This month’s book club discussion has been written by my dear friend and fellow book lover Sarah Tidey. Sarah is also an author, having published a number of children’s books. She is currently working on a manuscript for her first adult fiction book.
Over to you Sare!
I have eagerly anticipated reading Elliot Perlman’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity” this month. Perlman has built a reputation as a writer of substance and for good reason- his books are challenging reads but they offer lots to think about.
Perlman lives in Melbourne and so his novels are often set here which I also find appealing – does anyone else find it enjoyable or comforting reading about places you know? I have read several of his other books including Three Dollars and The Street Sweeper and they share some common social, ethical and political themes – the growing divide between rich and poor, our society’s obsession with consumerism, the fragile nature of relationships.
Simon is an unemployed teacher living a lonely and depressed existence with his dog and the occasional companionship of a lover, Angelique who works as a prostitute. He spends his days thinking about literature and his former lover Anna. Following a chance sighting of Anna and her young son Sam, Simon’s obsession with Anna is fuelled, and on a whim he commits a daring act involving Sam which will change all their lives.
The book is divided into seven parts all told by a different narrator – hence the ambiguity. The title of the book also references a book of literary criticism written by William Empson with which Simon is quite fascinated. (I don’t think you need to read that book to enjoy this one but I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has).
The use of a number of narrators is a clever device by Perlman because it means the same events are recounted from different perspectives and leads us to question the truth and gain insights into different characters. It does mean that we hear the same event several times over and that can be annoying. The characters who narrate each part all have some connection to the story, but for some of them it’s fairly obscure.
Through the different narrations we also hear several other stories or sub plots, about the death of Anna’s first baby from SIDS, a failed business venture involving Anna’s husband Joe, an accident at a work retreat that affects Joe’s colleague, Mitch, and we witness the relationship between Joe’s ageing mother and intellectually disabled brother.
At times I also felt a little bit confused by the connections between the characters and found some of the coincidences a bit hard to accept. Did anyone else find it a bit much that the last section of the book was written by Alex Klima’s daughter who happens to be in a relationship with Sam?
There is so much to discuss with these characters so I have just focused on four.
Alex is the psychologist who works with Simon, forming a strong bond with him and an unhealthy fixation with his welfare. Alex also treats a number of the other characters we meet which I found a little bit too “neat” in some ways but I can see that it was a useful way of connecting the characters with one another for the author.
I would have liked to know a little more about Alex’s personal life as we hear his marriage is in trouble but only get glimpses of his home life through his daughter’s chapter at the end. I was troubled by his obsession with Simon. Were you?
Much of what we learn about Simon is through the other characters commentary- he doesn’t provide his own account until Part 5. He is described a number of times as being attractive and intensely intelligent and he is clearly fragile but I had difficulty empathising with him and found him somewhat frustrating. I would have liked to understand a bit more how he was affected by his relationship with his parents.
What did you think?
Whilst Joe was a product of the corporate greed that Perlman clearly struggles with I found myself feeling sorry for him – constantly trying to impress people, he really appeared to be a fairly simple man with basic wants who found himself out of his depth. There were flashes of compassion there in his relationship with his son and his mother and in the little attempts he made with Anna.
Did you have sympathy for Joe’s position?
Of all the characters I felt I understood Anna the least. Maybe this was intentional on the part of the author as much of the impression we have of her is through other people and in particular Simon’s romanticised view. I thought Perlman did a great job of capturing the traps we make for ourselves when we choose our relationships badly but I still felt angry with her for the way she treated Joe. I also didn’t find convincing the decision she ultimately makes about her relationship with Simon. It seemed unrealistic – or am I unromantic?
My favourite line
The novel opens with Alex as the narrator but his account is directed towards Anna. He is describing how Simon thinks of Anna:
“Depending on the weather he imagines you in one of those cotton dresses of yours with flowers on it or in faded blue jeans and a thick woollen button up cardigan over a checked shirt, drinking coffee from a mug, looking through your tortoiseshell glasses at a book of poetry while it rains. He thinks of you with your hair tied back and that characteristic sweet scent on your neck. He imagines you this way when he is on the train, in the supermarket, at his parents’ house, at night alone and when he is with a woman. He is wrong though. You didn’t read poetry at all. He had wanted you to read poetry but you didn’t. If pressed he confesses to an imprecise recollection of what it was you read….”
I think this passage is so clever – as it is the opening chapter we learn instantly how deep Simon’s attachment to Anna is but also how romantic it is. Perlman perfectly captures the way we romanticise a memory of someone and choose what we want to believe. We immediately see the ambiguity in the characterisation of Anna – not only is Simon’s view distorted, but then we are hearing Alex’s interpretation of that view.
In a nutshell
Seven types of ambiguity is a big and powerful read – in one sense it could be described as a psychological thriller but it is much more than just that, exploring all sorts of subjects from literature to education, the health system, prostitution, gambling and the stock market. You will need some time to read this one but be prepared to think deeply this is no easy beach read!
What did you think of Seven Types of Ambiguity? Did you enjoy it? Would you recommend it? Thoughts? Feelings? Questions?