Thursday, December 09, 2010

Their Faces Were Shining

Tim Wilson,
Victoria University Press

Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

Upfront I will tell you this is probably a book I would not have chosen to read, unless asked to review it. Somehow the idea of ‘the Rapture’ as described in the promotional blurb, put me off rather than made me curious. But read this book, I did, and indeed, I carried it as extra ballast as I tramped the Milford Track. And that is dedication, as every single small ounce becomes an accumulative weight by the final 21 kilometres.

I read the first chapter three times (falling asleep), but that was due to my tramping and nothing to do with the writing. At first I struggled with the idea of the writer as a celebrity (world-famous in New Zealand, Tim Wilson, our very own New York correspondent). And it occurred to me that in recent times, writers have taken on a sort of celebrity status that sometimes detracts from their writing. You want to separate the identity of the writer from the writing – well, at least I do.
My early reading experiences were at random from the local Richmond Public Library and frequently I didn’t know the gender or nationality of many of the authors that I read – I simply read the book, because I liked the preface. I knew nothing of classics, or genres back then, and I think that is quite liberating.

This is a very roundabout way of getting to review Tim Wilson’s debut novel. But I feel it sets the platform somehow. After I got over the fact that Hope Paterson the main character, was not Tom Wilson, and stopped trying to find weaknesses in his portrayal of a Christian woman, emphasis on Christian (I found I have a whole range of prejudices here)... I settled in to the story. Hope is very funny inside her head, and not quite so funny, as a real-life, overlooked by God, middle-aged wife, mother and hitherto (before The Rapture) upwardly-mobile Christian (the upwardly-mobile Christian being just the sort of witty comment Hope herself might make, for you see, she does not, as she would have hoped go up).

It is an extremely funny, contemporary and sometimes very smart-arsed novel. It has, I see, been nominated as one of the top 100 books for 2010 by The Listener. I listened to the review by Tina Shaw on Nine to Noon and she made a comment that struck a real chord with me. The idea that Tim Wilson is a journalist who has witnessed big events in the USA, such as the death of Michael Jackson (mass hysteria) and that he used his experience of this sort of thing to bring credibility (ha, The Rapture and credibility), to the novel.
She felt the descriptions of driving around in small-town USA after the event, were very cinematic. Indeed, the Rapture starts with an event similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and this novel might make a very good movie. I found myself a little tired of things mid-way through but then things perked up after Hope found Wade (I won’t spoil the plot), and I particularly enjoyed the reversal of mother and daughter roles. Hope begins to fail as a Christian and her daughter becomes censorious, a nice touch. Again, near to the end, I began to flag. But this novel is highly original and very funny, and also quite sad at times, although the dark humour is always brushing up and almost swamping the sadness.

A couple of excerpts to alert you to the lovely humour.... After ‘the Rapture’, Hope can’t find her husband Wade but she’s quite sure he hasn’t been taken up, and neither has her daughter Rachel. “I prayed then. I prayed for Wade to be safe. I prayed that he might guess we were still here and not be fearful. I prayed too, that Rachel wouldn’t feel God had rejected her. I was praying for myself then. You know, I didn’t mention the Rapture at all. God had made an oversight. So long as I didn’t complain, surely it would be rectified?


Hope is a President of Sales and Marketing for ReNuLife and before the Rapture, she is about to ream out her errant Sales VP, Andrew Klopper but he has been humbled by the Rapture and is now flagellating himself. Surprised, Hope tells Andy that she didn’t know he was a believer, and he goes on to admit “I wasn’t, Hope! All I cared about was money, I lied. I cheated. I was destroying my own soul!”... to which Hope replies “You were, Andy. You inflated your totals. I was going to fire you last Friday.”

Oh, and just one more:

“Mary Gergen from First Church wanted me to call a.s.a.p. She’d made donations to First Church and was unsure whether the Rapture would affect their tax deductible status.”

Tim Wilson has a very good eye and ear for modern-day family dynamics and in particular, the failures of Hope both as a wife and a mother. And we never quite lose hope, with a small “h”. I also thought of Don De Lilo’s ‘White Noise’ with perhaps some similar post-modern American themes. I found the novel tapered off, or else my enthusiasm for the theme did. I was skimming at the end to come to a conclusion, but still feeling a sense of affection for Hope, and her daughter. Perhaps I wanted something less provocative beneath the humour, perhaps I felt all too strongly the banality of the modern urban condition that Tim Wilson writes so well of. Maybe, I wanted a bet both ways, in spite of my cynicism about Hope’s Christianity.

And then, I found the ending tried to offer me that, but it was too over-wrought for my liking.

Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog.

“Your Perfect Life Will Commence Shortly”

Interestingly, I was given the self-published “Your Perfect Life Will Commence Shortly” to review at the same time as “Their Faces Were Shining”. I hadn’t realised until I began this review, that there are indeed some similar themes here. A debut novel for starters... In the promotional blurb at the back of this novel, it says of Allison “she wants to encourage people of all ages to grow past all insecurity, seek wisdom and most importantly to radiate kindness in the world.” Yes, I think Hope who missed out on the Rapture would agree with this.

Self-publishing is an act of either great courage, or bravado, or perhaps as we like to call it, vanity publishing. You wouldn’t self-publish if you didn’t think or hope that people would want to read what you have written. But all writers to some extent need courage, bravado and a decent dose of vanity just to send their manuscript to a publisher. So why quibble?

Allison O’Neill evidently “loves to write and is passionate about personal growth”. She is only twenty-five years old and so I have a certain admiration for her passion to write and communicate about such an important topic. But, I wonder if she has chosen the right medium. This book is fiction, and I suspect it might have been more successful if Allison had written straight from her obviously very caring heart about her own life. Unless, this is a thinly-veiled bio, as many first novels are... but I don’t think so. It feels as if Allison as been on a journey of self discovery that she wants to share and has chosen to write a story that allows her to weave all these ideas into it, sharing snippets of wisdom she has gleaned either from life or from reading.

The writing lacks a creative originality and is sadly, far too predictable. I found it difficult to stay engaged, but wanted to be generous. But I felt patronised by the tone and the telling and would have preferred it to have just been presented as Allison’s view on life. The story is the life of Lucille who in the prologue is in New York, wearing a Valentino gown, sipping top-shelf champagne and about to hear her name called out as having won a prestigious Magazine Lifetime Achievement award... and then we reel back to Lucille aged five, ten, fourteen, seventeen... you get the picture – we come full circle, but not before the author wraps up the novel with tributes to Steve Irwin (via Lucille) and a reference to Deepak Chopra and "Synchrodestiny” followed by some lists about forgiveness and feelings which would fit more suitably into a Self-Help book.

I couldn’t help noticing though the similarity in themes (the mother daughter dichotomy), and the vast difference in craft between the two novels, I’ve just reviewed. But in the end, we’re all on this journey, writing to make sense of it – whether hip-smart, intellectual and wildly funny like Tim Wilson, or sincere, well-meaning and perhaps a little less talented (but brave) like Allison O’Neill. I work in a bookshop and one thing I have learned, there are shoppers for every sort of book, and “Your Perfect Life Will Commence Shortly” might strike a chord with some young women at odds with their Mum, or still resentful about a less than perfect family life. I watch (sometimes with dismay) as a particularly successful book of self-published quotes and poems with a warm-glow predictable reassurance, marches out the door, while really good local (but requiring more effort) poetry languishes on the shelves. I found myself liking Allison though, couldn’t help it really, but as for Lucille...

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