Friday, May 09, 2008

Being Emily - Anne Donovan

I'm giving this post another airing because my daughter has added her comment. I am relieved to see that she agrees with my view of the book and that I wasn't just being a grumpy old woman!

Being Emily by Anne Donovan is due to be published by Canongate on 30th April and I have just finished reading the preview copy I received courtesy of Library Thing.

SHORTLISTED FOR THE WHITBREAD FIRST NOVEL AWARD. SHORTLISTED FOR THE ORANGE PRIZE is blazoned across the cover of Being Emily but it refers, of course, to Anne Donovan's first novel, the highly acclaimed Buddha Da. It must have been very difficult to follow this successful debut: more of the same or something completely different?

Being Emily is set in contemporary Glasgow. The narrator is Fiona, a twenty-something installation artist, who describes her life through secondary school and art college, in the local working-class dialect. The book tackles major issues: a family tragedy, multiculturalism, same-sex parenthood, teenage pregnancy, betrayal but all addressed with warmth and humour. Anyone who has read Buddha Da will have realised by now that Anne Donovan chose the 'more of the same' approach for her second novel.

The book moves along at a lively pace with just a few halts for those of us who need to work out the meaning of the less obvious bits of dialect, such as 'gie a wean', 'hauf' and 'haund'. The characters are likeable but neither they nor their stories can be fully explored because of the use of the first-person narrator. The result is a rather unsatisfying glimpse into the lives of a group of ordinary people in very extraordinary situations.

The Emily of the title is Emily Bronte. We learn at the beginning of the book that Fiona is passionate about Emily Bronte and her work. I expected this to be a central theme but, apart from a school trip to Haworth, a visit to the National Portrait gallery to see Branwell's portrait of Emily and a very contrived link with the fire at the Bronte parsonage, there is nothing to explain the choice of title.

Anne Donovan is obviously a talented writer and I really wanted to enjoy this book but I found it very disappointing. Almost every character and circumstance begged to be developed. I wanted to hear Anne's own voice, not that of an immature girl - she has already given us that in her previous work. I hope that her next novel will live up to the promise that the Whitbread and Orange judges recognised.


  1. Excellent review. You've managed to give us a glimpse of what to expect without giving away too much. Reading dialect is tedious and stops the flow of the narrative, especially if it's unfamiliar.

    When we were in Scotland, we often had trouble understanding the spoken word never mind trying to decode the written word.

  2. That is kind of you to say so, e. It was difficult to write a review about a book that I didn't feel enthusiastic about. This is a good writer but this isn't the best she can produce, I'm sure.

  3. Oh what a shame, M. Buddha Da was so promising - as you know, I loved it. But I suppose a first novel that wins acclaim all round will always be a hard act to follow.

  4. D, I felt so mean writing this review. She is obviously such a gifted writer and the book is teeming with possibilities but it struck me that it was a safe option, following the success of Budddha Da. I've asked Tanith to read it while she is here and if her (younger) view is very different from mine, I'll publish it to redress the balance.

  5. I have to say, I agree with the comments you made about this one.

    I was not entirely sure who this book was aimed at. It was too filled with teenage angst for an adult audience, but often too adult in theme for a younger teenage reader.

    The writing style took a while to get used to, with 'unusual' punctuation. The lack of speech marks, in particular, slowed down the flow of the novel, and I found myself rereading passages to work out who had just spoken.

    I was also disappointed to find that I didn't really like any of the characters. Narrated by a rather pretentious girl who made strange life choices and produced award winning but embarrassingly immature modern art, the motives of the other characters could never be explored. They all felt a little contrived and stereotypical.

    Having said that, I did find myself wanting to read on, and I enjoyed the emotional roller-coaster. I just wanted something more from this writer, and finished the book with a sense of disappointment at its unfulfilled potential.

  6. Interesting. I'm not keen on books told in dialect/unusual punctuation etc (sounds exhausting to read) But from what I gather Buddha Da, which you all like, was dialect too. What made it better? Perhaps I'd better judge for myself, though am not tempted by this one.

  7. Susie, I think 'Buddha Da' was an unusual book and an excellent debut novel. It was unique and so it was a mistake to try to repeat the formula. There are a number of other weaknesses in 'Being Emily' but the talent of the writer still comes through. I'm sure we will see a better third novel.


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