Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman

By way of summary, I'll say that if this novel were a blog, its tags would be: poverty, disease, politics, medicine, ethics, prostitution, grave robbing, body snatchers, rats, ferret, the color blue and Evil Eye.

Holman's work is a historical novel with bite. I enjoyed it immensely. That said, let me point out a few things.

First of all, the reader is for the majority of the novel unclear about the nature of the narrator - a very important component of the book, any book, indeed. The narrator refers to itself as "we" and "us." The reader is confused as to whether the narrator is an omniscient referring to a combination of himself or herself and the reader, or actually a group narrating as a whole, at the same time (as opposed to Faulkner's varied narrators speaking one at a time), which, as far as I know, would be entirely unconventional and original.

Also, we are unsure as to from what place and time that the narrators are narrating, as at several points they make reference to distance from the situation, saying "we being too far away in time and space [from the action of the story]." The reader assumes, or figures, from these statements that the narrators are speaking from the present looking back into the past, but the voice(s?) of the narrators is archaic, belonging to the period of the story. I wondered if this weren't some unintended or unrecognized inconsistency on the author's behalf in an attempt to set the tone of a historical novel but making the narrators seem false if the narrators are indeed actually speaking from the present.

It is not until the very end of the novel that the narrators, indeed multiple, are revealed. When they are revealed, the reader is met with both a sense of relief and, still, a little confusion, though it makes everything make sense.

Needless to say, there is a lot of figuring going on throughout this novel on the part of the reader - you're constantly trying to figure things out, from the narrators to the intentions and motivations of the characters.

The narrators start the story by "talking" in a sort of ESP to the first character they introduce in order to then introduce the main character, again an interesting, 'round about tactic which I haven't come across before and that has a slightly annoying effect in its indirectness.

Really, my review so far makes it sound like a very complicated beginning, but it really does read quite easily, in my experience, despite what I've said so far.

Continuing on the issue of the narrators, though, they continue to use the point of view of minor characters to tell the main character's story. Including the first character introduced - a match stick maker and theater-goer - plus a bar keep and even, at one point, a table. In this way, the narrator seems to not take ownership of the story, but passes it along and apologizes for it; in fact, the narrators keep interrupting to comment on their own ineptitude for telling the story, saying at one point near the beginning "It is clear to us now that we have opened this story in the wrong place" and, referring to themselves as narrators, "we who are new to the telling of tales." But of course, we know that the author and the narrator are two different entities, therefore the question becomes, "Why is the author creating such narrator(s)?" Again, in the end, all is revealed with the identities of the narrators. It is actually really very clever.

As for other aspects, this novel tends to be rather melodramatic in tone, for example "swirls his glass of flat mahogany beer and watches the sediment sink like grave dust" - (I mean, really?) - but this also seems right for the time period somehow.

Also, the novel often spends too much time describing people and places that have nothing to do with the plot - you (or at least me, as a reader) are frustrated and skim over it as quickly as possible. Perhaps this is a tactic to build suspense, or to show knowledge (research) and add credibility to the historical part of "historical novel"? But it is just annoying.

Despite the criticisms, this was, again, a very enjoyable novel, particularly due to my (inexplicable?) interest in prostitution, the 17th - 19th centuries and/or the combination of both. - 4 stars


Amanda said...

From your review alone, the narrative voice of this book sounds almost like a Nabokovian experiment.

Amber said...

Nabokovian - I'll have to check that out, as I'm completely ignorant of it. Thanks!

Amber said...

Googling, I found this quiz you might be interested in:

Amber said...

(I'm Ada Veen, apparently.)

Amanda said...

Love that quiz! I'm apparently Joan Clements from Pnin. I barely remember that book, it's been so long.

Mainly I thought of Nabokov because he does some really bizarre things with his prose. In Transparent Things, for instance, his narrator is omnicient third but also first. The narrator isn't a character in the book, but is telling the story as if they are looking down on the scene and referring to themselves as "I." They also try to call out to the characters to interfere, like gods, and address the reader in blatant second person. Like pretending the reader is also an omnicient god sitting next to them helping to interfere in the story. In the beginning, I remember the narrator calling out to the main character, Person, and then turning to the reader and saying something to the effect of "hey, quit hitting me, I'm not hurting him!" It was one of the weirdest things I've ever read. It's too bad the book sucked. That was the problem with some of Nabokov's experiements. He believed story could be sacrificed for the sake of style, and sometimes his style was magnificent and fascinating, but his stories sucked. Not so always - there are many of his books I adore.

Amanda said...

I have yet to read Ada, or Ardor, so I don't know the character you are. I attempted to read it once years ago and failed, and have yet to embark on it again. My brother says it's one of Nabokov's best, though he accidentally told me the big spoiler at the end, grr. Ah well.

Christopher said...

1.) Nabokov is amazing.
2.) He once remarked how it peeved him that authors would say things about their characters leading them to surprising places--for Nabokov, he was the creator and general for every character he created and he recognized it as his right and purpose to make them do whatever he wished. It's interesting to read his stuff knowing that--with that context, it's easy to read much of his work as a treatise on how the relationship between author and character works. Pale Fire basically asks you to figure out who's created whom, and what the significance of that is. If you have a few minutes, you should check out a favorite short story of mine called "Cloud, Castle, Lake," which pretty strongly intimates that the main character is nothing more than a conscious creation of the author.

Amanda said...

Nabokov is certainly a genius. There has been little that I've read by him I haven't liked. Even Pale Fire, where I didn't like the story or characters or anything, I loved the style and form of.

I've yet to read any of his short stories. I'll go seek that one out sometime in the near future.