. I think maybe he chose the wrong material here.