This is a huge book at just over 750 pages. But, while it is an interesting insight into life and events running up to the start of the American Civil War, it’s about 300 pages too long in my opinion.
When a novelist tells you what’s going to happen at the end of the book on page 1, you know you’re going to be disappointed. When he tells you this at the beginning of a 758 page novel, you can be forgiven for getting downright angry. All you’re left to go on then are the literary themes. Thankfully, Banks writes a better theme than a story.
The story is of John Brown (yes, the one whose body lies a-moldering) as seen from the eyes of one, Owen Brown, of his sons. It’s a novel about how your father can seriously muck up or make your life. It’s Sons and Lovers with a paternal twist, 450 extra pages and not half the literary style. I think the novel works here as Lawrence’s does with great dollops of angst and confusion. But, if any of us have grown up at all, this is one thing we’re pretty much aware of anyway.
The novel is also about how religious fanaticism can help you miss the big picture. As the novel goes on, John Brown adapts his beliefs nicely to suit his circumstances carefully picking and choosing which elements of God he feels are relevant and remaining ignorant of those which would stop him in his tracks if he were to actually read his Bible in its entirety. In stark contrast, and to show that it isn’t the fault of Christ that Brown went off the rails theologically, Abraham Lincoln didn’t lose the big picture. I’m not so sure that this theme is worked through enough as the narrator confesses agnosticism and therefore confuses the issues with his own lack of theological clarity.
Banks also deals with slavery and this I think works. He shows well how deeply rooted this can be and how blind we can be too it. I’m glad I’ve read plenty of stuff from a black perspective to balance this novel against. Compare for example his
white is as much a color as black
white is not a color but a lack of one
and you end up with two very different perspectives on the issue. I think however that the black writers (Ellison, Morisson, Walker) capture it better though. Perhaps that should go without saying.
One reason why is perhaps illustrated by the novel’s irredeemably brief brush with the Native American issue. It has never ceased to amaze me that a nation which could go to war to rid itself of the maltreatment of slaves could not do the same over the maltreatment of Native Americans. Consider Owen Brown’s statement on seeing these people who he says are “exiled without having left home”:
difficult to know how to freel towards them so we tended to watch them in silence and from a distance and not to speak of them at all
Now it strikes me as incredibly hypocritical to get so worked up on the issue of slavery that you would kill for it and then to remain so undecidedly convinced on the issue of ethnic cleansing. This is perhaps a hint that John Brown’s crusade and perhaps the whole Civil War had absolutely nothing fundamentally to do with human rights. But there will be, I’m sure, few who’ll agree with me on that issue.
In the end though, and with some of the main literary themes working, the story is weakened I think by repetition and vague wanderings. From the word go, he keeps reiterating what will happen at the end. By the time I’d got there, any anticipation this was intended to create was wasted by serious lack of incident and climax. I was sorely disappointed by the lack of detail here. I guess I’m still learning that novels aren’t necessarily about what happens but what is.
Upon waking this cold, gray morning from a troubled sleep, I realised for the hundredth time, but this time with deep conviction, that my words and behaviour towards you were disrespectful, and rude and selfish as well.
though we are sometimes scorched by [Father’s] flame, we are seldom warmed by it
when one understands a human being, no matter how oppressive he has been, compassion inevitably follows
without struggle there is no virtue
white is as much a color as black
is a person is called “colored,” let all be colored
The trees were blue-black and flattened in the moonlight, and the fields seemed to be covered with a skin of powdery snow.
terrible > poor > mediocre > okay > good > very good> excellent > superb