Friday, 29 July 2016

Review: The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George

Oh, dear.

One of the hardest lessons for readers to learn is that not all books are written for people like you. And, when I encounter books that are very much not for people me, I try to dodge the question and say nice things about how well they would suit the kind of people for whom they were written. I will speak at length about how clever the writer was being, how the they really hit what they were going for here. I will say anything, anything to avoid communicating the deep sigh of boredom as I turned each page, the way my face arranged itself into an expression of wry resignation.

Look, I like books. I don't actually like saying nasty things about them. Still, with that in mind...

The Little Paris Bookshop is a novel that needs to be reviewed in two parts. The first regards its borderline magical realist premise - that the protagonist, one Jean Perdu, has the remarkable gift of being able to see into people's souls and thereby styles himself a 'literary apothacary' - prescribing appropriate fiction to suit the malaise of his customers. The second concerns Perdu's own journey, and is an intense and personal exploration of grief, healing, blame and love.

This second part basically tried to be this song, and didn't quite manage it:

I'm not saying it's bad, alright, just that it isn't as good or profound as it wants to be. Going got emotion, it fell into saccharine, trying for the slow gradient of healing, it just went on far too long. All the same, it was heartfelt and it did have some nice bits.

The first bit? Oh. The first bit.


I fully agree with the premise that books are magic. I am on board utterly with the way they can heal us, move us, create us. To a great extent, I'm a person who has built myself from books; every experience in my life has had invisible hands holding mine, friends and enemies walking alongside me. Whether I am grieving, healing or changing, they have given me support, comfort, medicine.

But that is only a fraction of the magic of which books are capable.

The best books I have read had ripped me apart and left me to reconfigure the shattered, bloody pieces. The best books I have read have set me aflame, have argued with me, left me sleepless and wrangling with myself. These were not cures, they were crises, challenges. Books should not, art should not 'soothe our souls' - or not solely.

Perdu's literary apothacary, with its tender coddling of the sweeter side of human nature, deeply troubles me. He administers books like a sedatives, or as a course of treatment to send a life back along its correct course - a course which is parternalist, conservative and tends towards comfort over ecstacy, 'self-care' over revolution.

Furthermore, Perdu is a purest. He insists that there is a 'right' way to read to get the best effect, that gluttons like me who tear through novels at breakneck speed, high on literary thrills, are missing the point entirely. Yet, despite this, the 'cures' suggested in the novel (and the appendices) are exercises in critical laziness. However 'tongue-in-cheek' the intention, it is a model which situates readers as the passive recipients of the 'medication' - one does not argue with the writer, one merely absorbs. It is not possible that these books can cause anything other than readerly submission to authorial intent. Moreover, the authorial intent which is assumed is the kind that can only arise from a shallow, unquestioning appraisal of the text. Take this example: 

Pullman, Philip. His Dark Materials trilogy.
For those who occasionally hear imaginary voices and believe they have an animal soulmate.

... did we... did we even read the same books? Why even include it if that's the best you can do? To get even so far as the barest surface reading, how about, "For those who prone to blind obedience to ideological causes"? or, "For children with a tendency to lionise the adults in their life"? Or even, "For those lacking faith in their own strength."

To suggest that books are solely designed for comfort, solace and escapism is to shut down the real worth of reading - that it allows us to imagine better worlds, that it permits us to see what is wrong with our own. Reading is dangerous - that's why facists burn books.

So, if Perdu's motives are suspect, his methods rank with snobbery - he gives an elderly neighbour craving a disposible bonk buster The Picture of Dorian Grey, which - while yes, racy, sexy and as glorious as hell - is a book of such ambiguous, delicious poison that I would be very careful to whom I recommended it.

Actually, the more I think about that example, the more sinister it seems to me.

Yes. So, can I say anything nice about this one?

Alright: in among all the eye-rolling, the tedium and the fact that, Jesus Christ, why are there no women in this book who aren't just shining beacons to guide the men, there's actually a nice little bit on nascent polyamory. It's never called by that name, and it gets lost among an awful lot of heteronormative glowing love-sex suggesting that the reality of our gender identity is directly proportional to the state of arousal of our genitals. (Seriously, if I never read that snogging someone and getting a hard on makes someone 'a man again', that will be quite soon enough). All the same: there it is.

Manon, Perdu's ethereal-manic-pixie- extraordinare, is a woman who seems quite capable of loving more than one person and making it work for herself. When she finds two men she actually loves, she even wants to introduce them, hoping the three of them can be friends, that they can lay altogether the sense of rivalry, jealously, the expectation that this must be a case of either-or. In a book that is so conservative and unchallenging in almost every other way, catching just a tatter of radical pragmatism is something like a jewel glimpsed briefly in the gutter as you're nodding off at the end of a long, awful day.

I'm quite alright to leave it there - it wasn't meant for me - but it might just catch someone with a glance, a bright edge, a possibility that may just help them. And that, Nina George, is how fiction cures people. By serendipity.

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