There are issues to the idea of a ‘pay-off’ in novels. Narrative gives us a sense of what has happened and a premonition of what is to happen and then these points fall into place. Sometimes. This can of course be subverted, sometimes to great effect. But, there is a reason why romantic-comedies are popular and people still buy Mills and Boon! Predictable templates are reassuring and we turn to narrative to guide us through stories.
Caleb’s Crossing has a perplexing narrative. Its three parts jump drastically in time, which does not give space for development across time. Cheeshahteaumauck (Caleb) is a chieftain’s son and Berthia a pastor’s daughter and the catalyst for the story is their meeting, aged twelve. This friendship between Caleb and Berthia develops beautifully in the first section but appears cursory in the second and third sections where it becomes more centred on Berthia and her life without him. Which is interesting, as according to the blurb the book is all about “bring[ing] to vivid life a shard of little-known history” – ie. Caleb graduating from Harvard. The historical part of the fiction seems to get in the way of Berthia’s story at times. There is an uneasy meshing of history and fiction that matches the meshing cultures in the book.
Does it need more more fantasy? Neither main character openly acknowledges their attraction to the other – which is not-surprising considering when the action is set, but for a book claiming to be the innermost thoughts of Berthia there is little innermost thought on the main relationship of the book! Geraldine Brooks seems to want to hint at romance but cannot quite entertain the thought and so awkwardly sets up a dynamic and never follows it through, not even to have Berthia acknowledge that what her heart wants is impossible. [Although of course she has the time and inclination to keep a diary of sorts, argh! Why can’t we get people’s story without the references to writing and paper etc. Obviously we haven’t stumbled across a forgotten manuscript. Forget the unlikely premise and get on with the story.]
So we get a very lovely, but entirely random character to ‘rescue’ Berthia – unsatisfactory narrative-wise and coupled with this we get ineffectual and frustrating so-called-bad-characters. Who weren’t really bad, just misunderstood for a while, which also does little for the story.
Also as a side note Berthia was a frustrating character to spend an entire book in first person with. For one so proficient with languages she is cloying in her words. Besides, where was Caleb voice in this book? The blurb makes great statements about their story but it isn’t really his at all. It is all about her and how she negotiates the world in which she lives. That is fine but the history the author was initially dealing with is Caleb’s. It seems perhaps that Ms. Brooks might not have been comfortable in assuming a Native American voice, which is fair enough, but perhaps if we viewed the story through other characters’ eyes Caleb would have been a better understood character. I felt that he was lost amongst the annoying narrative and Berthia’s determination to not truly face him. Indeed it almost came across that the author did not want to deal with Caleb either. Post-colonial theorists will have a field day.
So if you have read her other stuff it is potentially worth reading to compare, but if you have yet to sample Geraldine Brooks’ writing try Year of Wonders which is inspired, glorious and has a fantastically awesome ending.
Caleb’s Crossing will be published by HarperCollins in Australia and is due out May 2011.