I have just finished reading my friend and fellow-blogger Fiona Robyn's new novel, and would love to have you read it, too. I long ago gave up the long-held, conventional notion that I should not write about the work of people that I know and like, but I still feel it necessary to make that disclosure. Make of it what you will.
Anyway, I loved Fiona's book. It's called "The Most Beautiful Thing" and it is, indeed, beautifully conceived and written. It's an easy read in the sense that the narrative is so compelling that we keep wanting to turn the pages--hooked on the story and anxious to find out what will happen next. That's the quality of a good story-teller, knowing what to give out and what to hold back until it's needed; what to signal in advance and what to keep under wraps.
It's also a hard read. It's hard because of Fiona's hero, Joe, who is, frankly, not an easy person to get along with. We meet him at two stages of his life. In the first half of the novel he is thirteen years old, and we see the world pretty much through the eyes of this man-child, borderline Asberger's, awkward in an entirely appropriate teenage way but also suffering from severe depression and isolation, an absence of the normal social skills, plagued by phobias and obsessive thoughts, deeply dependent. He has been sent for reasons he does not fully understand--but which become increasingly clear to the reader--to spend some time with his aunt in Amsterdam. His father, he knows, is remote, unable to express any real love or tenderness toward his son. His mother is absent, suffering from some unspecified ailment about which the reader is left, in this first part, to speculate.
We learn in the second part that she has been suffering for years from debilitating psychiatric problems, severe enough to keep her institutionalized. It is now fifteen years later; we are offered glimpses of the intervening years--the discovery of his mother's condition, the always unsatisfying relationship with his father, the perfunctory job and the difficulty in managing day-to-day contacts with colleagues and superiors, the a-sexual relationship with a live-in female partner... Having known Joe at thirteen, we are surprised by none of this. We meet him again as he lands once again in Amsterdam, to visit his aunt for the first time since that first visit, and we find him ungrown in many ways, still obsessive, still haunted by his alienation from the world and those around him, still deep in chronic depression.
From this you will gather that Joe is not an easy person to like or admire in the conventional way. What he has going for him is the unflagging understanding and compassion of his creator. It is this quality, I think, that sweeps us up as readers and carries us along. We care about this misfit. We accompany Joe on his journey and come to see things through his eyes, compounding our "adult" understanding of his world and its diverse cast of characters and sharing his distress, sometimes his suicidal anguish as events and revelations overwhelm him. Fiona's characters, by the way, are reliably off-beat, sometimes plainly weird, always fascinating. Prominent among them are Joe's Dutch aunt, a struggling painter on the road to huge success, whose bohemian life style, complicated love life and infectious joie de vivre serve to animate even poor Joe; his memorably alcoholic grandfather; his melancholic, stoically British father; and his improbable love interest, a peripatetic lesbian with blue hair. (I think of Lisbeth Salander, somehow, without the sado-masochism or the dragon tattoo...)
And Joe's journey--I won't reveal any of its surprises here--is a curiously twisted one, which easily combines sheer fantasy with laugh-out-loud comedy, pathos and, yes, tragedy. Let me just say that it contains one of the strangest, oddly humorous, and surprisingly credible sex scenes I have ever read! But it's always Joe at the center of it, Joe whose simplicity and innocence and incomprehension must surely strike a chord in the heart of anyone who has faced the world as a child or an adolescent and who still, in adulthood, is hard put to explain life's inexplicable vicissitudes or to confront the great, eternal mysteries of suffering, illness, aging and death. Expect to be confronted by every one of them in this story. Joe is, as it turns out, an everyman, a stand-in for the rest of us wounded, world-weary and bewildered human beings.
I admire the way Fiona reaches her--still provisional--conclusion. As readers, we need the satisfaction of knowing that Joe has grown as a man and changed as a result of his experiences, and yet we know him well enough to disbelieve in the possibility of a miracle "cure." He is incapable of radical change. We sense that he will never be able to grow up. What the author finds is an entirely credible middle path, where her hero arrives at a place of adequate inner peace, acknowledging responsibility for his obsessions and taking into account his limitations in his dealings with the world; and recognizing that the present moment can be sufficient unto itself. He looks out into the world, in the last pages, and discovers in its natural beauty something of value outside himself; and something, we think, finally worth living for. The most beautiful thing is life itself.