Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Innocents - an odd sandwich

The Innocents by Francesca Segal (Vintage: 2013) Following the lives being lived in a Jewish enclave of North London, centred around Adam and Rachel, a young couple hurtling towards marriage until Ellie (Rachel’s prodigal cousin) comes on the scene and threatens to turn everything upside down.
Hmmmm, ok. I went on a bit of a turnaround with this book. I was pretty sold on it for a long time. I was humming along quite nicely, entertained by the story and the people and the world they lived in. And I’d pretty much decided this was a book I was going to enjoy; another high score for 2013, and a deserving winner of the Costa First Novel Award.
But then something pretty unprecedented happened. About three quarters through., I completely changed my mind. That’s pretty rare, no matter what you’re talking about – books, food, tv, whatever.
It’s like I had this great sandwich. A real piece of work that I was loving. I’d finished half of it and I picked the second half up with dripping mouth and wide eyes. I even continued to enjoy it, right up until I had about a quarter left.
Then it got all rubbish, and I spat the rest out. And I wondered what on earth I could have seen in the first half of the sandwich that got me going so much.
I know. That doesn’t happen, right? That’s complete make-believe. Good sandwiches are good – all the way through. But with this book, it happened.
I enjoyed it. A bunch. Then I didn’t.
I look back on the bits I enjoyed, and I see the flaws now. The plotting seems contrived. The protagonist is a twerp. Most of the supporting cast are cartoons.
But let’s give credit where it’s due. All of this was hidden from me for a while. Why? I think it’s because the writing is so good. Segal is talented, no doubt. Like mad talented. The writing is so tight and easy to read. I’ve heard time and again that the best writers make you forget they’re there, and that’s what Segal achieves here. She writes so well that you just experience the story, and don’t get distracted by anything else.
Also, the stage is pretty good. It’s a window on a whole community that I know very little about, and seeing how it works and the characters that drive it got me hooked for a while.
But then it all fell apart. The plot is driven by the ongoing moral dilemma of the protagonist who, (and I’m giving nothing away here that you won’t get from the dust jacket), is faced with a choice between a safe, lovely life and rocking the boat by running off with his wife’s cousin. It’s an interesting dilemma, but not one that I want to hear too much about. I found myself bored of it and of him. I wanted to tell him to get something done already. All the hmming and harrring – I really stopped caring. And once I stopped caring about that, all the other cracks started to appear as well.
Where does that leave us? Well, I’m not going to tell you this is a bad book. It isn’t. It’s well written. It has a good premise. And if you have a bit more patience than I do for the emotional dilemmas of others, then you could probably convince yourself it’s got a good plot as well. But I tripped towards the end of it, and all I was thinking during the last few pages was what I was going to read next.
In my mind, I was book-cheating on it already.
Above average, but only just.
Next week, well I’m not sure. What am I, a fortune teller? Get away from me.

No comments: