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Sunday, 23 February 2014

Bitter Like Orange Peel

Bitter Like Orange Peel

If you reveal your secrets to the wind, you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees. – Kahlil Gibran, The Wanderer (quoted in Bitter Like Orange Peel)

Who is Roger Price? That’s the question that hangs over this novel like the sword of Damocles. We do know some things about Roger Price. He’s Australian. He has a brother called Samuel and a sister called Constance. At one time he was a university professor. He’s had relationships with three women (that we know of). Initially he was married to Eleanor, a paediatric surgeon, with whom he had a daughter, Ivy, who has grown up and become a depressed archaeologist with a slight case of nymphomania, now settled in Seattle following a divorce and where she’s working as a waitress. Eventually Roger cheated on Eleanor with one of his students, Ailish, “[a] stunningly petite freckled redhead with the vocabulary of a well-educated eighty-year old” who is now a repressed English literature professor. They didn’t marry but Ailish also bore him a daughter, Kit, who, at the start of the book we learn is a twenty-five-year-old archaeology undergraduate who doesn’t like to get her hands dirty. Kit and Ivy are surprisingly close for half-sisters. Roger then moved onto Beth—now an alcoholic although probably not one when he married her (his fault?)—with whom he had a third daughter before vanishing from everyone’s lives and the general consensus is that that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Or so the girls have been told. But then Kit decides she’d like to see for herself and that’s when we, the readers, start to realise this is a family riddled with secrets. Why’s Eleanor sending Samuel money? How come everyone knows about Beth’s daughter apart from Kit? All families have secrets but most aren’t much to write home about. This is not the case here. So, yes, on one level we know who Roger Price is but we do we really know who Roger Price is?

At its core this is a mystery novel. And I couldn’t help but think of Agatha Christie as I read through it. Roger’s not dead, admittedly, but he may as well be. And one of the first things a detective will want to know when he’s assigned a case is: Who is the victim? Why did someone see fit to end their life? And since he or she’s not around to question he has to interrogate all available suspects to try to worm out the truth. The problem is none of them ever reveals the whole truth, at least not up front, because everyone seems to feel they’ve the right to withhold certain key pieces of incriminating (or at least humiliating) evidence. Desperately they try to reveal as little as possible:

[P]eople feel more in control if they have secrets, independent from the world’s demands.

In Bitter Like Orange Peel our quasi-detective (and quite possibly a victim herself) is Kit. But a victim of what crime? In an Agatha Christie we know the crime—it’s invariably murder—and we know the victim but we don’t know the perpetrator or his motive. We know some of Roger’s crimes—he’s been unfaithful at least twice and abandoned his children—but is that all? In Christie’s day adultery was a big thing but not nowadays. There has to be more going on here but no one, especially Kit’s mother (perhaps understandably), is very keen to point her in the right direction:

Getting acquainted with Roger is not going to define who you are. You don’t need your father to shine. You are already you.

This is, for me, the key paragraph in the book. Since there are so many women in this book it’s tempting to ignore the elephant in the room. Roger is like Big Brother. He’s virtually omnipresent. There are lots of books about people with daddy issues—Goodreads has a whole list—and the simple fact is that the life of every woman in the book has been affected by Roger, his presence but especially his absence.

PoirotWhen we get to the denouement in an Agatha Christie either Poirot or Miss Marple will go round the drawing room and reveal the particular truths about each one in attendance and it’s rare that there’s anyone there who has nothing to be embarrassed about. Okay, only one or two are the murderers but the rest are usually exposed as embezzlers or liars or cheats or drunks or something like that; they’re always a bit of a disappointment when you really get to know them well and that’s pretty much the case here. No one’s a murderer but they’ve all been keeping secrets and telling themselves it was for the best of reasons. But then in real life there aren’t very many heroes and those heroes there are we’re told not to seek out because they’ll find some way to let us down.

Jessica’s approach to tackling her subject is a brave one but not one that always succeeds. She writes in the present tense but shifts perspective so that one chapter will be from Ivy’s point of view and the next from Kat’s and then one from Eleanor’s and so on but she still retains an omniscient narrator rather than have each character tell their own story. It’s tempting to think that this would’ve worked better but I suspect this would’ve thrown up its own problems. There are times when I would’ve liked to jump from head to head in the one scene but we can’t do that. This means that at the end we get a run of very short chapters barely a page long but it is an imaginative approach and what I particularly appreciated was her use of italics to indicate a character’s internal monologues although usually they’re just asides; you’ll hear them say one thing and then think the complete opposite.

