Deborah Biancotti's Reviews > The Legacy

The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter
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bookshelves: aww2012, writer-women, sydney-oz, oz

I wasn't sure what I thought of this book, and then I read Peter Craven's review in 'The Monthly' where he calls it a "crypto-mystery novel rather haphazardly linked to an allusive literary novel" and I admit now I know what I thought of this book.

Initially I was kinda confused because I'd gone into the book thinking it was a mystery: a conclusion I'd built from the back cover blurb & the apparent subtitle on the front ("What has happened to Ingrid?"). But it's not a mystery. Instead I was taken by surprise by how sombre it is and by the whole Henry James soberness (I actually wanted to write that as 'sombriety') - though I do applaud Tranter for fixing the depressing ending of PORTRAIT OF A LADY (thank-you!). Occasionally it reminded me of Donna Tartt's marvellous THE SECRET HISTORY in its undergrad/postgrad setting & mood. But of course at other times it manages to be entirely its own book, a more personal book than its two most obvious peers.

A quick précis: after a short, sharp prologue from Ingrid's point of view, the novel becomes the story of the more purposeless Julia as she obsesses over Ralph (& Ingrid, to some extent) while Ralph obsesses over Ingrid who goes missing during the 9/11 attacks which prompts Ralph a year later to buy Julia a ticket to New York so she can wander through the apparent end of Ingrid's life. So that even when Julia does discover a purpose ('to answer the question on the front cover'), it's really not her purpose, it's Ralph's. Which is very Henry James of her, of course.

I enjoyed some of the writing in THE LEGACY, but ultimately I wasn't satisfied by the book as a whole. I do admire books that can sustain a mood, though, and throughout this book there is a delicate sense of Jamesian portent - but it's often accompanied by an attention to detail so thorough that, say, the act of choosing a cranberry juice on page 225 takes 3 lines.

("Wait," our protagonist tells her companion, and for an instant you think she's found Ingrid, that there's about to be some revelation or terrible happening, some light or dark to what happens next. But then she crosses to the fridge and takes out a cranberry juice. And three lines later you're left wondering, 'did she pay for that?')

The feel of a mandarin in her hand, the spot of blood on a tie, the pile of papers someone carries - they all feel kinda over-observed and drawn out. Worn out, in fact, by the very insistent *application* of drama. The detail _should_ be dramatic, you think, but in the midst of the vast extent of the book's supposed drama, it fails to stand out. As if the drama isn't occurring naturally in the story. As if it is only observed. Not felt. And perhaps that's why I found the book heavy going: there's detail, yes, but there's not a lot of meaning to the detail. Which is a kind of post-modern contrast to James, really, when I think about it.

Looking back, I wonder if the book would have worked better for me if it had broken away from Henry James much sooner, shrugged off some of its maudlin earnestness and instead added some other dimension. A counterpoint to (the rather insipid) Julia, say. Someone willing to stand up to our unhappy protagonist and say, 'Oh, Julia, you miserable sod, get over yourself'. Some light for the darkness. Some humour or even a critical perceptiveness to alleviate the moroseness. It's almost as though the protagonist sucks everyone into her orbit of unjustifiable despair. Even a teenage party, even a sexual encounter feel kind of ponderous and weighty. And when Julia comments on someone's smile as having 'a transformative effect', I noticed that the smile came at the end of their meeting, not the beginning. As if that person was glad to see the back of Julia (as I would be, by the end). I had a sense, watching Julia meander through Sydney and New York that she brought the darkness with her; that it isn't so much that her dread is a portent of bad things to come - but a cause.

Okay, so I didn't like Julia. And I didn't like Ingrid, despite my sharp surge of compassion during the prologue. Alas, after the blunt and shocking prologue, she drops away to become little more than 'the object of obsession'. And stories of obsessive love or friendship - strictly imho - are often hampered by their own objectification. If you describe the object, you run the risk of your readers reacting with 'I don't get the big deal about Ingrid, she seems a bit of a princess' (I bet that motivated the prologue). If you don't describe them, you end up with a book that is self-absorbed, an internal examination of the sense of obsessiveness, a reflective self-consciousness. And THE LEGACY does sometimes feel like a very personal transcript by a character who's really rather mopey.

That said, I'll continue to read Kirsten Tranter's novels because I have a sense that with the perceptiveness and patience to be found in this debut novel, Tranter's work will keep getting better & better.

This review forms part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. #aww2012
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Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by John (new)

John Thank you: an excellent review.

message 2: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah Biancotti John wrote: "Thank you: an excellent review."

Cheers! :)

message 3: by Sarah (new)

Sarah I did try to read this as part of the AWW2012 but just couldn't finish it. Thanks for your review - at least you read the whole book!

message 4: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah Biancotti Sarah wrote: "I did try to read this as part of the AWW2012 but just couldn't finish it. Thanks for your review - at least you read the whole book!"

I can relate: I think I wouldn't have finished it if it wasn't for the AWW2012 challenge... :)

Sam Still Reading Glad it wasn't just me that found this hardgoing!

message 6: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah Biancotti Sam wrote: "Glad it wasn't just me that found this hardgoing!"

Yeah, this one seems to divide people. :)

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