20 March 2014
THE LAST RUNAWAY by Tracy Chevalier
I spent last weekend as a guest author at Kings Lynn Fiction Festival. I had a great time and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the ‘family’ atmosphere that prevails there.
The headline act was undoubtedly Tracy Chevalier and prior to my arrival I thought I would give myself the task of reading her latest novel, a copy of which I had seen lying about the house. At one point I found myself sharing a stage with her, although I was at the other end of the platform. Probably just as well, as if she’d asked my opinion on THE LAST RUNAWAY, I’d have been in some considerable difficulty. So if you’re a fan of Ms Chevalier, it might be best if you look away now …
Back at the beginning of February I reviewed THE RED HOUSE by Mark Haddon. You may remember I commented on the pace at which the book was written. It opens on a railway train travelling at 70mph and the prose gallops along in much the same way. At one point in Ms Chevalier’s book she references a railway train in what was admittedly mid nineteenth-century England travelling at the alarming speed of 15mph. I have to say her book is written at much the same pace but there’s nothing very alarming about it at all. In truth, I felt it was the literary equivalent of watching paint dry.
We might try and excuse this by stating that the book is set in the 1850s, a time when nothing much happened quickly anyway. The heroine is Honor Bright, a young, modest Quaker woman from Bristol. (Her very name was my first problem, by the way. I’m a great believer in the idea that names can tell you a lot about a character, but ‘Honor Bright’? Please ...) She’s travelling to America with her sister to find a new life after being jilted at home. This isn’t going to be easy, especially when her sister dies en route, and the first half of the book is devoted to her settling in and long descriptive passages revolving around the book’s recurrent themes of Quakerism, quilting and the Ohioan countryside. Ok if you’re interested in Quakerism, quilting and Ohio but if you were expecting a book about runaway slaves you’re going to have to wait until page 170 before anything of any consequence happens in that regard. After that the pace picks up a little but there’s still loads more Quakerism, quilting and countryside to come.
There’s a distinct lack of tension throughout the narrative. There are two opportunities to rectify this. First, Honor finds herself both attracted to and repulsed by Donovan, the seemingly cruel and ruthless bounty hunter. We wonder whether she will succumb to his dubious charm. Second, her Quaker beliefs threaten to bring her into conflict in that the community she’s joined opposes slavery in principle but does she have the personal courage to defy what is the law? In the end (no spoiler here) it seems she does neither and the ending comes across as fudged. There are also a couple of plot points I took issue with – in particular when Jack ‘just happened’ to be walking down the road at precisely the point he was wanted at the end of the book. Some of Honor’s actions were not always credible either eg. walking away after the birth of her child.
Thank goodness the book has a couple of redeeming features to commend it. Belle Mills is a really strong character and I wanted more of her and more like her. And some of the dialogue is of real interest, particularly that placed in the mouth of Mrs Reed. Beyond that, one hoped that the prose might rise above the plodding plot but although worthy, it too is for the most part flat and uninspiring. There’s an occasional flash of something poetic but one generally has to search for it.
As to the pretence of a dramatic ending, it seems that the last runaway doesn’t run away at all …