Sunday, 17 February 2019

Book review: Pink Mountain on Locust Island, Jamie Marina Lau (2018)

I delayed posting this review for several days because I wanted to moderate my first reaction and because I felt a bit guilty by how negative the review had been at first. The delay allowed me to add some details in order to make the review, which I hope the author reads, as constructive as possible. One of the aspirations for any reviewer is that their comments will be taken to heart by the author in question, so that what they write next can be improved. This applies especially with reviews that are, in the main, negative.

I found this book deliberately hard but there was no real payoff for a careful reader. When it comes to talking about insights or poetry there is plenty of ancillary material that accompanies what development there is of character, as well as the rather embryonic traces of plotting, but I’m not sure that it is as strong as the author or her editors think it is.

The narrator is a teenage girl who lives with her father and she makes a friend named Santa Coy who is a guy (you guess) and they message each other on their computers. But the main character never fully emerges and so you are constantly trying to work out how you should feel about what happens in the text.

No framework is provided that would allow you to feel comfortable, worried, or otherwise (happy, fearful, unquiet, as the case may be) and so you skate along on the surface of the text without having a clue how things are looking like they’re going to turn out. It is very difficult in this kind of work to build suspense as there are no indicators at any given point telling you which way the story is heading. Is it developing in a way that will be conducive to the wellbeing of the main character? Is it going in a way that will turn out to be bad for her? What about her new friend, how is he developing? Is he sympathetic or is there a hidden danger that the narrator is hiding from the main character? Is her father a worry? How is he shaping up in the wider scheme of things?

You are even unsure in this novel about such things as major plot points. It might be that the main character gets a second-hand computer from Santa Coy but facts aren’t nailed down in the impressionistic sequence of scenes that are given to the reader and that are punctuated by the occasional segment of dialogue. The mise-en-scene is equally vague – you are in a nondescript city and the narrator and her father live in an apartment – and there is little in the story that can be used to orient you along socioeconomic lines or even culturally. The only thing that is heavy is the teen attitude but this is provided without the narrator being particularly strong on anything approximating wisdom that might help the reader to understand what it is in aid of.

The book was longlisted for the Stella Prize, which is an award given every year for female Australian authors, but it won’t win. The author did well just to get a mention. The book has furthermore been remarked on by various literary outlets. The problem that a book like this provides a reviewer is that it comes absolutely dripping in artistic ambition and the good intentions of its publisher, but I cannot in good faith recommend it to readers of this blog.

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