My review of Sam Meekings’ The Book of Crows- a novel set in different time periods in China -is in the new issue of Edinburgh Review.
The Book of Crows by Sam Meekings (Polygon)
How did people think and speak a thousand years ago? The simple answer is: we don’t know. Without recorded speech, or transcripts, the best a historian can do is guess. So when we read a historical work of fiction what matters is not so much the accuracy of the characters’ thoughts and language, but whether they seem plausible. Sam Meeking’s second novel, The Book of Crows, attempts to ventriloquise characters from four different periods in Chinese history: a young girl in the 1st Century BCE who is kidnapped and taken to a brothel; a grieving poet in the 9th Century; a Franciscan monk in the 13th Century; and a low ranking civil servant in the early 1990s. What these disparate narrators have in common is that they encounter people determined to find a mythical book that contains the entire past, present and future history of the world.
Meekings is to be commended for his ambition in trying to weave these separate narratives together, not so much at the level of plot, but in terms of parallels between the different narrators. The poet, the kidnapped girl, and the civil servant all share a degree of fatalism, which accords with the ideas of predestination and fate raised when different characters debate whether the knowledge offered by the mythical book is more a curse than a blessing. ‘Rain at Night’, the story of the grieving poet, is by far the most affecting of the different strands. Though Bai Juyi‘s grief for his daughter is dealt with in a mostly oblique fashion, there is a delicacy and sadness to his narration. His discussion of poetry with the crown prince is an impressively nuanced scene that functions as both a literary and spiritual lesson. Though some of his expositions of Buddhist precepts feel a trifle forced (‘…for a while we shared our common experiences of finding solace in the words of the Buddha, in the first realisation of the illusory nature of the world and, therefore, of the self.’), for the most part the voice remains compelling, especially with each section’s epigrammatic closing statement (e.g. ‘I say a sutra that your shoes stay strong, that your palms stay open’).
Unfortunately, this lightness of touch is absent in the novel’s other strands. Though Meekings does well in conjuring the different places and time periods, in the main his characters fail to convince on either a psychological or linguistic level. ‘The Whorehouse of a Thousand Sighs’ is narrated in a faux-British manner that makes it very hard to believe that events are taking place in 1st Century BCE China. People speak of ‘winding us up’, being ‘pretty pissed off’, or say they ‘needed to pee’. When a cook says, ‘And knock me over if it doesn’t look longer than the bloody desert itself’, it verges on Cockney. There is also a general portentousness to these sections, not only in the dialogue (‘She didn’t just buy our bodies: she bought our lives, our hopes, our dreams, our futures’) but also in the sententious tone of the young narrator, who has a frequent (not to say unconvincing) tendency to deliver homilies such as ‘If you don’t speak of things, sometimes they get lost so deep that when you really need them the words are buried beyond your reach’ and, ‘Why can’t we keep our dreams to the present, to what we already have, instead of grasping at the future, the sky, the impossible?’
Another troubling feature about this strand is the almost romanticised treatment of a very young girl being abducted and forced to have sex with strangers. The girl rarely seems frightened, and when it comes to her first time, this is dealt with in a single, cursory paragraph.
The other two narrative strands are similarly plagued. The 13th Century monk’s expressions of prejudice and faith are so predictable that it is hard to retain interest. As for the civil servant in the 1990s (who also employs words like ‘wonky’ and ‘git’), some of his exclamations and statements are utterly implausible. ‘Thank the mighty Politburo!’ is a phrase that belongs only in propaganda. Meekings- who has lived in China –should also know better than to have his narrator say, ‘Some folks these days are nostalgic for the old Cultural Revolution’. This was certainly not the case in the early 1990s- it was far too fraught and recent a memory.
If The Book of Crows doesn’t succeed as either a collection of short pieces, or a novel (even one with a discontinuous narrative), this is partly because the attempt to recreate the thoughts and feelings of people from another time (not to mention another culture and language) must always carry a taint of the contemporary. In order for such characters and their worlds to be convincing, they need to be both linguistically and psychologically unfamiliar, so as to remove the reader from their language, time and culture. Otherwise the historical setting is what Lukacs called ‘mere costumery’. Though The Book of Crows offers us ‘curiosities and oddities’ from ancient China, its characters are too much of the present.