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The BramblesReview - The Brambles
A Novel
by Eliza Minot
Knopf, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien
Nov 28th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 48)

On the back cover of Eliza Minot's second novel The Brambles, critic Mary Gordon makes a rather extraordinary claim: "If Katherine Mansfield had lived to give birth and bury her parents, she would have written The Brambles."† That's a huge claim to make for any writer. More so in this case, as Mansfield never wrote a novel.

The Brambles is a family saga. It opens with Arthur and Florence ambling about their garden, before introducing their three adult children, Margaret, Edie and Max. Margaret is married to Brian and they have three young children; Max is married to Chloe and they have one child. Edie is unmarried. Each of the siblings struggles in their own way to accept their lives, and as the story unfolds we learn more and more not only of their current lives, but also of their past. This includes some rather dark secrets unknown to any of the siblings. After Florence is killed in a plane crash, Arthur develops cancer, becomes terminally ill, and agrees to move to New Jersey to live with Margaret. This brings the family together towards a climax in which the seeds of Minot's multiple but related mysteries reach full flower. The story shows, often in close detail, the day to lives of the siblings, although Minot's grasp of mundane details is not matched by ability to use that detail to explore her characters in any depth. Identification with any of them is more through readers having experienced common life events, rather than by understanding the inner lives of Minot's characters. The novel will appeal to readers who like to read of the lives of others, but more for the sake of casual curiosity than of understanding their complexity.††

Margaret's life is a constant stream of children's demands and household management. Her three children constantly intrude with the sorts of whining demands children make. Reading about them, especially with their dialogue rendered in the broken language of childhood, is a bit like hearing from a friend about all the cute things the kids said. It gets tiresome. Husband Brian is one of those two dimensional individuals. Flawlessly handsome and intelligent, he can be a little short on common sense. Margaret loves him anyway, but readers might find him a little tedious.

Our introduction to Max is through following him as he stalks his wife while he is supposed to be at work. He doesn't have the bottle to admit he's resigned from his job, and goes through a series of elaborate ruses (and not a small amount of money, conveniently set aside) to conceal his unemployment. He grizzles about adult responsibilities, especially providing for his wife and child. He lies to Chloe. He lies to Margaret. He lies to Margaret about lying to Chloe. But he's redeemed by the end of the story.

Edie is the most complex and interesting sibling. She's unmarried, unhappy, and not altogether reliable. But through her slightly anxious personality we at least see some of the subtleties of the story. Arthur is one character we might want to feel sympathy for; after all, he's dying, but we don't really get to know him other than as a dying, slightly cantankerous old man. He's tidied away so quickly in the end that his role in the story feels expedient rather than crucial.

They style of this novel is rather glossy; even emotionally wrought situations are passed over lightly. For example after Chloe learns the truth that Max quit his job three weeks ago there is no emotional fallout. Through one of Minot's many plot devices Max is able to make good, and the issue of his lying and spending the family savings recedes into the background in favor of a renewal of wedding vows.

Minot has a penchant for similes, applying them at almost every opportunity. Many of them just don't work. When Chloe shoos Margaret's children away from her baby stroller they scurry off "like a sail catching wind"; Chloe's love for Max is "smooth as a tooth"; Margaret "chomps on her corn on the cob in the manner of a typewriter". Without these encumbrances Minot is capable of clean, descriptive prose, making it more of a shame to spoil it with redundancies. There are also some disconcerting shifts in tense and point of view that make for difficult reading at times. Minot develops her plot carefully, creating a trail of incidents, some of which pass almost unnoticed, but which later prove critical to the final drama. Some of the plot developments stretch credibility, but nevertheless they are well planned. At the conclusion of the story events all come together, and it is here the story takes on an almost farcical tone. It would give too much away to explain the details of the denouement; suffice it to say it felt a bit staged.

This is not a novel that Katherine Mansfield would have written, and Mary Gordon's comparison is unfair. Minot received high praise for her first novel The Tiny One. The failings of The Brambles may be a case of second novel syndrome, where the writer fails to translate the world as observed into art. Minot is certainly an observer, not to mention a compulsive list-maker. But to create a memorable novel, these details of life need to be infused with emotion, not left as words on a page.†††

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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