A long time ago I made a resolution not to bother finishing books I was getting nothing from. Mostly I’ve kept to it. I’m glad I forced myself to get beyond an opening sentence like:
Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa …
What? Awful on so many levels; but so starts the Prelude to George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch‘, no less, that I raved about in the post before this one.
Despite its passages of considerable power, on the whole I wish I’d kept my resolve to abandon the well reviewed ‘Half of the human race‘ by Anthony Quinn (Cape, 2010). Or looked at the closing page to see that it did indeed end as I’d feared, for we are, for all the forced feeding of hunger strikers and the First world War trenches, basically in saga territory here. It promised much: a couple of county cricketers, a suffragette, an older artist/lecher of the Camden Town School. (Oh, and the Battle of the Somme; frankly I think the time has come for some sort of fictional moratorium on that mire – nothing is added here.)
I like to be able to say of a writer, not a wasted word. There’s a lot of superfluity in this novel. And annoying period tics like putting an apostrophe in front of the word bus most of the time, the much cited notion of rakishness and the batsmen playing for ‘M___shire‘. Not much humour either, beyond calling the declining cricketing legend ‘The Great Tam’, short for the tragic Andrew Endall Tamburlain. Along with the artist Denton Brigstock, he was my favourite character. I’m afraid Will and Connie, the two leading protagonists in what is basically a long drawn out love story, didn’t really do it for me and I wasn’t convinced by the actual cricket played either, no real camaraderie.
At one stage he says, “It’s very queer meeting up again like this isn’t it?” Will is by this stage a Somme casualty, Connie’s a nurse. “I was just thinking that,” she replies. I feel like I’m being invaded by the spirit of Charlie Brooker – it’s because you’re in a novel, dumb ass. And how about this. Connie has just wished him all the best with his new engagement (he broke it off with her when she went to prison for coordinated suffragette window breaking):
Will was stunned by her words, and by the unaffected way in which she had spoken. He wanted time to parse them and pursue their implications, but already she was backing away from him, joining the general footfall heading into the station.
He wanted to what? Never mind that footfall. Here they are making up again:
It was not the past that concerned him, but her future. Connie seemed to respond to his closeness, for as his hip bone jutted accidentally against her she felt a muted but powerful current flare within, tingling her nerve ends, and by small degrees she pressed herself to him ..
The subject shifts, does it not? She seems to him then suddenly she is all in the same sentence. Never mind the jutting bone. That, by the way, for all the wooing is the closest we get to mention of sex in the book, apart from the artist, off-stage.
Enough. I probably need to say at this juncture that Quinn has had two well received novels published and I haven’t so much as written a short story. And there are, as I said, some episodes of great power. Connie on the run in Paris and, corny as it is, Connie operating on Will to save his life; the artist Brigstock’s painting of Connie, Will’s drunken reaction in the gallery to Brigstock’s Great War painting; pretty much all of The Great Tam; and blinded brother Fred’s fulfilling marriage is very simply and effectively done.