Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Booker Review: This Thing of Darkness, Harry Thompson

I tried hard to like this historical novel, but unfortunately its author, Harry Thompson, has done his best to make it distinctly unlikeable. This is a shame, because his subject is certainly interesting enough. This Thing of Darkness follows the career of Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle, a survey ship charged with mapping the wild coast of the Tierra del Fuego in South America. FitzRoy is capable, intellectually acquisitive, yet prone to bouts of manic depression. When the young trainee cleric Charles Darwin is hired as the ship's naturalist, the two men become friends. Yet Darwin's radical scientific hypotheses conflict with FitzRoy's religious convictions, and drama, as it will, ensues.

So what's wrong with the book? For one thing, it is far too long: six hundred pages in large paperback format. Darwin doesn't turn up until about page one hundred and forty, by which time the reader (this reader, at least) is utterly fed up with the whole exercise. There is so much flab. The good historical novelist understands that he or she is writing, first and foremost, a novel. He or she subtlely grounds the novel in fact, and lets imagination - of author and reader - do the rest. Thompson, on the other hand, throws facts and figures and bits of sea-faring jargon at the reader and hopes that it amounts to something. Even the dialogue is weighted down with back story and irrelevant factoids. It makes for sluggish, frustrating reading.

It also makes for dull characters. In Thompson's hands, Darwin and FitzRoy are, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, sacks stuffed with straw, dummies, in a word: unconvincing. Once again Thompson's high regard for his own research is to blame. His characters can barely breathe under the weight of fact. Such psychological insight as exists is in the form of clunky italicised internal monologues. God, this book is interminable! You know, that sort of thing.

I found this book so annoying that I'm actually struggling to write about it. How it made it onto the Booker longlist is beyond me. It is not literature. It is not a good example of its genre. Rather, it is a long-winded exercise in authorial vanity. Clearly, natural selection does not exist in the publishing world or this lumbering throwback of a novel never would have made it to print.

Oh, and can we have a break from titles nicked from Shakespeare? It's getting old.


Beth said...

So - and let me know if I'm jumping to conclusions here - I'm guessing TTOD won't make your personal shortlist of six?

It's very rude for a bad novel to also be long.

Tim said...

TTOD won't be getting anywhere near my - or, I hope, the Booker's - shortlist. I can't believe it's on the longlist.

Anonymous said...

I thoroughly found the book exciting, excellently written, thorough in its discussions and views, not wanting in its historical facts. Truly, Harry Thompson cannot legitimately be ridiculed for this extraordinary piece of Literature. I opinion that those who vehemently deplore this book are probably suffering somewhere in the political and religious weightiness of it.

Simpo said...

I thought it was brilliant. Not sure where all this antipathy comes from. I thoroughly enjoyed it (and I am a serial book-abandoner) and found it distinctly difficult to put down. I was gutted when I learned of Thompson's death as I wanted more of the same!