Sunday, 24 December 2006

A Book of Common Prayer bookcover; PenguinReview: A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion (1977)

This novel is written in a spare prose that owes much to Didion's other metier of journalist. ("Novelists who have trained as journalists can usually be identified by their lack of plumage," says R. Z. Sheppard in Time magazine. "There is something about trying to interpret the world in narrow columns that keeps the feathers compact and flat.")

This formidable novel also employs structural techniques reminiscent of those employed by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction. The narrative moves unpredictably back and forth in time. The reader is forced to build up, his- or herself, a story from scraps of conversations and interactions between the main protagonists, and minor players. We work hard, but the pay-off is worth it.

Charlotte Douglas exhibits a distracted and vulnerable femininity. She seems to be surrounded by obnoxious men who are too knowing and worldly-wise for her brand of breathless insouciance. At the beginning of the story (though not the novel — the story comes later) she is with Leonard Douglas, her second husband. Her daughter, Marin, is involved in a terrorist attack and is being hunted by the FBI. Leonard is a cut above the other men in the book. A lawyer, he is urbane and kind.

But Charlotte for some reason that is never explained then goes on the lam with her first husband, Warren Bogart, who is not. In fact, he's a drunkard and a bully. He is also Marin's father. Marin is like a prayer that Charlotte repeats to herself even after she has travelled to the fictional country of Boca Grande. She appears to be intent on losing herself, forgetting the past, moving onto something better.

Boca Grande does not supply what she wants, and she is reduced to having breakfast at the Caribe and dinner at the Jockey Club ("always the same table at the Jockey Club"). Not even a friendship with Grace Strasser-Mendana, the narrator, can bring her out of her cone of silence. As if she wants the world to disappear.

As in Didion's earlier novel, Play It As It Lays, there is a pregnancy. Who the father is, again, seems irrelevant. Here, also, it ends badly. Then Charlotte goes south.

She never returns to America.

During her meetings with Charlotte's American men, Grace also learns some dark secrets of her own.

The themes of insurrection and terrorism that swirl around Charlotte and her family are cogent reminders of the roles America has played in several global theatres.

This novel is as fresh and unsullied by time, as it was when first published, thirty years ago. Highly recommended.


Miao said...

I'm thinking of getting The Year of Magical Thinking. Do you think I should?

Dean said...

Well, I will be. For me, Didion is a master. Everything I've read of hers has blown me away.