Monday, November 20, 2006

Two bottles of wine or a good book

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.


  1. So leaving the novels aside, a quick question.
    Do you see a selection of Canadian wines at your local vendor? Just curious.

  2. I don't believe I've seen too many. But I see that Jackson-Triggs Okanagan Estate Grand Reserve Shiraz 2004 won an award as the "best shiraz in the world" recently so maybe I haven't been looking hard enough.

  3. Both sound like grand reads, Bill, depending on the moment & the mood. I do like difficult stories that challenge my everyday thoughts. I love wines too. Thereupeutic!
    A great post as always!

  4. For me the choice would be the two books or nine bottles of wine. Well, no contest.

  5. Anonymous1:30 pm

    I agree The 3 Bears is a challenging read. But definitely worthwhile (but then I rarely drink ...)

    Interestingly, I DID find the narrator to be a sympathetic character. Very human and honest re his warts and all. Yes, there are weaknesses and frailty in there - but such an openness and self-awareness ... and self-deprecation too. Irresistable!

  6. John, your taste in wine is obviously somewhat different to mine but I assume that given the choice you would buy the books?

    Debi, I wonder if you liked the narrator more than I did because you're a woman. It's a great read though, I wouldn't dispute that. I'm looking forward to reading it again in a couple of years, it's that kind of book.

  7. Anonymous8:17 pm

    I had suspected that meself, Pundy ... S-o-o transparent ...

  8. Yeah, OK, I'll take the books. Margaret Atwood is always good value.

  9. And definitely so is Derec Jones.