A couple weeks ago, my friend Mark Paxson (who is a fantastic writer himself, BTW) wrote a post recommending four indie authors. Tammy Robinson was one of them. Mark suggested I start off by reading this book to get a sense of her work.
I figured from the start this might be the furthest outside of my reading comfort zone I’ve ever gone with a book. It begins as a fairly straightforward romance between two young people in New Zealand. Charlie works assisting an old man at a bookshop, Pearl is coming to a beach house, apparently to recover from a painful break-up. The two meet, begin dating, and slowly become a couple. Most of the first half or more of the book is them doing fairly routine things—a well-written account of everyday life.
I want to stop here to say that this something I really admire in other authors, partly because I’m awful at it myself. If you asked me to write a story wholly devoid of any supernatural or science-fiction elements, I’m not sure I could do it. And I know that if I did, it wouldn’t be any good; certainly not in the first twenty drafts or so. So I respect authors who can manage to write about entirely realistic, slice-of-life people and events. (The fact that she uses a lot of interesting New Zealand slang words helps—it’s kind of fun to imagine the characters talking in that voice.)
That said, everyday things, no matter how well described, are, ultimately, everyday things. And just as Charlie and Pearl reach the point where you’re beginning to tire of the humdrum of events, trivial things, and petty little arguments that every couple seems to have, Robinson takes things in a very, very different direction.
I can’t spoil it here. Well, actually I am going to spoil a little, later on, because I feel it’s important to mention something, but i won’t do it yet. First, I want to applaud Robinson for crafting this so well that you become so buried in the minor points of daily life that you want something to happen, and then when it does, you say to yourself “God, if only I’d appreciated how things were before!” I hope that doesn’t spoil too much—but there’s a very powerful message in that, and I’m really impressed by how Robinson married the structure of her plot to its theme.
The book is, to be clear, quite tragic in the end. It’s not a light romance, as the cover might suggest, so be warned about that. I had a feeling going in this would be the case (Mark typically likes darker stuff), so I was to some extent braced for it. I feel bad saying this and risking giving away too much, but I also feel like I need to say something, lest readers go in with the wrong expectations.
I said at the outset that this book was the furthest outside my comfort zone I’d ever gone. And in many ways that’s true. It’s about the nuances of human relationships. My typical fare is sci-fi adventures and cosmic horror—human relationships are usually the last thing on anyone’s minds in those.
And yet… in a way the book ended up following the structure I adore most: the unreliable narrator concept is present here, to a degree, as is the twist that makes the reader reconsider everything that went before. I love the idea that a reader thinks they’re reading one sort of book when really they’re reading another, and they don’t even know it until late in the game. It’s one of the toughest tricks to pull off for an author—maybe the toughest—but Robinson did it. I went back and read parts of it again after finishing it, and the author never cheated, either. There are things in the first half that foreshadow what’s going to happen, but you don’t realize it the first time. It’s really impressive.
Okay, that’s about it. If you’re a tough reader, who can take a really tragic tale, you should go pick this up. If you only like happy endings… well, I do think you’re missing out. For perspective, I prefer happy endings too, or at least bittersweet-leaning-towards sweet ones. (I once wrote something with an ending so dark it shocked even me, and that pretty much cured me of grim endings.) But even I could appreciate the merits of Charlie and Pearl.
Now… there’s one other thing.
It’s kind of a trigger warning. I feel–perhaps selfishly–like I have to warn sensitive readers about this, but it will spoil the plot. So think very carefully before proceeding.
For the record, the trigger isn’t anything to do with rape or murder or violence or anything like that. There is nothing about racism or cruelty to animals or anything of that sort either. So if you’re worried about those things, don’t.
Okay, now… last chance to bail before I give some things away.
You asked for this.
Oh! Before we do that—the book does have some typos. Did I mention that? No? Well, there are a handful. But that’s a standard thing with indie books. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”, as they say.
Anyway… for real now… unless you are very sensitive about one particular subject, don’t read on.
Cancer plays a significant role in the plot. I mention this simply because reading about cancer absolutely scares the bejeezus out of me. It’s not rational—I can read about lots of other diseases with no problem. Cancer, for some reason, freaks me out big time.
I remember reading once that the late¹ singer/songwriter Warren Zevon had a sort of OCD phobia about the word “cancer”—it upset him to even hear it; to the point that it would ruin his day. I’m not quite like that, but it really does bother me in a way I can’t quite describe. Robinson herself captures the menace the word evokes quite well in one line, but I won’t quote it here.
I feel obligated to mention this, in case there are other people like me who squirm when they see that word, and get a knot in their stomach when reading about someone suffering from it.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t read the book even if you feel like I do. I mean, you can see how much I liked it, even taking this peculiar phobia of mine into account. It’s a really good, really tragic book.
Berthold … I’m thrilled you enjoyed the book. It’s a tough one to read, but is seriously one of my favorite indie books ever. As you note, I’m on the dark side myself so I have no problem with the darkness in this story.
I only wish I had known that cancer was an issue for me. My apologies if this triggered you.
To be honest, I struggle with the idea of triggers in fiction. I get it to some extent, but ultimately, nothing I read in a work of fiction is going to bother me to too much extent because it’s fiction. Now, give me a real life story of cancer and its survivor or its victim and that may be something else.
I can’t wait to share your review with Tammy.
No need to apologize at all, Mark. It’s just an irrational phobia of mine–no way you could have known about it. And frankly, I’m glad you didn’t, because then you might not have recommended this book to me. And it really is terrific.
Because I didn’t want to spoil things, I couldn’t praise it as much as I wanted to here, but I really was just blown away by it.
That’s one of my problems in talking about the book with people — not giving away why it is so incredible.
Growing up I had a cousin with Type A Diabetes. I remember when she got married that she shouldn’t get pregnant because it would kill her. When the movie Steel Magnolias came out it triggered a lot of memories. At the time I’d never heard of “trigger” as a describer of a sore spot. My mother couldn’t understand why she hated that movie until I mentioned my cousin, on my father’s side, but they were closer in age and friends. To the vast majority of the population it didn’t affect them this way.
In fiction there is no way to not write something that won’t cause a trigger in someone. Yes I know I used a double negative.
Augh! Double-negatives also trigger me! 🙂
Only kidding–what you say is very true.