Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stephen Marche, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, 2007.

It’s taken me a long time to come to blog about this book. My normal pattern is to blog quickly; this site is, after all, a reading journal, and I’m trying to catch first thoughts and initial impressions rather than trying to write careful reviews or essays.

I think this book is particularly challenging to write about because I enjoyed it and disliked it. It’s very clever: it purports to be an anthology of fiction (and some criticism) by the North Atlantic island of Sanjania, edited by Marche. By the time you’ve finished reading it, you have a very good sense of what life was like on the island (through at least to the 1960s, when you start to have a sense of what emigrant experience is like). Some of the stories are better than others, but they’re all at least interesting, and so the book held my attention, despite being read across a couple of weeks.

If you have a degree in English, you’re likely to have read such an anthology (of a non-fictional place’s literature), at some point, and the tone of Marche’s editor’s voice and notes is spot on. The stories work together, and reflect a care of selection: indeed, Marche says in one interview that he wrote many more stories, and that this work really is an anthology.

The problem is that the conceit wears thin. [A friend responded to me describing it in a phrase I’m loathe to repeat, but the essence was him suggesting that only pretentious CanLit types would ever pick up the book in a first place. It’s a fair cop.] As intriguing a place as Sanjania is, with its capital city and remote, isolated cove towns—and I would dearly like to visit it—the fiction isn’t sufficiently captivating. The book, ultimately, is not one I expect I will reread, unlike his brilliant first novel, Raymond and Hannah. So. Give this one a miss.