Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review: Billie's Kiss by Elizabeth Knox

I first stumbled upon Elizabeth Knox through her first novel The Vintner's Luck. I'm not sure what about it captured my imagination--okay, I'll admit to being shallow and tell you that sharing her last name was the first impetus for picking her book up at the bookstore--but something about that cover copy and the picture (plus her name) grabbed me and I ended up taking the book home with me. I absolutely wallowed in it. It was exquisite and I knew I would obsessively buy her books as I saw them come out. So when I found this one, I immediately snapped it up and promptly stowed it on a shelf to be forgotten in the mists of time. Seriously, I've owned it unread since 2002. But it seemed like the right time to blow the dust from the top edge and actually read it. I was hoping for another transcendent reading experience. Sadly I was disappointed. That is not to say that it isn't a good book, after all, how many times in one life can an author be transcendent, right? But I wanted to be blown away here and there was something holding me back from that sort of over the top reaction.

Billie is a young woman traveling with her very pregnant sister and brother-in-law to his new place of employment as a cataloguer for Lord Hallowhulme on a remote Scottish island. The trip has been long and rather arduous given pregnant Edith's desperate sea-sickness. Just minutes from landing, Billie and her brother-in-law kiss and Billie jumps from the ship. A heartbeat later, the ship explodes and many of the people on board are drowned, including Billie's sister Edith. Murdo Hesketh, a distant kinsman of Lord Hallowhulme's, undertakes an investigation into the explosion, initially convinced that Billie has had a hand in sabotage. While the mystery of the exploding boat weaves desultorily through the novel, the book as a whole is more a character study of Billie and Murdo, examining their past lives, ferreting out the secrets that have formed them into the remote, solitary beings they are in the pages of the novel.

With a narrative akin to swimming through layers of viscous liquid, this is a slow moving and awkwardly paced novel. Knox has pegged the desolation and spare beauty of the setting very well. The spareness is echoed in the characters' interactions with each other and the personal connections between them, main characters and supporting characters, needed more to make them real. A few of the drowned characters, those closest to Billie and Murdo, are given backstories but for the most part, even with backstory, they remain almost as enigmatic as the main characters do. After a languid investigation, the truth about the explosion comes out. Unfortunately it comes out quickly and cursorily, which leaves it at odds with the pace of the rest of the book. It also rather comes out of left field, disconcertingly enough. Despite these problems, Knox is clearly an impressive writer, having a lovely way with words. She submerges her reader deeply into the narrative and has recreated beautifully the turn of the twentieth century, drawing characters who exist comfortably within their time period. This may not have struck me the way that The Vintner's Luck did, but I will still look for Knox's other works (maybe even on my own shelves again?).

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad that I have found someone else like loved The Vintner's Luck (one of my favourite books of all time) and has read this book.

    I did the review a couple of days ago and didn't get a single comment, seems like you are the same.

    I felt very similar to you about this book. I read it because of how much i loved TVL, and whilst I appreciated the similarities in terms of writing, and the way Knox captures the essence of the scottish island in that time period, it really dragged for me.

    Here's my review if you get a chance

    I also have a review of the Vintner's Luck on my website


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts