Book & Author details:
Publication date: January 18th 2013
Genre: Adult Contemporary (Novella)
I knew nothing at all about The Book going in – hadn’t even read the synopsis. So imagine my eyebrows arching when I opened it to find it begins with the syrupy –sweet, tired awe of new parents writing to their infant daughter in a diary. “It is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me—to see you being born…” the father rhapsodizes in the first entry. Later, Mummy confides, “Being your mother is the most rewarding occupation. When I feel those tears coming on, I just look at your face, and it helps me keep them hidden until I go to bed at night…”
I remember those feelings. I remember wanting to chronicle every little spectacular and mundane detail of my child’s existence – and my utter failure to keep up once the reality of parenting kicked in. I smiled at the time gaps between the entries, how Bonnie leaps from newborn to her first Christmas to toddlerhood in just a few pages. We have the best of intentions when we start out as parents, don’t we?
So I could relate, but I was skeptical about what I was reading, and why. Epistolary fiction – a story in letters – is a challenge. A little risky, not easy to do well. Where was the author going with this? More importantly, would it work?
I’m happy to say that, yes, The Book worked for me. I found the structure interesting: I like how we gain insight into the characters through a variety of narrative techniques and points-of-view. Bonnie’s parents use The Book – a shared diary – not just as a record of Bonnie’s early life, but as a means to communicate with their future daughter (and, sometimes, with each other). Later, five-year-old Bonnie speaks for herself in first-person narrative, with a strong, precocious voice. Aware of The Book but not its purpose, Bonnie wonders why it seems to make her mother cry or her stepfather angry, and develops some surprising ideas – a neat twist. And through transcripts of Bonnie’s taped sessions with a therapist, we see her from an outside, more clinical perspective. The Book is complex, intelligently crafted and, so far as I know, quite unique.
Because it is heavy on narration and dialog, the actual story within The Book isn’t made explicit. We aren’t given a blow by blow of how Bonnie’s parent’s marriage dissolves, for example, or the circumstances and relationships that arise between the characters afterwards, since the characters are writing to each other or narrating to themselves. They have little need to spell things out in exposition. Thus the story sneaks up on you bit by bit; as often you figure out what’s happened through what isn’t said, or what’s between the lines.
I like that. I’m a fan of subtle. I’m a fan of stories that get under your skin without you realizing it until you’re hooked. I read The Book in bits in pieces, usually over coffee while my son was eating breakfast. I remember one scene in particular took me by surprise, and I had to keep reading in that peeking-through-your-fingers kind of way to find out what would happen. We ended up late to school that day. I guess that’s when I figured out for sure that, yup, The Book is good.
There were a couple of things that I didn’t love. Bonnie’s mother was weak in character in a way that chafed my feminine sensibilities. I kept wanting her to get a backbone and stop being so dependent on men. It is what it is and didn’t hurt the story, per se, but I don’t know how central it was either. I would have liked to have at least seen her weakness rooted in something, explained or justified, resolved and maybe overcome in the end. I’m not sure that it was.
And though I admire the way the character of Bonnie just explodes off the page (somewhere I saw the author mention it was more like channeling than writing, and that definitely shows), there were times that I couldn’t quite get comfortable with Bonnie. She is uncannily precocious for her age (it is eventually stated that she’s something of a prodigy). Yet, at the same time, her narrative is riddled with a typical five-year-old’s corrupted spelling/pronunciation and contextual misunderstanding, to the point of redundancy. Plus Bonnie is also an Australian five-year-old, and I’m NOT, so I think some things were lost in translation. (What, exactly, is “making doll’s eyes”? An unblinking stare? Batting your lashes??” I googled it, but I still can’t tell.)
As a result, Bonnie’s narrative often called attention to itself, which kept me from being as immersed in the story as I might have been. But I can’t deny that Bonnie is a stand-out character. I loved her forthrightness, her insights. I loved her questions about human nature, and I was moved by her father’s attempts to answer them at the end of the book. This is definitely a kid who sticks with you even after The Book is done.
I’m not going to go into too much more detail, because I think a little bit of mystery makes this an enjoyable read. I’ll just say, overall, I was pleasantly surprised, and look forward to more from Jessica Bell in the future.
I would definitely recommend The Book to anyone who relishes smart and innovative literary fiction.
This book is not The Book. The Book is in this book. And The Book in this book is both the goodie and the baddie.
Bonnie is five. She wants to bury The Book because it is a demon that should go to hell. Penny, Bonnie’s mother, does bury The Book, but every day she digs it up and writes in it. John, Bonnie’s father, doesn’t live with them anymore. But he still likes to write in it from time to time. Ted, Bonnie’s stepfather, would like to write in The Book, but Penny won’t allow it.
To Bonnie, The Book is sadness.
To Penny, The Book is liberation.
To John, The Book is forgiveness.
To Ted, The Book is envy.
But The Book in this book isn’t what it seems at all.
If there was one thing in this world you wished you could hold in your hand, what would it be? The world bets it would be The Book.
Thank you so much for this review. You’re fabulous. I’m glad that you ultimately enjoyed it! 🙂