The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ is a peculiar sort of a novel. Its interest does not lie where the reader might expect.
In theory, Diary is, as the name suggests, a (comedic) epistolary novel, formed from the diary entries of a young boy navigating adolescence in England in the early 1980s. Taken as that, the reader will very soon develop an objection: Adrian Mole is not a teenage boy; Adrian Mole is a wholly unbelievable character written by an author who was evidently never a boy, and had not been a teenager for some time, and had largely forgotten what it was like.
I recently reviewed Gentle’s Ash – but the review was ridiculously long. I thought I’d better produce a condensed version. I usually do that for my Goodreads reviews anyway, so here’s the review I wrote for GR… (you can still find the full review over here)
The first thing that should probably be said about Ash: A Secret History is that it’s probably the apex of the epic fantasy genre – or at least, the best thing written in the genre since The Lord of the Rings.
I’ve always had a little difficulty reviewing short story collections – in part because I don’t do it enough to have developed a clear method. So how about this: I’ll give a few words in general, then give some words about each story, then go back to the general again for a conclusion. OK?
I don’t know how to start this review. I’m not entirely sure what I can say about The Fifth Head of Cerberus… and I’m even less confident that I know what order to say it in.
Perhaps that’s rather fitting. I’m used, after all, to reading stories – narratives, that move, like music, or like a stream, from a beginning to an end. Gene Wolfe’s 1972 debut novel* is not like that. There are, I suppose, narratives – in the plural – but it would be a mistake to think of this novel as being a story.
It’s been a while, I know. It’s not just that I’m lazy, or entirely that I’m disorganised. It’s also been that I’ve been gradually extruding a gargantuan review… of a gargantuan novel. It’s so ridiculously long that I’ve even divided it into sections: Part One sets the scene; Part Two introduces the general concept of the novel; Part Three talks about what it’s like and what’s special about it; and Part Four sums up and scores.
But because the review is so cripplingly long, I’ll summarise it here and now for those who can’t be bothered to read to the end: if you like epic fantasy (and maybe even if you don’t), you need to read this book.
[housekeeping note: in America, it’s considered a series of four novels. This doesn’t really make sense to me, and if possible I’d recommend getting the complete edition]
Now, the long version…
Reading a novel often throws up half-random symmetries between the reader’s mind and the text of the novel – echoes, intuitions, memories, premonitions. The reader has a thought, and lo and behold the same thought is suddenly seen in the text itself. Sometimes this is pleasing – proof that the writer is thinking along the same lines, and to the same depth, as the reader, and hence that the investment of thought on the part of the reader is not in vain. Other times it is frustrating – a sign that the writer is following a path too obvious, too familiar.
In the case of Before They Are Hanged, it is… odd.
Ursula Le Guin’s two most famous and acclaimed science fiction novels – 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness and 1974’s The Dispossessed have a great deal in common. Both are intellectual novels, more interested in characters dispensing sociology lectures than in character exchanging gunfire; both are novels where, in the final equation, very little actually happens. Both are primarily concerned with comparing and contrasting two very different sociopolitical power structures, locked in a Cold War – given the time in which the novels were written, we can cut to the chase and just admit, both novels are fundamentally examinations of the USA vs. the USSR. On a purely superficial level, both novels are set on distant planets occupied by a species who are almost, but not quite, human, with both Terrans (us!) and ‘Hainish’ mentioned in the background. Both novels follow a single traveller as he attempts to understand the world around him.
And yet there are also important differences: most importantly of all, where The Left Hand of Darkness seems to tiptoe delicately, frostily, across an icy surface, everything at a distance, everything filtered and contained, The Dispossessed is the literary equivalent of taking an axe to a target and hacking, first from the left, and then from the right, again and again until the blade hits the quick.