Thursday, 16 August 2012

More moving reviews: Beautiful for Ever and Sea of Poppies

The move progresses. I would not say it was done. That would be far too optimistic, and not take into account the extra mattress and bed frame currently reposing in our hallway. This upsets me so much that if someone, at this precise moment, were to ask me which I would prefer, mattress removal or world peace, I would have to really struggle with myself for a long time and I STILL can't guarantee I'd come out for world peace at the end of it.

The good(?) thing is, though, that I now live in a town with a large population of second-hand bookshops. I keep seeing signs that say things like ALL BOOKS 75P, and then my brain short-circuits with delight and I come back to myself five minutes later clutching three history books and the complete works of C. J. Sansom. I also keep nearly buying a complete set of the Forsyte Saga books, even though I know perfectly well that I WILL NEVER READ THE WHOLE OF THE FORSYTE SAGA (except that I might! I could! I could do that instead of getting a job! I COULD JUST SPEND THE REST OF MY LIFE READING AND THAT WOULD BE MARVELLOUS). These are the dilemmas in my life right now.

Anyway. I have read two books. If I'm perfectly honest, neither of them lit up my mind with joy, but they were both extremely comforting in that neither of them were about furniture at all.

Shall we?

First up is Helen Rappaport's Beautiful for Ever. It's the history of Madame Rachel, Victorian quack cosmetician extraordinaire, who rose from the depths of a London slum to become beautician, moneylender and (maybe) pimp to the rich and famous. Madame Rachel was practicising at a time when make-up was frowned upon, and women had no control over their own incomes (if you happen to be a woman, look up the 1882 Married Women's Property Act and bless every one of your lucky stars that it exists), but despite those apparent hindrances she cheerfully managed to become extremely rich. She tricked, coerced and blackmailed her way through several fortunes, and then she got spectacularly done for fraud by a particularly aggrieved customer.

It's an extraordinarily fun story, and one that we're lucky to be able to read at all - according to Rappaport, it had been largely forgotten about before she came across a newspaper mention of the trial hearing and began her investigations. All the same, though, I feel like Madame Rachel might deserve a better narrator. Rappaport is neither an exceptional story-teller or a particularly rigorous academic. She has a slightly lackluster and unimaginative writing style, and what she's got to say feels incomplete and a bit off. Loose ends are left hanging, the thread of the story is dropped and picked up again at random and she leaves out explanations that would have been fascinating.

We never hear, for example, exactly how Rachel carried out her beauty treatments, or what the day-to-day life in her shop was like. Rappaport hints that it might have been used as a brothel, and then doesn't really elaborate. Come on! When you're writing the history of a scandal, there needs to be some scandal. That's why your readers have bought the book. They want to hear juicy things about the Marquis of Gosh and Lord Ooh's daughter frolicking in a canopied bed while people peer at them through the keyhole. I got the sense that those stories might have been there, but for some reason Rappaport decided not to elaborate - and without that her tale falls flat.

Given its material, this book could have been a whole lot better than it was - but it wasn't, and on the basis of what I actually read I have to give it

2.5 stars.

Next, we have Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. It was nominated for the Booker the year that White Tiger won, and I still hear people complaining that Sea of Poppies should have taken it. To which I say: no. No, it should not, because Sea of Poppies is not a particularly great book.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy it. I totally did. It's a big fat comfortable story, with an interesting setting (India in 1838, with the Opium Wars about to kick off) and lots of exciting and slightly awful things happening in it. All the characters start off in unpleasant circumstances, and then more unpleasant events occur, but they are the sort of unpleasant events that leave you knowing in your heart that Everything Will Be OK and everyone will evenually rise through adversity to happiness and riches and lots of attractive babies.

Sea of Poppies could be described as epic in that it's very long (it's the first volume in a proposed trilogy; the second book, River of Smoke, came out last year and the third is presumably gestating) and full of stuff. But unlike fat tomes by, say, Tolstoy or A. S. Byatt, its contents don't stand up particularly well to careful examination. Ghosh's writing is perfectly good, but there are no fireworks of verbal wonder, and if you wipe away all the unpleasant attempts at 'gritty realism' from the book's plot (attempted sexual abuse with a horse; bloody whippings; the consumption of animal dung), you're left with a story that's pretty much all about gooey wish-fulfillment romance.

Appropriately enough, many of the characters have distinct Mary Sue tendencies. Granted, the book is all about people whose life in India is so nasty that they are forced to emigrate to Mauritius, but I found myself marvelling at just how special every one of the characters turned out to be. Several of them have astonishingly coloured eyes, one has prophetic visions, and there is even a free-spirited white girl who just wants to wear saris and learn science. If I was playing Stereotype Bingo she would be a full card all on her own.

But that really doesn't matter. In Sea of Poppies, characters are just there to hang plot on, and it's the plot that keeps you going. I read it so fast that you could have used my eye movements to produce energy, because even though I logically knew that Paulette was going to get on the boat (I kept looking up from my reading to yell SHE IS TOTALLY GOING TO GET ON THE BOAT at my boyfriend) I had to make absolutely sure she did it. I was skim reading so hard that by the end I think I actually saw three words a page, but that was pretty much all I needed (spoiler: she gets on the boat. In other news, the Pope is still Catholic).

Sea of Poppies is pretty much enjoyable highbrow trash, a blockbuster novel for people who like to think of themselves as serious, educated readers but still want a good bit of forbidden love on a boat. And who can blame them? We all like a bit of forbidden love, especially when it is aquatic.

All the same, though, in terms of what the book actually is vs. what was promised to me, I've got to give this

2.5 stars.

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