Sunday, August 1, 2010

Paddy Figgis' "On the Bright Road": Book Review

Certainly a challenging, difficult, and ambiguous novel. As the blurb for the book [on Amazon or the Wiki for] summarizes, this combines two stories, one from the Arthurian, post-Roman era and one from today, set in 1993. Figgis reminds me of Charles Williams' own difficult fiction (she cites him in a quote), which likewise sought to merge the supernatural plane with our own mundane. Her knowledge of archeology and the "dark ages" of Britain makes for the most involving aspect of this tangled tale. She delays, like a crafty storyteller, clarifying details of the story until much later than a reader might expect, and even at its close, this novel leaves spaces still unfilled.

Its unforgiving erudition makes this at all times a daunting rather than diverting read, and it's a very serious story, with not much humor or wit to lighten its considerably relentless gloom. It deserves a more educated reader than I am to excavate and label all of its layered artifacts. Figgis labors to re-create not only the decay of post-Roman Wales but the decline of one modern man's life, and the parallels, although never obviously juxtaposed, make for instructive insights, which she does not--to her credit but relying upon the reader's consistent and not entirely rewarded effort--simplify or reduce to truisms.

While I expected an easier novel, this does show that Figgis takes her audience as seriously as she does her fiction, and this is probably a step above the usual Arthurian fantasy. My one criticism is that I sensed that secondary characters remained too willfully mysterious throughout, and the lack of explanation for many of the more mundane events--as well as those more symbolic--irritated me. Figgis does not provide enough clues to unlock all of the puzzles she places within the way of Kerr's quest, for him or for us. More disturbing, unsettled in its characterization, and opaque in what would have been in other novels clues that would have been eventually made transparent, her novel may frustrate more likely than entertain. She knows a great deal about the time she restores here, Arthur is by the way off-stage rather than the protagonist, and both The Tracker and Cathal Kerr remain enigmatic central characters beyond the last pages of what does not reach simple closure as a conventional "time-travel" tale.

(Generally I don't post older reviews pre-blog from Amazon, but this title was bugging me and I couldn't recall the details. So, thanks to I now have my reviews transferred and more easily retrievable at the latter site. Not easy, but still easier than sifting through over eleven hundred reviews the past dozen-odd years at Amazon US, where this appeared 9-15-05.)

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