I’m headed to a dinner party tonight where I will, almost certainly, have to talk about Barbara Gowdy’s Mister Sandman. S., who lent me the book, will be there, and so I’ll return it and have to say whether I liked it or not, what I thought of the writing. What do you do when a book recommended is one you just don’t like? I feel like I ought to apologize for not taking the same pleasure she did, or reexamine my own taste for its deficiencies, or pretend to have liked it more than I did.
Alas. I thought Mister Sandman was just okay. In short: It’s a book about the disparity between ‘true’ selves and what we reveal to those we love. The secrets we keep from our partners and children; the secrets we keep from ourselves. The reverberations of these secrets are detected by the changeling child of the family, Joan, who, because she is ‘brain damaged’ and assumed to be mute, absorbs (and records) the secrets she hears, only to echo them back in (magical) and transformative ways. No question the novel is inventive in form and in some language. There’s a playfulness and humour that underlines the ‘heavy’ themes of betrayal, self-awareness, sexual awakening and identity.
And yet I didn’t care much about what happened to any of the characters or if they were ‘found out’ for who they really are/want to be. This lack of care wasn’t because I didn’t appreciate their specificity, rather I found that the opacity they present to the world (and in many instances, to themselves) made it a challenge – if not an impossibility – to connect or empathize with any of them myself. Moreover the characters – while undergoing significant ‘change’ in plot and experience – do little to evolve in their temperament or approach to one another. It’s as though the significant changes happen at them and around them, rather that to them in a way that might transform, complicate or enrich them (and so the reader’s understanding of who they are and their connection to us).
The particular book aside, as I read more books recommended, or review copies, I’m beginning to think this blog – or my thoughts – ought to move past the ‘did I like it’ / ‘didn’t I like it’ binary (thus sparing me the discomfort of having to publicly declare whether I liked a book recommended, when I could, instead, just talk about images of grass and angels). It’s tiresome to write (and so I suspect tiresome to read) the reasons why I liked or didn’t like a book (maybe). What to do instead? Close reading of passages? Exploration of themes? Discuss.