Two book reviews today, since I’ve been lazing through a perfectly lovely vacation and got a bit behind. Four days til 2013!
The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus
In this deeply chilling novel, Ben Marcus imagines a world in which children’s speech, and eventually, all spoken and written language, becomes toxic to adults. All of the prose filters through the narrator’s fog of illness, and the profound isolation of a speechless landscape. In grotesquely compelling detail, Marcus reduces people to shades. We feel alongside them as their organs fail and their skin shrinks.
The philosophical questions posed by the concept of toxic language, and the inventive suffering Marcus conjures, are by far the strengths of the novel. Language and communication are central to our concept of humanity. The novel asks what remains when these supports are removed. It also pushes us to consider the fate of parents whose beloved child’s tantrums or teenager’s rebellious rants literally feel like fatal blows.
Marcus’s world and plot are somewhat vaguer. I wasn’t sure whether to even trust the narrator’s own understanding of his surroundings, especially by the time he’s suffered along to the end of the book. Similarly, some of the sources Marcus draws upon, like hidden Jewish underground prayer huts, and other aspects that become conspiracies by the end, were too confusing for me. But I would still recommend it for Marcus’s masterful language use and original take on the apocalyptic genre.
Girl Reading, Katie Ward
This so-called novel is really a collection of short stories, which in turn reads rather like a talented writer engaging in a creative writing exercise. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant and well-crafted read. Ward has created seven stories that span space and time, each based on a piece of art featuring a woman reading. She sets her chapters in chronological order, beginning in Renaissance Siena and ending in an imagined future. In between, she dips her toes into a 17th century Amsterdam artist’s studio, the widow of an 18th century poet, a Victorian seance, the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, and a bar in 2008. I greatly preferred her historical fiction chapters to the contemporary and science-fiction future pieces, but each one has its nice moments.
There are themes that thread nicely through the chapters, and I do enjoy the conceit of seven paintings and seven moments. Ward develops each setting and cast of characters efficiently in each short piece. I didn’t have to think too hard, and was happy to bound along with Ward as she dabbled here and there. This is a strong first novel, perfect for reading by a window with tea. I expect once Ward chooses a single place to inhabit, she will spin out an excellent full-length tale.