A friend recommended All the Names to me after a conversation we’d had about archives and libraries. The conversation started with me telling my friend about Carlos Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind and the wonderfully imaginative “cemetery of forgotten books” (a repository of endangered books, preserved by a ‘last reader’). My friend suggested All the Names because it engaged with some of the questions evoked by the idea of a ‘last reader’: what role do readers play in keeping information/people/ideas alive? what is a story without a reader? Never one to turn down a recommendation, I dutifully set out reading All the Names, not noticing the author – Jose Saramago. About 1/3 of the way into the book, when I was quite sure I recognized the style of writing, the frustrating pace of the narrative, and the preoccupation with symbolism, I realized the Saramago of All the Names was quite certainly the same Saramago of Blindness – a book I (strongly) disliked. Rather than pushing myself to finish a book I wasn’t engaged by and felt quite sure that I would not finish with any feeling of satisfaction, I stopped reading it. And so All the Names registers here as a miss. Certainly interesting for ideas of the archive, nevertheless a narrative style that lends itself well to torture by boredom.
After the same conversation I followed up on Zafon to find out if he had written anything else since Shadow of the Wind. Much to my surprise and delight I found he had published The Angel’s Game this year. I eagerly went to the library and picked up the book. What a shame to find myself in the throws of another miss. The Angel’s Game, while engaging (in the sort of way a CSI episode is engaging on a Monday afternoon when you’re home sick and have to choose between CSI and a cooking show), merely replicated (sometimes explicitly, sometimes accidentally) the plot of Shadow of the Wind. Far too many chapters began and ended with “a dark and stormy night” (sometimes literally replicating this phrase) and indeed Zafon seemed to run the list of synonyms for dark, wet, dreary and cold. I did sympathize with the author, it must be difficult to try to replicate or surpass the imagination (and popular success) of a first novel like Shadow, but all the same, I run out of sympathy rather quickly when phrases are directly repeated within several pages of one another – not a terribly sincere attempt at creativity, and not much respect for the attentive reader.
After the second miss (and beginning to feel desperate for another good book) I consulted my mum – often my best source for recommendations. She didn’t let me down – she suggested Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. I ended up downloading the book from my local library (an amazing new service from the library: free audio and e-books!) and listening to it while waiting for buses and washing dishes. I suspect that had I read anything half-way decent before Little Bee I would not have enjoyed it as much as I did, but given the string of wretched narratives that preceded my listening, I did find myself enjoying (as much as one can enjoy a book about refugees and suicide) Little Bee. Far and away the best character is Charlie – the young son of Sarah O’Rooke – who dresses as batman and attempts to rid the world of “baddies.” The clear distinction Charlie draws between “good” and “evil” carries throughout the novel. While the narrative seems interested in raising questions about how one comes to be “good” or “bad” or whether there are degrees of “goodness” or “badness”, it does not, in the end, trouble whether these categories are permanent or how they come to be constructed, which is, I think, too bad given the opportunities the plot offers to consider such questions. Nevertheless, a good read (particularly for the summer, as the narrative catches you right away and offers few dull moments).