Monday, August 10, 2009
Summer Reading: The Ingenious Edgar Jones
It's been a long time since I read a book quickly, stealing time as often as possible to sneak in a few pages. My reading has been sporadic for so long; I pick up a lot of books but rarely finish them. Or, I finish them but it's slow going. I haven't been totally lost in a story for a long time. Finally I found one to race through, eager to get back to it when life interrupted my reading.
I was attracted to the cover of The Ingenious Edgar Jones (by Elizabeth Garner) at the library. I love beautiful covers but of course am often disappointed by what's between them. In this case, I wasn't... and I was.
The story is beautifully written. Edgar Jones is born, mid-19th-century Oxford, on a remarkable night. He is a remarkable boy. The story is his, from birth to about age 14, and his parents'. His mother was the daughter of a tavern-keeper; his father a porter at Oxford University. The father sets great store by books and learning; Edgar displays a different kind of intelligence, one his father cannot understand and thus cannot respect. Eventually, things go badly.
It is not a happy book, but it's not grim either. Well, it's the story of a family's disintegration; how can that not be grim? That's how good the writing is. The parents, in particular the father, show a complete lack of understanding of their child and how to help him grow up. The father's expectations of how his son should turn out render him unable to see his boy for who he is. The mother seems a little more able to see and understand the boy, but is unable to help him either. It is a sobering book for parents: could these things happen to my family? Am I paying attention to my kids, to their talents and skills? Am I trying to fit them into a box of my making?
There are beautiful moments too. Did I already say it's beautifully-written?
The disappointing part came at the ambiguous ending. Suddenly, elements of magical realism were introduced into the book. (I like magical realism, a la Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits, but not when it's inconsistent with the rest of the book.) Perhaps they'd been there, in a subtle way, all along. Certainly there was something magical about Edgar. But at the end, it felt as if the author couldn't quite decide what to do with some of the characters, so... well, I won't say what happened but it was not what I was expecting. I'll just say I'd rather have a realistic unhappy ending than a completely contrived one.
Still, I found a lot to like, and to ponder, about this book. I'll look for others by Elizabeth Garner.