One after the other reviews extolling the perfection of Maggie O’Farrell’s latest and most ambitious novel come rolling in. I appear to be out of kilter with general consensus though.
What was I missing? 1) The emotional engagement I had with Esme Lennox and 2) a novel that turned the pages of its own accord.
This will surprise many – it surprised me, particularly as the first chapter is simply hilarious, one of the best first chapters I’ve read in ages. And the following chapters, establishing the stories and tragedies of Daniel, his ex-film star wife, Claudette, and their immediate family pulled me in. There is something profound and sympathetic about the flawed characters in this book, and it is this honesty that is the novel’s greatest strength.
Somewhere around page 250, though, I found myself wondering whether to read to the end. I did, but reluctantly.
It didn’t help that I wasn’t as in love with Claudette as Daniel (though I did mellow towards her in the final third of the novel).
I did tire of the “technically dazzling” (Guardian) structure. O’Farrell tells this story of mental and marital breakdown from the point-of-view of no less than 7 different characters. (There may be more, but I can name 7 off-hand.) These narratives are not told in chronological sequence. Episodic incidents shuttle back and forth through time. Secrets revealed in one chapter unfold in minute detail 100-150 pages later. Obviously the events aren’t of prime importance, the impact of those events on the minds of the characters is. I have nothing against working the reader like this per se, nor of the post-modern inserting of a museum catalogue of the ex-film star’s artifacts or of an interview with her former film director partner. But the resulting repetitions do extend the length of the novel, in my opinion unnecessarily at times. My biggest problem, however, was that in many of the chapters the narrative voices didn’t differentiate themselves sufficiently. (Perhaps this is where listening to the audio book enhances the experience.)
That said, there is some wonderfully perceptive writing. I’ve already commented on the insight of the psychological character studies. I also appreciated the details of the physical tortures caused by eczema (based, if I remember rightly from previous author events, on the experience of the author’s daughter), and must admit that Niall, the eczema sufferer was my favourite character. Landscapes too deserve mention. Whether rural Donegal, or the salt desert of Bolivia, O’Farrell transported me directly to her chosen locations. As for the place of the title, the place that is home, that is for Daniel to decide upon. The novel is, at its core, the telling of his finding it.