Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fiction Review: 'The Child Inside' by Suzanne Bugler

I'm not sure what to make of this book. It's not the sort of thing I normally read - it's contemporary, and might perhaps fit the literary genre. I'm not even sure why I bought it now. The premise is a straightforward one: Rachel, a married woman with a son, gives birth to a stillborn baby daughter, and this event colours her family's life for years afterwards. She retreats into herself, her husband does the same, and the surviving child becomes the focus of all their attentions. There's also an event in Rachel's past, a childhood friend from a higher level of society, who died of a brain tumour, and that too becomes something which defines Rachel.

The problems with this book are the typical ones for the genre. Because the setting is very ordinary, there's an element of over-writing the descriptive passages to make them more evocative. Sometimes this works quite well, as the author is quite perceptive, but sometimes it just feels like... well, over-writing. Then there's the plot. Given the premise above, what would be the tritest, least original plot-line you could think up? Yep, that's exactly how it goes. I won't reveal it, in case there are two people left on the planet who might be surprised by any of it, but it's a total cliche-a-thon.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the story fails one of my standard tests for plots: if the entire plot would collapse if the characters simply talk to each other, then that's an epic fail. Romances typically depend on the author finding ingenious ways for the main characters to misunderstand each other, and fantasy depends on wizards or dwarves who talk in cryptic riddles, but in modern settings it all has to be done by character. Is Rachel believable as the sort of person who simply doesn't talk to her husband? Is the husband believable as a man who quietly accepts his miserable life for nine years? Is it really credible that Rachel's sister is such a cow, or that the man she confides in is a total jerk? Some people would probably let such issues slide by, but for me it just didn't work.

Ultimately, this is the sort of story a reader might well enjoy by simply accepting the characters as they are, and empathising with their tragedy. I was never tempted to abandon it, even when it descended from contrived plot devices into a farcical level of melodrama at the end. Up to a point, I even enjoyed it, but other people's miserable lives aren't that interesting to me, and there were just too many obstacles to full enjoyment so that for me it never rose above three stars.

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