Thawed nar­ra­tor too stiff to be en­gag­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

SOME­TIMES it seems as if a novel con­tains more the­matic bag­gage than its nar­ra­tive can rea­son­ably han­dle.

In the case of The Cu­rios­ity, a de­but by Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Stephen P. Kier­nan, such ideas in­clude the value of life, the na­ture of moral­ity and the mean­ing of beauty.

For a ro­man­tic thriller whose fan­ci­ful premise is the re­vival of a 19th-cen­tury man who has been trapped in­side a glacier for more than 100 years, the heavy­weight themes seem a bit much.

Jeremiah Rice, a young judge born in 1868, has been miss­ing since fall­ing over­board a ship in the Arc­tic Ocean dur­ing a trip in­spired by the voy­age of Charles Dar­win.

Jeremiah is dis­cov­ered in his frozen state by Kate Philo, an at­trac­tive sci­en­tist em­ployed by the Lazarus Pro­ject, an or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to dis­cov­er­ing the se­crets of im­mor­tal­ity.

Kate, in the lit­er­ary tra­di­tion of women who are drawn to mys­te­ri­ous men, be­comes in­fat­u­ated with Jeremiah — feel­ings that are even­tu­ally and pre­dictably re­cip­ro­cated.

While Kier­nan makes some ef­fort to de­velop the novel’s main char­ac­ters, any growth that does oc­cur ap­pears con­trived rather than or­ganic. Con­ve­niently, they all just hap­pen to hail from Bos­ton, where the Lazarus Pro­ject is sit­u­ated — one of many short­cuts and un­likely co­in­ci­dences in The Cu­rios­ity.

Kier­nan’s use of fa­mil­iar char­ac­ter types and well-worn plot ele­ments is un­der­stand­able. Read­ers will need help to find their way into a 400-plus-page story that be­comes in­creas­ingly elab­o­rate and im­prob­a­ble.

The book’s most no­tice­able weak­ness lies with the por­trayal of Jeremiah, who comes across as a one-di­men­sional paragon of pro­pri­ety. In a mod­ern ro­man­tic plot, one would ex­pect him not to be a mere cliché of the Vic­to­rian gen­tle­man, but in­stead the sort of per­son a smart and ed­u­cated 21st-cen­tury woman could be in­ter­ested in.

Kier­nan’s at­tempt to shape his hero into a fully rounded in­di­vid­ual is some­thing he, de­spite his best in­ten­tions, never pulls off. Jeremiah’s nar­ra­tion is gen­er­ally flat and life­less, as he ap­pears to serve as a sort of mouth­piece for the author’s own ide­al­is­tic opin­ions.

A smaller but no less irk­some flaw lies with the puz­zling mo­tif of a but­ton from Jeremiah’s jacket, an im­age that ap­pears at the start of each chap­ter. As with many of Kier­nan’s choices, the sym­bol­ism of the but­ton seems ei­ther too oblique or pre­cious to res­onate with the reader.

The book’s strength is its ac­cu­rate and un­com­pro­mis­ing por­trayal of the in­va­sive and om­nipresent na­ture of con­tem­po­rary tabloid me­dia. Kier­nan’s jour­nal­is­tic ex­per­tise gives him an in­sider’s view of the world of preda­tory pa­parazzi and the un­scrupu­lous blog cul­ture of the In­ter­net.

Cast against a back­ground of the spec­tac­u­lar land­scapes of the Arc­tic Ocean and the bus­tle of Bos­ton, most of the novel’s scenes have been writ­ten with a strong sense of cin­e­matic po­ten­tial. In­deed, movie rights have al­ready been sold.

The is­sues touched upon in The Cu­rios­ity are in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant in them­selves. The prob­lem is that Kier­nan is not skilled enough to make them res­onate within a nar­ra­tive set­ting.

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