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.
Rebecca is young, lost, and beautiful. A gifted artist, she seeks solace and inspiration in the Mediterranean heat of Athens – trying to understand who she is and how she can love without fear. George has come to Athens to learn ancient languages after growing up in New England boarding schools and Ivy League colleges. He has no close relationships with anyone and spends his days hunched over books or wandering the city in a drunken stupor. Henry is in Athens to dig. An accomplished young archaeologist, he devotedly uncovers the city’s past as a way to escape his own, which holds a secret that not even his doting parents can talk about. And then, with a series of chance encounters, Rebecca, George, and Henry are suddenly in flight, their lives brighter and clearer than ever, as they fall headlong into a summer that will forever define them in the decades to come.
Previously on Vulpes Libris (as they say), I reviewed Simon Van Booy’s short story collection, Love Begins in Winter, very favourably so was delighted to get this, his first full novel, sent to me from the publisher, who sadly seems to have entered administration since that time, alas.
The beginning of the novel is very fine indeed, with the lushness and dirt of the city and its people being one of the outstanding aspects of the read:
In this city of a thousand villages, families huddle on balconies with their bare feet on stools. Lonely men dot the cafes, hunched over backgammon, they stare at the ends of their cigarettes – lost in the glow of remembering. It is a city where people worship and despise one another in the same breath.
How I love a writer who can do setting well, and Van Booy certainly excels here. I also enjoyed the characters and the interactions between them. Yes, Rebecca, George and Henry are rather Brideshead Revisited, but they do have charm and I liked the fact they were all incredibly lost and somewhat fey. I don’t remember those days myself, but I always admire those who do …
For instance, here’s Rebecca on her first glimpse of George: “He looked the sort of man who had read all of Marcel Proust in bed.” Bliss. And here’s Rebecca and Henry together for the first time:
Afterward, they lay on their backs, holding hands. Two people divided by the illusion of experience. All was silent. Like a single drop, she hung upon the edge of sleep. He reached for her hand in the darkness and together they fell from this world and into another.
I also thought Van Booy built up the three characters very well as individuals even before they start relating to each other, and I was very much invested in them all. The only issue I had is that Henry’s past secret is divulged far too soon which takes away a lot of the tension with his story. Surely it would have been much better if we’d been left in the dark about it until later on? I, as a reader, would have been happier if that had been the case; Henry’s current actions should have been allowed to breathe without the explicit understanding of his past which “explains” them, and I did feel very cheated on that point. An opportunity lost, I fear.
The – sadly brief – group dynamic between the three is absolutely fascinating and I would have been more than delighted to spend all of the summer in their company, together with the lovely professor in charge of the dig of course. Professor Peterson and his battered old Renault really light up the page and I would have loved more of them:
Despite being almost eighty years old, he had adopted the Greek custom of ignoring every important red light and only pulling out to overtake a slower car when he spotted a vehicle racing toward them in the opposite direction.
However, the book’s story turns on a very dramatic incident which takes place in Athens and which shatters the romance/friendship idyll on a more or less permanent basis. It’s at this point that I started to lose interest, I have to say. Instead of the focus on the three characters, we are left purely – for a variety of reasons I can’t go into here for fear of spoilers – in the company of Henry.
This is actually a great shame, as (a) Henry has now lost his aspects of dramatic tension and we know his past all too well and (b) he’s rather boring in his existential grief. Oh and I didn’t much like the change from third person to second person viewpoint either. It was rather annoying. Yes, Van Booy describes Henry’s two-years’ long journey around the world in a variety of aircraft very beautifully indeed, but … um … there’s not much going on apart from the flights and at more than a few points in the text I simply wanted to give the wretched man a shake and tell him to get over himself. There’s a section towards the end involving Rebecca’s family and a travelling circus, but I didn’t care much about that either, I’m afraid.
The one thing I really did care about was the fact that I was missing out on George’s story during those two years when Henry is in emotional and geographical transit (or rather stasis), and I was very irritated about this. During this time, George goes through several dramatic changes and turns his life around to enormous effect – but we never saw any of this directly. It was all filtered through the wretched Henry, sigh. Indeed I desperately wanted to ditch Henry and get back to George, but it was not to be …
I also didn’t really think much of the ending, even though as ever it was beautifully written. The second half did indeed feel so much like an opportunity wasted, as if the author didn’t know quite what to do with his story after it had begun or as if, being a short story writer, the format of the novel was a tad too long for him. That said, the first half is definitely worth your notice, and Simon Van Booy, despite my reservations about this particular book, is still most definitely a writer to watch.
Everything Beautiful Began After, Beautiful Books 2011. ISBN: 978 1 907616 61 7
[Anne has never visited Athens but this novel has at least ensured it’s added to her holiday destination list.]