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20th August
2009
written by Steph
Well, at least the one thing I'm sure of is that I think the cover is pretty...

Well, at least the one thing I'm sure of is that I think the cover is pretty...

One of the perks of interning at BookPage is that about once a month we have to purge old ARCs in order to make room for all the new ones that keep flooding in. The actual purging process is not actually that fun (since it involves a lot of heavy lifting), BUT when I get put in charge of this (as I often am, as it’s a job no one really wants to do), it does mean that I get to rescue anything that looks good. Which means that any books that we have doubles of or that didn’t get covered in the relevant month’s issue, I can take home with me! I don’t always avail myself of this as we all know I have plenty of books to read as it is, but that is how I came across this copy of Fall by Colin McAdam (the book was published in late June). I’d never heard of the author before (or really anything about this title), but I was intrigued by the pretty cover art and the premise didn’t sound half bad either.

The back cover tells us that this will be the story of two boys, Neil & Julius, who are roommates at an elite boarding school. Neil is awkward and a bit of a loner, while Julius is dashing and popular, but despite their differences, they forge an unlikely friendship. Both are in love with a girl named Fall (though only one of them is dating her… I’ll leave it to you to guess which one), who winds up throwing their worlds out of orbit when she winds up missing. Her disappearance causes the cracks to appear in their friendship, while the two boys attempt to deal with their loss in their own ways.

So that’s what the back cover would have you believe this book is about, only it totally isn’t! I mean, I suppose that on the surface all of the things I’ve just described to you are true and do happen, but the focus of the novel is quite different. I think the disappearance in question happens past the half-way mark in the novel, and while it’s a turning point, it’s one quite late in the game. A lot has been stewing and building for quite some time before Fall goes missing, is all I’m saying. And her disappearance, although a mystery, has an element about it that makes it all the more sinister when we actually read it in the book. I don’t mean to imply that the back cover of this book lies to you about what the book is about, but it is misleading. Because it leads you to believe that you’re probably going to get a pretty plot driven affair with some interpersonal entanglements thrown in, and the book really isn’t like that at all. Instead, it’s much more of a reflective introspective character study, and as much as the back blurb hints at a malevolent undertone, it doesn’t really get it right in my mind. The book winds up going in a very different direction than I thought it would, mostly because Fall’s disappearance felt unnecessary/irrelevant in terms of the way things shake out in the end. The things that happen were always going to happen, given who the characters are, so it kind of made the character of Fall and her disappearance from the novel feel like an afterthought or a marketing ploy. I guess what I need to convey here is that this book is NOT actually about the disappearance of a girl named Fall and the search for her, even though that does happen. It’s really a psychological exploration of two very different boys…

The way that McAdam tackles the exploration is really interesting because Neil’s story is told in retrospect and has a lot of introspection, whereas Julius’s is told in the moment, in a very stream of consciousness style. Normally I find the latter unreadable, but McAdam made it work more or less. That is, he gives Julius a very distinct voice, a very true 18-year old boy voice (there’s a lot of cussing and sex talk happening in those sections)… but it’s also very shallow. It’s all jumbled and frenetic and after a while my eyes kind of glazed over and I wasn’t sure I need to keep reading things from his perspective. Because teenage boys don’t really have a varied repertoire of thoughts, and as much as Julius loves his girlfriend, we as readers don’t get to know her apart from the two views the boys afford us of her, neither of which is likely true, nor are they very insightful… so Fall is kind of a shell, and so all of the great love the boys have for her is not really earth-shattering or moving. And yes, teenagers are schmoopy and lovey-dovey, but reading page upon page of “I love you!”, “No, I love you!” is kind of boring… After all, there’s a reason I don’t just publish pages of text messages Tony and I have sent to one another (in part because we don’t text, but you see my point). So I guess the takeaway message here is that I thought McAdam pulled of the stream of consciousness style better than most, but I still didn’t really want to read it.

