blueeyedboy by Joanne Harris: A Review

I’ve just finished Joanne Harris’s latest novel, blueeyedboy, in anticipation of meeting her this Tuesday the 18th during the Ottawa International Writers Festival. I’m a major fan of Harris’s writing, so I’ve really been looking forward to this event!

Because you can read a synopsis of blueeyedboy anywhere, I won’t include one here. I will say by way of introduction that the story is current and interesting because, as the back cover says, it “plays on the myriad opportunities for disguise, multiple personalities, and mind games that are offered by the internet.” As a blogger both here and elsewhere and someone who thus interacts with many online personalities, I was certainly intrigued.

Now, at the risk of sounding like most of Joanne’s readers, I absolutely adore her novels that take place in France. Those are undoubtedly my favourites. I can’t help it. I lived in France for a year. I love food. And I am a romantic, too. But I also loved The Evil Seed and Sleep Pale Sister, both dark, Gothic novels. There’s not only sweetness in Harris’s writing: as she demonstrates with these last two novels I mentioned, and Holy Fools, too, there’s a definite streak of seductive blackness to her writing as well.

Gentlemen and Players as well as blueeyedboy are both departures from her other works, and I really did enjoy G&P, which was deliciously twisted. Both these books contain mystery and murder in various forms, and while I have absolutely nothing against those things in fiction since I have my own black streak, I admit, apparently like one of those people, that they’re not what I love most coming from Harris. She can write a fantastic twist, though, and she’s very good at dark. In this case, blueeyedboy is no exception. Dark is an understatement, though the book is not without humour.

Still, I got off to a disappointing start with blueeyedboy, thinking the writing seemed a bit forced, for lack of a better word. There was just something about it, perhaps the fact that the readers had to learn everything through web journal posts, which seemed then to make the characters speak a bit unrealistically, too informatively, too purposefully. That was my initial impression, anyway. I’m not certain this was intentional, or that it’s there at all; perhaps I’m just being overly critical. I’ve read many blogs over the years and I’ve never encountered writing like this, which is not to say it can’t exist but perhaps is to say I’m uncertain about how…natural it is. You know how sometimes when watching a movie you can tell a character is saying something for your benefit? It felt something like that—too…directed, almost as though the characters didn’t have their own voices.

True to herself, though, Harris is wonderfully evocative in blueeyedboy. I was easily transported to the little village where this story takes place, my senses overloaded with smells and colours, even tastes. At the same time, I had a bit of trouble knowing where I was in the story—that is, following the non-linear timeline (typically I don’t have a problem with this), and I wondered if perhaps this is because nothing, and no one, is as it seems in the novel. But I worried: was I being particularly dense or was I meant to be confused? Was I not being the intelligent reader I’ve learned to be? It wasn’t until about halfway or three-quarters of the way through blueeyedboy that I oriented myself and the pace picked up for me and then I didn’t want to put down the book; there were a couple of brilliant twists that threw me for a loop and which I thought quite clever, though the big twist at the end was one I had unfortunately already suspected.

In general, I found myself wondering if the story wasn’t a bit too fantastical, a bit too unbelievable for me. I have no doubt there are people on the internet pretending to be people they’re not; in fact, I imagine that’s a part of the allure of having a web journal or blog. You can be who you want, you can play out whatever fantasies you want. You can confess. There’s something to that unique kind of anonymity that opens you up, even though it’s in public. You are also pretty much free to live out an entirely false existence if you so choose. In this book, you never know what’s true or not, not even when it seems you’re reading the truth.

However, finding the course of events perhaps too unbelievable was ultimately not what I found disappointing; rather, it was the fact that there was nothing redeemable in the end, nothing good that stays. There was almost nothing but dark, from domestic violence and discord to murder or murderous fantasies and fear and insecurity. It wasn’t quite the kind of dark I prefer, which is deliciously thrilling and noir and magic and even underworldish. I can deal with those other things, but there needs to be some sort of counter for me, then, and I don’t necessarily mean a happy ending. Much of the content was upsetting or disturbing for me, which I can hardly fault Harris for since it’s me who’s sensitive, but it did affect my opinion of the novel, as did the fact that there also wasn’t a single character in the book I could like, love, or relate to, even if that’s the point, i.e., to not like any of them. Almost everyone was repelling or nasty in some way or mentally or emotionally immature or unstable, or the likable characters were not more than sketches and were killed off.

