Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: Song of the Sparrow

I had really mixed feelings about this book right from the beginning. A librarian I know suggested it to me, not because of my interest in Arthurian lore, but because of its writing style, which he said was unique. And he was right, to a degree.

The Song of the Sparrow is a young adult "novel" published by Scholastic, although you'd never really know it from looking at it, or really even from reading it. It's not particularly written down to a young audience, either in subject or style, and the only thing that makes it a young adult work is its relatively simplistic vocabulary and youthful protagonist, both essential for the 7-12 year old reader. Literature for that age group is ripe with tales of young adolescents trying to fit into an increasingly violent and destructive adult world.

Few stories are better suited to the "Coming of Age" trope than the legendary tale of Arthur, the reluctant boy warrior who united a kingdom. It was my love of all things Arthurian that ultimately compelled me to read this book. After all, I've given lectures on the subject of the historical King Arthur, and pride myself on having read nearly every Arthurian-related work I've managed to run across. So why stop now?

To her credit, Sandell approaches her story from an essentially historical standpoint, setting the story firmly in the gritty dirt of primitive Dark Age Britian. The Round Table, for example, is just a gathering of Arthur's men around a central outdoor bonfire. No lustruous shining armor here. In the rugged world of Sandell's modestly pagan 5th century, Arthur's warriors are lucky to keep the bare minimum of iron rings sewn to their ragged leather jerkins, being apparently entirely reliant upon the single female accompanying their war band to keep their britches whole. After all, what honorable knight would stoop to sewing patches on their own clothes, or mending their own armor?

The lady in question is none other than Elaine, the "Lady of Shalott," best known from the lengthy poetry of Tennyson (and his modern day troubadour, Loreena McKennitt). Here she fulfills her role as the fourth wheel in the tragic love triangle between Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur. And, lest she miss out on a prime opportunity, she adds in a fifth wheel in the form of Tristan, from that other sad, related tragedy of Arthur's luckless knights, Tristan and Isolde. The Arthurian canon is, after all, a grand co-mingling of manifestly diverse traditions. And why break with tradition? The tale itself is certainly worth reading, giving us a close-in view of a familiar story from a relatively new perspective. Not a grand departure, but it's not the same old story either.

But here I must bring out my caveats. First up is the fact that the story is written in first person, from Elaine's point of view. Given this is solely her take on the tale, it's probably more justified here than in many instances. But still, I feel the loss of all those other sides to what becomes in essence - as it must - a one-sided story. You feel a great deal for Elaine as she plods through her tribulations, but you also feel the world inhabited by inanimate cartoons and empty shells of hollow men. Being unable to hear the thoughts of any character but hers, we are invariably left with a half dozen charicatures of emotion to express the thoughts and feelings of the remaining cast. More dialogue would have helped, but here we find our second issue for complaint: the writing style.

From the first moment you pick up this book, what becomes immediately apparent is that it is written entirely in poetry, in lines that look at first like some type of verse, but with no recognizable style or structure. This is why the book was suggested to me. It's in something best described as "prose verse" for lack of a better term. That is, the lines are verse, but the content is actually prose. It's just made to look like poetry. And herein lies the rub. For while this is charming, even interesting at the outset, it quickly becomes a nuissance, then an annoyance, and finally a hopeless muddle. Take this example:
We have stood up and
are walking now, away
from the firelight, toward
the copse of birch trees.
The moon plays
on the ground in pools of
ghostly light.
As we walk between the trees,
their bark peels away
from the trunks
like scrolls of silver parchment.
What would such a life
look like? I ask.
It would look as life should,
husbands and wives living
in quiet homes, with
children playing in gardens,
without fear of Saxon invaders
carrying them off.
You could marry your knight --
he breaks off and looks at me
devilishly for a moment.
First of all, what's with all the random breaks in phrases? There's no logic to it at all. It's as if she just decided on no more than six words per line, regardless of content. For example, why would you possibly want to split a phrase like "away from," particularly when it follows a comma where a break already exists? Then there's the "dialogue" - I use quotes here loosely, since Sandell doesn't use any herself. Instead, she uses italics!? Traditionally these are used to indicate internal thoughts. So not only does it seem as if every passage of "dialogue" is beingthought rather than spoken, there is no way to distinguish when there is a break between speakers. Such is the case here, although you don't actually know that it's a different speaker until eight lines after the fact, when the pronoun "he" indicates that Elaine ("I") is no longer speaking.

This passage is 22 lines of "poetry" that if set in prose would take roughly six. What is the point? Is she trying to pretend she's a poet, but doesn't want to take the time and trouble? Or does she simply not have the necessary skill? Is she trying to dupe us into thinking we're reading poetry, but aren't smart enough to figure it out? Maybe at the age of seven this would be the case, by by the age of twelve any literate child knows what a poem is. God help their high school teachers!

But then, maybe I shouldn't be reading a young adult "novel" after all.

And here I have another caveat. Novel? This thing is two inches thick, weighs in at just under 400 pages, and I read it in about two hours. Set in standard type it would come in at maybe eighty pages rather than 400 (and waste a lot less paper). Consequently, the story is just as shallow. There are no thoughts in anyone's head but Elaine's because, apparently, there aren't enough lines of "poetry" to give them any. Yet what kept coming back to me time and again as I read along was what Tennyson and Shakespeare had accomplished in just about the same amount of space. Granted, few of us achieve the heights of Hamlet or Idylls of the King, but at this point I'd settle for Spamalot.

In the end this book is neither poetry nor prose, nor is it much of a story either. It's a short novella at best, a pleasant, if somewhat breezy afternoon's diversion, quickly read and soon forgotten.