There was something so clinical about the book both in terms of the pacing and the character development, and I felt like suddenly we wound up in a place where Neil becomes this character that perhaps he has always subtly been, and yet it’s a surprise, and I think I always wanted more from the book that it just didn’t deliver. If it’s going to go to a dark place, do it! Don’t just skirt around the edges, actually delve into those shadowy depths and grip onto something raw and real. I spent most of the book not really knowing what I was being given, and then felt like it kind of just ended, when it really needed a few more sections to tie things up and give us some resolution. Maybe I was just thrown too off course by the back cover and so I could never figure out what this book was actually trying to be. It felt angry and full of rage, but also really subdued and serene, and maybe that was the point? It’s almost like I have a lot of feelings about this book, but I don’t really! I am pretty ambivalent about it: parts were captivating, at times the writing was very good, and given that I have been having ADHD for the past week or so, it counts for something that I was able to sit down and read the whole thing rather than tossing it aside. But I didn’t particularly like it, but nor did I dislike it; I wouldn't tell someone NOT to read this book, but it isn't one I'd really urge anyone else to spend time with either (unless it's so they can tell me what its m.o. was). Normally I can tell pretty quickly into a novel what star rating it will get, and it's very rare that this changes.  But I couldn't get a bead on this one for a while, to the point that even upon finishing it I wasn't sure how to rate it.  It was just kind of there… Sigh. Talk about damning with faint praise.

[Also, I apologize that this review is probably incoherent to those of you who haven't read this book.  I think some days that's just the way it goes...]

Rating: 3 out of 5

8 Comments

  1. 08/20/2009

    Your feelings about this book sound similar to the ones I had while reading the Deptford Trilogy. Though the plot was ostensibly about one set of events, the real story was about something entirely different. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, and definitely perplexed me.

    This book does sound interesting to me, but I have a feeling that I would be bothered by the sections written in the stream of consciousness style. I have never really liked that technique, and sometimes go to great lengths to avoid those types of books.

    I really enjoyed this review. Even though I probably won’t go out and buy this book, your review has made me curious enough to want to find out more about it.

  2. 08/20/2009

    I’m glad you got something out of this review, because I felt very jumbled while writing it, for the reason you stated with respect to the Deptford Trilogy. This might be one worth a visit to the library… normally I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness writing, and while I wouldn’t say this changed that or that it was an elegant example of it, it didn’t make me want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon, which was my reaction to The Accidental by Ali Smith where the same device is employed!

  3. One of the coolest things about my internship this summer has been the book piles. There’s a dump of free books over by the break room and I’ve taken quite a few of them. I’ll miss that 🙂

    Also, this book sounds pretty good, although the rambling teenage boy voice might get annoying.

  4. 08/21/2009

    Yeah, I find that a lot of the good books get picked over pretty quickly, but inevitably there are more books out there than can be reviewed, so some good ones slip through the cracks. I also enjoy when I get put on mail and get to open all the packages sent by publishers when all the new books come in – it’s literally like having my birthday every day! 😉

    I still feel ambivalent about the book, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about it… the teenage boy voice did grate at times, but by and large I think the author made it work.

  5. 08/21/2009

    Most books that delve with a missing person might end up being a plot-driven type of mystery, and that is exactly what I expect when I read the first couple paragraphs of your review. That it’s more about a retrospective character study might make me hesitate to pick it up, at least at the moment.

    As to receiving books, I love getting packages of books from bloggers and publishers. recently I have seen an increase of book galley coming in from publishers. Yay!

  6. 08/22/2009

    @ Matt: Yes, exactly what you said about expectations! I have nothing against introspective narratives, but I was expecting something very different. I was impressed with how the author managed to maintain a good deal of tension even though there was more “internal” action than external, but it still wound up being a kind of unwieldy book for me.
    And it is nice to get books in the mail, and an extra treat when you get them before everyone else does! It’s nice to feel that someone out there is interested in our opinions! 😉

  7. 08/24/2009

    I envy your access to ARCs, what fun to browse through the book stacks and take stuff home that looks interesting (even if you might end up slightly disappointed).

  8. 08/24/2009

    It really is a nice perk! I think with ARCs I’m even more willing to branch outside my regular comfort zone because there’s absolutely no financial repercussions for taking a book and then not enjoying it! Of course, I do have to limit myself and try to be reasonable about whether I really want to read any of the books that are available. And normally I try to operate under the principle that if I like an ARC an awful lot then I should buy a finished “official” copy when it’s finally released. Free books are great, but I do think it’s important to try and support authors and the publishing industry as best we can!

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