Posted June 14, 2007on:
I’ve been writing that word a lot at the bottom of pages in Sarah Hall’s Electric Michelangelo. Or I’ve wanted to but I’ve only done it thrice
Hall has a very lush, exuberant, luxurious writing style. Rarely can she restrain herself to literal descriptions of characters or events without conjuring the most colourful, exaggerated, peculiar metaphors or imagery, often managing both. At first I did not mind. Her story is set in Morecambe Bay, a northern seaside English town that is generally seen as a second-rate Blackpool except by Morecambe residents. It is a historical novel, technically, set in the early 20th century during WWI, but Hall’s descriptions do not seem overtly rooted in dry research. She infuses the town and its people with an abundant verve that highlights the story’s fictionality. (That’s actually a word! Ha.) It is the way she depicts the behaviour and habits of the townspeople and visitors that conveys its realism.
So, I should be enjoying this and, around the first 40 pages, I was. I hiccuped on an outlandish, melodramatic line here and there, but sometimes it worked. I thought it had a purpose anyway. Cy and his mother live in a hotel that she runs, that often doubles as a sanatorium because the majority of her house guests have TB or other kinds of lung or bronchial related illnesses. They come to Morecambe because it’s believed that the fresh sea air has curative properties (of a vague, but psychologically helpful nature). The typical tourist is from a working class family, his job usually carried out in mines. I thought that Hall meant to serve her explicit, fanciful descriptions of everything from sexual desire to phlegm slopping in buckets as a contrast to the pragmatic, stark reality of the working class visitors. She is clearly sympathetic to their rough, damaging lifestyles where they work so hard for little money, with little chance of diversion and no health care. The annual trip these people make to Morecambe when they can is a necessary bright spot in their lives.
Beyond that it was probably a lot of fun to write and should be fun to read. I certainly thought so at the beginning. But sometimes it’s too much. Sometimes a fire is just a fire, a quiet moment with your mother watching the northern lights is nothing but a moment. An author needs to decide what she’s going to make “special” and leave everything else a little ordinary or find a way to make everything lush without knocking me over the head with adjectives before every other noun and saccharine phrasing.
My first example is the burning down of an entertainment venue called the Taj Mahal in the middle of the night in March. Before, the reader has been regaled with all the strange but pleasant diversions that took place there, bands and dancing, acrobats, bad stand-up comedians and so on. Now the townsfolk are out in the middle of the night watching all of it being destroyed, a singular event for them. It takes a picturesque turn when snow starts to fall and they all marvel, Cy and his friend in particular.
Fire itself would have been incendiary beauty enough for one evening. But then it snowed. First it snowed lightly, a flake or two on the heads of the bemused onlookers, like winter waving a handkerchief from a distant carriage of a train, taking it away. Somebody close to Cy in the crowd cheered, presuming the fire would extinguish the blaze, as if one tear could put out the fire of a tormented heart! (Emphasis mine.)
It doesn’t help that in the paragraph before one was treated to a description of the crowd moving “as if hypnotized, swaying quickly but thickly, like the frantic slowness towards the end of strong dream” — I actually like that line, it’s not bad — the shore at low tide was compared to an “apron of a stage” and a part of the burning building was a “biblical vision”. Biblical! Well, one can’t top that, can one.
I’ll give you a different example. Realistic child protagonists, if realism is what you’re going for, are not easy to write IMO. If you’re going to show things from their perspective it needs to sound authentic. It’s a third person narrative so Hall is allowed to make her own observations directly but she tends to mesh them together with Cy’s thoughts, or that’s how it reads to me, and it’s done for nothing but to indulge herself in close to maudlin commentary. In other words she starts to describe a scene from Cy’s point of view, then abruptly veers into the kind of contemplation that a young boy is hardly capable of. It’s not clear (to me) how old he is in the section I’m about to quote from, I only know it’s during the war; he was born in 1907 and at page 60, my current reading spot, it is 1918.
In people’s eyes there were strange lights that Cy had never seen before. Often it was a sad luminescence, weary with grief, light in a minor key, like the death-glow of the moon when it’s left behind in the winter day sky, stranded long after night has departed. Sometimes, as in the eyes of the White Lund women, the lights were new and budding, as useful as a fresh stars emerging against a world of blackness.
Maybe I’m being too picky but this sort of thing happens too often. My experience with YA literature, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or more recently The Land of Spices has had authors who made good use of their child protagonists. I mean if you’re going to have one, use him, rather than have him bopping around while you wrangle with portentous phrasing. Here’s another of him watching the aurora borealis with his mother that occurred even further back.
Cyril Parks left himself then…Perhaps it was holding his mother’s hand at the window as though she were a guide, neither witch nor window nor angel at that moment, but simply a guide on the wasteland sand of the shore, and when she took her hand softly away from his, he felt arrived.
That’s a perfectly fine realisation to come to if Parks is 30+ years old, reminiscing on lovely past moments but that ain’t a kid’s thoughts. It irritates me more because there are moments when she gets him exactly and you think yes, that is how he would look at it, and it’s far from banal. I could be misunderstanding her. Perhaps she’s not interested in showing things from his perspective. She is the master painter and will overlay her view on everyone and it will be more her experience than anyone else’s. Which is fine, I guess, but be consistent, or it looks like you simply can’t turn down an opportunity to add to my overflowing cup of flowery phrases.
I haven’t gotten to the worst yet! This upcoming one is the absolute worst, so far. The young boys about to enter puberty are at some parade at which girls are skimping around in bikinis, grimly smiling in the chilly weather, all nipply.
Cy and every other come-of-age lad in town of such proclivity marvelled at the show, which was nice and naughty at once, and stirred a new ingredient up in them, like batter which would thereafter coat every desirable woman in their lives.
Argh! Ewwww. Yuck. I’m about done with this book. One more overindulgent, out-of-control, what-were-the-Booker-judges-thinking-to-shortlist-this moment and I am out! I am out.