I can’t say, then, based on these above things, that I would highly recommend this book, and that pains me greatly. Joanne Harris is, after all, a brilliant writer, but blueeyedboy was not, for me, a great read. My opinion of Harris certainly hasn’t changed after reading this, of course, and I would wholeheartedly recommend a number of her novels. Certainly as an author she’s allowed to explore genres and topics and various levels of dark (it’s evident she has fun doing this and it bothers me because I like her so much that I can’t descend as deep as she can). And certainly she should not be limited to writing stories set in France or in which food is a major component. But I can’t help but hope for something I like more next time.

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7 Responses

  1. The Book Whisperer 20 May, 2010 / 7:50 am

    Steph, your review sums up pretty much everything I had a problem with too. I am a huge Joanne Harris fan and have read almost all her books and loved them. I have also met her at a signing before (hope you enjoy yours) as I live quite near her in Yorkshire.

    I was more disappointed with this book becuase I wanted to love it and I couldn’t. I couldn’t find any light or shade, it was all dark and I didn’t find a single redeeming quality in any of the characters.

    It’s a shame, but I am still a huge fan!

    • Steph 20 May, 2010 / 9:05 am

      Exactly, exactly!! I had been highly anticipating it and was therefore very excited and consequently crushed that it wasn’t living up to my expectations, which wasn’t necessarily that it would be about food or France, but just more…magical in some way. Don’t you feel so guilty and horrible admitting it when you love her so much? I do…

      I have to say, I’m actually more in love with her now that I’ve met her!

      • The Book Whisperer 20 May, 2010 / 11:15 am

        Yes, absolutely. I was sent the book by her publisher to review too and I thought long and hard about what to say in the review. Part of me wanted to go easy on the book as I just love her and her other books but then I thought that I have to be true to myself and it’s OK that I don’t like this one – I don’t have to like them all. I wrote the review very honestly but yes I did feel guilty.

        Have you met her already then? I saw your other post about you going but didn’t realise that you had gone already. What did she talk about?

  2. Steph 20 May, 2010 / 12:43 pm

    I did meet her. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have written that post in the present tense?)

    She talked about how readers tend to want to box her in as a food and France writer, and how people didn’t like blueeyedboy because there were no likable characters and it’s such a departure from her other stuff. She seemed fine with it, but stressed that she likes to experiment, she likes to be dark every now and then, and she does have a core of readers who have stuck with her through everything she’s written. She talked about community and the theme of internet relationships, and revealed something amazing: that there actually was a mother who assigned colours to her sons because it made laundry easier, and something like 30 years after his mother died, one of the sons (Joanne’s driver, I think it was) still stuck to the colours!! I remember thinking how unrealistic that part of the book was and then there you have it: it’s a fact she’d based her book on!

    I couldn’t change my mind even after the event, even though she did make it seem to make a bit more sense, in the end. I thought I might go back and change my mind but when I went over my review again I found my thinking hadn’t changed (I was just under her fantastic spell!).

    Oddly the guy asking the questions asked if she was like Gloria. I thought that was weird and I think she was a little surprised by that! Hmmm, what else. It’s hard to remember, even though I was so absorbed.

  3. Hawthorn 29 May, 2010 / 5:42 pm

    I haven’t read blueeyedboy, so I can’t comment on this one, but I have read (and loved) some of Joanne Harris’ other books. Most recently I read The Lollipop Shoes, and adored it.

    Just for interest – have you read any of Sarah Waters’ books? She wrote Fingersmith, Affinity, Tipping the Velvet – most recently I read The Little Stranger. I think you might like her.

    • Steph 2 June, 2010 / 7:29 am

      She’s on my wish list, particularly that book! So now I will certainly have to buy it.

      I’m so glad you like Joanne Harris too. I love knowing such kindred spirits!

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