Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tepper's The Margarets a deeply moral work; Petterson's I Curse the River of Time falls flat

Book 68: The Margarets by Sheri Tepper

The Margarets by Sheri Tepper is a sprawling book featuring one protagonist who is really seven characters (or seven protagonists who are really one character), an assortment of minor characters, numerous alien races and equally numerous planetary settings.

Yet somehow -- well, we know how, Tepper is a vastly talented writer -- Tepper keeps all the plates spinning and delivers a thoroughly suspenseful, thoroughly satisfying read. The Margarets stands alongside some of her finest work -- Grass, The Gates to Women's Country and The Family Tree.

The Margarets is about the efforts of a shadowy collection of cat-like aliens, humans and minor god to save the human race by giving humankind a racial memory. The only way this can be done is by fulfilling an ancient prophecy that "one road is seven roads, walked simultaneously by one creature." Hence, the Margarets, seven individuals spawned from one young girl who begins her life on the Martian satellite, Phobos.

The Margarets
is a work of vast imagination. And, like the best of Tepper's writing, it is also a deeply moral work, exploring the boundaries between good and evil inhabited by the human race.

Book 69: A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

Listen closely. These are words I do not often use. I was wrong. In writing about Louise Penny's first book, Still Life, I indicated that this new series, set in Canada, would feature Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté. And that is true, some of the paperback editions of this series proclaim that it is A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel.

But . . . I did not go far enough, because these novels are also about the small Canadian village of Three Pines. (Other paperback editions of the series proclaim that the book is a Three Pines Mystery.) Each murder has occurred in Three Pines and at least a half dozen of its villagers have been recurring figures in the two mysteries I have read so far.

Now that the record is straight on to A Fatal Grace.

I liked Still Life quite a bit, but was disappointed with A Fatal Grace in its early pages. Or so I thought. Actually the book's murder victim, who is alive in the first 50-odd pages, is such an annoying and unlikeable person that I was reacting to her, not Penny's work. Once the murder takes place and Gamache enters the scene, we have a delightful and diverting mystery.

Book 70: I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

Amazing, isn't it, how themes so often appear in our reading. I disliked a character in Louise Penny's mystery and it affected my entire outlook of the novel until she exited.

In much the same way, a character's personality has a negative influence on Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time. If we're going to compare books, and that is inevitable, I think, then I Curse the River of Time is not in the same league as Out Stealing Horses, the superb novel that introduced most Americans to Petterson's writing.

The problem is Arvid Jansen, the book's narrator. Arvid is 37, but as his mother observes, "I wouldn't call him a grown-up. That would be an exaggeration."

Arvid is attempting to come to terms with the knowledge that his mother has cancer and little time to live. This is difficult for Arvid because there is a long-standing emotional distance between him and his mother, largely because Arvid is immature and self-centered. His fascination with Communism, his refusal to further his college education and his impending divorce all serve to make him a disappointment to his mother. Since being a disappointment to one's mother is something we've all experienced to one degree or another, this should make Arvid a sympathetic figure. It doesn't.

Petterson is a skillful and insightful writer, but in this book that seems to work against him. Arvid is such a vivid character and the tone that Petterson has built is so unrelentingly bleak that the reader feels compelled to keep the book at some distance. As with Arvid and his mother, the reader cannot make an emotional connection with the writer.

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