No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, July 20, 2001

Bold as Love -- Gwyneth Jones [subjective]

(See also my more objective review of this book)

…I really just wanted another chance to ramble on about Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones. A very fine book, and the proof that I, at least, think so can be found in the state of my copy: less than a month old and showing signs of considerable wear. 

I still haven't decided whether it is a truly 'good' book, but it's one of the best I've read for years. I can't remember the last time that I re-read a novel immediately (not once but twice!): and I can't be sure that my enthusiasm for the book hasn't blinded me to major flaws in plot and structure.

But I don't care. It's like being in love: a temporary madness, perhaps obsessive. I realised long ago that one of the defining qualities of the books that I adore (as opposed to admiring) is that the characters work for me: that I like them. I've also recently begun to think about novelistic portrayals of relationships - whether friendly, romantic or professional - and how a book can be made or broken (for me, at least) by convincing and appealing character interaction or the lack of it.
Perhaps this is why I enjoy the not-necessarily-worthy Harry Potter books, despite their flaws and their relative simplicity. The friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, though very different to my own experiences at school, appeals to me emotionally. It also gives the series so far an emotional core, a constant 'safe place': Harry, the outsider, needs that haven: it's where he draws his strength. Considering the news item about the woman whose doctoral thesis argues that Hermione is the real hero(ine) of the books, perhaps there's a place for an academic paper on the role of friendship as magical amulet in recent children's fantasy? Seems to me that many earlier juveniles featured solitary protagonists who were strong because they didn't have that sort of support network: they had to be independent and that prepared them for magical adventures. If they weren't alone, they were often aided and abetted by siblings, which is an entirely different matter.

But back to Bold as Love, which is not a children's book by any stretch of the imagination.

I'm not sure that the future portrayed by Gwyneth Jones can be reached from where we are now. I'm not entirely convinced that any government, even New Labour, would invite a committee of indie rock stars into the policy process. There are elements of characterisation that don't ring entirely true. (There are elements of plot which I find distracting). There's some grim stuff in the novel, as well as plenty of Millaresque festival scenes. But there's also poetry, magic and subtlety. It's a very British future, though perhaps a rather rosier one than we're likely to get. The call of a blackbird in a dark Yorkshire conifer plantation, with a fighter plane 'like tearing silk' overhead … Tube travel after the revolution … the horror of holiday villages. That's Britain: indeed, that's England.

Bold as Love is also, in places, laugh-out-loud funny. That's not through any artificial heartiness on the author's part: we're not talking slapstick scenes or riotous behaviour here. No, the humour resides (almost?) entirely in the dialogue: in people trying to see the funny side, in everyday banter, in the clash of personalities. I don't think I've ever laughed at anything in any of Gwyneth Jones' books before. I've admired them as works of fiction, and as explorations of what might be. She's painted solid, believable, densely-imagined futures which have appealed to me intellectually. But Bold as Love is fun. And it got me listening to rock music (and other popular stuff) again, purely as a spin-off: and of course that taste never really went away, so maybe the appeal is largely in the setting and the (imaginary) soundtrack.

I do wonder if the novel will leave cold those with no experience of, or liking for, the present-day equivalent of the social milieu it portrays. On the other hand … I've had two long letters (as a result of an email to someone else asking for interview questions) from someone who'd been described as Gwyneth Jones' greatest fan. I was pleased to find someone whose obsessive attention to detail was similar to my own. In the first letter, one of the questions concerned the positive portrayal of rock concerts - 'she doesn't mention the pounding beat or the crowds'. Hmm, I thought, a non-rock fan: well, obviously not that important a part of the setup, then!

And the next letter gave it away. The second book, Castles Made of Sand, is due out some time next year. (Can't wait. Must wait.) Remarking on the suspense, my correspondent discloses: "I haven't looked forward to a forthcoming book so much since The Return of the King in 1956. I was 15 …"

I have to say this surprised me: I'd taken him, from tone and comments, as someone of roughly the same generation as myself. But it was heartening as well: as I said above, I'd wondered if Bold as Love was a Yoof book, enjoyable only by people who Do That Sort of Thing. (I'm phrasing this badly but the urge to communicate overrides the desire for eloquence).

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