Book Quote:

“I am imprinting this upon my memory,” she said. “The southern exposure of a winter morning light, the sounds of thaw, water dripping off the eaves, the squirrels…Sometimes I seem to know, in the split of a second of a moment, that it will be a moment I’ll want to keep.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster  (SEP 12, 2011)

This is a beautiful book. If you want to read something that has the same effect as gazing at a vast and perfect ink-wash painting, calming and yet utterly absorbing, reach for this. Like the tiniest haze of seeping ink will be skillful enough to convey a distant village nestling in the hills, or the flight of a crane; there is not a word misplaced in this small and lovely work. Its theme is poetry, and indeed the exquisite style does full justice to the subject.

The plot follows the lives of a handful of graduate poetry students and their teacher. The initial focus is on their interactions and early relationships during university years, but as the story progresses the camera lens zooms with painful precision on subsequent pinpoints of time.

The technique of the writing is such that it leaves one with an impression of overlapping layers rather than a well-woven tapestry, the latter of which is the more usual impression in a well-plotted novel. Life depicted here is more a palimpsest than a continuous narrative. There’s an almost fatalistic crystallisation of the view of the past seeping into the present (or the ongoing) that’s highly peculiar, and entirely seductive.

It’s even more astonishing to find such alluring excellence in a book that is essentially about writing. Generally, tomes ranting away about the torment of literary endeavours and the social inadequacies of their perpetrators are best put out of their misery immediately by means of a swift bonfire. But rather than wallow first-hand in the self-absorption and uncertainty as so many of these efforts tend to, Chang depicts a view onto these same themes that’s as unnervingly detached as a high-resolution spy satellite picture: taken from space, but accurate enough to read the print on a newspaper. The style is formal, bordering on the stilted, the tone even and quiet.

Two of the central characters are the poetry student friends Roman and Bernard. Roman is driven, moderately gifted, insistently handsome and, eventually, inordinately successful. Bernard is his counterpart, with caricature-like introversion, religious torment and more than a hint of obsessive compulsive disorder born out in poverty, and the novel makes no bones about his role in the narrative as the “traditional” poet.

These extreme stereotypes should be flat shadows by rights. Instead they’re almost luminous, depicted by refraction, like a painter using the space that is not to denote the presence of an object. These two characters vie with each other, in their peculiar way, for the attentions of their teacher Miranda Sturgis, the acclaimed and established poet. Their differing approaches, viewpoints and degree of success in gaining her approval and attention are at the core of the novel.

Along with the much-debated question of “why write poetry,” the novel explores facets of the role of the teacher (or mentor), the relationship of the mentor with the recipient, and the progression of the student in turn becoming mentor. The development here is linked structurally and thematically to the ageing process, which gives the novel as a whole a feeling of natural evolution; something organic and inevitable. Perhaps this is why I can’t remember reading anything with so little a sense of contrivance. Despite, or perhaps because of, the meticulous precision with which it’s put together.

The character reveal is also atypical. It’s not so much a reader discovering an already-formed entity but the entity and the reader making the discovery together. Again, the sense of extreme detachment fused with extreme intimacy is slightly dizzying.

If you read action thrillers exclusively, then I suppose this book is not for you. Apart from that I’d recommend it to anybody. You don’t need to know about writing or poetry, just be ready to think about why art is necessary for life. And read a jolly good story in the meantime, complete with romance, betrayal, suspense and verve. It’s quiet, but it’s a page-turner.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 15 readers
PUBLISHER: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (September 12, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Lan Samantha Change
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another book on poetry:


September 12, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, Literary

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