Regular readers may recall that I sometimes steer clear of books due to preconceived notions of what I don’t like to read. Often, happily, I am proved wrong or wonder what all my fuss was about when a book breaking such rules entertains, informs and impresses me. In fact, it happens a lot. Which could highlight that I’m a flexible and adventurous reader and human being; or that I’m somewhat fickle and don’t know my own mind. Let’s not ponder that for too long.
One of these ‘rules’ is that one should avoid books that include family trees. My theory is that anything complex enough to require a diagram outlining the rise and fall of generations in one family is going to be confusing and a drain on one’s grey matter, and also take a looooooong time to read, what with all that flicking back to the start of the book to remember who Gertrude is and why she’s important. It’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided classic Russian literature for so long, having developed an understanding as a young person that all of those thick and heavy books were part cold misery, part family saga and that I would spend an entire year trying to read them and never quite understand them.
We get ideas from strange places, and I can’t tell you where the above theory came from, just that it exists; and, as usual, it’s not as if I haven’t read, comprehended and enjoyed books that include family trees—Wuthering Heights features one for a start. And yet a dedicated page showcasing a genealogical chart will, more times than not, set my reader’s heart in a pittering of anxiety and a metaphorical pulling up of one’s britches in preparation for trying times ahead. A dramatis personae at the start of a novel causes exactly the same reaction. In fact, it may be worse. At least with a family tree you know the characters are connected by DNA and marriage…
Today by David Miller includes a dramatis personae. When I first opened the book it made me hesitant, but the novel’s general appeal kept me strong and I believed that, as had occurred in the past, the breaking of one of my rules could lead to a new discovery.
Today is a small, thin novel with a beautiful cover featuring filigree-like type. The blurb uses words such as understated, fragile and profound. Sitting on top of my flatmate’s radiator it was appealing for its elegance, brevity and its suggestion of an English country house. All these things outweighed the existence of the characters list and anyway, it was a small book—how complicated could it be? The answer to that is: not especially. Mind you, this does encourage a second question: why did the book then need a list of players? And my answer to that: it probably didn’t. If you didn’t want to include every person who turns up on a page for two sentences. Which the author clearly did want to do.
Though the presence of an unnecessary character list didn’t affect my enjoyment of Today one way or another, the novel proper, I’m afraid to say, did. This in no scientific way proves that a family tree/dramatis personae at the start of a book indicates that it should be avoided, but it does, unfortunately, help to solidify my noted presumptions about what the presence of these literary aids means about my liking of a book.
A father, husband, writer of note, friend and employer (all the same man) dies just before a planned gathering at a big English house near Canterbury. The novel follows the events in the house and the reactions of those closest to the deceased in the aftermath of his death. We see most characters through the eyes of, or their interactions with, two characters: one of the man’s sons, John, and the man’s secretary, Lilian. Lilian and John share a close friendship, despite the difference in their ages and the seeming complexity of Lilian’s role in the family.
As the blurb suggests, this novel is quiet and understated and explores the idea of bereavement in an intelligent way, but I think for me it was a little too quiet, a little too understated. While reading Today I always felt a distance between myself and the characters. I wasn’t able to get close to them or empathise with them in the way that I felt I should due to the subject matter; I was merely observing them all as some of the characters were observing each other and it was in a disinterested way, and it therefore caused me to be disinterested in what I was reading. Even though I believe this distance and emotional withdrawal was part of the author’s intended exploration of notions such as (a type of) Englishness and (some) families, the exploration didn’t seem to include me enough as a reader.
In the end it wasn’t the inclusion of a dramatis personae that caused me to feel so ‘blah’ about David Miller’s Today, but neither can I say that reading this novel was an interesting or exciting time for me. I recall feeling quite uninspired about it all as I was reading it, and having to little to say when people asked about it. The characters seem so intent on ‘doing the right thing’ and staying calm and reserved, that it left me feeling fairly numb; and although I appreciate that this might have been the reality of the situation, and of the times, it doesn’t much make for a novel I want to be reading. I didn’t dislike Today, I just didn’t care about it. And I’m the kind of person who likes to care about things.