Friday, 19 April 2013

Book Review: The River Wife

Title: The River Wife
Author: Heather Rose
Year Published: 2009
Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism, Romance

The river wife is a woman by day and a fish by night. She has a duty to tend the river. When she falls in love a man named Wilson James, the balance of nature is upset and she must do what she can to save the one she loves.

The title, cover and blurb lured me in with promises of gentle magic. But then I read the first sentence...

As the sun crests the dark line of the land, I wake and step from the river, and that in itself is what is called magic.”

...and had to put the book down. It was a bit too intense for me, though I can see the same sentence inducing others to fall instantly in love.

Knowing that I was prejudiced, I tried to keep an open mind and almost succeeded in imagining myself charmed by the very lyric, very poetic and very pretty writing. The book is full of passages like

“My father's face softened into the kindness of moss that grows in the furrows of trees and asks for nothing but dappled light and the touch of rain.”
He held me to him and his skin stole warmth from the closeness of our blood. The days of longing for him, the coldness of his skin, the taste of his tongue, the stretch of his legs, the colour of his eyes, the texture of his breath on my skin, the weight of him above me and in me and with me, so sharp and sweet was the relief of it, so deep and urgent and shuddering. And then he held me and said, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry.'”.
Now, a couple of phrases like that now and then I could have dealt with. However, the entire book is written this way. Personally, I find this sort of prose – when it's constantly like this – to be a bit too much; it's the literary equivalent of drinking a bowl of honey. As I read, I felt my mind closing, resisting the writing, and I hated myself for it. I started noticing things like how the author likes to use lists in descriptions and how sometimes verbs seemed to be missing from sentences. I started mentally screaming “what does that even mean?” when I read about how the river wife wove the stories into the water and listened to songs the river brought her – because that's as far as it goes, there's nothing about why this is done or what it means to weave stories. Furthermore, the words “stories” and “songs” end up being used so often that they lose all meaning.

Despite my dislike of the writing, on a macro scale it suited the story very well. It's a love story at heart and the lyrical writing suits the magical, otherworldly nature of the river wife herself. As you might expect then, the love between the river wife and Wilson James doesn't spring from things like compatible personalities and shared interests – it's more of a mutual admiration of each other's exoticism and being; they just are in love and that's just how it is. The start of the book largely consists of the heroine's musings on her pre-Wilson James life, the middle consists of her Wilson James life, and a relatively action-packed Wilson James-related plot emerges in the last fifth of the book. It's a short and simple story, couched in poetry. However, I feel that the style gives it the illusion of depth, rather than actual depth itself.

I think most people will either love or hate this book. The writing is so stylised that there isn't much room for a middle ground. It's a lovely mood piece; Rose evokes the earthy, magical atmosphere very well. In the end, however, it was simply not for me.

Alex's Rating: 2.5/5

Monday, 8 April 2013

Movie Review: The Host

Title: The Host
Director: Andrew Niccol
Year Released: 2013
Running Time: 125 minutes
Classification: PG-13 (M)
Genre: Science fiction, Romance, Drama

In Roald Dahl's “The Great Automatic Grammatizator”, an engineer creates a story-writing machine which is operated somewhat like a car. The “author” uses pedals and switches to control things like genre, style, humour, length and so on. But it's not as easy as it sounds; the controls must be used judiciously to ensure that the tale is fit for human consumption. It's a great little story and one which I hold in high regard.

Unfortunately, this isn't a review on Dahl's short stories. This is a review on The Host, which is a movie I do not hold in high regard. If its screenplay were produced on Dahl's machine, it would be a version of the machine where the switch for “melodrama” must have got stuck on the ON position and the “science fiction” lever degenerated to a state of advanced malfunction, leaving the plot to function on “passion” alone.

This one note over-dramatisation of everything is partly why the film is so cringe-worthy. While the premise – that aliens, known as yeerks Souls, have taken over the Earth and are using humans as hosts – sounds promising enough, potential moral and philosophical themes are ignored in favour of teen drama, usually of a romantic nature. It's the least interesting aspect of the story, yet it's the aspect that gets the most screen time. The “plot”, which involves our protagonist being hunted down by the Seeker (Diane Kruger), seems more like an afterthought to the romance.

At the very beginning of the film, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), is one of the few “free” humans left. When she is implanted with a Soul – a white, glowing alien resembling a palm-sized bacterium with buckets of flagella – the orchestral music swells, rich with strings, ensuring that we know that this is a Beautiful and/or Dramatic Moment. The problem is that every other event in the film is also a Beautiful and/or Dramatic Moment – the scene where Melanie recalls her relationship with Jared (Max Irons), the scene where Melanie's brother (Chandler Canterbury) wonders if the real Melanie is “still in there”, the scene where Melanie sees the human refuge for the first time. So my point is, this is not one of those movies you only realise is bad at the end, or in hindsight, or part-way through. This is one of those movies that you know is bad less than five minutes in, and bad in the manner you can most certainly predict, and bad in the sense that your only reason for staying is the desperate hope it can only get better.

(...this rant review's kind of long, so I'm putting the rest under a cut)