Friday 4 June 2010

Face value

I'm in a somewhat privileged position. I'm not reliant on exhibition branding to get me into a show (in New Zealand at least). Most of the time, when I see that such-and-such an artist has a show coming up, I either already know their work well, know their work a little, or know the place that they're showing well enough to make a stab at what kind of show it will be.

As a result, I pay little attention to exhibition branding, and it only really sticks out to me if it's particularly attractive, or seems at odds with the show (the title & font used in City Gallery's current 'Ready to Roll', for example, has a kind of Gen X nostalgia that doesn't seem to sit so well with the artists in the show).

I was mulling this over this morning in relation to book covers. The above rule tends to apply to authors whose work I already know. I'll pretty much ignore the cover design (unless it's gorgeous/ugly, and yes, occasionally I'll splurge in the hardback just because I like its looks) because I already have a feel for the content.

But like so many readers, when it comes to unfamiliar authors, the cover and blurb are crucial factors (along with a quick Google for Guardian or LRB reviews). Which is scary if the 0.8 second rule really does apply. Sometimes even a book with a really good reputation will pass me by, because I'm so put off by the cover and blurb.

Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now is a case in point. Here's the blurb from the inside cover flap:

It would be much easier to tell this story if it were all about a chaste and perfect love at an Extreme Time in History. But let's face it ...

Daisy is sent to England from New York to live with her cousin's for a perfect summer.

There are four of them: Osbert, Isaac, Edmond and Piper. Three boys and a girl. And two dogs and a goat.

Daisy has never met anyone like them before. Especially Edmond.

This summer will change her life. It will change the world too.

I've been picking this book up and putting it back down for about 6 months now. Everything about it screamed teenage girl coming of age bittersweet love affair small-but-titillating amount of impropriety country idyll weird relations. It felt like the kind of book Stella Gibbon's Cold Comfort Farm still takes the piss out of (with some late-20th-century concerns thrown in).

And it's not. I finished the book on Friday night, then picked it up and read it straight through again. Daisy's voice - like that of Todd in Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go - cuts you to the quick. The irregular writing - muddled tenses, emphatic capitalisations, sprawling sentence structure - makes you aware of the way you're reading, as well as the driving narrative.

Re-reading the book, I was struck by how much Rosoff leaves out. Only weeks after Daisy's arrival England is occupied by an unnamed invader, and social structures rapidly collapse - the family is split up, and the story rapidly moves from one of typical teenage introspection and rather atypical first love, into a desperate fight for survival. But the conflict is described only from Daisy's perspective - and she's not all that interested in the details. Somehow this makes the story more compelling, not less - rather than being an all-knowing narrator, she's a normal person, not altogetherly sure about the whos and the whats and the therefores.

I sometimes think a key to being a great painter is knowing when to walk away from the canvas. How I Live Now made me think of this. Like Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me there's no backfill, no extraneous detail. Just extraordinary writing and a haunting story.

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