18 October 2005

The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway

A guest review by Marrije Schaake.


The Greenstone Grail could have been a fine book. It's the story of Nathan, who visits other worlds in his dreams. At first they are only dreams, but gradually he goes over to those other places (disappearing from his bed) and begins to influence events in the dream worlds -- and begins taking people back from them to his own world. It's also the story of his mother, Annie, who has lost her husband before Nathan was born, and perhaps even before he was conceived, and of their protector Bartlemy, who cooks the most splendid food and who may have been around for much longer than you'd expect.

There are also dogs named Hoover, water spirits, witches, dragons, ancient prophecies, grails, murder mysteries and English policemen -- and many more ingredients that could have produced a great fantasy novel. The writing is good, too: Amanda Hemingway has a great ear for quirky, believable dialogue and comes up with wonderfully engaging characters. I wish she'd stick to 'said' and just forgot about 'she hissed', 'he amended', 'he insisted' and 'he demanded excitedly' altogether in dialogue attribution, but that may just be my Stephen King indoctrination shining through.

But on the whole, I'm not happy with the book. I'm afraid I found myself arguing with its editing almost from the start. There's so much going on in the story that it's more of a hindrance than a help when we don't stick to a strict chronological order of events. The one crucial event from later on that opens the book is OK, I guess, but from that point on I'd prefer a leisurely, classic buildup -- slowly moving into the village, the school, introducing the neighbours, and then gradually on to how Nathan discovers his special powers and what that does to him.

In some places it's much too long -- dialogue is broken up by lots of description about how people feel about what they've just said, when it's already quite obvious from what they said. The explainy bits about Bartlemy's theory of Nathan's conception and his Destiny are stilted and complicated, and may come too early in the book. And minor characters get too much airtime. For instance, Inspector Pobjoy, who is only there to solve a murder, is described with doubts and backstory and old cases, where I think he should just shut up and be a policeman.

And in other places it's much too short -- interesting events are skipped over, scenes rushed through, complicated happenings pressed into too little space, almost as if the author was forced to cut a lot of material from the manuscript in order to stay under an assigned word count.

Switches in perspective are a problem, too: there are many scenes in which we see events from one person's point of view first, and then suddenly we are in someone else's head, and in the next sentence back in the head of the first character. And whose story is this? Nathan's? Annie's? Bartlemy's? The whole would have been so much stronger if we stuck to Nathan and he was the one central pivot of the story, instead of (for instance) diving too deeply into Annie's love life and her doubts and fears.

It's all quite frustrating, because I get the sense that with a tighter focus on the central narrative this really could have been a very good fantasy novel. I hope Hemingway sharpens her style for parts two and three of this trilogy, because the material is there, the writing and the ideas are good: she just needs a little more ruthlessness with her own text to polish it up right and bring out the strong points.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not any important novel reviewer or anything like that, but I just finished the book and from a reader's perspective I really enjoyed it. The very criticisms you give were the things that made me enjoy the book. For instance, the policeman although a stand in character- I liked that there was more to his side of the story. It meant I felt he was more real than just a character the author needed to fill a space. And the different perspective's- that was great. It meant I could see what all the characters were thinking and the bits of information that they each had that made up the whole story.
    The book was written differently to other books, but that was why I enjoyed it so much. It kept me fascinated and intrigued with the writing. I liked that so much was happening, most of which seemed to not actually be apart of the whole bigger picture..but that was good for me, kept me guessing.
    But I'm just a reader...

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