Monday, June 09, 2008

Review: Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna

Seems to me that the awarding of the Orange New Writers Prize to Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna is a gloriously heartening sign that timid conservatism does not always rule in the contemporary literary world.

This book, which was sent to me by Faber and which I had only just finished reading when it won last week, is a delicious anti-novel, breaking many of the rules which writers are so often taught to stick to and sidestepping many of the (same old) conventions publishers seem to believe the reading public requires in its books.

For a start there's no story or action in the conventional sense: and that's the point, the wonderful, clever and to me totally gripping point. Rosa Lane, 'thirty-five and several months', is a successful journalist in a settled relationship, but once she begins grieving the death of her mother this life comes to seem to her no longer a structured story but a state of stasis - 'She had spent the previous ten years in a holding position'; 'Instead of seeing herself as the centre of her own small world, with the city as a backdrop to her life, she began to see everything as a fractured mess.' Rosa quits her job and immediately her life begins to unravel as, comically and painfully, she becomes further mired in stasis, increasingly unable to act, enraging her friends who want her to do something, merely walking around the city and observing everything with an alien's vivid eye, thinking herself into greater and greater intellectual contortions steeped in literary references, and making hilarious To Do lists which she never carries out and which sum up her existential muddle:
Things to do, Monday

Get a job.
Wash your clothes
Go to the bank and beg them for an extension....
Read the comedies of Shakespeare, the works of Proust, the plays of Racine and Corneille and The Man Without Qualities...
Clean the toilet.
Rosa's alienation creates an ironic commentary on contemporary society and her flights of fantasy makes for splendid social satire: 'We can do you an appointment for Thursday,' the bank clerk tells Rosa, and as she clips off to arrange it Rosa riffs silently:
We can do you an eviction on Tuesday, she thought. We can do you a spell in a reform centre for the fiscally incompetent on Wednesday.

What this book is portraying of course is an emotional breakdown (shock-horror: a 'dark' subject!) but it is done with such lightness of touch and such linguistic relish that there is nothing gloomy about it - quite the contrary. And Rosa is an anti-hero: you want to wring her neck at times, but that's the point - she's involving; I at any rate was utterly hooked on knowing whether or not she would ever kick-start her life again. In any case, it is Rosa's vivid and witty imaginings which power the book and render it buoyant and dynamic . There is a story, of course, on the emotional and imaginative level, which is the real level for fiction, after all.

So, great that Faber published it in the first place, and the fact that it won should dispel the nervousness implied by its packaging (an American paperback edition was blatantly 'chick-litty', and I'm not sure that the 'ironic populist' English edition [above] works for any market).

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