When Fiction Disappoints – Week in Books 2010, No. 19

If you like collections of short stories, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall may be perfect for you.  I have to admit that short stories are not my preferred genre because they seem like short cuts (if an idea or theme is so resonant, wouldn’t it have been even more compelling as a novel with deeply developed characters and a more nuanced, fleshed out plot?) but since I’m a great fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work I decided to read Nocturnes.

The collection of stories features characters who have reached middle age and realize they have not achieved or held onto their dreams and that their relationships are not as stable as they thought.  I found the series sad and disturbing because quite frankly the idea of reaching my late 40s and realizing I’ve missed something crucial terrifies me.  I also think there is something horrible about marriages breaking up in middle age – we expect elderly people to become widowed and to a degree our culture has accepted that some youthful marriages fail, but the concept of being with someone for a quarter century and then being left or unloved seems like the worst.  Because I have such strong reactions to those themes, this book was disturbing and unsettling for me.

If you want to get a feel for Kazuo Ishiguro I would recommend his books The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

I enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife, so when I saw that Audrey Niffenegger had written another book, with the promising title Her Fearful Symmetry, I decided to read it.  I wish I had not.

Because the title and premise (mirror image twins) were promising it was disappointing when the book itself fell so painfully flat.  I wonder if Niffenegger had signed a two book deal and found herself crunched under a deadline, because the character development and plot execution in this book were nowhere near the level she achieved in her first book.

Part of the problem is that the book is set up as a modern era Victorian ghost story, but it lacks deep characters or surprising plot twists.  You can see the “twists” coming from the very beginning of the book, the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed, and the characters are not at all complex.

The one bright spot in the book was the setting.  The story takes place in a house full of flats backing up to a famous Victorian era cemetery where all sorts of famous people were buried.  Some of the characters are docents at the cemetery, giving tours, writing theses on the place and the like.  I think the story would have been MUCH better had the cemetery played more of a central role in the plot, and had more of an impact on the characters, such that the reader could have been left wondering if the characters were observing reality or becoming hysterical from the suggestion of the cemetery and Victorian burial customs and whatnot.  Sadly that is not the direction Niffenegger went.

It’s too bad that this book didn’t come through, because I think the concept of identity in the context of twinness is fascinating, and there was so much potential in the idea of two generations of twins and the setting.  But I would have to advise against reading this book.  If you’re interested in great plot twists with historical throwbacks, I would recommend The Thirteenth Tale or The Little Stranger instead.

One thought on “When Fiction Disappoints – Week in Books 2010, No. 19

  1. I appreciate the warning about ‘The Fearful Symmetry’. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’, so would probably have rushed out and bought it.

    I am also not usually a fan of short stories, with the exception of those of Roald Dahl. He is the master of the short story in my humble opinion!

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