Book notes: Shaw and Perkins

Ali Shaw, The Man Who Rained (2012)

After the death of her father (who instilled in her a love of the weather) and subsequent end of her relationship, Elsa Beletti determines to leaveNew York for Thunderstown, a small settlement nestled between four mountains, which she has previously seen only from an aeroplane window. The people of Thunderstown have their superstitions about the weather, and not necessarily without good reason; but nothing prepares Elsa for meeting Finn Munro, a local hermit who transforms into a raincloud. Elsa finds herself falling in love with Finn, but there are those in Thunderstown who fear him to be the folk-devil Old Man Thunder.

I’ve heard Ali Shaw’s name mentioned a lot in the last couple of years – enough to suggest that his first book, The Girl With Glass Feet, was a modern fairytale which marked the emergence of a significant writer. Now that I’ve read Shaw’s sophomore novel, I find myself wanting to read the debut for comparison, because The Man Who Rained has some wonderful qualities – but it doesn’t quite get to where I sense it could be.

Any tale like this needs a sense of magic to emerge from its words, and The Man Who Rained has that, especially when it’s focusing on Finn – for instance, the passage describing his birth is beautiful. But the impact of this is diluted by the novel’s approach to place: both New York and Thunderstown are depicted rather sketchily, so there’s no sense of moving from the mundane world to somewhere extraordinary.

In terms of characterisation, there’s a nice parallel/contrast between Elsa’s and Daniel Fossiter’s (Thunderstown’s resident ‘culler’, who was close to Finn’s mother) thoughts about their respective fathers. But the ending of The Man Who Rained doesn’t quite satisfy – it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but there is a sense of a story in a hurry to be wrapped up. Be that as it may, I certainly enjoyed Shaw’s book, and I’ll be keeping an eye on his future work – as well as reading The Girl With Glass Feet, of course.

Emily Perkins, The Forrests (2012)

The Forrests is one of the first titles in Bloomsbury’s new literary fiction imprint, Bloomsbury Circus. Now, I have a soft spot for well-designed physical books, and I must say that the Circus volumes are gorgeous – substantial (but not unwieldy) paperbacks that stand out on shelves. Of course, what’s between the covers counts the most; so that’s what I’ll turn to now.

Emily Perkins’s fourth novel is concerned particularly with the life of Dorothy Forrest, who, aged seven, moves from New York to Auckland with her parents and siblings. Over the years, relationships begin, evolve and end; life takes both unexpected and only-too-expected turns. Perkins’s writing is elliptical, in terms of the chronological leaps between chapters, and the way plot developments are often revealed indirectly within the text. There’s also a focus on fine (sometimes apparently extraneous) detail; these techniques lend the novel an epic sweep, enabling Perkins to reveal the drama inherent in an ‘ordinary’ life when it’s viewed in the long term.

By the same token, all the detail means that The Forrests doesn’t always flow as well as it might; some passages and chapters are inevitably more engaging than others. But then along comes a particular phrase, or a moment of observation, and all is well once more. When reading Perkins’s novel, like Dorothy Forrest herself, we become caught up in the whirlwind of life.

1 Comment

  1. I didn’t have the problem with place that you had, and I certainly had enough of a picture of Thunderstown to, erm, picture it. If you ever get a chance to hear Ali talk, do go, as he is a truly fascinating and natural speaker. I’ve picked up the Forrests three times now, and still put it down not quite convinced, so I will probably wait for the pbk.

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