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Set in a ex-pat community in West Africa, the book begins with Isobel and Patrick: a couple who love one another, yes, but whose love is complicated, established, middle-aged and continues despite the odd peccadillo or two…
From here, we are introduced to a varied expat cast.
Amongst the multitudes are the High Commissioner, Alec, and his appaling wife, Fenella – superbly stuffy and snobbish – Father Seamus and Sister Philomena – unconventional and liberal, and Daniel and the mysterious Rachel, who he meets working in a cloth factory, where she appears wan and out of place.
The book is made up of short vignette-style chapters, switching between many characters and povs.
This fragmented structure is brave and refreshing for a debut novel and works brilliantly in earlier chapters – delivering well on the humour – and also at the end. However, it does did cause a few problems here and there in the middle – switching focus so rapidly and so often that some of the tension and build is dissipated, particularly in relation to one of the more serious elements of the plot, which does feel like it comes out of nowhere.
The Daniel/Rachel strand of the plot is central and what really holds the book together. Daniel’s recent arrival acts as the readers introduction to this eccentric ex-pat world. The drawback of the mysterious enigmatic Rachel is that we can’t get to know her fully for much of the book. However, this part of the plot really comes alive later on and leads to a surprising yet satisfying conclusion.
The vast array of characters, however, does highlight the real lack of the non-white African perspective. I would have loved to hear from the apparently ever-willing Isatou, for example, who we only encounter through the eyes of the ex-pats. As it is, she feels a little like she is defined only by her function within the story and the reader never really gets to know her, her life, her character or her take on things. I was uncomfortable with this and it did feel like a very big opportunity missed.
However, it’s in the comic characterisation that Eckstein really excels and her depiction of this set of eccentric middle-aged characters is wickedly delightful. I found myself turning the pages quickly to get to the next Patrick and Isobel or Alec and Fenella bit. She manages to draw people – real people – that are knowing comic stereotypes, but then reveal they are not quite what you think they are. (Apart from Fenella who is just outrageously horrible). Sharp and satirical (other reviews have mentioned Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh) I would love to see more of this sharp comic sensibility in modern novels.
There are aspects of this book that I (and I don’t use this word often) adored.
The playful tone. The wry observations. The brilliant comic dialogue. And a cracking ending – both satisfying and surprising.
I don’t often think of a book as having its own personality, but The Cloths of Heaven has a certain sensibility: a playful, humane, forgiving, tolerant attitude that radiates from every page. Where some books drone on and on, and others are pompous – lecturing you over your course choices, and others still are mawkish and sentimental and weep into their dessert wine; this book is a bright, witty companion – values and attitudes in the right place – acute, observant but also tolerant and understanding and not afraid of a sharp jibe or two.
If this book was a person, I’d definitely invite it round to dinner. In fact, I might even take it down the pub.
288 pages. Publisher: Myriad Editions (2 April 2009) ISBN-13: 978-0954930981
Sue Eckstein also writes a heart-breakingly humourous blog here. Check it out here.
The Cloths of Heaven was adapted by the author as a drama for Radio Four