This is the closest I'm likely to come to sympathising with those who've found Neal Stephenson's recent Baroque Cycle novels long-winded and boring. It's taken me five days to read this 750-page novel (Amazon claims 256pp: it lies) and only grim determination (and the thought that there might be Historical Gems hidden within) kept me going. A weight -- metaphorical as well as literal -- has lifted from me now that I've reached the end.
The novel, set in the Cape and Mauritius between about 1640 and 1710, deals with seven men whose lives are affected by the Dutch East India Company. (Not, as the blurb claims, men whose lives pivot about Pieternella, the first mixed-race child to be born in the new colony. I'm not sure she's the first, and she certainly isn't a focal point: she's not even born for about 200 pages, and doesn't have a speaking part for about another 200.) I'm not sure why Sleigh focusses on men: don't women count? Some of the female characters mentioned in the novel have profound effects on the whole story -- if you can call it a story. The title refers to Donne's line, 'no man is an island': the story takes place around the edges of the VOC and the Cape colony, at outposts and on frontiers.
The prose is dry and peculiarly passive: there's not that much direct dialogue, and little insight into the characters' thoughts. It reads rather like the drier sort of history book, unenlivened by humour or anecdote. None of the characters seem to have much of a sense of humour: the author likewise. (There is a Joke. It is about how porcupines mate. It is on page 714.)
The novel was translated from the Afrikaans by Andre Brink, twice nominated for the Booker prize. I have to say I'm not impressed. Yes, the rhythm of the language -- and some of its idioms, for example 'carried on the back' rather than 'carried on his back' -- is retained. But there are so many clunky sentences, reminiscent of a beginner's literal translation: how can any writer let through something like this?
"It is also known, you hear, that not only animals scavenged in the graveyards, but in those days it was easier for animals than for people to find food."
I'd like to castigate the proofreader while I'm at it. I do understand that it's a big, dull book: but wimper? easern? a ship departing in June 1864 and arriving in November 1684? At least spell-check the thing.
There are a lot of loose threads, too, though I probably wasn't paying as much attention as I could have been.
In conclusion: I just don't get it. This book won awards in its native Afrikaans: was that really just for the wealth of historical fact (the author works in the National Archives) contained within? True, I've learnt a great deal about the VOC and the factors involved in its decline -- climate, politics, ambition, harsh laws -- but if that's all I'd wanted, I'd have learnt it more quickly from a history book. Islands doesn't indicate that the author's brought his material to life, or even connected the different narratives with any degree of craft or originality.
A big book, but one which I feel no need to make space for this on my bookshelf.
reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place