So much of the writing I see—even the good writing—isn’t connected to anything but itself. It seems to have come from a vacuum: the author knows the page, the words know the page, but neither of them have any association with the wider world. As a result, there’s nothing for me as a reader to carry away from the book. The prose is polished and utterly disposable.
The best fiction, on the other hand—the stuff that actually does matter—addresses our perceptions of the world around us, inspires us to have our own ideas, and brings us into a dialogue. To put it simply, the difference between competent fiction and worthwhile fiction is the difference between having dinner with a friend who talks knowledgeably about himself, and having dinner with a friend who talks knowledgeably about the world.Charles Lambert, one suspects, would address rather broader issues than his own moustache over the cacio e pepe. It’s true of his blog, and it’s certainly true of Little Monsters, his debut novel, which was published last year in hardback and last month in paperback… giving me a timely excuse to review it.
Little Monsters is a story about refugees, which is also timely—perhaps more so this year than last. The story is split between protagonist Carol’s childhood as a refugee from a broken family in 1960s Britain, and modern Italy, where Carol is volunteering as an English teacher in a “welcoming” centre for asylum seekers. (For more about the increasingly nasty situation with immigrants in Italy at the moment, I’ll again direct you to Lambert’s blog, but think “fear-mongering poster campaigns, government-sponsored vigilante gangs”.)
Lambert’s writing is elegant and observant. Within the first few chapters of Little Monsters, it’s clear that he’s been out in the world, and he’s brought us back news about how we work as human beings:
Sometimes I think there is only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.
The novel is narrated by Carol during the Italian years, as she recollects her childhood experiences as an unwelcome addition to her aunt’s family past and uses them to inform, and perhaps to direct, her actions in the present, when she is working with refugees while still being something of one herself.
The language is a little poetic and rather wistful, without ever going too far. (Lambert started out as a poet and is in control of his words.) He draws the world around his characters with an almost obsessive eye for detail and for the nuances of human behaviour, an obsession which he—or Carol—is aware of, and knows how to limit:
When I think about those years, I am struck by how much detail I remember. Jozef connects it to my fondness for paintings in which each square inch of canvas is treated with the same attention, each leaf and flower and distant tower given the same care as the face of the Madonna, the dimpled hands of the child as it reaches up towards its mother or out towards the artist. ‘Detail renders visible,’ Jozef says, and of course he’s right. Excess of detail, though, can have the opposite effect. If detail renders visible, too much detail can reduce invisibility to indifference. It levels everything, cuts everything down to size.
And so we have the minutiae of Carol’s attempts to adjust to and shape her surroundings, but other information, like exactly how her aunt’s husband in the 60s has become Carol’s lover today, is left out entirely.
At one point in the reading, I had trouble because I actually did want to hear more of the others’ viewpoints: more from Carol’s aunt, who takes her in but aggressively, cruelly; more from the Italians whose country the refugees at the camp are moving into. But what started out as an intended criticism must end up as a compliment: telling those other stories in any more detail isn’t the job that Little Monsters has set itself. I’d just been drawn into the dialogue; I’d started to ask questions and raise my own points, no longer about the novel but about the world it addressed. My pasta had grown cold, and Little Monsters had proven its worth.
March 15th, 2009 at 11:58 pm
I certainly agree with your final assessment. I too wanted to hear more as I was reading the story — it was only as I finished the book that I came to realize that one of Lambert’s strengths was deliberately not providing that. As a reader, you need then to contemplate how those gaps might be filled and that adds an entire new dimension to the story. Little Monsters is a very good book for exactly that reason.
March 16th, 2009 at 4:40 pm
I understand from one of Lambert’s many recent interviews that Little Monsters started as a much longer novel, and was cut right down. I’d be curious to know how much of what he withholds was withheld from the start, and how much went out during the editing process.
March 16th, 2009 at 5:06 pm
A very interesting question — it would also be worth knowing whether he did that of his own accord or whether there was some external advice. I don’t know if you read dovegreyreader’s online interview with Stella Duffy but it is worth a look — Duffy describes how her writing style is to write a first draft and then the real work consists of reducing the size of the draft.
March 17th, 2009 at 7:21 am
Hey Rob. I did start a new blog. It is going to be very different. The old one was too demanding.
March 17th, 2009 at 8:40 am
Welcome back, Candy!
March 18th, 2009 at 11:51 am
Thanks, I did take a look at the Duffy interview. Actually, I think this is a pretty common way of shaping a novel (another example from TFD would be Edward Hogan’s Blackmoor).
Many of the writers I work with or talk to prepare a very rough first draft containing all of their ideas, and then whittle it down from there. Sometimes taking too long over the details in a first draft will actually mean that some ideas get lost before they even make it onto paper… others, of course, won’t start a new sentence until the one before has been meticulously pruned.
March 18th, 2009 at 6:22 pm
I know more about the drama experience (because a very good friend is a playwright) than fiction, but I do agree with what you say. Many good writers write everything in the first draft — the value of editing is how that is then pared and pruned to become a viable option. However Lambert arrived at the final result, this book is a good example of what it means.
March 18th, 2009 at 9:43 pm
Kevin, it certainly is!
I’d be fascinated to know more about how playwrights work.
March 23rd, 2009 at 5:11 am
Rob: I’m thinking I may actually do a post about my observations on the process. My playwright friend has a new play out, which is also being published in book form. Once the publisher figures out how to take online orders, it might be an interesting post. If that doesn’t come to pass, I’ll be back with an answer here. Kevin
March 24th, 2009 at 11:46 am
I look forward to reading it, wherever you post it!
March 26th, 2009 at 9:03 am
Always a pleasure to visit your beautifully designed blog and you actually make me want to read this book – what more could a reviewer ask for.
March 30th, 2009 at 4:43 pm
Rob: So once I got thinking about playwriting, it turned out that I would need at least two posts. I posted the first one last night — am looking for a couple of images before posting Part Two. Thanks for causing me to think about this.
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