Monday, September 13, 2010
Reading in the Foreign Language of Sarah Hall
When I first started reading The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall, I was not sure that I liked it. The first night I read about 10 pages. The second night I read about 15. The third night, maybe 20, and so on, with the volume of pages increasing every night. The book bragged on its cover that it was "Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2004" but is that really so great? To brag that you almost won? I checked the Amazon reviews, and one reviewer said that Sarah Hall "can write, perhaps too well." I wondered what that meant - how could a writer write too well?
Now, somewhere around page 115, I think I get it. The characters in The Electric Michelangelo speak such a strange language, that it took me a while to learn it. The story is set in a town on the North West coast of England and begins in the time of World War I. I am not sure if Sarah Hall is such a brilliant researcher and author that she was able to discover and write in a manner of speaking that has long since been forgotten, or if she just started making up words that sounded like something an old British person might say. I really don't care either way, because I am falling for it. The first passage that lured me in was when the main character, Cy Parks, went to meet his future employer, and according to Hall, the door was opened by "a small, hatless, catgut looking man who said nothing . . ." What is that? How could one be "catgut looking"? I have no idea, but I have a vision of the man in my head, that I think is pretty accurate. Except that he is wearing a hat. In a later passage, a character describes an upcoming surgical operation by saying "They've got to cut the fly-walk off me lovvie; if it doesn't go, the whole loaf will go bad". I might be giving something important to the plot away by telling you that, but unless you speak Sarah Hall's language, you have no idea what is being removed, or even if it is being removed from a man or a woman.
When I read, I normally have a big fat dictionary close at hand, so that I can look up any words that I don't know. I don't mark the words that I look up, like the girl did in "Say Anything", because then I'll only be embarrassed that I'm looking up the same word again (and again and again). The words in this book that I don't know are also not known to Merriam Webster, which makes me feel better.
If the pattern continues of reading a few more pages every night, I'm sure to read 40 or more pages tonight, and I can't wait!