13 February 2009

The 19th Wife (David Ebershoff)

There are three Richards in my life.
One is my father.
The second I shall remain semi-coy about for privacy's sake.

If there is ever a book with a "Richard and Judy bestseller" sticker emblazoned proudly on the front cover, do not read this. Put it down and walk carefully away.

This is what I should have done with The 19th Wife. My fascination with polygamists is in the same vein as my fascination with the Amish. Sort of. I don't want to be a polygamist but I suspect I would like to try being Amish. For a very short while. Maybe I just really like the show Big Love and that's where my FLDS interest stems from. Regardless, I feel that if I were either I would be a far more interesting dinner party guest than the usual line-up of atheists, agnostics and humanists.

Thus I ignored Dick and Judy on the front cover and paid actual money for this novel by David Ebershoff. It switches back and forth between the story of Ann Eliza Young who was the 19th wife of Brigham Young (if you don't know who that is you're clearly lacking some serious grounding in FLDS history) and BeckyLyn Scott, a modern-day 19th wife who is on trial for murdering her husband.

I have two main issues with this novel. In the historical segments set in the 19th century we never get a clear narrative because the author is insistent on including excerpts from diaries, newspaper articles, the encyclopaedia... it goes on. I understand mixing up the format a bit, but these chapters feel like you're reading the bibliography the author used to research the novel. BORING.

In the modern segments, BeckyLyn's arrest and trial are narrated by her son, Jordan Scott, who was thrown out of the community when he was fourteen, a common fate as it means there are more wives for the old guys. He is now in his early twenties, gay and severely disillusioned with the religion in which he was raised. Jordan speaks with the most annoying 'modern' voice I can think of. It is so obscenely forced it is very hard to take him seriously.

All authors (including you, Geraldine Brooks) please take note. If you want to learn how to write in a 'modern' voice (I understand this is hard as a lot of you spend most of your time creating historical prose), read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. These short interviews/stories are insane in their brilliance, searingly honest yet totally original. It feels like you're meeting one Caulfield after the next, each more disarming than the last.
It's short, so you won't have to leave your typewriters for long.

If you have a bit of an interest in Utah polygamists you could, I suppose, give this book a gander. But there has to be a better novel about them out there and when I find it I will get back to you.

Rating: 5/10.
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