Novel has more tan­gles than a bowl of spaghetti

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

TORONTO-BASED David Mac­far­lane’s third novel has a lot of good things go­ing for it, but there are too many dis­parate pieces that don’t quite add up to a re­mark­able whole.

Mac­far­lane is best known for his mem­oir of New­found­land, The Dan­ger Tree, and the 1999 Giller-nom­i­nated novel Sum­mer Gone.

In The Fig­ures of Beauty, 20-some­thing Oliver Hugh­son from Cath­cart, Ont. (the set­ting of Sum­mer Gone) spends one sum­mer in the small Ital­ian town of Pi­etra­bella, a rus­tic vil­lage that has re­lied on the his­toric mar­ble quar­ries for hun­dreds of years. It is lo­cal leg­end that Michelan­gelo him­self trav­elled to the town to over­see the ex­ca­va­tion of mar­ble, though there is lit­tle ac­tual proof of his pres­ence.

Once in Pi­etra­bella, Oliver be­gins an ex­cit­ing re­la­tion­ship with Anna, a lo­cal sculp­tor. In­deed, it will be the most im­por­tant re­la­tion­ship of his life, though he only stays in Pi­etra­bella for four months.

In his 60s, Oliver is tracked down by Teresa, the adult daugh­ter he never knew he had. Teresa’s mother, Anna, has only just di­vulged any in­for­ma­tion about her and Oliver’s sum­mer to­gether, and Teresa trav­els to On­tario to meet the fa­ther she has never known.

There is also the story of a tragic ac­ci­dent in one of the mar­ble quar­ries in the 1920s, a sav­age raid through the town by the Nazis in 1944 and even a Welsh busi­ness­man who be­comes so en­am­oured with the lit­tle Ital­ian town that he be­comes the chief mar­ble ex­porter of the re­gion. And herein lies the novel’s great­est flaw: there are too many nar­ra­tive threads.

The story does not un­fold in chrono­log­i­cal or­der and there are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent points of view; some sec­tions are nar­rated by Oliver and some by Teresa. Long por­tions are sup­posed to be taken from let­ters that Oliver has in­cluded to Teresa in his will; still other sec­tions have a more neu­tral third-per­son nar­ra­tor.

The con­stant shifts in nar­ra­tion, of­ten sev­eral times in one chap­ter, and the many seem­ingly un­re­lated and dis­jointed plot el­e­ments give the im­pres­sion that Mac­far­lane is un­sure of what di­rec­tion he wants all of th­ese threads to lead.

At the be­gin­ning of the novel, read­ers al­ready know that Oliver and Anna do not re­unite, and so there is lit­tle con­flict or ten­sion to their love story.

Even at the level of de­scrip­tion, the writ­ing is of­ten overly fig­u­ra­tive and in­ex­act. When de­scrib­ing a par­tic­u­lar sculp­ture of Michelan­gelo’s, Mac­far­lane writes: “[Michaelan­gelo’s] real bat­tle was with beauty it­self. It was never easy to find. He had no choice but to put ev­ery­thing that sits at the heart of a stone carver’s soul into ev­ery stroke of his mal­let.”

The novel is filled with th­ese vague, overly ro­man­ti­cized de­scrip­tions of beauty and sculp­ture, and rather than con­trib­ute to a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the art, th­ese pas­sages get to be tir­ing.

Mac­far­lane’s novel is cer­tainly am­bi­tious. It draws from a beau­ti­ful and ro­man­tic set­ting and dab­bles with some in­ter­est­ing sub­ject mat­ter. But it is ul­ti­mately un­sat­is­fy­ing.

The plot is too com­pli­cated for a ca­sual reader, and more ded­i­cated read­ers are likely to be frus­trated by the dis­jointed and tan­gen­tial nar­ra­tive struc­ture.

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