Friday, 23 December 2011

Book #96 In The Shadow Of The Cypress by Thomas Steinbeck

In The Shadow Of The Cypress 

Written by Thomas "son of John" Steinbeck, In The Shadow Of The Cypress is perhaps existing proof that the ability to write is non-hereditary. It is a peculiarly vexing novel and proved a struggle for me from the very outset. The first character we are introduced to is academic Charles Gilbert who is working at a Stanford associated laboratory. He has an Irish friend, Billy O'Flynn who has very close associations to the local Chinese fishing community, and one night he discovers two artifacts under a cypress tree that appear to be of some significance. He shows Gilbert, who tries but does not get very far in his attempts to investigate matters. Gilbert contacts a Chinese academic named Lao Hong whose attempts at interacting with the local Chinese elders also seem rather fruitless.

Both these sections belonging to Gilbert and Hong were for me often incomprehensible, impenetrable and more importantly boring, yet there are interesting shades of post colonial "Orientalism" as defined by Edward Said in his 1978 book throughout the novel, but particularly in its earlier sections. On the UK Amazon, there is but one customer review giving this novel five stars but, look at its companion page on the US site and there is a flurry of one and two star reviews, saying they hated the book found it impossible to read and that many of them gave up early on.

I too found the early sections very difficult, and perhaps if not for the challenge would have given up but, the novel switches at the mid way point and moves its narratives to the present day.  Prodigious Stanford academic Luke rediscovers Gilbert's old papers regarding the Chinese artifacts and their significance in terms of historical import, teaming up with Chinese colleague Robert Wu he endeavours to uncover an ancient mystery. It is this latter section which makes the events of the former make sense, but, it's whether you have the patience to sit through page after page of confusing, dull, narrative to get to this point, my guess is many won't.

I actually enjoyed the Luke/Wu partnership, the developments and the sense of majesty in the behaviour of Mr Wu Snr. However as their research ends, Steinbeck Jnr gives us a summation of Wu and Luke's lives post their dramatic discovery, what they went on to do, who they married etc. It's very sudden, horribly done and feels terribly amateur like a school kid concluding their first short story. It has a rather nice epilogue, however.

In conclusion this is half a good book and an interesting theory apparently first espoused by Steinbeck Snr, but I would question whether the payoff in the second half was worth what felt like an unending trudge through the first.


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