Tuesday, 4 October 2011

A year in books 2011 - The Great Perhaps

The Great Perhaps – Joe Meno

Another American big family saga,The Great Perhaps is a kind of The Corrections light. This time we follow the Caspers. Dad is obsessed with the chase for a living giant squid that by the time he notices his family is falling apart he is lost as to what to do about it. Mother Madeline despairs about her husband whilst feeling bemused by the sexual attention of a work colleague. Amelia the eldest daughter is plotting revolution via the school newspaper and her school project (an anti superbrands film has been replaced by building a home made bomb) whilst younger sister Thisbe is discovering her sexuality but really just wants to be able to sing lead in the school concerts. Finally grandfather is plotting a final escape from his nursing home whilst daily reducing the words he says until he has faded to nothing.

What makes the book different from the other family sagas is that we see the world through the eyes of each character rotated through the chapters. For most of the time this works really well , It falls down a bit with the grandfather’s chapters as these look back over his life as a German immigrant both in the family tailoring business and later in an internment camp and the break down of the relationship with is own father. It is not that these aren't well written it is more that they just seem to come from a completely different book entirely. It is because the voices of the other 4 family members fit so well that the excursions into the past jar so much.

At times there is a sense of a quirkiness that feels a bit contrived , such as the fact the father suffers from a condition that means he falls into a fit and passes out whenever he sees a cloud . This is okay in itself but when Madeline starts seeing a cloud man I started to think wait a minute. There is plenty of deep thought and angst from all of the characters mixed with a gentle humour and an appreciation of the absurd. I did care what happened to each of the characters but finished with a sense of disappointment. I like the American big family novels because the best ones marry the slightly absurd that you’d find in all families with, humour and sadness as well as a way of finding bigger truths in the small scale trials and tribulations. The Great Perhaps does a bit of all of this but doesn't really excel at any of them

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