A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Rose Murdock, single, straight and on the brink of bitter and twisted, believes maturity is a word best applied to wine, lists malingering as her favourite pastime and has filed her love life under missing in action – presumed dead. Dumped by her boyfriend, Gary, in a place she doesn’t want to be, in a job she hates, lorded over by a boss she plans to murder and drowning in a sea of meaningless office politics, Rose is about to be thrown two lifelines. The only problem is – has she staggered too far down the path of complacency and lethargy to grab the right one? Alex Steiner, single, gay and best friend to Rose, holds a deck of life-cards all firmly stacked in his favour. The only cloud on his golden horizon is his inability to confess his real sexual preferences to his parents and put a stop to their determined quest to find him a bride. But a key to a dilapidated house in Tuscany, flowers from an unknown admirer and a mysterious man from Hong Kong are about to change everything.
Well, there you go. All sounded very promising at the blurb stage, I thought. Moreover, this book benefits considerably from a highly interesting and gripping cover and a first sentence that is absolutely stunning:
Rose Murdock and Alex Steiner used to live next door to a man who had murdered his wife with a frozen chicken.
I was hugely excited when I read that and prepared myself for a journey of surreal excitement and off-the-wall story-telling. Oh dear, I needn’t have bothered. What follows from that glorious first sentence does not, I’m sad to say, live up to its glittering promise at all.
Because what follows is a rather feeble and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to create a Bridget Jones for our times. Much of the story is conveyed in IM – ie Instant Messaging via computer for those of us not in the know – which is certainly an interesting and theoretically dynamic way of updating the diary format. However, it quickly becomes irritating and has the effect of highlighting the shallowness of the main characters in a way that the diary form does not. I’m not sure why this should be so – does the diary form carry with it the potential for character depth in a way that IM does not? It’s a mystery. Though, with IM, you do have to rely on virtual dialogue alone, which can be very sparse and give an impression of too much lightness. Perhaps the novel would be better read aloud? Bonner does have one radio play to her name, so maybe she’s happier there. Although it did strike me that the author felt largely uncomfortable with the IM approach to novel writing and didn’t give it her best attention – as to my mind the parts of the novel (sadly not as many as are really needed here) which are conveyed via simple narrative are by far the most effective. Each time I came to them, I breathed that proverbial sigh of relief, and wondered if Bonner might be doing the same …
Our heroine, Rose, also came across as rather too much of a bitch for my liking. I’m always happy to see work issues tackled in novels but, by the time I was halfway through, I was longing for her boss to sack her and put us all out of our misery. In fact I did find my sympathies moving towards her boss whom she hates so much and I began to wonder how it would be if we heard at least some of the story from his point of view. It reminded me (sorry, but I can’t remember the author or the title – can any VL reader help?) of a fairly recent-ish book about the classical affair between Catullus and his Lesbia, but retold with great wit, style and sense from Lesbia’s viewpoint. That would be good here.
There were also some aspects of the plot in this novel that were distinctly dodgy or unsatisfying. I’m sorry but I really don’t believe that if a mystery person keeps ringing you up at work and if you’d had (and I’m trying desperately not to give away too much!) a close friendship with them for some time in the past, you wouldn’t ever recognise their voice. No matter how much they might disguise it. I snorted when I got to that page and found out who it had been. Really?? Um, no … There were also times when old clichés were used, as if they were new – again I’m sorry but the incident where some drunk female guest licks the ice sculpture at a wedding and then gets stuck was old-hat when it was done in My Best Friend’s Wedding, and is almost pre-historic now – surely this should have been completely cut at the editing stage? I was also surprised to find out on page 192 that Rose is – or was – a keen artist. Did I miss something earlier on?? I had no idea of that fact at all, and I was paying attention. Or thought I was … If she is an artist, it would have been really nice to have had a lot more of that aspect of our heroine. It would certainly have added depth and interest, but I don’t think it’s mentioned again. All very odd.
But, in spite of all this, there are some funny one-off lines that made me laugh. So it’s not an entire waste of time. Here’s Rose battling with the IT department on the phone about her broken computer:
Rose switched the machine on and smiled with relief as it flickered back to life.
“I sense from the embarrassed silence that it’s working again,” said the voice.
“No thanks to you,” retorted Rose.
“I’d like to ask you out for a drink, but rumour has it that you’ve got fat ankles,” said the voice.
“You know what – they should rename IT,” said Rose.
“To Terrific IT,” said Rose before cutting the call.
Nice one. And here’s Rose struggling to get into a body-shaping garment for a party:
“If God had made me with only two ribs, or even just one long one across the middle, it would be an almost perfect fit,” she rasped.
However, bearing in mind this novel is classed as romantic comedy (despite the cover and first line that actually scream “surreal modern novel”), the romance isn’t really that good. The man whom Rose ends up with is merely sketched in, and she doesn’t seem to love him at all – she just wants someone to be with, and he’ll do. Hmm, not good, eh. Additionally her gay friend Alex has a couple of almost-moments in terms of his romantic life, but neither ever goes anywhere. To me, as a keen reader and writer of GLBT fiction, it seemed highly unlikely that he wouldn’t even kiss Gianni, the Italian love interest. Especially as Gianni was so lovely and the most human person in the novel, even though he only appears for two pages. Dammit. It didn’t seem realistic to me. I’d also spotted Alex’s boss’s romantic potential very early on, but again that came to nothing.
Furthermore, the ending is deeply unsatisfying – Rose has made no decision about whether she loves her man or not but is going abroad to be with him anyway, and Alex all but fizzles out. I felt thoroughly cheated, to be honest.
And all the more so as it’s my profound and instinctive belief that Bonner is a good writer. The narrative non-IM sections of the novel are perfectly well-written but I gained the impression that she wasn’t much interested in her would-be chick lit story anyway, none of which flows from that wonderful first line and none of which matches the cover. I’d like Bonner to take that first line again and write the surreal modern feminist novel that would actually flow from it, with the deep and off-the-wall characters it really hints at. Whilst ditching the IM nonsense and the ridiculous and unhelpful “write what sells, my dears” marketing demands, and trusting in her normal writing powers. I believe she can do it. More than that, I believe she should do it. And if the real novel of Climbing a Ladder Backwards ever resurfaces, I’d be willing to read it. Unfortunately, this current beast ain’t it.
Climbing a Ladder Backwards by Kal Bonner (Mathew Street Press, 2009), ISBN: 978-0-9559863-0-7
[Anne longs for writers to write what really matters to them, and just forget for one minute what the heck might sell. You won’t get a good career but at least you’ll get a good book. For more of her really important literary opinions, please click here.]