The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by Gordon Dahlquist
Published in the UK in October 2006 in ten weekly parts; ISBN: 0140912227 and as a book, Jan 2007 (ISBN: 0670916471)
In the US in one book, August 2006, ISBN: 0385340354
768 pages; in the UK divided over ten parts of approximately 60-70 pages each.
Review by Hobbit, October 2006 (and ongoing).
Once upon a time (about 1840), when books were few, there was Charles Dickens. Later, in the 1880’s, after Dickens’ popularisation of the serial story, the success of Dickens’s work led to authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories were serialised in The Strand Magazine, as well as, at a lower hierarchical level, there was the ‘penny dreadful’.
The premise was relatively simple – publish a story in parts, often weekly or monthly, with enough plot to drive it and enough energy to keep the readers enthralled. It was also conveniently cheap to produce. And became extremely popular.
The chapbook was born.
Now, in the 21st century, Gordon Dahlquist has tried to resurrect the same. (A more recent attempt than Dickens was Stephen King’s The Green Mile, which was published as six parts over six months in 1996.)
However, where King’s version was fairly contemporary (1930’s USA) Dahlquist’s is unashamedly Victorian or Edwardian in style. It attempts to be a Conan Doyle style story or a Rudyard Kipling; even say, Jules Verne, rather than something more recent. Think Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, rather than Dashiell Hammett.
Within this context then, for this review I wanted to run an ongoing review: to put down my thoughts and ideas as each weekly part appears (or at least, as I get to each part!). Hopefully, at the end I will be able to determine whether the book is worth the unusual publishing publicity.
Week 1: Temple. Pages 1 – 62.
Chapter 1: In which we meet Miss Temple, discover her engagement’s termination and start on a journey.
This first chapter (of 60 pages!) tells the story of Miss Celeste Temple, a twenty-five year old lady of means, who begins the chapter by opening a letter from her fiancé Roger Bascombe. Being a relatively modern young lady, she feels that his ‘Dear John’ note (‘on crisp Ministry paper and signed with his full name’) is unacceptable and tries to uncover the truth.
(As this is a Victorian/Edwardian style book, this means that it is done via the mail rather than by telephone or email.)
Determined to discover the ‘real’ reason why Roger has called things off, she follows him from his workplace in an unnamed city to a country house where things unusual and perverted seem to happen…
My first impression was that this is a leisurely chapter. Time is taken, for example, to describe Miss Temple’s breakfast and her shopping habits, as well as her innermost thoughts and feelings. This may be a little frustrating to some readers. However, I thought it was acceptable, once I’d picked up the style. Those who have read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell should not find it too difficult. However, what was more disconcerting to me was the way that, unlike Clarke’s novel, although many of the settings seemed to be Edwardian / Victorian, the events inside in places lapsed into something with a rather more contemporary voice.
There are scenes that are both unsettling and attempt to be shocking and erotic, but just felt jarringly out of place in a book with an emphasis on decorum and manners. This, of course, may have been the point, but the way that the scenes were written sat uneasily with their older virtues mentioned earlier in the chapter. There are also clumsy lapses of phrase – how could Miss Temple tell her aunt’s breath was ‘violet scented,’ when it was the other side of a wooden door, (page 3) for example? – which indicate that this is the writer’s first book.
I also felt that a certain degree of suspension of belief was needed – for a character to go from a prim demure lady to a woman running around publicly in silk underwear in sixty pages is a pretty mean feat, and didn’t entirely work. In the same way, the ability for Miss Temple to integrate herself into a rather perverse party, being seen by people she knows without being recognised (admittedly behind a mask) and without any real understanding of what was going on was felt to be a little too convenient and therefore a little unrealistic.
To sum up then, an introductory chapter of contradictions. It was entertaining but generally in a Victorian melodrama way, with lengthy descriptions, though little of depth. I think I was hoping for a little more than the chapter delivered. However, I will keep reading.
Chapter 2: In which we meet Cardinal Chang, an assassin, whose work routine is altered.
A different point of view in the second chapter, being the story told by a character with the nom-de-plume of Cardinal, so-called ‘from his habit of a red leather topcoat that he’d stolen from the costume rack of a travelling theatre.’ We’re into Oliver Twist country here, with a character reminiscent of Fagin, or given a rather racist tone perhaps Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. Cardinal Chang is clearly set up as a villain, an assassin whose work is usually on the wrong side of legal. The introduction of the chapter is noted as being similar in construction to Chapter One. Rather like Chapter One, Chapter Two follows his daily routines, as it did Miss Temple’s. The story continues when, after his daily routine of meeting contacts and arranging meetings, he is displeased to discover that his latest target is actually not a target, having being dispatched in Chapter One. (I’m keeping it vague here to avoid spoilers.) Chang is clearly not happy at losing a source of income, particularly when it sounds like he has been betrayed with such an action. Most of the chapter is then spent in Chang trying to discover ‘who did it’?
I quite liked this character. Clearly, at a basic level, a baddie with a chip on his shoulder, Dahlquist paints him with enough grey to make the character rather enigmatic and deserving of your empathy. There are also some links between the characters of Chapter One and this one. Things are starting to get interesting.
Chapter 3: In which we meet Dr Abelard Svenson, a surgeon.
Well, actually we have met the lead character before. He is Dr Abelard Svenson, personal physician to royalty (the Prince of Macklenberg), and met in the closing section of Chapter Two. (Another chapter, another viewpoint, though the three do overlap.) In this chapter we get to the conspiracy uncovered by Chang in Chapter Two: namely that the Prince is involved in strange dealings, which further involves the unusual blue glass first seen in Chapter 1. Svenson appears to be a solid chap, trying to deal with a difficult situation as he sees fit. The end of the chapter involves more chasing and running around.
And so it was at this point that I became disinterested in the book, much as I wanted to enjoy it. I really did not want to read further.The difficulty for me is I'm not sure why. The tone and language is acceptable, the characters reasonable. The story, for all it's rushing about, is actually rather sedate in its unfolding and I felt my interest waning as I finished this chapter. Another chapter, another chase. After only three chapters I found myself feeling that I'd been here before, and - perhaps more importantly - did not want to go any further.
So: I have given up on this experiment. Normally I will see a book through to the (sometimes bitter) end, regardless, but on this occasion the book has defeated me. Rather than muddle through, I've decided to reluctantly count my losses and leave it be, at least for now. If the purpose of the weekly publication was to encourage the return of the chapbook, then in my case it has sadly failed. Perhaps today's society, with it's myriad diversions, is not the place for such a venture, though the publishers should be commended for their efforts.
Perhaps I will come back to this one: at a later date, when I have so much less I want to read.
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