Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book review: The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman


Fellow book club member Jim Kidwell aptly described Hsaio Li-Hung's novel a thousand moons on a thousand rivers, as "Chinese Norman Rockwell."  So, following Monsieur Kidwell's lead, I would describe Bruce Robinson's The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman as "British Beavis and Butthead."

Mr. Robinson is best remembered, perhaps, for his movie screenplay, The Killing Fields, which earned him an Oscar nomination (whatever that may be worth).  But, regardless of his considerable talents as a screenplay writer, Mr. Robinson's book fails miserably.

First published in 1998, Robinson's novel is the story of a working-class English boy embarked on a painful and confusing graduation to manhood.  Thomas Penman is isolated and tortured by the tides of puberty, conflicted by feelings about his parents, his friends, and himself.  He struggles to make a place for himself in a war-torn, dysfunctional, joyless household... a household which is, itself, but a microcosm of mean and dirty England.

I hadn't made it very far into the book before I began to notice inconsistencies in narration and punctuation.  The narrator flits between third-party omniscient to third-party observer, and even occasionally strays into first person.  Interrogation marks appear in odd places in the colorless dialog.

I found the book repulsive.  It is laced thoroughly with gratuitous profanity and Mr. Robinson seems to delight in describing distasteful, unimaginative, revolting behavior.  The main character enjoys defecating in his pants and leaving his soiled undergarments in unexpected places to await discovery.  The dying grandfather's one treasure is his collection of particularly-vile pornography.  The boy and his friend enjoy torturing animals and playing games with the phlegm they cough up after smoking cigarettes.  All of this stomach-churning activity is related with a flippancy that raises questions as to Mr. Robinson's emotional maturity and serves no purpose.  There is no plot to advance; there is no moral to convey.

I could continue in this vein:  paper-thin characters, factual errors, lack of discernible plot, unresolved story elements, inconsistent time line, etcetera.  But why bother?  Halfway into the book I realized I was wasting my time.

When I finished, I was angry and disgusted.  What a barker!

1 comment:

sponge888 said...

I would have to concur with some of your review. I was a bit dismayed at how much he focused on the vile aspects of Thomas's character. The tie between his defecation issue and his rebellion for the family secret was a bit tenuous, and seemed more gratuitous than really necessary to make the connection. I did recognize a bit of the obsessive-compulsive nature toward sexual material by the drenched-in-hormones teens.

Sorry that the book left you angry for reading it. It was a quick read, and it didn't leave me feeling that it was entirely a waste of time. Granted, I won't be running out and purchasing another book by the same author anytime soon, so maybe that says it all.

Maybe Cormack McCarthy will be better. Granted, from what I've heard from you of The Road... we'll probably be in for a pretty tough slog of it.