This is a historical novel about the life of the writer Henry James.
On the one hand, I'm surprised by the level of critical success this book achieveThis is a historical novel about the life of the writer Henry James.
On the one hand, I'm surprised by the level of critical success this book achieved. (It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and on several Top Ten Books lists for the year.) The pacing is slow - we're talking snail speed, here - and while there was dramatic tension within individual chapters and scenes, there is none whatever between chapters. If this were a debut novel, I wonder if it would ever even have found a publisher in today's rabid publishing economy. The scenes and events the author narrates often seem trivial or seemingly fail to add up to a coherent, meaningful narrative structure. Henry buys a house in a small English seaside town. Huh. His servants drink too much, and he has to let them go. Okay. A hot American sculptor comes to visit, but then he goes away. A cynic could ask, why should I care?
Maybe as a biographical novel, the book suffers from the same malady that often plagues autobiographical writing - sticking too closely to the truth at the expense of dramatic tension and a proper plot arc.
In some cases, Toibin also misses opportunities to dramatize incidents instead of merely describing them - I'm especially thinking of the chapters with James's friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, who commits suicide. Toibin tells us again and again that this is a special friendship and that Constance has unique qualities, but we get barely any dialogue between them to show us what their friendship was like and why it meant so much to James. Similarly with James's sister Alice - she's described in abstract terms, bitter, joking, but we don't really see her or get her voice.
On the positive side, I found myself consistently charmed by Toibin's prose. It wasn't a page-turner, but I always looked forward to getting back to it, and I enjoyed spending time in Henry James's quiet company. Also, the historical research Toibin incorporated into the book gives it great value (and probably represents an immense amount of work), and I think makes up for many of the above-mentioned flaws. On the whole, I liked the book, and it was worth reading, especially if you are a fan of Henry James....more