Oh, historical fiction. After such a rich recent diet of Robertson Davies, I’m afraid this book gave my brain a bit of indigestion, much as occurs when one submits the stomach to questionable food from roadside stands when one is in a hurry. It wasn’t bad, precisely, it just wasn’t terribly engaging, and it didn’t fill me with a deep interest in the way that some historical fiction does, which is a pity, because I am rather fond of historical fiction. It’s one of my secret pleasures.
At any rate, this book felt extremely familiar to me, and I think that the author may have owed some of her work to others. Either that or I’ve read the book before and it was so unmemorable that I forgot. It hinted at Year of Wonders, only it wasn’t quite as good, and there was an unbearably cutesy little device of interspersing entries from the personal journal of one of the characters between the chapters.
This sort of thing is done, of course, to show the readers the character’s descent into madness or other such nonsense, and we’re supposed to ooh and awe at its cleverness and brilliance. Unfortunately, as often happens, the trick fell flat, and I was left instead with a bored and slightly bitter taste. I think that madness is better shown in action than it is in journal entries, but perhaps I’m just a cynic. At any rate, as a narrative device, it left me unimpressed.
Not only was this a historical novel, it was a historical novel about science. Now, I happen to find the history of science rather interesting, and I’ve read some good fictional treatments of it, but this wasn’t one of them. I’ve noticed lately that I like less and less books, a phenomenon my father often complains about as well, and I think that’s why both of us tend to re-read things a lot, rather than picking up new books. At least when you read something you’ve already read, you know what to expect, and you can count on it to be good. As my father is fond of saying, life is really too short to read bad books.
Clark’s previous work, which I haven’t read, was highly acclaimed, and I gather it was a historical fiction piece as well, set in the sewers of Victorian London.
Given this book, I think that perhaps Clark should have stayed there.
The Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark. Published 2007, 382 pages. Fiction.