The Morning News Tournament of Books, sponsored by Powell’s Books, is an annual battle royale amongst the top novels in “literary fiction” published throughout the year. Read more about this year’s tournament »
Runby ANN PATCHETT
Shining at the Bottom of the Seaby STEPHEN MARCHE
The plot of Run sloshes around in its 24-hour timeframe like a tempest in a teapot: Former Boston mayor Bernard Doyle guilt-trips his two grown sons, both adopted, into accompanying him to a political rally on a cold and snowy night. One of the sons ends up accidentally strolling in front of an oncoming car but is saved by a kind woman, a stranger, who pushes him out of the way at the last moment and ends up in a hospital bed herself. (I’m not giving away anything; this all happens in the first 50 pages.) In the ensuing 22 hours and 250 or so pages, everything, and nothing, becomes clear for this family.
I romped through Run in fewer than six hours. The characters, especially little Kenya Moser, are interesting and full of life. But in the end, it all feels a bit too prettily wrapped up and tied with a bow. I never committed to the characters, never wanted to know more about them or wondered what happened after the book ends. It was so obvious: In this cotton-candy story, nearly everyone lives happily ever after.
On the other hand, Shining at the Bottom of the Sea creates, literally, a place I want to visit. From the opening line of the foreword (Sanjanians are perhaps the most literary people on earth), this set of short stories, presented as an anthology of the literature of the (fictional) North Atlantic island of Sanjania, shows what a writerin this case, Stephen Marchecan do with words. The language Marche summons to stand in as the island’s early and very localized patois in the first story, The Destruction of Marylebone, the Private King, has a lilt all its own. To wit, when things first turn bad for the Private King:
Sally Parkman, a Woman Crownagent, grabbed the pirate fleet, and yawled it against the waves of Portuguese Cove, and Marylebone scuppered with his sister Virginia and his good friend Moses Tumbledown overhill byland toward his homecove Restitution, flittering.
Marche then takes us on a thoroughly mesmerizing ride through 18 more stories by authors from Sanjania. The language matures from the early patois but still keeps its lilt, and each story has its own individual style and makes its own unique contribution to the social and political picture of the island nation. Professor Saintfrancis is a mystery in the vein of Conan Doyle’s, while The Master’s Dog gives readers an idea of the racial tensions that gripped the colony in the last years before its independence. The love story that is Histories of Aenea is terrifically sad, and when the narrator of The End of the Beach tells the tale of her departure from Sanjania, I want to know how she could ever leave.
In short, lately I’ve been daydreaming about a visit to see Sanjania’s coves and its looming inner mountains, and to visit its many bookshops. Anyone who can make me do that deserves a Rooster. Stephen Marche’s book goes to the next round.
|All critics are like dog-show judges: The first thing a critic must do is define the thing he’s criticizing.||Kevin||John||Prior to it showing up in the ToB brackets, I’d never heard of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.|