"There are many ways of reading!" the Reviewer shouts at us.
There are two things you can pay attention to when reading a novel: What Happens, and What It Means. This, Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda, was the first novel I've read in quite some time where reading What It Means was really important. Then again, since this was the first book I've read in a long time with other people's analytical notes scribbled in the margins, maybe it's only that I noticed What It Meant more than I usually do. Honestly? I'm not that good with What It Means. 9 times out of 10 when I'm reading a book for fun it just doesn't occur to me to stop and think about epithets and narrative voices.
Ways of Dying was a grand panoply of epithets and narrative voices. My sister's notes helpfully brought them to my attention, and they turned out to be delightful. There were characters with strangely ironic titles, like that stuck-up bitch which never meant what I thought it did. Most of the story was told by We, The Community, a bossy, all-knowing looker over shoulders that sniffily insisted that we didn't believe what so-and-so said, or we all thought such-and-such was scandalous. People and events were described so slyly that halfway through the book I was still just barely getting a sense of characters who had been appearing since page three.
Halfway through the book is where my problem started. My sister's notes dwindled to a few scribbles and underlines, my attention wandered, and I went back to reading What Happened instead. What Happened in the second half of the book, stripped of its analysis and faded from the novelty of the first hundred pages, wasn't arresting. Most of the questions that I'd been asking for the first half of the book -- how did this boy die, how was he born, what happened to this man's father? -- ended up being answered with either mystical surreality or smirky ambiguity, which fell far short of what I'd been hoping for.
This is probably the most thoroughly mixed book review I've given lately. When I was excited about what I was reading into what I was reading, I was supremely excited about it. When I found myself disappointed with the story I was being told, I was profoundly disappointed. First I raved, and now I'm bitching. I have no real idea whether I'd have loved the second half of the book if I'd been analysing it, nor whether I'd have hated the first half if I hadn't been doing so. I can't even figure out whether to recommend it or not. Caveat emptor and try it if you want?Posted by dianna at September 13, 2005 02:35 PM