The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger,due for publication in March from Picador, came my way courtesy of a publisher's proof copy and these in themselves are interesting.
It may not have slipped your attention that I am a complete cover-aholic junkie and of course the cover is my guide into the book, it provides my signposts, the messages I need to lure me in.
I must be a publisher's dream to be honest; far, far too easily impressed by a lovely book cover, the content doesn't have to work nearly so hard to get it into my hands and up to the till.
I'll forgive anything that's wrapped in that subtle combination of say muted tones of petrel blue/burgundy and yellow ochre.Monochrome receives my undivided attention and anything Niall Williams writes, while it remains in those perfectly photographed covers, will win my heart at the purchasing stage.I'm also fed up with books with headless women on them so I'm starting to walk away from those.
Even if the blurb doesn't immediately speak to me I'll still delve for a redeeming feature to avoid the disappointment of putting an attractive cover back on the shelf. Brown covers sadly will always struggle regardless.
Hopeless and fickle, I expect you are all far more sensible.
So a proof copy is the ultimate test for me. A bog standard thin paper cover with minimalist appeal and this one in reddish-orange so doesn't even match the curtains, just the Le Creuset.
There can be no doubt, I've got to read it for the content alone and can only leave it lying around in the kitchen.
Therefore if I find myself looking forward to picking up such a boring looking book and emerge the other end feeling that I really enjoyed it, there can be little doubt that the writing has succeeded.
I posted last week about the Nell-hype that seems to have by-passed the Tamar Valley and it was good to come to this book with no pre-conceptions.
Yuan Zhao, a Chinese artist. is the dissident of the title who arrives from Beijing for a year's residency with the Travers family in Los Angeles.He will tutor in the local school and also paint and hold an exhibition of his work.Naturally the Travers family have problems of their own and these gradually unravel alongside Yuan Zhao's back story.
There is a gentle hint early on that all will not be as it seems and so my antennae were up from the start.
I warmed completely to Nell Freudenberger's unobtrusive writing style. No self-proclamations of look at me aren't I clever with obtuse convolutions and complexities, and I was led competently, rather than being flogged to death and beaten up about my own inadequate artistic knowledge, into some very interesting thoughts about art.
The image and who owns it, the subject or the photographer?
Art in performance, is it art?
Also a clever turn of events around an art installation towards the end that has you reflecting on censorship versus repression and trying to decide exactly which country deserves the prize.
Nell Freudenberger's strength for me was her characterisation.
Yuan Zhao's life is narrated in a rather flat first-person-speaking-in-their-second-language style, he never quite makes it off the page and, though probably seen by many as a flaw, this seemed to fulfill the requirement for me that we remained uncertain about him throughout and constantly questioned his reliability as the teller of his own story. In complete contrast just about everyone else bounces into varying degrees of life around him.
There are probably inevitable comparisons to be made between Nell Freudenberger and Zadie Smith and I was vaguely reminded of the family presented to us in On Beauty...well the first 50 pages of the family because as you know that's as far as I got with On Beauty but lets not go on about that anymore.
Cometh the hour cometh On Beauty, especially if the cover gets a make-over, currently it only blends with the shed.There's a thought,perhaps I'd have done better with a proof copy?
The Dissident was a good, page-turning read, great insights into US family life against a backdrop of life in China and a neat little twist in the tale.