Ivy walks toward the empty stool. It looks like Brian. It is Brian. Shit. I look like shit. Shit! She contemplates turning around and walking home in the rain, but he notices her too soon.

Of course it’s a contrivance because in the heat of conversation we don’t generally articulate the words but it works and works well.

orphan blackWriting from a number of different perspectives is hard. Two of the characters talk with an Australian dialect so they’re very distinctive as is the gay best friend who veers towards the caricature but I’m sure that was deliberate. (I couldn’t read a thing by him without thinking of the foster brother on Orphan Black.) It took me a while before I could separate Ivy and Kat from each other especially since both of them start new sexual relationships at the same time, Ivy with Brian, Kat with Sein. The same with their mothers and I kept forgetting whose mother was whose and needed to check my scribbled dramatis personae. More authors should consider using these. Seriously, they’re a great help.

Jessica’s a poet—I’ve reviewed both of her poetry books—and you would expect a poet to provide some arresting and vivid descriptions and she does but my main issue with her style is that she insists on describing too much. One of the reviewers on Goodreads said she felt as if she’d experienced “a metaphor and simile overdose” and I do get where she’s coming from. The only writer I can commend who can pile one metaphor on top of another and pull it off is William McIlvanney. I felt there were simply too many adjectives in this book. And too many unnecessary uses of the word ‘orange’. There are a lot of repetitive expressions, arms folded under breasts, tops of backs patted, hair fiddled with, furry teeth run over with tongues:

Kit focuses on the sound of Ailish’s clunky cork platforms clop on the wooden stairs. She runs her tongue across her furry teeth, gets up, and opens the blinds.

One of the passages that particularly bothered me was this one:

Brian steps foot into the international departures area at Sea-Tac. His eyes dart left and right searching for the Emirates logo and the correct flight number above the check-in desks. His breaths bounce up and down his throat like Ping-Pong balls. He ran from the cab, which was at a standstill in a bottleneck not far from the train line to the airport. He’s still in his tracksuit, unshaven, his finger throbbing where the splinter of Christmas decoration stabbed him. Toe’s still damn itchy and now inside a sweaty sneaker. Not much he can do about it except flex his toes in an attempt at slight relief.

This is a guy rushing into an airport with no time for anything. There are simply too many words here. We don’t need the bit about the flight numbers. We don’t need the bit about the table tennis balls. We don’t need the exact location of the taxi. We don’t need all that stuff about the Christmas decoration because we only read about it a couple of pages back. In her review of the book Ellis Henrika has this to say about one of the many similes in the book: “‘small pieces fall under her tongue like misplaced emotions seeking refuge.’ She's just eating a cookie, damn it. It's not the end of the world.” It’s a fair point. Books don’t have soundtracks and that’s what a lot of the writing feels like, like we’re being told what to feel rather than being allowed to draw our own conclusions. Might want to avoid reading that review because there are major spoilers in it. A good one to look at afterwards though to see if you agree with her.

This doesn’t mean that every simile Jessica uses is cringeworthy because they’re not:

  • This dial tone sounds like a nauseated robot.
  • Ivy coughs up a convulsive laugh a bit like a backward gasp.
  • Harold puts his hands in his pockets and smiles like a psychiatrist.
  • …jumping up and down on the spot like a child who won a trip to the fair.

The big reveal is left to the very end. And it’s a doozy. Did not see it coming. Should have because there’re crumbs throughout the book but that’s how good mystery writers do it. Afterwards—it comes right at the end of a chapter—we have two flashback chapters (the first in the book) which present two different perspectives on the same situation. We, the readers, get to find out the truth but no one in the room does which is very odd for a mystery and I can’t decide if I liked it. It’s one of those situations where there were only two people present—only two that remember anything—and so it’s a he said versus she said standoff and who’s going to believe someone like Roger when he says he’s innocent no matter what he’s being accused of? And that’s where we’re left hanging with a final coda tagged on showing us where the third daughter is while all hell is breaking loose. I’d love to explain more but if you’re going to read the book it’d spoil it and I’d rather not do that. The thing is that even if Roger is innocent of what he’s being accused that doesn’t suddenly turn him into a decent bloke. Even habitual liars occasionally tell the truth.

What I didn’t get was why the big reveal was left to the last minute. Once Ailish realises the showdown is unavoidable surely it would’ve been better tackling the matter quietly with those involved. Had they known the truth—albeit her truth—about Roger then they probably wouldn’t have wanted to see him at all.

The Midwest Book Review had this to say about the book:

A riveting reading experience from first page to last, Bitter Like Orange Peel clearly documents author Jessica Bell's impressive storytelling talents. Vividly crafted and memorable characters embedded in a complex, and constantly surprising, narrative, Bitter Like Orange Peel is solid entertainment and highly recommended for personal reading lists and community library contemporary fiction collections.

It doesn’t, however, say anything more. And that’s quite often the case when it comes to positive reviews. It’s so easy to provide examples of what’s wrong with a book. Not always so easy to say what’s right about it. I wonder why that is? I’ve read two novels and a novella by her and Jessica’s strength lies in her characterisations. Novels do tend to be either character driven or plot driven. Jessica does character better than plot. This doesn’t mean that Bitter Like Orange Peel is badly plotted because it’s not but it feels plotted. This won’t worry most people. It’s not something I like seeing because it reminds me that I’m reading a fiction. I like to forget that as much as possible. Good characters distract me and the better the characters the less I notice any structure. On the whole the people in this book came across as realistic—some were more real than others—but all avoided being archetypes or stereotypes even (surprisingly) the most cliché-ridden character of them all, the gay best friend. He’s also probably the most likeable character in the book too. And that will be a problem for some readers—none of the characters in this book have many redeeming qualities—but not this one.

Brighton RockIf I’m looking to buy a book and a reviewer talks about it as being entertaining I treat that as a black mark. I don’t read to be entertained or distracted. I want a reader to make me think and preferably about stuff I’ve never thought about before. This Jessica managed. Even “entertainments” can be thought-provoking. Just look at Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

The cover’s very pretty; quite eye-catching which is its job. My only gripe—and others have commented on it too—is that it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the book’s content.

Reviews online are all over the place—as low as one, as high as five—and that’s not a bad thing. I’m always intrigued by books that divide an audience. The Road was like that, a real love-it-or-loathe-it book. I’ve read most of the reviews of Jessica’s book on Goodreads and they all make valid points. Richard Hartwell (who gives the book five stars) says, “it IS filled with perfect metaphors, uniquely-fitted and thought-provoking,” which contrasts completely with Ellis above whereas Sarah (who give it three) I think hits the nail on the head when she says in her review, “I get the feeling that Bell might have been trying a bit too hard when it came to her use of literary devices.” The book made Miranda Mowbray mad (she gave it two stars, upped from a measly one because “most of it was really well written”) and talks at some length about what she hated about the book. Luca Marchiori waxes lyrical about why it deserves five. In particular I liked his comment, “Many people have criticized Jessica Bell for making every one of her characters so irredeemably unsympathetic, but for me, this was the master stroke. It compelled me on to the end of the book, in order to see how each of these monsters would achieve their comeuppance.” Heather Truett was simply torn (three stars): “She made me vacillate between eye rolling annoyance and head banging frustration.”

Why such diverse reactions? I found myself lying in bed this morning wondering about this and other books that have such a mixed bag of reviews. Then I started to 50 Shadesthink about how one would classify this particular novel and I think the two are connected. It’s a mystery, yes, but not a neat one; there are relationships but it’s not a romance; it’s set mostly in Australia which for most of us is a foreign country but it’s not really a foreign novel even though it was written in Greece; most of its themes are adult in nature and there is a bit of sex but I imagine it pales compared to the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey although I seem to remember someone mentioning that book in a review. In Amazon it’s listed under Thrillers, Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction, Women’s Literary Fiction and Women’s Popular Fiction and this is probably its problem. It’s not an easy book to classify and you can listen to Jessica discussing the problems of pigeonholing in a podcast with Cath Murphy over on Lit Reactor; it’s a good interview. Personally I’m against classification. It raises expectations and invariably leads to disappointment. I suspect what most negative reviewers haven’t liked are the more literary aspects to the book. These are the very reasons I think you should read it even though I admit she isn’t always as successful as she might be. If we chose only to read masterpieces we’d be done in a month.

I don’t give stars. At least not here. I’m basically opposed to them because I don’t think any book can be reduced to a single number; books are too complex for that and readers are too diverse. I can, and will, say that I liked this book. To put that into context let me just say that the book I read straight before writing this review was The Appointment by Herta Müller (who won the Nobel Prize in 2009) and I liked it too. I didn’t love either of them. I loved bits about both of them. I disliked bits in both of them. I probably won’t read either of these books again but I will read both authors again. All of which underlines how careful you have to be when reading reviews. Do I think you should read Jessica’s book? Yes. Do I think you’ll like it too? Christ knows.

