Saturday, 21 February 2009

Black Boxes: about time too

I bought a copy of Black Boxes by Caroline Smailes some months ago, as detailed here. I began reading it late last year but, owing to some rather trying personal circumstances at the time, I felt that it would be better to wait until I could properly give it the attention that it merited.

Actually, I may have been wrong. I think that if I had read on just a little further - literally a few pages further - at that particular time, then the choice would effectively have been taken away from me: for having read the novel in its entirety in the latter part of this week, there was a certain point, quite early on, at which reading it became a matter of sheer compulsion. That word unputdownable, so often used, is certainly true in this case.

For the most part, the novel takes the form of a searingly, devastatingly personal monologue as voiced by the central character, Ana, who has just taken an overdose: this monologue sifts through the detail of the now-broken relationship with the father of her children, and the twists and turns in their lives that have taken her to this point. At times this takes the form of an almost forensic level of enquiry, and never does she flinch from giving clear voice to her darkest, most unsettling thoughts. I found this to be often quite startling, perhaps because such words then intermingle with very delicate, gentle, warm moments.

One of the great strengths of Caroline's writing is the way in which she interweaves the main narrative with that of another voice, in this case Ana's daughter: in doing so she brings incredible poignancy to certain events already described by Ana, seen as they are in a different context, and at times carrying heartbreaking consequences. This tapestry of voices and recollections serves to render the characters and events ever more vivid.

In the immediate aftermath of reading Black Boxes, I'm also struck by just how real, how urgently human these characters are. Not only are their thoughts and observations expertly transcribed, so they are also sculpted as real flesh and blood: the stuff of them as living, breathing beings with all their beauty, flaws and blemishes is what really remains firmly in my mind right now. I felt that I could see, hear, smell and touch them, to the extent that I was intruding on their presence.

Powerful, emotive reading.


claire p said...

I've got it but haven't read it yet, now I can't wait. Great blog.

Leigh said...

I am ashamed to say that, while I read a good chunk of it on the train coming home from its London launch, I haven't touched it since. Life, as ever, is the excuse. Thank you, Trousers, you have reminded me that I must pick up this book again.

Megan said...

Wonderful, insightful review

trousers said...

Thank you, claire p, and hello. It's odd that, after months of it sitting there, waiting to be read, then I quickly reached a point with it where it more or less demanded that I carried on reading it. It sort of carries its own very definite momentum.

Hi leigh, such indeed is life. I did read the first 60 or so pages late last year, but I found it better to start right back at the beginning when I picked it up again a few days ago, and it made sense to read it in its entirety in quite a short space of time, as has been suggested elsewhere.

megan, hello and thank you too!

tpe said...

What a beautifully crafted review, Mr T.

I'm looking forward to reading this (in a feeling sick kind of a way). In Search of Adam turned me upside down a wee bit. Strange to say - and maybe even distasteful or wrong, I don't know - but the abuse and misery endured by Jude (whilst obviously bad enough) did not leave me feeling as uneasy as I found myself feeling when she finally encountered some kindness. This had me bathed with anxiety and dread. Impossible to explain and I don't know how she (Caroline) did it - or if she meant to, of course.

Either way, she's a frigging legend and I'm almost certain this book will be as good as the first one I read. Your review certainly leads me to believe such a thing, in any event. Good stuff, Trousers.

Kind regards etc....


(Hope you've had a lovely weekend, by the way.)

trousers said...

Hi tpe, and thank you.

I did feel something perhaps similar to what you describe about ISoA - I do clearly remember that Jude had a teacher who was encouraging her in her work and giving her some confidence - and it was very difficult reading, one of those points at which I had to put the book down and take a breather for a while.

When I say difficult, I mean in the sense that it was unbearably poignant.

It may well be the case, once you've read Black Boxes, that you'll be clearer on whether Caroline intended such as you've described.

Did you ever read her novella, Disraeli Avenue? I'd recommend it just as strongly, and perhaps at some point I'll be organised enough to blog a review of it. It had a moment which really floored me, well and truly.

My weekend has been good, thanks, after a none-too-easy week. I hope the same can be said of yours (the weekend that is).

Regards reciprocated, wishing you well sir.

tpe said...

Hey Mr T, sorry about the slight delay in getting back to you (continuing computer issues).

Yes. Precisely. The kindness of the teacher. It was excruciatingly difficult to bear (in the good way, I must add, because these things take skill to achieve in writing, whether as a specific intention or simply as the surprising - if entirely natural - outcome of a place you've been headed all along). It just slaughtered me. (Again, let me stress, in the good way.)

Well, I've downloaded Disraeli Avenue but have yet to read it. (Obviously, If Caroline chances by, I'll deny this strenuously.) I need to do things in order and it's now, finally, third in line behind two other works of fiction I have to read (I rarely read fiction, unfortunately). Luckily, Black Boxes is fourth in line, so the wait should be minimal.

Definitely write a review for Disraeli Avenue if and when you get a chance. This is clearly something you have a gift for (along with obituaries, of course, you great big mope-bucket.)

That's good that your weekend was enjoyable. Less good about the preceding week, however. Hang in there, lovely Mr T, just keep hanging on. Good stuff has a habit of whacking you on the bonce when you least expect it.

Kind regards cetra cetra....


(Having real problems posting here - will try again.)

tpe said...


trousers said...

I think I'd have to read DA again before I give any serious thought to reviewing it. Not that that's a disincentive by any means. But since I finally got a fab paperback edition of the same (and haven't even blogged that) a few weeks ago, I think that adds to the incentive.

As for obituaries: well I'm still toying with the idea of writing one for the late, great Lux Interior, who knows.

Thank you too, I have indeed hung on - and while this week has exercised me in certain ways, it's nothing compared to last week: I always find it difficult (increasingly so) to return to work after a few days off, the break in continuity and routine provides a window into all sorts of otherwise-imagined potential. That being the case, then returning to work after three weeks away, was...nasty.

My continuing best wishes to you, tpe.

Deborah Rey said...

Wonderful and very intelligent review, one the book deserves, as does Caroline Smailes.

trousers said...

Many thanks Deborah - and the same for dropping by.