The Alphabet of Light and Dark

Danielle Wood, The Alphabet of Light and Dark (Allen & Unwin 2006)

I’m sorry, this book and I just didn’t hit it off, though we both tried. At page 50, the thing that had most engaged my mind was worry over whether the verb ‘propelled’ can be used as a synonym of ‘towed’, or whether the thing propelling has to be pushing from behind. There’s also a use of ‘eke’ that stirred me emotionally. I did read on, but stopped at page 152, just short of half way. Perhaps I’ll come back to it when I’m in a different mood – a mood where I’m not wanting story. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the book, just that I wasn’t drawn to it. I’m not even close to the irritation inspired by the last Tasmanian novel I failed to finish.

For the record, here’s the last paragraph I read, not a straw that broke the camel’s back, just the innocent paragraph that happened to be there when the light rail pulled in to Rozelle Bay station:

But now the night is clear, and quiet again, and the only sound is the faint zinging of the fluorescent tube of light uncovered on the ceiling. Essie’s hands are hot and red in the suds of the dishwashing water, and she can feel the two glasses of red wine in her blood. The light inside the room makes the kitchen windowpane a black mirror. Essie’s face swims over the surface of it. But it is only a version of her face. There is no colour, no texture – it is simplified down to bone structure and smooth, unmarked planes of skin. It’s like a photographic negative. Not truly her face, just a blueprint for it. Invisible beyond the window is the cape, and beyond that, the ocean breathing out and in, out and in.

This really was the last paragraph I read, so in effect I’m quoting at random rather than because it’s a good example of something. Its inelegances are by no means typical, but it does happen to exemplify the way reflection (in this case literal) and beautiful but slightly dubious description constantly take precedence over story-telling. (Too often it’s too much like having a story teller interrupt herself to say, “Ohh look at that pretty thing!’ The thing may be pretty, but we want the story.) There’s no forward impetus. I’d enjoyed a lot of the book – Bruny Island is now permanently in my mind as a beautiful place –  but I felt no wrench when I closed it.

6 responses to “The Alphabet of Light and Dark

  1. Like I always say, there is an artist inside you who doesn’t care about how things look different in the moonlight.


  2. Jane: You and some Sufi poet, I believe.


  3. If I wasn’t burning to know what happened next, then I’d probably ditch it too.


  4. I want someone who loved the book to chime in, pointing out that I missed all the clues and foreshadowings, that things became really really interesting on page 153. After all, Tender Morsels became a completely different book on page 43.


  5. The early propellers were on boats and therefore pushing. “He was propelled into the spotlight,” has a sense of reluctance therefore also of pushing. The Spaghetti Test is the ultimate authority. One pulls a strand of spaghetti never propels it.


  6. Douglas: I’m so pleased the roll-over worked. I agree. That’s exactly my sense of the word. Ms Wood (presumably with her editors’ consent) use ‘propelled’ as a synonym for ‘towed’ roughly half a dozen times, to very unsettling effect


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