Novels that rely heavily on Freudian and Lacanian references and images have no business being even remotely enjoyable (see: Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers). Likewise a first person narration of a violent, predatory, sadistic and narcissistic protagonist are, at best, an exercise for the reader in empathizing with the darker aspects of humanity (see: Nabokov’s Lolita), and done poorly, rewarding for the reader in the sense of self-satisfaction of never being like the narrator (or even believing that such a narrator could ever find a real, living equivalent) (see: the latter half of The Kindly Ones).
So it is that Kate Grenville’s Albion’s Story is better than it should be, but still a long way off from good. The Freudian and Lacanian emphasis is repetitive and exhausting, but before becoming so (that is, in the first 50 pages) the narrator’s anxiety about his (sexual) maturation, virility and coherent identity are, somewhat, intriguing. What, he asks, does it mean to be a “whole” individual? what is required of man of reason and what is required of a man of nature? Unfortunately these questions continue to be asked throughout the novel, never gaining complexity, proposing a few answers.
The narrator is despicable. He rapes, degrades, and emotionally abuses every woman he encounters in the text, including his wife and daughter. His narrative voice repeatedly proclaims that the women “want” this kind of abuse; or, justifies abusive actions based on an innate feminine weakness of will/intelligence that requires his intervention. Such misogyny is taxing for any reader – even when these thoughts are made absurd by the sheer repetitiveness of their utterance. I was, therefore, surprised to find myself sympathizing, however briefly and reluctantly, with the narrator in the last ten pages of the narrative. I can only account for this sympathy by supposing that Grenville succeeds in temporarily separating Albion’s sadism from his desperate loneliness, traits that the narrative otherwise represents as begetting one another.
Reading Albion’s Story one cannot help but wonder whether the novel might have made an entirely successful short story. A compressed version would allow the reader to sustain a degree of openness to Albion’s character that the repetitive misogynist thoughts and actions negate. Likewise the heavy-handed layering of Freudian and Lacanian thinking might be parsed and focused. As it is, the gem of the last ten pages is not equal to the slog of the first three hundred.