Thursday 19 July 2018

Books: Tantalising start to debut novel descends into undramatic dullness

Fiction: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, Katarina Bivald, Chatto & Windus, hbk, 400 pages, €10.99

Literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea: Katarina Bivald
Literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea: Katarina Bivald
The Readers of Broken Wheels Recommend

Eilis O'Hanlon

First novels should be treated gently. That rule does present a problem, however, when a book is as dull and uneventful as this one.

It starts out promisingly enough. After losing her job in a bookstore, a young Swedish woman called Sara accepts an invitation to visit Amy, the elderly woman in a back-of-beyond bit of Iowa with whom she's been corresponding, only to arrive in the middle of her penfriend's funeral.

So far, so tantalising. Did Amy harbour deep secrets? Has she deliberately lured Sara here in order to set off some curious chain of events? Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happens. Or anything else, for that matter.

Sara stays on in the dead woman's house. She meets the locals. There is a little romance. She opens her own bookstore in a belief that all recession-scarred midwestern towns need to transform them is stories, as the village in Joanna Harris's Chocolat needed confectionery. There's some problem with her visa. It's all very polite, almost anaemic.

Sara isn't the stereotypical extroverted, liberated Swede, but a quiet woman who isn't sure if she prefers people or books. "What's so great about reality?" as she puts it. Gradually, she's drawn out by these people, unfairly dismissed by another character as "inbred morons who had nothing better to do than go about judging what everyone else was doing". They, in turn, warm to her. There's nothing wrong with that fictional template, but its unfolding is undramatic to the point of stasis.

Sara comes to understand the townsfolk because she has Amy's letters as a guide. The theme of finding your feet through words is laid on pretty thickly here. There are extensive namechecks for other books, from Captain Correlli's Mandolin and Bridget Jones' Diary to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café. Even the town, Broken Wheel, "seemed to have come straight out of a Fannie Flagg or Annie Proulx novel". Bivald certainly doesn't hide her influences.

Anita Brookner's genius was for showing how mousey, obedient girls can be led astray by unrealistic expectations picked up from reading too many novels. Early on, it seems as if our heroine may be one of them: "Reading books isn't a bad way to live your life, but lately Sara had begun to wonder what kind of life it was, exactly."

In the event, any promise of conflict and revelation melts away into comforting homespun aphorisms: "There's always a book for every person, and a person for every book." This one is harmless enough, and Swedish chick lit certainly makes a change from ubiquitously grim Scandinavian noir, but it's not exactly a white-knuckle ride of drama and emotion. Think of it more as the literary equivalent of a nice cup of tea.

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