I recently spent £18 buying Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin and Derec Jones' The Three Bears. For that money I could have bought two pretty decent bottles of wine. After I finished the two books I found myself wondering which would have been the better investment.
I enjoyed The Blind Assassin immensely. It's basically a family saga with lots of dark secrets and unsettling undercurrents. The principal narrator is an elderly lady with a sharp brain and an even sharper tongue. Like Atwood, I suspect, she doesn't suffer fools gladly. There's a vein of mordant wit running through the book which makes it a pleasure to read. My only quibble, in fact, is that it's too long at 637 pages. I think Ms Atwood could have cut two hundred pages without losing anything. Still and all it's a good book, with a gripping story to tell written by someone at the height of her powers. I wish I could write half as well. Hell, make that a quarter.
At 221 pages The Three Bears is a lot shorter but it feels longer. The writing is equally accomplished, the tone is just right for the setting and there's a fine intelligence at work behind the scenes. But there is a problem with the book. It's very definitely not an easy read. And the reason for that is the main protagonist. He is not - very definitely not - a sympathetic character.
And since it's a stream of consciousness type of novel that can make for an uncomfortable read.
The unnamed narrator is well aware of his own fictional shortcomings. He doesn't like himself at all. Come to that he doesn't like most of his friends, he doesn't like the world he inhabits and he doesn't much care for you, the reader, either. It's a mark of how well the book is written that I continued to the end in the face of so much antagonistic bile. I guess I was gripped by a sort of morbid fascination. I wasn't disappointed either - there isn't a happy ending, indeed there may not even be an ending at all.
The book is challenging, no doubt about it. Lots of good books are, of course - maybe ALL good books. It's a close run thing but I'd say this one is worth the effort. In the end, my only real criticism is that the book is so relentlessly downbeat that a lot of the undoubted humour in the writing gets stifled, maybe even suffocated.
So, would I have been better off with two bottles of wine? No. If I had my time again I'd buy one bottle of wine and one book. Which one? Easy. An Australian Shiraz of course.