I recently read Tana French’s book “Broken Harbour,” part of something called the Dublin Murder Squad series. It’s the fourth book in the series but the only one I’ve read, I think because I heard it was the best and the other ones weren’t yet available for downloading from the library. I still haven’t read the previous three (because they’re still not fucking available, please get your shit together, fellow Seattle library patrons), but I liked “Broken Harbor” very much and am only a little concerned that it’s messing up the way I read other books.
Let me explain.
While I am a moderate in many ways – food, alcohol, TV, etc. – when it comes to books, I am a binger. A bender-goer, so to speak, in that when I find an author or genre or character I like, I tend to stick with them (or it) for as long as I can, until eventually I get sick of it (or them) and start forswearing things. Which is a terrible way to read and I’m not doing anyone any favors, but at least I’ve come to realize this as I get older and understand more about thinking critically.
I’ve written before that it took me a very long time to learn that I simply won’t like some books. Not necessarily because the books are bad (except when they are), but there are just some stories that will not speak to me, that cannot engage the pleasure and fascination centers of my brain. I used to think that these books were too challenging, because, I don’t know, when you grow up Catholic and are forced to make honor roll, you carry with you a certain expectation of misery and blame when you fail something (even though it is actually failing you, because you can’t fucking tell the difference). But eventually, I figured out that when it comes to literature, sometimes them’s the breaks, kid, and it’s sometimes likely that neither mine nor the author’s abilities are at fault.
Also as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned what it is to read critically. By that, I mean that it’s not always imperative to simply enjoy the story, but that sometimes additional enjoyment is experienced through understanding how and why the story is written. What makes an author pick this word instead of that word? Why did they eschew a more traditional structure? When they go backwards and forwards in time or switch narrators, are these transitions supposed to be organic or is my perception supposed to be challenged? What was the intent, and was the expression of it successful, and yeah, was it any good? It’s the same with music and films and food, I guess, and for me, it begs the question of the creator: “what exactly are you trying to accomplish here?” Asking this question helps me to understand not only if I liked something or why I did or didn’t like it, but it also causes me to continue thinking about a story long after it’s ended. I’m not a devourer of books. Not really, not anymore. I prefer to chew on them for awhile, to keep them in my craw, running my tongue over their textures and deciding if they’ve become old enough for me to spit out yet.
So when I read “Broken Harbour,” I spent awhile afterwards continuing to think about it, and when the next book I got from the library – “Threats” by Amelia Gray – was not the same kind of story and did not cause me to approach the characters or plot in the same way, I felt a little confused. I mean, probably this is because it was supposed to be similar. That’s what the Internet told me. But the main point is that initially, I was let down by “Threats.” I suppose I still am, but not for the initial reasons.
At first, “Threats” bothered me because, after the tightly wound and precisely sewn up “Broken Harbor,” it seemed a little too loose and maybe lazy. To me, the scenes in “Threats” appear as if on the other side of a mosquito net screen. They’re indefinite and unreliable, partially because half of the characters are crazy and partially because I can’t even tell if any of it is actually happening in the story to begin with. I couldn’t tell if Gray had a bigger plan for the story, and as I progressed through the book, this question didn’t get answered and I got more and more frustrated that I couldn’t figure out her motives.
By the middle of “Threats,” I decided that the author wasn’t intentionally obscuring her scenes and was in fact making them as explicit as possible, but that she was doing it in such an odd, quirky way that I imagined the writing of “Threats” to be akin to arranging butterflies in shadow boxes without damaging their wings. It was a very delicate way of telling a story, but I wasn’t convinced that it was the best way for a reader to experience it.
By the end of “Threats,” I was no longer irritated by the story or by Gray’s technique, but I wasn’t completely satisfied, either, and I’m worried that my own head is to blame. See, it’s entirely possible that I still don’t know if my dissatisfaction with “Threats” was due to my brain remaining trained on the “here’s a murder and these are the clues and here’s the process and then it’s concluded” pattern of a murder mystery/crime thriller like “Broken Harbor,” or if it’s because I suspect Gray couldn’t commit to her concept – either everyone is crazy or one person is crazy, because both of those things being true just doesn’t add up. Of course, again, the problem might be that I need for everything to add up, and maybe that wasn’t the point of “Threats.” I can’t tell, and this is what bothers me the most.
This is why I’ve decided to cool down. No murder mysteries, no surrealism. No “The Goldfinch,” not just yet, because even though it’s on my Kindle already, I can’t dive straight from this kind of frustration into a Pulitzer Prize winner. Wouldn’t be fair. Instead, I’m sticking with something that I’m almost certain I’ll like with no disturbing shifts required of my personal perspective, something I can read while lounging at home on the weekend and on the bus home from work. Not that it’s supposed to be wholly unchallenging, I just think that I need to focus on enjoyment for awhile instead of criticism.
I just downloaded “Queen of Kings” by Maria Dahvana Headley from the library because Neil Gaiman blurbed it in the very good story collection “Unnatural Creatures.” It’s a vampire book, basically, but with grownups instead of teenagers and the context is historical and weird instead of super fucking lame.