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.
To 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.