torsdag 28 juni 2012

A novel without a hero

Finally done with Strindberg, I'm now at liberty to wallow in a superior bodice-ripper, Through A Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen. Yep, the one with Dark Angels and the ace poisoner. I admit I purchased Through a Glass Darkly mainly in the hope that it would contain at least one more attractive villain. When an author has proved a flair for villain-creating, there is often more to be had.

And yes, the villain in Through A Glass Darkly isn't bad at all - when he finally shows up. It's a huge door-stopper of a novel, and there's nothing wrong with that. But door-stopper novels must have pace: the format shouldn't be an excuse for long-windedness. We know that the novel's heroine Barbara Alderley will marry Roger Montgeoffrey, Earl of Devane from early on, and it's with this marriage that the plot thickens and Barbara's troubles really begin. There is no excuse to spin out the preliminaries to the match for 280 pages or so. The endless descriptions of rooms, gardens, London streets etc. also tried my patience. I can understand, if you have had to read up a lot on a period (the novel is set in early 18th-century England and France), that you want your readers to share some of the knowledge which you've laboriously acquired. And reading up on a subject is a labour - never trust an author who insists that it's the most fun part of a writing project. Nevertheless, in my view, historical novels should put the "novel" part first and the "historical" second. The historical background should mainly make itself felt when it is instrumental to the plot. The interior of someone's house is only interesting if it sheds light on the character in question. It's impressive that the author knows just which coffee house you went to in 18th-century London to hear political or financial or legal gossip - but I don't necessarily have to know.

I'm aware that other readers have another opinion, though: which is why, when I read enthusiastic reviews of novels when this-and-that period "is brought throbbingly to life", my heart sinks a bit. It usually means lots and lots of period detail, from elegant velvet hangings to smelling sewers. However, there's plenty of intrigue and gossip in Through A Glass Darkly to help the period-perfect medicine go down. And when the villain finally strides in on page 390, the scene is set for an original plot-twist. The plot where the hero and villain both love  (the concept being very loosely defined in the villain's case) the same girl is well-known. This time around, it's the heroine and villain who are both smitten with the hero!

Though I'm not sure it's correct to call Roger a hero. I don't think I overstate the case when I say that it is hard to retain sympathy for a supposed hero who angrily admonishes his wife's brother for having attacked his (the hero's) male lover. We are told time and again about Roger's "fatal charm", but he seems better at seeming urbane and at ease himself than at putting others at their ease. What remains is his good looks, for what they're worth. But is it really worth trying to capture the heart of someone with such eclectic taste as to prefer a big, hulking, scarred ex-soldier in his forties one minute and a slim, golden-haired, fifteen-year-old girl the next? At this point in the novel, I have no idea whether Barbara and Roger will manage to make a go of it in the end or whether I even want them to. But the big surprise is why Philippe the villain feels he has to bother with an indecisive rosbif. He may not be up to Henri Ange standards, but surely he can do better.