On excellent, horrible books.

This is not a professional book review blog. I don’t work for a newspaper or a publisher. I’ve even stopped accepting books for review, because that affected my enjoyment of the whole process. I read, and blog, entirely for pleasure. That said, I still feel compelled to think critically about the books that I read, to consider the quality of the writing and content and not just my own enjoyment. Of course, most of the time, a well-written book will be one I enjoy reading. Even if the content matter is dark, there will be things for me to love in it—beautiful turns of phrase, or superb character development, or unexpected plot twists. (The reverse is not necessarily true—I take huge pleasure in rereading Nancy Drew books, which I am sure only have six plots between all 200+ of them).

However, there is one complication to all this. What happens when a book is both excellent—maybe even flawlessly executed—and yet utterly horrible? Completely not to my tastes? It’s not a bad book, per se—just one I wish I hadn’t personally picked up? (For example, Jude the Obscure is widely considered a classic, but I deeply regret having read it because it is just so unrelentingly grim and hopeless).

I read Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale over the Christmas period. Knowing nothing about the author, I picked it up entirely due to the snowy, festive-looking cover. (Ha, having finished the novel, even looking at the cover now makes me feel deeply unsettled).

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It sounded like it might be a rather gritty but ultimately heart-warming story about a young Belarusian boy moving in with his granddad after the death of his mother. That is not what it is. Or, rather, it is anything but heart-warming. Initially, I wasn’t intending to write about it here, but I can’t get it out of my mind, and maybe it will be a useful way to think about how I read and review. This will be a little bit spoilery, because I can’t think about how to talk about why I didn’t like it without talking about the end of the novel. I’ll try to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum, but I don’t think that knowing how the plot progresses would ruin it for you, if you wanted to read it. The strength of this book is in its prose rather than its plot—but consider yourself spoiler-alerted nonetheless.

A young boy moves into the tenement flat of his maternal grandfather, Papa, shortly before the death of his mother from cancer—that’s not a spoiler; that’s in the blurb—and her dying wish is to have her ashes sprinkled in the forest where her mother lies. For reasons the boy does not understand, his Papa is extremely reluctant to visit the forest, and it is only at the boy’s absolute insistence that they eventually walk back to his old abandoned hut deep in the heart of the forest. As they walk, the grandfather tells him fairy stories—though these are very un-Disney versions, featuring malevolent trees drinking the blood of murdered men, and successfully cannibalistic witches, and all manner of other dark tales. The stories begin to take on a shape we might recognise—essentially, telling the story of World War Two followed by Stalin and the gulags—as they get deeper into the woods. Once they are in the heart of the forest, the boy’s Papa proves even more reluctant to leave than he was to enter. It becomes extremely clear that multiple traumas during and after the war have affected his ability to live in normal society—something he has been fighting off ever since his daughter was born—and surrounded by the site in which some of these occurred, he regresses deep into his own memories. His greatest fear is that the boy, who is his responsibility, will be taken away from him. He and his grandson move into the hut initially, and do not return to the tenement. By the end of the novel, they have left even that rudimentary shelter, and Papa is raising the boy feral and homeless in the woods as he morphs into the Wild Man, the fairytale monster from his stories.

The story relies heavily on imagery from Little Red Riding Hood, but with a twist: what if the one person you had left in the world turned out to be the wolf–not a woodcutter, not your grandmother? The boy’s Papa is introduced as a kind, gentle elderly man, but there are unsubtle hints from early on that things might go downhill. At one point, the boy is admiring his Papa’s smile, and thinks that he has nice big teeth. As the story progresses, the boy is caught between his wild outdoor life with his feral grandfather, whose mental and physical health is deteriorating at an alarming rate, and the possibility of a normal life where he gets to go to school and have friends. He tries very hard to remain loyal to his grandfather and provide care for him, but feels a pull towards the life he used to have. Due to various injuries sustained over the course of the narrative, his Papa gradually looks and sounds less human—skin turning green from an infected leg wound, his tongue split from an accident, leaves and ice in his beard, iron-strong and skeletal—until he is seemingly more monster than man. The final scenes of the novel are harrowing in the extreme. Though the boy is rescued from the woods and given a safe home away from the Papa he loves and fears, he believes that he has been infected by his grandfather’s “wildness”, and that he too will be fighting it off for the rest of his life.

