Monday, 21 March 2011

View from the Goldfish Bowl: review of Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Gil Adamson and True Things About Me, Deborah Kay Davies

Voice-driven narrative is what I thought I liked. It's what Alcemi, my fiction imprint ( was seeking among the writers of Wales. Forget theme, forget plot, forget setting and dramatic interaction: character as conveyed by voice is what counts. That is what drives a classic such as Vernon God Little – a distinctive narrator and viewpoint that ideally (to my mind) is slightly na├»ve, a bit behind the action panning out backstage in the wider world and certainly slower to cotton on to the drift of things than the reader. That is what I thought I liked.

A first person narrative, then, such as Deborah Kay Davies' debut novel, for Canongate, True Things About Me, should have been a personal dead cert, allowing me to chime in with voices claiming this novel could have won the next Wales Book of the Year Award, had its author not been one of the prize's current judges (a selfless move on her part, coming after her winning last year for short story collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful). It is a brief novel bolstered by wide margins, happy to be constrained by one mind-set, few characters or settings and a claustrophobic scenario of a woman surprised to catch herself in acts of increasingly compulsive, humiliating, plein air and sadomasochistic sex with a stranger. True Things About Me also has distinctive literary style in buckets. So far, so good, and a strain of female-gothic right up my street.

However, it was when I came to read another first person novella presented as a novel, Help Me, Jacques Cousteau by Canadian Gil Adamson, that I saw how both authors were attending to voice at the expense of width and depth of characterisation, creating a rather cloying, narcissistic world in whose fate I quickly ceased to care.

Help Me, Jacques Cousteau is Adamson's first written work of fiction, appearing this year for the first time in the UK following awards for her first novel, The Outlander, including the International Association of Crime Writers' Dashiell Hammet Prize. Protagonist Hazel is rather handily given a superpower allowing her to hear through walls, thus allowing her perceptions to range beyond the immediate. These experiences, however, from being an infant on board ship from Australia to Canada, to herself as a young woman taking solace – just like Davies' heroine – in sex with random men, are most convincing when they are personal, visual and sensual. One instance is the recurring imagery conveying Hazel's passive view of her neighbourhood as through aquarium glass, binoculars or a ship's porthole. Things happen: her brother doesn't speak for a good while following her parents' separation; the siblings fish-sit for their neighbour Mrs Draper who may or may not be having an affair with a young man who may or may not be her son; Hazel craves her dad's attention, and we see him being over-involved with a kooky set of sketchily drawn brothers and their rotating wives and ladyfriends. The mother is either absent or ignored for much of the time which is probably the missing heart of this book. But there is little artistry in the lack of plot, and less in terms of emotional motivation or perception. Hazel's empty musing, “I'm considering my brother... and I'm wondering: do I have some kind of problem seeing the impossible for what it is?” shows the author seeking refuge in generalising when she could have shown exactly the what and why of Hazel's emotional ailments. It is fine for an author to share with us their main character's alienated mindset but we do need to take home some specifics of dysfunction, not just blanket malaise.

Narcissism, passivity, promiscuity and a tendency to miss the mark when describing emotional states are what characterise the heroines of both Davies' and Adamson's novellas. Both are alienated and inhabit isolated worlds, and so it is right for their viewpoint to capture those underwater refractions. This reader, however, began to get the bends and long for the air circulating in bigger books with a wider dramatic scope. For once, I'll take the bird's eye view over the goldfish bowl.

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