You can read excerpts from the book here and here.

I’ll leave you with an interview she did with Connecticut Style:


JessicaThe Australian-native contemporary fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell, also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. You can read reviews of her other books on my blog by clicking on the following links:

(I’m not sure there’s another author out there who’s had five book reviews from me, at least not on this blog—I reviewed five novellas by Philip Roth on Goodreads only last year—so a word of explanation is probably due. I have a lot of time for Jessica. Like many other writers out there who have an online presence we’re friendly but the reason that friendship developed is the fact she is uncompromising in her writing. She may bend somewhat in the marketing (when she submitted her book to Lit Reactor she requested a female review it) but we have to use common sense there and the simple fact is, rightly or wrongly, a book featuring six women is going to appeal more to women than men. There’re very few literary novelists out there who are making it work and she is. And more power to her elbow. Which is why I’m willing to promote her work. The first sparkly vampire I find in one of her books, though, and we’re done.)

She is the Co-Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and co-hosts the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek Isle of Ithaca, with Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest. She’s also written a growing series of pocket guides where she provides advice on writing. So far there are three: The Six Senses in a Nutshell, Adverbs and Clichés in a Nutshell and Show and Tell in a Nutshell. Her next novel will be called White Lady. “It's set in Melbourne Australia and is about a young woman named Mia who is fighting fat with white ladies,” says Jessica. Oh, and she does a bit of singing in her spare time.


Jessica Bell said...

Jim, thank you so much for this fabulous review. Though it can sometimes be a little ''scary' I value your honesty!

Jessica Bell said...

PS: White Lady is also told from multiple perspectives but this time in first person. :-)

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

Great review. I knew Jessica was a poet, but I didn't realize she was a novelist as well. I love the quote bey Gibran. And I love mysteries. This sounds like an especially good one.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think poets make good novelists, Elizabeth (have to say that ’cause I was a poet first before I ever thought about writing novels), but not always the other way round. There’s a lot in this one to enjoy unless you’re a stickler for neat endings. Knowing where to end a book is a difficult decision. Novels aren’t real life. Real life just goes on and on and even when someone dies there are usually children to carry on the ‘story’. I recently read a book where another reviewer said that it didn’t end so much as stop and that’s what happens here. We’re left to imagine what might happen next. So much effort has gone into finding Roger and then this slap in the face. It’s a thought-provoking end. You might not like it but it will make you think. I can imagine a book group having a field day with a book like this. And that’s a good thing. It’s a sorry book where all you can say at the end of it is that you liked it.

And, Jessica, you’re very welcome. I treat my reviewing very seriously as you know. It doesn’t matter who I’m reading. Friend or … well, I don’t really have any foes … they all get treated the same. I worry about where the future of book reviewing lies. I saw your comment on Facebook about Goodreads and this does not bode well. One could argue that all the one-star reviews only serve to take the edge off all the undeserved five-star reviews but it’s a cockeyed world where that has to happen. As I pointed out to another friend recently, a three-star review is not a bad review. I liked his book. I didn’t love it but I liked it. I liked your book. When I say I like you you’re pleased. You don’t start whinging because I haven’t said I love you or want to know how much I like you. What kind of world would that be?

Jamyang Thubten said...

Thanks for this concise overview of the critical reactions to this novel, including my own. If it's not too flippant, I'd say that this is the marmite, or as Jessica's Australian, the vegemite of novels. And I love a bit of that on my toast. British readers will get what I mean.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally, Luca, which is why I made mention of The Road, because that was another novel that really divided opinion. The good thing about this novel is that it promotes debate. Like you I also liked the fact that none of her characters are especially likeable and that doesn’t just go for this book. I completely get why she’d want to write about people like this and her story is sound. Where she falls down is when it comes to technique. She’s trying something new here and I don’t think she quite pulls it off. Is it possible to write a mystery and hide your workings? I don’t know. I’ve not read enough. Some people think the Pompidou Centre is an eyesore; others think it’s wonderful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I didn’t find her last book plotted. Maybe it was. But this one felt plotted. It’s also overwritten, again a stylistic choice and I think she realises she’s overdone it; a few cringeworthy similes aren’t the worst thing in the world. The ending though… Well. I think it’s a brave ending. It’s not without its problems but at least she was willing to risk all and all credit to her. For the record I hate Marmite.

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