Vulpes Libris

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.

Grievance by Marguerite Alexander

072789-FC222To escape the claustrophobia of her small hometown and troubled family life, Nora Doyle enrols at a London university. But instead of finding friendship and understanding, she becomes the obsession of her narcissistic lecturer and finds it hard to connect with her peers, whose experience and culture are so radically different from her own. Finally driven to an uncharacteristic act of cruelty, Nora is forced to realise that while she may have escaped from her family, she cannot escape from her past…

Anything I say about this book will be coloured by my disappointment. The cover made me think it was set much earlier than I thought – it is actually set in the 1980s and ‘90s, while the cover made me think that it was early ‘50s – and the blurb does not accurately reflect the story. It’s always a bit of a shock to the system to find something you weren’t expecting, as though you’ve discovered that some mischief-maker has swapped around the book covers. Sometimes you are pleasantly surprised and the book surpasses your expectations. Unfortunately, that is not the case here.

Set between Nora’s university life in London and her childhood in Ballypierce, the book deals with the impact of disability and Irish identity. Nora is the adored daughter of a local chemist, but when her brother Felix is born with Down’s Syndrome, her family is plunged into misery. This is a brutal reminder that not everyone can accept what is not considered “normal". Nora, who has cared for Felix more than her horrified parents ever have, breaks away from her family to study Literature in London, under the tutelage of academic star Steve. But Steve’s star is fading, although still handsome he is much older than he was when he made his name and has just had his first big rejection. He is now obsessed with Ireland, which is why Nora – apart from being stunning – catches his eye. His obsession with Ireland actually made me skip a few pages – the lectures are exactly that.

I found the relationship between Nora and Steve very strange. Nora apparently has no idea that his interest in her goes beyond the purely professional. Steve’s motives seemed flimsy to me. I just found I didn’t believe it. While Nora’s relationship with her father and brother are complex, her relationship – or lack thereof – with Steve did not ring true for me.

I also found her circle of university friends rife with tokenism – Phoebe the hippy, Emma the feminist. As for Nick and Pete, well, I honestly couldn’t tell them apart.

That said, I’m the sort of person that will ruthlessly abandon a book if I’m not enjoying it. Part of the reason that I stuck with this one was because Nora was so saintly that I wanted to see what this “uncharacteristic act of cruelty” was. Based on the blurb, I assumed this act would be a pivotal moment for the book, something on which the plot hinged. Actually it comes quite near the end and I was frustrated to find that Nora can even be thoroughly reasonable and polite when being cruel.

I also found there was an emphasis on telling rather than showing:

“His status, however, is not just a matter of the theories promoted in his published work. He marched with the miners and was kicked by a policeman. This is a matter of record, captured by a BBC cameraman. And when he appeared on late-night arts programmes – for this was the beginning of his career as a minor television personality – he extended the academic debate into the public issues of the day, claiming, as he is now, that there is no distinction between critical  and political practice.”

Given that I’ve had “show, don’t tell!” drummed into me, I found this frustrating.

While I don’t want to tell anyone not to read this book, I would issue a warning – the book you’ll find between the covers is not the one that is described on the cover.

Harper Perennial, 2011. ISBN-10: 0007213573. 320pp.

6 comments on “Grievance by Marguerite Alexander

  1. John
    September 7, 2011

    A very honest review which was very thought-provoking for me.

    I sometimes wonder whether it is a good idea to review books which we find very few redeeming features in. We know how much hard work has gone into producing something and if we can’t manage to weigh each word perhaps we should review something which has more merit in our somewhat subjective eyes.

    I do wonder whether there has been an over-emphasis on ‘show don’t tell.’ One of my favourite novels has always been Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ and she seemed to show quite a lot to me. I think writing is too various to be over-disciplined by rules which work well in some cases but not others.

    Lest it be thought that I am being critical of the review I am only trying to spur some debate and hopefully suggest that a book reads the reader. Every book out there reads us as much as we read them and this clearly has not endeared itself to this reviewer but there may be folk out there who will enjoy it.

    Best wishes and the very best of luck with your own writing. I am sure from your fine blog it must be very good stuff indeed.

    John.

  2. annebrooke
    September 7, 2011

    I think showing is good, John? It brings the reader into a more intimate relationship with the character. It’s telling that puts a barrier up. Though I must admit, either way, I’m not a fan of Plath :)

    I do also think there’s great value in reviewing a book one doesn’t much like – if the world was full of positive reviews only, it would be very bland indeed. Just as long as one gives reasons for the dislike, then that’s more than acceptable. In any case, every review is subjective in the end – we’re all human and if we were totally objective we wouldn’t be what we are.

    Heck, I feel a speech coming on – I will, for the good of the nation, attempt to stifle it!
    :)

    Anne

  3. Nikki
    September 7, 2011

    I also think that showing is good. Otherwise it becomes a bit like a lecture. Showing, as Anne says, brings you into a more intimate relationship with the characters. I just felt that I couldn’t engage at all with Nora, which was a real let down for me. Much as I love writing only about books I’ve loved, I also like to write about the ones I didn’t like because it forces me to evaluate why I didn’t like it.

    There will absolutely be people out there who love this, just as there are people who loathe Harry Potter (which I love). Difference is what drives the world. Funnily enough, much as I’m hated having my own work criticised, it’s much easier to improve after criticism than after positivity.

  4. John
    September 8, 2011

    I just think a nuanced review is nice for less well-established writers (not household names.) I do like the sound of the unpleasant and narcissitic character with an Irish fetish- he seems like a ‘successful’ example of me!

    Showing is good but the first page of ‘Middlemarch’ is tell, tell and I love that book so how can I hate the first page?

    Best wishes to all,

    John.

  5. annebrooke
    September 8, 2011

    Ah, things were different then, John! It probably wouldn’t get read by any agent/publisher now, sad to say :)

    Anne

  6. Jackie
    September 13, 2011

    The cover does look as if it’s from the ’50′s, I agree & sets a soft tone.Maybe the publishers were at a loss at what to put on?
    This sounds like a book with unlikable characters, but a potentially interesting plot, had it been done differently. You did a good job at explaining why you didn’t like it, Nikki & I know it took a certain amount of courage to write about something you didn’t like.

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This entry was posted on September 7, 2011 by in Entries by Nikki and tagged , , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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