“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Book Review: Child of the Twilight

Child of the Twilight
By Carmel Bird
Harper Collins

Carmel Bird’s wonderfully beguiling new novel Child of the Twilight is full of delightful surprises. But I was ultimately surprised that I enjoyed this novel at all, since, theoretically, virtually everything about Child of the Twilight seems to work against its success: it is a book largely about Australians travelling through Mediterranean Europe, and, worse still, most of these characters are wealthy people who seem blissfully unaware of their own privilege. These are precisely the tropes that Andrew McCann attacked in his excoriating Overland essay, ‘How to Fuck a Tuscan Garden’ (2004), which decried the middlebrow pretensions of novels about bourgeois Australians searching for their identities while touring the continent (usually with a romantic subplot thrown in for good measure). But while I suspect McCann is generally right about these kinds of books, Child of the Twilight succeeds through sheer force of style alone.
Bird’s prose is luminous, full of mesmerising idiosyncrasies; she evades cliché at all moments, opting for unusual metaphors and unlikely (but brilliant) similes. In one instance, a character falls on the floor injured, resulting in ‘a finger of blood slithering across the tiles until it burst and branched into its little fractal folly of webbed rivulets, and slid in gleaming patterns of trees and corals and underwater weeds.’ Here not only is the commonplace made strange, but also the abject image of human blood becomes something full of an intricate, almost delicate beauty. Bird’s prose constantly turns on a dime, taking us to unlikely places.
While Bird’s prose is inventive, it also makes for addictive reading. Indeed, the prose is so forceful that it causes the reader not to notice the strangely fragmented and oblique nature of the story, which is not so much a chronological narrative as a series of detours, anecdotes and evasions. Although the book has a consistent narrator, many parts are told through other voices, such as that of Father Cosimo, a priest whose stories are charged with a fanciful, spurious logic that is absolutely absorbing. Hidden under these digressions lies the basic outline of the plot: Child of the Twilight is ultimately about a statue in Italy called the Bambinello, which was stolen in 1994, and how the theft of this statue comes to indirectly affect the lives of the many characters in the book.
And, for all of its style, Child of the Twilight takes on a series of very interesting issues, including the nature of belief (both religious and otherwise) and the ways in which reproductive technologies have forever changed our notions of identity, ancestry and inheritance. Moreover, the novel also investigates some other interesting and arcane theological concepts, including the manner of speaking in tongues called both ‘green language’ and ‘the language of the birds’, as well as the conception of Furta Sacra, a doctrine by which religious relics are said to have their own agency and can choose to move from one location to another (which is also, of course, a convenient way of disguising theft). The names of many of the characters (such as Avila and Pieta) resonate with these religious interests.
But for all of these wonderful qualities, there are one or two places where Child of the Twilight isn’t completely successful. The story possesses a metafictional premise; a young novelist named Sydney Kent narrates the book, and her intrusions sometime feel more contrived than inventive. Moreover, her reflections on the changes wrought by the internet, particularly Facebook and Google, sound like an older person trying to write from the perspective of a younger person, rather than being the thoughts of a legitimate digital native. I also suspect that these references will not age well, but, in fairness to Bird, very few literary novelists have successfully integrated depictions of the internet into their work. And these occasional missteps are few and far between. Overall, Child of the Twilight is an enchanting novel, and its beautifully wrought – if strange – narrative voice makes for compelling reading.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Emmett, I like your reviewing style.
Somehow I missed this new novel by Carmel Bird, now I'll keep an eye out for it at the library. I rather liked Cape Grimm...
Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers

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