Monday, January 6, 2014

Review | Stone in a Landslide

I didn't like Stone in a Landslide.

Could that be my entire review? Could I leave it at that, in the hopes of avoiding riling up readers I know enjoyed this book? Could I avoid awkwardness with the publishers, with the translators, with everyone involved in the project and just ignore this review? I could do all of these things... but I won't. That's not how it works.

Before now, I'd read three books published by Peirene Press. Though there was one I clearly liked less (the rather uneven Next World Novella), each offered a unique perspective and each had something about it that nonetheless kept me enclosed in the story. But the three also had a rather similar writing style - a bit disjointed, a bit loose... the kind of post-modern style that is popular in certain circles. It's not my favorite style and it sometimes hindered my appreciation of these novellas, but all in all, the first three were positive experiences.

Reading Stone in a Landslide was not. For such a short novel, I found myself struggling to remain interested in the story. And for good reason too: Stone in a Landslide has neither plot nor characters to latch onto, making it extraordinarily difficult to become emotionally invested in the story. Over at Goodreads, the publisher blurb describes main character Conxa as having "a voice totally free of anger and bitterness". This is true, but it's true because you could easily change that sentence to "a voice totally free of emotion". In the next paragraph, we're told that Stone in a Landslide has "everything": love, loss, history, death, war, etc. All of which is technically true. The book mentions each of those things. It just doesn't know how to feel them.

The story is this: Conxa is forced to move to her aunt and uncle as a young girl so that her family can avoid starvation. Though the move is said to be temporary, she ends up spending the rest of her life (essentially) in this new village, for all intents and purposes losing touch with her parents and siblings (who are only ever mentioned again in brief, offhand comments). This new life is described as being full of hard work and dedication, but we see none of it. Within a few years, Conxa falls in love with Jaume. There are approximately three paragraphs worth of courting and drama, then they marry. They start a family.

Around this point in the story, Maria Barbal slips in the first explicit reference to a year, grounding us in reality. This turns out to be more of a flashing warning sign for the war ahead. Except... not really? The war and its aftereffects are treated with the same dulled hand and the same utter lack of tone that the previous sections had. Tiny flashes of clever writing and thoughtful observations make their way into the narrative at this point, but it just isn't enough. From here until the end, the story is like a toy that's running out of batteries - slower and slower until it finally comes to a halt.

Does it seem like this is the bare-bones of the story? Yes. That's exactly what it is. Stone in the Landslide does one thing well, and that's its remarkable ability to skip over many years in the space of a sentence. But the pacing is still off, because nothing fills these gaps. The story is nothing more than an outline, and there is no hope of filling it in.

I didn't like Stone in a Landslide. I didn't like Conxa as such a detached narrator, who constantly tells rather than shows. I felt nothing from her - no real love for her husband, no real love for her children, no passion, no fear, nothing. And since Conxa's head is all we have, there are essentially no other characters. Jaume is nothing more than a prop, the children are nothing more than dolls Conxa occasionally feels possessive of, and Conxa's aunt and uncle serve more as a reminder of the "old days" than they actually have personalities themselves. Nobody has any personal spark that could make them remotely interesting to me as a reader.

But surely the writing! you must say at this point. The writing must be good, if so many other readers enjoyed it! If Peirene published it! But like I said, I have a bit of a different taste when it comes to Peirene's preferred writing style. The loose style found in previous novellas was once again present here, and once again failed to impress me. More than that, the writing was sometimes downright clunky, with passages that actually jolted me out of the reading experience. ("Even in the bumping and bouncing cart, I could feel myself trembling. It was happiness.")

It was impossible to read Stone in a Landslide without immediately comparing it to the significantly superior The Time of the Doves. These two Catalan books about women in the Spanish Civil War tell very similar stories, yet in markedly different ways and with clearly different results. Barbal minimizes her story so very much and spreads it out over the years such that nothing has a particular impact. Everything is told in a bland, dead-sounding voice; nothing is felt. Rodoreda looks at a more narrow slice of time and spreads it out over many more pages, but she delves deeper into the characters. She shows the world around them.

If you read the publisher summary Peirene provides, it sounds like they readily admit that there's nothing particularly new in Stone in a Landslide. In fact, their description of what makes up for the lack of voice is very similar to how I myself described The Time of the Doves in my review. At the end of the day, I can't view Stone in a Landslide as something unique because it isn't. I can't view it as well-written, because my reading experience was uncomfortable (at best). I can't pretend like I cared about the book, because there was just nobody to care about and nothing to learn from. It's a prime example of a pointless "literary" novella - instead of admitting that it's not particularly good, we're supposed to praise the minimalism (read: emptiness), praise the "glimpses" of life (read: all we get), and praise the detachment (read: utter lack of emotional connection).

So once again: I did not like Stone in a Landslide. In fact, I really didn't like it. It's the sort of book I'm sorry to have wasted an afternoon on, and quite frankly reminds me where I often diverge with the broader literary community in terms of defining certain books as "quality" versus not. Other prospective readers may go with the crowd on this one, but I felt the need to nonetheless share my opposing review: I did not like this book.

2 comments:

  1. Peirene would, of course, argue that it's up t the reader to fill in the blanks and the ensuing emotions, I don't agree. Too much miinimalism results, as you say, in an outline and I felt there was far too many years and traumatic events to cover in Barbal's novella. my least favourite Peirene to date.

    Next World Novella, however,is a whole different ball game - my favourite by quite a long margin. But that's a whole other discussion.

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  2. Ah, agreeing to disagree, a common theme for these comments, methinks ;)

    I quite enjoyed this, the understated tone flowing nicely into the regretful ending. Also, the Delius is easily my favourite Peirene choice (of the eleven I've read).

    Still, takes all sorts... ;)

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