Sheenagh Pugh's Reviews > This is Life

This is Life by Dan Rhodes
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Mar 14, 2012

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Rhodes's world works, and always has, by the laws of fairytale rather than those of realism. It's therefore pointless to object that in real life, nobody hands a baby over to a stranger, or admires their girlfriend for being unloving and obnoxious. This sort of thing has happened in every novel Rhodes has written, and mostly so far, it has worked by the standards of its chosen genre. This time, I think there might be an irreconcilable conflict between the requirements of fairytale and those of the novel.

I was a bit put off by the blurb's "only to be read if you enjoy happiness", since I'm not sure I do want unrelieved happiness in a book, it sounds rather shallow. Luckily the words mislead. I suppose many of the main characters do have "happy endings" but it's by no means universal, nor is the book Pollyannaish in the way the blurb suggests. But the problem, for me, does lie with the characters, in that both goodies and baddies are just that; there's an extreme lack of light and shade.

The themes, as I understand them, are quite absorbing, namely the cosmic effect of parenthood on life and the redemptive power of art. On the first, Rhodes is very strong. His descriptions of getting a pushchair through a door, arranging a baby on a bed so it doesn't roll off the minute your back is turned, generally doing three things at once and being desperate for sleep, will ring true to anyone who's been there. The second theme puzzles me, because there seems to be a contradiction at its heart. We are constantly told that the art installation, "Life", has a powerful, life-changing effect on its viewers, who reassess their lives and their impact on the world; they do not go out the same people as they went in.

Yet in that case, what are we to make of the art critic Delacroix? He does indeed have a personal epiphany at the show, and writes a far different review than he had intended. Yet when we meet him for the last time, it is clear that essentially, he hasn't changed at all; he is as obnoxious as ever. This seems pretty realistic to me, but it is at odds with the book's message elsewhere, that art is redemptive. Either the artist in Rhodes has here got the better of the polemicist and written what he thinks did happen rather than what should happen, or he can't bear to allow a critic any kind of redemption. This is possible, because Rhodes has had issues with critics in the past and alludes to some of them here (the only real reason the book is set in Paris that I can see is so that he can have a few sideswipes at the British cultural scene).

This might explain why this critic is portrayed as such a one-dimensional character, but he isn't the only one. Most of the book's characters are unrelievedly nice - the Roussets, the Papavoines, the Akiyamas, the saintly Lucien - while the few baddies, like Delacroix and Sebastien, are similarly devoid of light and shade. Even the main characters are not exactly complex; Aurelie's situation, of unplanned parenthood, is interesting, but she herself is not; she does have character traits but somehow they never quite add up to a personality. And most of the other characters have one or two traits at the most. (Sylvie is the impossibly-beautiful-girl-everyone-falls-in-love-with who has appeared several times before in Rhodes's work, and whom I rather hope I'll never meet in print again). A previous reviewer has labelled them cartoon characters, but I think in fact their genre is farytale, where we expect the one-dimensional beautiful princess, wicked witch, enterprising tailor etc.

But one reason this works in fairytale is that most fairytales are short. Indeed when, eg, Andersen writes at length, this generally goes by the board - the main characters of tales like "The Snow Queen" and "The Marsh-King's Daughter" are pretty complex, and subject to development during the story. I'm not sure that the deliberate flatness and uncomplicatedness of traditional fairytale works for characters with whom we are to spend a whole novel. Rhodes's previous two books, Gold and Little Hands Clapping also had slightly princess-type girls at their centre, but they worked because they were surrounded by a rich cast of eccentric and complicated characters with the light and shade (and humour) the heroines lacked (in fact, I only know Rhodes considers Madalena the main character of "Little Hands Clapping" because he has said so in print; otherwise I would certainly assume it was the far darker, more interesting and more complex doctor).

In this book, the glorious eccentrics of Gold and the scary ones of Little Hands Clapping are alike absent; the minor characters are straightforward and, ultimately, predictable. The plot is not; it is only fair to say that his plot twists and end-of-chapter cliffhangers are as masterly as ever, and his authorial voice can, as always, be very funny (though I hope a lawyer has checked out the mention of Lady Gaga, which looks actionable to me). But though this book is, as ever, readable, it was also, for me, putdownable; it took me a while to finish because I couldn't get involved with any of the characters in the way I wanted to.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Robert I did call them cartoon characters, probably because they did not leave very vivid impressions on me. Fairy tale characters are often described as archetypal - to me, that means they should be incredibly vivid and resonate with something inside, even if they're one dimensional. In This is Life, I just did not feel much resonating. Sebastien is a prick, but not a very remarkable one. The Japanese husband is a national stereotype, but again, a relatively mellow version of one. The most vivid / archetypal character of them all is Sylvie, and as there have already been two variants of her in Little Hand Clapping, she did not feel a very fresh one. (And she did not really have a very vivid storyline...)

This is Life is just too mellow for a fairy tale. Not enough vivid archetypal energy. Not enough charisma. Lots of crazy stuff happens, but everyone just shrugs, fundamentally unfazed, and carries on.

Sheenagh Pugh I agree about the Gallic shrug. "This is Life" of course translates as "c'est la vie", accompanied by said Gallic shrug... It is too mellow.

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