Monday, March 02, 2009

I like the fancy kind, myself.

Erudite Mondays at HalfSoledBoots
Volume 8 Number 2

by Kenneth J Harvey

In my last post I called Blackstrap Hawco the world's most depressing book. I'm revising my statement - it's not the most depressing, it's simply the most disgusting.

Or, okay, I'll add the qualifier that I haven't actually read all the books in the world.

But I did read one written by the Marquis de Sade once, and I tell you here and now that I'd rather read that again than this one, for whatever it's worth.

intense character exploration
sickening characters.

Ostensibly the book is about a working-class Newfoundland family. The "family" bit was not much in evidence. Some characters are linked by blood and marriage, but not by friendship or love (unless you count incest, which I really don't). As far as I can remember from the bewildering cacophony of voices, temporal shifts, and narrative psychosis, there are maybe three characters that have any redemptive qualities whatsoever. There is one woman who appears to love her children, there is one young boy who appears to love his mother and siblings, and there is one man who appears to have a smidge of conscience and a sliver of concern for his family.

It seemed to me that, inasmuch as one could say the book is "about" anything, it is about the degradation of the human spirit, the misery of squalor and ignorance, and the consequences of inbreeding.

Excellent writing
miserable subject matter.

There's quite a bit of rape in this book. I know this is something a lot of modern (i.e., mid to late 20th century and present) writers seem to think a necessary plot element, but I would like to tell all you authors that it REALLY PISSES ME OFF. Not EVERY SINGLE WOMAN has been raped, y'know, and the whole theme starts to lose its significance as a plot element if EVERY MAN in the ENTIRE NARRATIVE forces himself on anything with a skirt at every possible opportunity. I was starting to hope somebody would rape a guy, just for variety.

But maybe someone did, later on - I wouldn't know. This novel is over 800 pages long. I got to page 195, where the bishop suckles and then rapes the newly postpartum mother, and shut the damn thing. Thought to myself "I think that's all I can read." Later that afternoon, once my stomach had settled a bit, I decided to give it another go. I picked it up and read to page 246, where a prostitute foster mother approvingly witnesses the rape of her ten-year-old foster daughter by a drunken john. The woman thinks it's all part of growing up.

I have no more time I wish to spend on this book. I've read 246 pages and it's going to take a good week of knitting and spinning and embroidering and cooking to expunge that much from vivid memory - I'd hate to think how scarred I might be if I persevered and read the entire miserable tome.

Blackstrap Hawco received glowing reviews from quite a number of fairly qualified people. The Ottawa Xpress, for example, said "There's - thankfully - not a snippet of faux sentimentality here." I think it might show a lack of something-or-other that I couldn't stand to read it...maybe it means I am fauxishly sentimental. Maybe it means I'm, what - shallow? fluffy?

Here's my newspaper-style review quote, where I palliate my conscience by saying something that could be construed as positive.

Kenneth Harvey has beautifully sculpted a terrible work - a textured monument to misery. Its edifice is blackened by time and blood, the chiselwork not fine but brutish. The face of it is scarred and twisted. There are children, rough-hewn, cowering around its feet - frozen in its shadow of hulking threat. Their postures are miserable, anguished. Some people see and avert their gazes, while others are drawn to it. All who see it, turn away changed - whether by revulsion or by inspiration - unable to forget Blackstrap Hawco.

There. My review wasn't ALL bad.

If anyone cares to read this book, leave me a comment to that effect. It might be interesting to have a guest review as a follow-up, and if everything magically comes right and it ends well, if any of the characters finds any kind of redemption or peace or happiness, you can let me know.

HSB Highly Specialised Book Rating System
Blackstrap Hawco gets:

HELL no, not if it was the last book on earth.
Bookplate? Ha!
Given to Others? Nope.



Dave Hingsburger said...

Well, strike that book off my list. I can't agree with you more when you complain about rape or abuse as a constant plot point. As someone who works with those who were victimized, who's stories contain real life horrors, I feel that these experiences are somehow trivialized by lazy authors going for easy horror. The politics of gender are dizzying in complexity and should be respected as such. But instead we watch as someone simply draws a brutish man and sketchs a victim beside him - and then we call it art.

Jadekitty said...

At first the thought of reading a book about the province I am residing in sounded intriguing. But I have to thank you for not allowing me to waste my time. I thoroughly enjoyed your post and review. Thank you!

Kenneth J. Harvey said...

Despite the negative angle, your piece was a pleasure to read. Very nicely written.

Best wishes,

bethro said...

A good decision to put it down. It's one thing to bury our head in the sand about real life issues, but another to feel justified in watching squalor for the sake of "art" (and PS, Dave H, I am using that amazingly well phrased comment when people try to justify shock as art in the future).
There's a quote in one of the Emily books by L.M. MOntgomery (quoted from memory and probably slightly off): "There's as much truth in Pine trees as in pits." I'm not advocating an "ignore the bad" attitude, but that dwelling only on the ugly does not make the writer/painter/etc. of some higher order that understands human nature better than those of us who seem some good.

carlarey said...

Grinding poverty, rape, rape, rape, incest, then someone maims a dog or stomps a kitten to death. Known in book jacket speak as "an uplifting triumph of the human spirit".

Sounds like the sort of book Oprah would embrace.

And I guess we know how Kenneth J. Harvey spends his spare time, googling any references to his name and work...

kate said...

Interesting, I read some similar comments about some of the Oscar nominees for best picture this year. Dark and dismal and violent seems to be in favour with the critics right now.

800 pages is honestly longer than I like in fiction, although I can do dark and dismal (I'm still haunted by The Road, by Cormac McCarthy). I prefer the internal darkness to the sordid type.

Shan said...

Dave - well said.

Jadekitty - I have always been interested in Newfoundland as well, and can only hope its reality was not as depicted.

Kenneth J. Harvey, thank you so much. I thought I might see you here. Congratulations on the notable success of Blackstrap. I quite liked Ace and Junior - up to page 246, of course. Afterwards? who knows.

Bethro - that 'pine forest' quote kept coming back to me when I was reading BH. I didn't bring it up in the review because mention of the sainted LMM seemed incongruous.

Carlarey - almost mentioned Oprah's "book" club too.

Kate - I love the dark and dismal. My mother is shocked I didn't like BH, actually - but my dark and dismal, like yours, tends inward.

Dave Hingsburger said...

Ummmmm, I admit to goggling my name quite regularly and really see nothing wrong with doing that. I find it interesting to see how people interpret my work, accept my ideas and enjoy my lectures. I thought that Kenneth J. Harvey's comment here respectful and restrained. I truly thought it classy. Good on him.

Stace' said...

Do let me know when you find a book that ends right.

Mr. Harvey, if you write a book that ends right, I'll read and review it.

You should have gotten that knitting book I handed you in Goodwill.

lizbon said...

I'm only sorry you wasted nearly 250 pages of your time protecting us from this misery.

When will authors and movie producers learn that brutality and reality are not necessarily synonymous.

lizbon said...

PS. Just read through the comments, and I do have to say Mr. Harvey took his licks with grace.

Cynthia said...


I always enjoy reading your books reviews & have read several books as a result that I wouldn't have run across otherwise. But I don't think I could spare the time for this one.

I remember picking up Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie about 10 years ago, reading the jacket blurb ("inside the mind of a serial killer") and realizing I just didn't want to go there, no matter how good the writing was. Life is to short.

Shan said...

Cynthia, I would have done the same. I don't wish to see inside the mind of a killer, serial or otherwise. Why do that to myself?

I read "The Lovely Bones" once and that was bad enough - LIKE I needed that.