As a long-time reader, my eye has often been caught by a single short review, or by a cover design. I am not always sucked in by such things, and tend to do a bit more research into a title before I decide whether it is for me, but occasionally, I take a chance. I did so with the two novels which I will be reviewing in this post – Gardening at Night, by South African author Diane Awerbuck, and Suddenly, by Canadian author Bonnie Burnard. Neither of these novels lived up to what I hoped they could be – something, I am sure, which every reader has gone through at one point or another in their literary life. I have tried to be as objective as possible here, and not too negative, but I feel it is important not to just focus on books which I have loved.
Gardening at Night by Diane Awerbuck
I took a chance on this novel mainly because I haven’t read anything set in South Africa for quite some time, and I am so interested in the period – the 1980s and 1990s – in which it is set. I am also a sucker for a coming-of-age story, particularly when it features a young girl railing against what surrounds her, as Gardening at Night purports to do.
The narrator of the piece, also named Diane Awerbuck, lives in a South African town named Kimberley, a former mining area, where ‘the only tales are those of leaving’. The novel is told in a series of vignettes, which feel a little muddled at first, but then take on a more chronological structure. Throughout, we follow different individuals whom the Diane of the novel knows; there are quite a few of these characters. There is a lot of sadness and difficult occurrences within the pages of Gardening at Night, and suicide and violence form just two of the trigger warnings.
Awerbuck’s prose is strange, and can sometimes be a little confusing. Stretches of time pass between vignettes, with children far older from one segment to the next. At first, I found Awerbuck’s writing beguiling, but this cooled for me after a relatively short time. Due to the structure, the narrative often has a broken quality, and it is not always – or even often – the easiest book to read. I can see why this has so divided opinion; on Goodreads, it is definitely a love-hate book, with barely anyone seeming to fall within the middle.
I really liked the inclusion of local slang and products here, which allowed me to gain more of a view of what life in South Africa was like during this period for ordinary people. However, there are a few too many pop culture references which are very specific to the region, and which are not explained. Given its publication in 2003, and its setting of the two decades beforehand, the novel does feel rather dated.
Although I was mildly interested in Diane’s story during her childhood, I found myself becoming less so at the point at which she moves away to college. Sections of Gardening at Night are rather dull, and much of the narrative seems concerned with Diane climbing into people’s cars, and driving around with no real purpose in mind. This seems fitting, given the story; although Diane grows up during the narrative, she never really gets anywhere.
Suddenly by Bonnie Burnard
I stumbled across Bonnie Burnard whilst browsing books published by Virago, undoubtedly one of my favourite houses. I was drawn to the storyline of Suddenly, which deals with a woman who has terminal cancer, and is trying to live fully during her remaining days, whilst remembering those which have passed. I was also most interested in the fact that Suddenly was blurbed by both Alice Munro and Carol Shields, heavyweights of Canadian authors whose work I love.
At first, I really enjoyed Burnard’s writing style. In the first chapter, she writes with insight about how it must feel to know that your life is limited, and that you face incredible amounts of pain. She writes: ‘What she is finally beginning to understand is that all these years of talk, the pleasure of idiocy, the bouts of worry, the complaints, the humouring of memory, even the offhand, underdone affection, these are the least of it. The best of it is being known. Known over time.’ Burnard has real strength here too, in showing how Sandra’s illness progresses.
Sadly, there is no sense of constancy within Suddenly. The consequent chapters have rather plain, matter-of-fact prose, and a great deal of the author’s thoughtfulness and exploration into terminal illness, both on an individual level and within the wider family unit, seems to vanish. There are many secondary characters here, and they are introduced in quick succession, which becomes rather confusing. None of these characters is particularly interesting, either; even a couple of days after finishing the novel, I found myself unable to remember much about any of them aside from protagonist Sandra’s husband, Jack.
My interest in the present-day story did hold somewhat, but the forays into the past, which are made with no delineation between time periods, I found boring. The structure feels a little disorienting at times, and the main threads of the story are lost, entangled in a dull recounting of mundanity. Burnard also has a habit of switching from one character to another without mentioning the new character’s names; instead, she merely uses pronouns, which tend to make everything so confusing.
Suddenly held promise at its outset, but I found it to be poorly executed on the whole. I had to keep stopping myself when I was reading, in able to try and orient myself – to work out who was related to who, and what their relationship consisted of. Suddenly is a disappointingly muddled novel, which I had hoped to enjoy, but which did not continue as I expected. The story is bogged down in ordinary details and bland conversations between flat characters, and there is also a curious lack of emotion throughout, particularly given the present-day storyline.