Sunday, October 07, 2007

Mrs. Kimble

Putting on my "literary" writer/reader cap for a moment...

I just finished Mrs. Kimble, a first novel by Jennifer Haigh. I'd known of Ms. Haigh for some time. Actually, her second novel, Baker Towers, came out about the same time as Pride of Carthage. I think we were Booksense selections the same month and did a similar round of reviews for a while. So she was very much on my radar, but she was one of many writers I'd not yet actually got around to reading. I was prompted to recently, though, because Steve Yarbrough has managed to arrange for her to visit Cal State next month. I'm glad he did. It prompted me to read the book, and that's a good thing.

It's very well-written, deserving of the Pen/Hemingway Award it picked up. Reading it I was aware of how many things Haigh does right - the kind of things I'd like my students to pick up on. Again and again I thought things like, "Oh, yeah, exactly, that's a great way to develop this character through description of simple actions that do double duty in terms of being revealing of intimate information as well". Or, "Now that's what I mean when I talk about making sure each scene both works on its own and adds to the cumulative progression of the larger narrative" etc.

Admittedly, there were times (quite a few) that I was frustrated with the various Mrs. Kimbles. (There are more than one in the novel.) But that was never a frustration directed at the author. It was appropriate to the characters, to the flaws they lived with and way those flaws affected the decisions they made - or didn't. And I was very impressed by the sense of completion and satisfaction I felt at the end. By no means does Haigh answer all the questions. There are aspects of all her characters that remain hidden. She does, however, move them toward a reasonable and realistic sort of narrative closure.

It was well done. I'm a picky reader at the best of times, and much of what's offered and lauded as "literary fiction" these days can leave me feeling a bit tepid. Jennifer Haigh delivered, though, with a quiet, thoughtful and carefully crafted novel. I look forward to meeting her, and I plan to read her sophomore effort, Baker Towers, before I do!



Blogger Corby Kennard said...

I am also a picky reader, and tend to stay away from current fic/lit. I do, however, find it curious that many things I read as sci/fi when I was a teen or younger are now considered literature.

I know you are working feverishly on the next Acacia novel, but I would be interested in your opinion of Cormac McCarthy. I seem to have developed a bit of an obsession with disliking his work; specifically, The Road.

9:33 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

You want me to publicly express an opinion on Mr McCarthy's work? Hmmm...

I'll say this - in an answer that's entirely true if also somewhat vague - I've long had a love/hate relationship with McCarthy's work. In many ways I was deeply enamored of the language and epic violence of novels like Blood Meridian and The Crossing, and I read all of his earlier books with interest. My first novel, Gabriel's Story, is a direct reaction to his Western novels in a variety of ways. For that, I have to acknowledge he was a significant influence.

Thing is, for all the ways I can become wrapped up and impressed by his language I can also see why a skeptical reader would find fault with the very same passages. Is All the Pretty Horses "a work of stoicism and singular beauty, a breathtaking reading experience" (from the NBA Citation), or is it filled with vague and somewhat pretentious grandiosity? Are his male characters brilliantly portrayed and tellingly complex examinations of the American psyche, or are they maudlinly sentimental characters in disguise?

I'm not sure. I'm a fan, but at some level I don't trust that he's not pulling a fast one on me somehow.

As for The Road... mixed feelings. It carried me along, but I know that many speculative fiction writers have written more complex and varied post-apocalyptic novels. I'm also aware that if a science fiction writer had written it it would not have won a Pulitzer Prize...

3:23 PM  

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