Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Canvey Island by James Runcie

All right, so here it is. The book that derailed my healthy reading pace and kept my January reading numbers firmly in "look at this and want to jump off a bridge" range. It came in the mail and it was all new and sparkly and it smelled good and it had a cover and pages that were thicker and more pleasing to the touch than your average ARC. Even those things would not normally be enough to divert me from my standard purposes, but then it started with this paragraph (and no, I haven't checked it against the completed work - sorry):

I know the fear of death is always with us but sometimes it can disappear for days. You don't think about it when your wife is coming to bed and she takes off her nightgown and you're excited by her nakedness even if you have been married a long time. You don't think about it when your child gives you a smile that you know is meant only for you or when the sea is dead calm and you're out fishing with no one to trouble you. You don't think about death, of course you don't, it never crosses your mind, but then back it comes, far too soon, telling you not to be so cocky, don't think this is going to last, mate, this is all the happiness you're going to get and you should be grateful I didn't come before.

Yeah, I know, right? It's a pretty good paragraph, so tantalizing in fact, that in a weak moment I cast aside my barely started copy of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a book that is apparently actually really good, in favor of James Runcie's Canvey Island freshly arrived after being awarded to me by Library Thing Early Reviewers in, I believe, November. Oh, but let's stem the tide of my mild bitterness and get on with the "real" review.

Canvey Island is, primarily, the story of Martin Turner, who, as a young boy, lost his mother to a deadly flood while his father and aunt were away dancing on the mainland. The moment his mother is in the ground, Martin's father and Aunt Violet become a little too close than seems decent. All of this, of course, leaves an indelible impression on young Martin who soon decides that his chief end in life will be to "stop water." Single-minded in the pursuit of this goal, Martin departs for Cambridge to study water engineering forsaking his girlfriend Linda, the only real love he has ever known since his mother passed. Afraid that loving someone so much will only lead to more heartache if she were ever lost to him and caught up in his ambitions for the future away from the island, Martin turns his back on Linda in favor of another girl who rivals his ambition in her own way. Claire is a rebellious vicar's daughter whose commitment to feminism, social change, and one especially notable peace camp rally trumps her commitment to Martin and their daughter Lucy. Each ceaselessly driven by their ever-elusive goals, the two drive each other away, and Martin ultimately finds himself back on Canvey Island, the very place that he was so desperate to leave behind, seeking the same things that eluded him even in the wider world.

For a guy who lost his mother at a tender young age only to find his father getting together with his shallow, somewhat irritating aunt, Martin was a remarkably unsympathetic character. The rather stiff, over-literary writing style peppered with moments of unrealistic overthinking on the parts of the narrators seems designed to prevent one's ever getting close to the characters but for a few unexpected moments, none of which take place in Martin's narration. All of these characters should be sympathetic. They've lost their sister, their wife, their mother. They don't understand their places in the world. They made decisions in war time that might have caused unnecessary death. Their husbands love other women much more than they love their wives. These are people living lives that are average but hard, lives that might easily speak to our own experiences, and in most other books their plights would speak to readers' hearts, but these narrators, for the most part, seem so very hollow.

Speaking of narration then, let's talk for a moment about narrators. Canvey Island has a bunch of them, around six, it seems, of varying importance and strikingly little differentiation in the voices. When done with flair and pizazz, multiple narrators can be great and give an amazing depth to characters and plot alike as in another "island" book Small Island by Andrea Levy. Unfortunately, though, it seems more often that authors undertaking to present the points of view of a vast array of narrators confuse readers and fail to even give one of them a unique and convincing voice. Such is the case with Canvey Island. Present are the points of view of Martin, his wife Claire, his lover Linda, his Uncle George, his Aunt Violet, and his father, Len. Their voices aren't ever especially different, and the narration appears to change for no apparent reason and to no apparent benefit. Cases in point are chapters when Runcie switches between Martin and say, Linda, midway through a conversation. You note, of course, that the beginning of the section is marked "Linda," but find that you're totally baffled at the accumulating "I saids" and "He saids" that pervade the mostly dialogue-based chapter in which the narrator is of little consequence anyway. To be quite frank, Martin and his family and his problems and total inability to ever be fulfilled by anything were, well, boring.

Canvey Island has an interesting premise, a beautiful cover, and just the sort of first paragraph that would scream "take me home" if you happened upon it while browsing bookstore shelves. Unfortunately, the story itself fails to live up to its great promise.

Okay, so, I realize this is probably one of the more ornery reviews I've written in quite some time, so if you happen to review this book more positively than I have (or even just as negatively as I have), do leave a link and I'll be happy to post it and give people a contrasting viewpoint to this, um, unhappy outpouring. Perhaps it's that I'm feeling particularly blunt this week which I'm a bit afraid is going to get me in trouble in more places than one... Anyhow, it looks like the jury's still out on this one with the public at large, but the folks from some British periodicals apparently quite liked it - though by and large their praise seems to include some variation on the theme of "understated" which is quite right, in my opinion, except for not in an especially good way.


  1. Excellent review and very well written. I don't know the author and not sure I would like to read the book, but you sure wrote a good review! Thanks.

  2. Sorry to hear this one's not so good.

  3. Oh Megan, you're just too cute! I agree with Louise...your review was wonderful. After all, there's no law that says you have to enjoy every book you read, right?

  4. That first paragraph would make me want to read it too.

  5. Well, now I'm depressed. I got this book too, even though I don't remember requesting it, and I've been nervous about it - now I'm pretty sure I'm not gonna like it. Can I just copy your review?? =)

  6. Thanks, Louise. It's hard writing these negative reviews, but at least I've done a good job of it! ;-)

    Bermuda, not as sorry as I was. LOL!

    Thanks, Debi. It's a good thing there's not law that says you have to enjoy every book you read (I'd be a repeat offender), but it *would* be nice if every book I read was enjoyable!

    Jo - Yes! Isn't it great? I so wish the book would have carried on in that way instead of how it did!

    Elizabeth - Aw, don't be depressed! Who knows? You may like it and give me a nice contrasting viewpoint to link to! It wouldn't be the first time that I'd have had a vastly different reaction to a book than, you know, pretty much everybody. But if not, sure go ahead and copy my review. LOL! ;-)

  7. Wow Megan, excellent review. You really know how to express yourself. So sorry to hear the book fell flat. It does sound promising from the description.

    I added the link to the ARC Challenge post.