Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Book review: The Museum of Words, Georgia Blain (2017)

This dull memoir rambles on relentlessly about the author’s mother, broadcaster Anne Deveson, and about her daughter, Odessa. Any drama a book about three generations of women might have contained has to be provided by the author’s diagnosis of a brain tumour.

The tumour is removed from her skull, but she then has to undergo chemotherapy, and it is in the pauses in the treatment before she is completely well – the diagnosis anyway was terminal, even after surgery – that she dredges up a few hours each day to write in. The pathos is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and I wager the book’s editors were counting on this aspect of the manuscript to drive sales of an otherwise dreary book.

As much as it is scintillating to learn about Anne Deveson, an early Australian talk-back radio host, and about Odessa, who encouragingly demonstrates a penchant for writing herself, there is little that gels into a recognisable theme, although we know from reading the memoir that Blain had come across the fictionalised memoirs of Karl Ove Knausgaard. Blain makes an ambitious claim for her own production purely by dint of mentioning his ruggedly adept and interesting books.

But where Knausgaard manages to shape his material into a credible narrative that follows the boy and then the man through his life, building a character that you can relate to at many different points, in Blain’s case nothing similar happens. Her paragraphs just sort of roll out one after another laden with a collection of banal insights and unrealised stories hanging in suspension like silt, making a sluggish river on its way over the flatlands of the reader’s attention with the occasional loop and morass as she reverts to discussing her precious mother’s career or changes to pointing out the importance of her daughter’s Latin translations. You furthermore sense a lack of fundamental insight into the strength of her own literary powers when she occasionally goes too fast, for example when trying to describe the physical details of the brain tumour. She is not really on top of her material at any point and the mundane plotting and tin-eared pacing betray a lack of control over it.

Some might isolate a few moments of interest in the tales of family drama Blain chronicles with unabashed self-importance, but I failed to find anything universal to relate to. Rather, I suspect that it was probably partly the effects of the illness that resulted in such bland pabulum as she interminably dishes up for the reader. The editors evidently forgave the author for being so unashamedly boring due to her physical ailment.

I want to make a few remarks about the way the book has been packaged, too, including the conspiratorial and suggestive subtitle, “a memoir of language, writing and mortality.” The cover is equally ambitious in its effort to locate the book within the province of the feminine. There was little of interest to me in this ruthlessly prosaic book and I made it about 50 percent of the way through before giving up in frustration.

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