It is an extraordinary novel. There’s no denying it. Dinsdale is a superb writer, and, though I don’t have a particularly visual brain, I have a very clear picture of the final scenes of the novel in my mind’s eye—of Papa more wolf than man, of the Wild Man pacing in the snowy woods. The plot lags for about fifty pages in about the third quarter of the narrative, but mostly the book is fast-paced and engaging and utterly fascinating. It draws attention to the devastating effects that atrocities perpetuated by both the Nazi and Communist regimes had on Eastern European countries. The characters are all very well-drawn, and even Papa never lapses into a caricature. Once I started the book, I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

Despite all that, I very much wish I hadn’t read it. I wish I did not have those pictures in my mind’s eye. I dislike stories where children are in peril, unless the peril is very mild or the child is accompanied by a competent adult. (I suspect this to be a hangover from lots of child protection work when I was a paediatric nurse). More than that, the agonising nature of the situation—that Papa has lost everything he has, followed by his mind, but he is still raising his grandson the way he believes to be best—it’s horrible. Though it doesn’t play out in this way, it is a story that happens all the time in families: when a parent or caregiver has lost everything other than a child, and then the very weight of their love for that child renders them incompetent and even dangerously possessive, jealous. I’ve seen it happen to children I’ve looked after. For totally arbitrary, personal reasons, I don’t like stories where parents become paranoid, homeless survivalists. All my reasons for disliking this novel are entirely arbitrary and personal, but then this is my arbitrary, personal blog. I can’t stand stories with ambiguous or hopeless endings—I want everything to be terribly sad, but at least over and done with, or otherwise decidedly hopeful in tone. This lacked both closure and optimism—which was unquestionably the right narrative decision, but which left me unhappy and unsettled.

I understand why Dinsdale wrote the story this way; I understand that it underscores the lasting nature of trauma; certainly it tells the story that all human beings are complex beyond imagining. It’s a fantastic book, and I absolutely hated it.

So, how should I review books like this? I suppose I review them rather like I’ve reviewed Gingerbread—I acknowledge that they’re brilliant; I acknowledge that I wish that I’d never picked them up. I’m not sure what the protocol is for reviews like this. Though I’ve seen plenty of thoughtful and critical posts over the past few years, I haven’t seen any reviews like this, where an excellent book just didn’t sit right with someone—for entirely arbitrary and personal reasons. What are your thoughts about this?

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12 thoughts on “On excellent, horrible books.

  1. I usually do the same when I can see there’s something working in the book but it’s just not working for me–acknowledge that the book isn’t “bad” necessarily, that other people will probably like it, but I just didn’t.

  2. I think we all bring our own baggage to the books we read and there’s no reason to assume (or even hope) we’ll all like the same thing. If I don’t like a book but think it’s just a personal reaction, then I say so – explain what didn’t work for me but why I think it might work for other people. Just as you’ve done in fact!

  3. I think this is the key: “All my reasons for disliking this novel are entirely arbitrary and personal, but then this is my arbitrary, personal blog.” This is exactly why I prefer book blogs that don’t try to sound like professional reviews or book recommendation engines. I enjoy reading about someone’s experience of reading a book, with all that person’s preferences and prejudices, as much as I enjoy reading about whether the plot or characters or writing was any good. Thanks for visiting my blog…I’m glad I found yours!

    • Thanks! Most of my favourite blogs seem to be more like journals than “traditional” book review blogs–it’s lovely to hear about someone’s personal experience with a book, especially when they talk about how the story or themes intersect with their own lives.

  4. Oh, Lou Lou, there are many wonderful books that don’t sit well with readers for personal reasons. I’m just sad that you had to experience a book so upsetting to you. I absolutely understand what you’re saying. Due to a very unusual background, my husband can’t read it watch anything with children who don’t know a parent, unreliable drunks, or abuse. That covers most stories today. I have to be very careful about which movies and books I recommend to him.

    • Thank you for your kind comments. Writing this post proved to be the best way to get the book out of my system, in the end, but I won’t pick up another one by him in a hurry! As another commenter said, I think many of us have one thing or another that we can’t read about for whatever personal reasons.

  5. This happens to me really often. Technically there’s nothing wrong with the wiring or plot, but the story and/or characters just don’t work for me. I always feel bad reviewing those ones and giving them few stars, but my blog is my own and I choose to review based on mechanics and my taste. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thanks for your comment! This is one of the reasons that I stopped using star ratings–I never knew whether I should rate the quality of the writing or my personal experience of it, which were often very different.

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