A massive book can be a great way for us to immerse ourselves in a fictional world. The longer we spend with the characters that give life to the stories on the page, the more interested we become in their personalities, tribulations and activities. Feeling like we know the characters intimately certainly helps to continue to turn the pages of a huge tome, even if it seems that we are not making any significant progress. But what if the characters of a huge book fail to entrance us or don’t feel well developed?
There were four huge books that I wanted to read this year. Although I started all of them, I only finished one – Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb. The other ones I decided to DNF, and the overall reason was the same for all of them. As I was struggling to connect with the characters, I lost all interest in the plot and I could not possibly force myself to continue to slug through the pages just for the sake of getting to the end of the following books.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
The humongous War and Peace starts during a soirée organised by Anna Pavlovna in 1805. Various characters discuss not only occurrences in their lives, but also the political and military movements of Napoleon. I was not being able to remember whom any of the characters were or their connections with one another. They were just a massive muddle of names on pages with no distinguishable features or personalities. I lost all the desire to read this classic very early on, despite having cherished reading Anna Karenina some years ago.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Set in the second half of the 19th century, The Crimson Petal and the White has as main character Sugar, who, despite being only nineteen, has been a prostitute for the last six years. She is not content with her life and has great aspirations. The other prostitutes don’t understand why she reads so much. The other protagonist is William, the heir to the Rackham Perfumeries, who aspires to be a writer. He is advised to seek Sugar, as she is known for doing everything her clients desire. When he finally meets her, he becomes smitten and manages to reach an agreement with Mrs Castaway to get an exclusive patronage of Sugar. Other characters in the book include Agnes, who is William’s wife and apparently has mental health issues, their daughter Sophie, and William’s brother, Henry, who wants to be a clergyman and is a sexually repressed bore.
At first, I was gripped by the writing style. Not only did Michel Faber manage to create a convincing atmosphere, but he also came up with a curious form of narration. The narrator addresses the reader directly, as if he had guessed our thoughts and we were walking side by side with him and the characters. He tells us to follow certain characters at times. But this form of storytelling soon became a hindrance, as it curtailed my connection with the characters.
Subsequently, I grew tired of the book. The plot didn’t seem to be going anywhere and the characters stopped being appealing, since they were not feeling fully developed. Sometimes it seemed like Faber was going to explore their states of mind more in depth, but it never came to fruition. After reading around 300 pages of this 835-pages-long book during around 20 days, I decided not to finish it.
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The first character introduced in The Luminaries is Walter Moody. Born in Edinburgh, he arrived in New Zealand in 1866 to try his luck at the goldfields. He first took shelter at the Crown Hotel where twelve men were discussing a series of offences: a whore named Anna Wetherell was being accused of trying to take her own life; Crosbie Wells had died in mysterious circumstances and a woman called Lydia, who had just appeared, was claiming to be his wife; and Emery Staines had inexplicably vanished.
My first problem with this novel was not being able to distinguish between all the men chatting at the hotel. Their gestures can be described in detail, the dialogues are extensive, but their personalities were not distinctive enough to me. Although some of their characteristics are written on the pages, they don’t feel real and fleshed out.
The narration is done in the third person from the perspectives of the various men at the hotel. They recall their involvement in relevant past events or what they have learnt about certain issues. Despite the purpose of this choice of narration being to raise interest in the mystery at hand, it prevented me from being enthralled by the story and connecting with the characters. In fact, it seems like Eleanor Catton was more focused on following a certain structure than on getting the readers invested in the characters and give the book emotional weight. Plus, as someone who doesn’t believe in astrology, I didn’t understand the purpose of having those charts (or whatever they are called) at the beginning of each part of the book. Was the characters’ destiny supposed to be already decided?
After spending around 20 days reading The Luminaries and only getting to the 230-pages mark, I decided to put it aside for good.
Would have I read these three novels until the end if they had been significantly shorter? Maybe! I suppose I would still not have found them as amazing as I was expecting to, though. I feel like every day I give more and more importance to the crucial role of characters in books, particularly when they are huge.