The Good: Vibrant characters, Moments of poetics, Engaging interweaving between characters.
The Bad: Typos, Unlikable initial protagonist, Almost indecipherable final pages.
The Basics: With more than a little panache, I review my own debut novel, Within These Walls, a complicated novel about a family in the process of self destructing and finding love.
It is generally considered uncouth to review your own works, I think largely because one assumes that you are simply trying to hawk your own wares and will praise your own work in pursuit of the almighty dollar. That's not my intent with this review. Also, the same people who tell you you "can't" review your own works will not tell you that the prestigious places they want to have professional reviewers review from demand payment in addition to copies of the book and many will not review self-published titles. Well, I once had to overcome feeling like there ought to be a stigma against my self-published works, I might as well have today be the day I overcome the stigma of reviewing my own novels. So, it makes sense to start at the beginning with Within These Walls.
Back in 2001, my first novel, Within These Walls was self-published because, frankly, none of the major publishing houses were interested in it and I had run out of money to keep sending it to publishers, agents and the like. But I believed that the story was worth telling and worth sharing, so I did. I self-published and I sold person to person at conventions, library readings and pretty much whenever I met new people. While I have come a long way in my writing, I still have a fondness for the book, so let me tell you about what Within These Walls is all about.
Opening with Sam Donnovan telling the story of his ex-wife and him initially falling in love against the backdrop of the new love his wife has, Within These Walls is a character-centered novel that focuses on the Patterson/Donnovan household. Sam Donnovan is a world-famous writer who was so neglectful of his supermodel wife that she came out of the closet and he barely noticed. Actually, he noticed just long enough to swindle her into allowing her to remain in the basement of their home under the pretense of helping to raise their son, Michael. And while Sam writes and pines for his ex-wife, Valerie Donnovan (formerly Hutchinson, eventually Patterson) falls in love with her aerobics instructor, Jennifer Patterson.
Jennifer's story continues the novel with her earliest revelation. In kindergarten, she tells her stodgy old teacher she is a lesbian and from there, she never looks back. Growing up with her friend C.M., she is supported by her two mothers and lives a decent childhood in rural New York state. As she and C.M. get older, they compete for the same girls (with disastrous results) and a tragedy strikes which throws Jennifer into a depression that lasts well into her college years. But then, she meets Valerie and as the two of them get to know one another better, they fall in love and marry. Jennifer finds real challenges in reconciling Sam living in the basement with his neglect of Michael and balancing her love for Valerie with her concerns as Michael's step mother, a concern that rises because she sees something in Michael that reminds her of C.M.!
The final section of the book is told from C.M. and Michael's perspectives and it's impossible to write about them without revealing an uncomfortable amount about either character. Sufficed to say, W.L. Swarts was not afraid to write about weird connections of people (in a book with people who seem to utterly despise organized religion and religious people, there is the very strong implication that there is a soul connection between Michael and C.M.) and the unfortunate thoughts of teenagers that can border on the incestuous. At least both the author and the narrator have a strong sense of the consequences for such thoughts and their weight and that turns Within These Walls toward the utterly tragic.
But that is not to say Within These Walls is in any way unreadable. Like The Sound And The Fury (reviewed here!), Within These Walls is told from different perspectives of the varied characters and it is only though the overlaps and comparisons that the reader gets an appreciation for the entire story. So, for example, Sam Donnovan tells his story in relative time; he sees similar milestones reached between Valerie and Jennifer and that triggers his memories of similar milestones with him and Valerie. While Jennifer's narrative is blissfully chronological, C.M.'s story is told backwards and Michael's story has no relation to time and is one thirty-three page sentence (there is no punctuation in it!). The narrative techniques require patience, especially with Sam Donnovan, who is a terrible narrator to use to open the novel with. However, Swarts occasionally saves the reader from thinking the characters are utterly preposterous by weaving some tricks into the narrative style. Foremost among these is making Sam's apparent lack of reaction to Valerie's coming out early in the book make sense.
Within These Wall is memorable with the characters who are quite distinctive, despite their odd narrative styles. Jennifer is very easy to like, but C.M. is the sweetheart that readers always seem to identify with. A purely good boy, C.M. is the misguided narrator in (and arguably the tragic hero of) the novel. While it takes a lot of patience to get through the final portion of the book, it is worth it. It is only there where the inexplicable events that close Jennifer's section of the book come to make sense. And that actually works well; Jennifer's perspective insulates her from Michael's perspective in some ways so Michael's voice is necessary.
What doesn't work - other than trying to get into the book through the isolated and self-pitying Sam Donnovan - are occasional grammatical errors. I had to edit the book myself and a few things slipped through the cracks, most notably the proper spelling of "throes" on one page. C'est la vie.
Who will enjoy Within These Walls? Anyone who likes realist fiction, is intrigued by how characters really interact and appreciate how the truth must be weaved together through many voices to be realized are likely to enjoy the book. But more than anything, Within These Walls will be appreciated by readers who like the idea of a complicated story where a lesbian family largely succeeds and the tragic elements of the book are not related to homophobia.
For other book reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
V - Thomas Pynchon
Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name - Audre Lorde
For other book reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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