Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Book review: The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (2000)

This experimental novel is written in a way that shows that the author cares little about the reader. You get narratives truncated and interrupted by other pieces of text that have absolutely no relation to what you had just been reading.

The beginning of the book is a standard enough story but it is replaced later by the story of a mother and her young son, who she is teaching to read and much else besides, but every now and then bits get stuck in the flow that stick out like sore thumbs. It’s immensely frustrating especially since the story that forms the bulk of the book is so poorly executed anyway. I didn’t see the need for all the interruptions and felt that they were just evidence of a partially-realised plan.

It doesn’t need to be like this. In his brilliant 1995 novel ‘The Unconsoled’, Kazuo Ishiguro constructs a strange narrative around the story of a man who is to give a performance of classical music in a regional European town. But events always seem to get in the way of him realising his purpose, sidetracking him and taking him in new directions, where he meets more people, and the turnstile of dead-ends and broken stories continues right to the end of the book. This very unusual novel has a deliberately experimental structure but the way that the transitions are handled shows you that the writer has a distinct purpose in mind, and the effect is magical, as though you were watching a performance by a particularly skilled conjurer. DeWitt has something similar in mind but utterly lacks the talent or vision needed to make it come about.

The characterisation in DeWitt’s novel is also very weak. The mother is only incompletely rendered. She is an American living in London with her child and she has precarious financial arrangements and a burning appetite for learning. But she doesn’t have enough variety or depth in her conception within the story to keep you turning the pages. I just lost interest after a while (about 11 percent of the book finished).

The beginning of the novel is also weak. You are meant to understand that in the old days (the early part of the 20th century) in America people were either gamblers or preachers. The lack of real insight about the culture as it existed then was another failing in the book, in my eyes.

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