Sunday, April 3, 2011

Turning pages, winding wheels

The founder of my fledgling book club proposed two options for our first novel: the wildly popular and very book-clubby Water for Elephants or Tinkers, the most recent Pulitzer Prize winner and deceitfully small in frame and in thickness.  I voted for Tinkers, maybe for the prestige of the prize, maybe out of contrarian instinct, and it won.  It looked like a little novella I could finish in an afternoon, and turned out not be so.  Tinkers takes a bit of focus and perseverance, and cannot be breezed through like so many books its size.  The story jumps from character to character and runs back and forth through time.  I admit I had to keep turning the pages back to fully grasp and anchor myself in the events and the setting of the novel.  That said, reading Tinkers is worth taking the extra time and patience.  Some worthwhile pursuits require this.  It's how the central character, George, tinkers with his antique clocks as he repairs and perfects them, before he is struck down with the final illness that leads to the events of the novel, which begins by telling us that George will die in eight days.  

Especially when we are still and practically alone with George, Harding's prose exhibits brilliant pacing and immediacy.  We lie there with George, dissecting the paintings in the living room where he lies on a hospital bed and talking to his grandson who holds vigil on the couch nearby.  We ride with George's father, Howard, pulled by a mule named Prince Edward, a wagon full of household supplies and sundries he sells on his route through the snowy Maine trails.  At times, however, the author uses his descriptive powers without enough restraint, and an image gets muddled one of two ways - so obscure or close to impossible that it's difficult to wrap one's head around, or so particular to the frame of reference that one stays on the outside of it, or the understanding of it.  I admit to losing the desire to go back through each tangent as the book went on, as Harding stepped into another generation of Crosbys and performing the jump through decades one time too many. 

I can't recommend Tinkers to everyone, and although I admire the book, it pushes the amount of contemplation and staying in one place allotted for a story to move forward.  Not every book need be structured the same way and I feel Tinkers' value, as a meditation on death, loss, and the way families multiply and shift through generations, renders it beautiful, if sometimes slow in its execution.  Phrases knocked the wind out of me and made me stop reading, progress through the book interrupted as often by the dense and unconventional prose as my own reaction to what Harding's risks and ups and downs with it can accomplish.  Its most profound achievement, the way the reader can sink into the mind of George and Howard and watch them make realizations (for George, about his mortality, and for Howard, about the mysterious disease of his nimble mind) from up close and in a way that temporarily replaces your thoughts with those of another.  Harding can hook us and make us think, and I will be reading his next novel.


Marie said...

A great review of a wonderful book. I'm so glad you enjoyed it too!

What Book Today said...

Thanks Marie! It really is a wonderful book. How amazing for the Pulitzer crew to bring to our attention a gem of a first-time author.

Jennifer said...

Great review it was actually mentioned as a possible read for my book club I will share this review with them it may help in our selection.

What Book Today said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jennifer! Let me know if my review helps make the choice, and what the book club thinks.

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