Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Joanna Kavenna/INGLORIOUS

Her mother’s death and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the superficiality of her life are the catalysts for thirty-five year old Rosa to impulsively quit her job as a successful journalist for a London newspaper and enter a painfully long meltdown. Rosa has no prospects or plans and her life rapidly disintegrates. A decade-long live-in relationship with her handsome, but vapid boyfriend abruptly ends and she moves in with a friend. She soon finds out that her ex and her closest friend are about to be married. Without income or job prospects (she’s not really looking), her debt mounts and she wears out one and then another friend’s hospitality. She’s reduced her assets down to a few changes of clothes and a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the complete works of Shakespeare as the train wreck continues in painful slow motion.

I wanted to like this book. The US cover art and back cover blurb are misleading and would lead one to believe Inglorious is chick-lit – far from it. Joanna Kavenna won the Orange award for new writers, so my expectations were high. Kavenna is indeed a gifted writer, her prose is beautiful and Inglorious is an ambitious work that just misses the mark. The novel is relatively plot-less and the ending is unresolved and pessimistic. The work feels much more like an open ended character study, than a completed novel and even that I could indulge, but I found there were inconsistencies that kept pulling me out of the often lovely fictive dream the author created and they made me question the veracity of Rosa’s thoughts and actions.

Rosa has many of the symptoms of someone entering a deep, clinical depression, but she’s got none of the lethargy associated with depression and a version of mental mania that closely resembles logorrhea – if there were a non-verbal kind. She is an obsessive list-maker and letter writer, although she never manages to cross anything off the lists and the letters are promptly torn up and tossed. What keeps one reading is that she is darkly funny. She spends a good deal of the first third of the book wandering the streets of London and we float through her stream of consciousness as she ponders the meaning of existence and tries to work through various philosophical concepts and ideas, while niggling reminders of her need to find employment, lodging and cash continue to intrude. I found myself at times fascinated with her trains of thought, but at other times annoyed that she has the time and energy to wander aimlessly around London, sit in coffee shops writing endless lists and letters, but she doesn’t have the inclination to take care of her own basic survival needs. Her symptoms are so incongruous with the forms of mental illness I’ve witnessed that I found myself distracted trying to identify her pathology in order to resist the idea that she is simply spoiled and self-indulgent.

Rosa’s situation goes from bad to worse and she continues to deteriorate and cut herself off from friends and socially acceptable behavior.Again, I found myself wondering about her friends' seeming obliviousness and indifference to her condition.

Readers will be polarized about this book. Some will forgive the lack of conventional story and character and be charmed by the author’s keen sense of irony and the admittedly fine writing that often displays flashes of brilliance. Others may find that the references and quotes border on pretentiousness and lose patience. The fact that I had to stop to and consider which camp I was in and my inability to buy into the reality of Rosa’s breakdown left me with the feeling that this was a valiant effort, but the author didn’t quite pull it off.


moonrat said...

it really is fantastic cover art, in any case.

i like to read a lot about friendships, and there has been an abundance published on the "toxic friendship" and when you have to cut someone out of your life even though you love them because they're taking you down with them, etc. i actually read an article the other day, though, that cautions that a high percentage of "toxic friendships" are actually caused by mental illness on one side of the friendship--usually the toxic side--and that if we were just a little bit more adept at identifying depression (or less often bipolarism) in the "toxicity" we would be able to help our friend. instead, we abandon our friend at a time she needs us most--albeit out of necessity, because she's practically killing us.

so that aspect of your description is interesting.

moonrat said...

i put this as a separate comment because it's a separate train of thought. it sounds like (from the content) the book is dark and not particularly happy to get through. would you say that you came out of the reading experience feeling overly heavy?

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Thanks for the thorough, well written review. It is always a bigger letdown when you come in with high expectations and a book fails to deliver on them. I felt that way after reading The Historian and said so in a review on my blog.

Lisa said...

Moon Rat, The book was heavy but her heavy thoughts really were interspersed with comic irony, so the dark subject matter really wasn't so much the problem. My reference to the friendships has much to do with the change in Rosa, which occurs about six months after her mother's death. Within a few short months, she's gone from one half of an outwardly successful, trendy London couple to the "odd man out". We don't get much of a sense of any of her friends, but with the exception of a couple she visits in the Lake Country for one disastrous overnight, they all seem to back away overly quickly.

It's hard to put my finger on what made this book feel overly heavy -- part of it was the tediousness of the obsessive thinking that included her inability to ask for help or look for work or a place to live, lots of thoughts about the meaning of life, (and they walked the fence between brilliant and maybe trying just a little too hard), part of it was that the book is nearly plotless, so we have nowhere to be but in the character's head and she's taking this inevitable downward spiral that sort of just fizzles by the end.

This was a LibraryThing Early Reviewer book, so I was obligated to write a review for the free book. I normally never say anything about a book unless I like it, so it was almost painful to write this because the prose and the concept are extremely good, but as a whole, I just felt dissatisfied by the end.

Having said that, this book made me want to read Joanna Ravenna's first (non-fiction) book.

Chad, I really had very mixed emotions about writing this up. I've read many far less ambitious books that fundamentally succeed in what they try to do, but the authors aren't walking a tightrope without a net the way this author is. There's actually much to be admired about this book and she is a far better writer than most debut novelists I've read recently, if that makes sense. I will be watching to see what she does next because I think we're going to see much more from this author.