Questions of meaning: what do we look for in a good novel?

urlAt last, I’ve read the book that was awarded the Miles Franklin in 2013 and several other prizes,  including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction.

Like many other reviewers I’ve checked out on Goodreads, I’m mystified by the awards and the rave reviews. This is a book I wish I hadn’t read. Then why did I? Because I wanted to find out what/if I’d missed out, to find out why respected writers and literary reviewers find it so good. I should have listened to my instinct, to avoid award winning books unless readers I trust recommend them. I’ve had so many disappointments.

I kept reading it because I hoped it would get better, and I hoped to find out what, apart from the artificial linking of the plot, connected the two lives, of Laura (Australian) and of Ravi (Sri Lankan), that are run in counterpoint throughout the novel. The answer is, on one level, the fact that they are both travellers, with no home: one dispossessed by her birth and upbringing, one cast out by the violence of the brutal murder of his wife and child. On another level, as far as I can see, the only connection is the artificial one made by the author. From opposite sides of the world they are finally brought together in the same workplace in Sydney, and have a few encounters in the work car park. Then Laura, in late middle age, lost again, at a loose end, decides to travel to Sri Lanka, and Ravi, after a long wait for asylum in Australia, decides to return home. One wonders if the final encounter, as the pages (so many! 515) of the book run out, will bring some deeper meaning. There is only a watery answer. For those of you, like me, who’ve avoided reading this book so far, or simply overlooked it, I won’t say more on that.

Why do I dislike it? Frankly, dear reader, I was bored a lot of the time, mystified at others, and occasionally engaged by a catching image or a moment of humour or compassion. I was bored by the two-dimensional characters, the flatness of the narrative, the concatenation of events which often seem disconnected, the intrusiveness of bits of information that don’t seem to have any connection with the characters or what is happening to them — like debris of the author’s consciousness. I was alienated by the lack of any vision beyond the emptiness and loneliness underlying the surface of people’s lives. I was bored by the endless trivia of their lives and the world around them, especially of the workplace (publisher of travel books) where Laura and Ravi finally meet. I was bored by all the secondary characters that appear and disappear and are not developed.

I was mystified by the feeling that the author had some overarching plan, intricately worked out, tying all these threads and fragments together, and that it escaped me. What have I missed? Why can I not enjoy what many others claim to enjoy? Beyond this, what makes judges tick? What are they looking for?

I have no answers, but I trust my own judgement. I don’t recommend this book.

So what do I look for in a good contemporary novel? Believable characters and situations, good writing, clarity, a vision of the world which is both familiar and new, and a narrative which allows the characters to develop lives of their own. And surprise, and space for the imagination to work.

What about you?



Filed under what makes a good novel?

3 responses to “Questions of meaning: what do we look for in a good novel?

  1. Like you, I have an ever-growing TBR pile and ever-shrinking time in which to read it—this one’s just been put in the cupboard. Thanks for sharing your honest opinion.

  2. I haven’t read this book but i feel the same way about some books that win these awards, Christina. What makes judges tick? What are they looking for? I have no idea. Most times the runner-up books are far better.

  3. Your review of ‘Questions of Travel’ is another example of your honesty as a reviewer (and editor). I enjoyed reading your well-reasoned opinions and forthright comments..Thanks, Christina.

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