If knowing some details of a book’s plot before you read it ruins it for you, it’s probably not that good a book.
It’s an indication that the book is over-reliant on plot, and niceties such as characterisation, quality of writing and a unique view of the world are not there.
In the world of reviews, they are called spoilers.
But there’s always an exception to the rule and Sydney Bridge Upside Down is it.
And a mighty exception as well. It’s one of the best books I have read in years and that’s from someone who is extremely hard to please and finds fault even in things I love.
Telling you in advance what Sydney Bridge Upside Down is actually about could and would take much away.
Even saying that much is a spoiler of sorts. In this book the storyline and characters are one thing, but what it is actually about is another thing altogether.
Never was plot so far away from theme, and that’s what makes it brilliant.
At first, and indeed for a fair part of the book, it appears to be a relatively conventional story about a boy and what he did in the long summer holidays with his family and friends. They didn’t do much. They played.
It seemed so conventional I started to wonder if it was worth carrying on. But there are all these little things, a paragraph here and there, sometimes just a word, that makes you think there is more to this than meets the eye. I went back and read them again, because they almost passed me by.
As the book goes on, these little things become slightly bigger, and it’s only at the end you realise it is not a story about what a boy did in his summer holidays at all.
If that tests your patience, good.
We live in a world where art has to pay off immediately. No one has any patience any more. Go to a film and if there’s isn’t a murder in the first minute, you’ll be the only one in the cinema.
Readers are not prepared to put any effort into reading. If you can’t say it in 180 characters, it’s not worth saying. God knows what today’s editors, producers and publishers would make of Proust, with its opening 150 pages of how he kissed his mother goodnight.
A few years ago a woman visited my house and looked at my bookshelves. Not an idiot, by any means, as she was desperately keen to demonstrate at every moment. She took one glance at the classic and esoteric novels I had carefully lined up at eye-level, the way a supermarket does with the most expensive breakfast cereal, and said: ‘No one reads this sort of stuff any more. Not unless they have to for school or university. You haven’t actually read all these, have you?’
I didn’t like the woman much. At all, if I’m honest. I didn’t even want her there at all. Luckily, I was able to tell her that not only had I read each and every one of them, some of them – ooh, what shall I mention, War and Peace? – twice.
That shut her up, although not for long. She moved on to something else to annoy me, but at least she never mentioned books again.
But reading something that doesn’t pay off straight away is worth it. The more effort you put in as a reader, the more you get out.
Not that Sydney Bridge is a difficult read. Far from it. If anything the fact that it is so easy to read makes you suspicious.
The other great thing about it is that it is a forgotten book. David Ballantyne didn’t win any literary prizes, thank God. He was an alcoholic and died relatively young and obscure, and you don’t get a better recommendation for a writer than that. I recently read Manhattan Beach by that Pulitzer Prize winner, Jennifer Egan. Manhattan Beach itself has done even better by being awarded a medal. Not the Victoria Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honour but the equally prestigious Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, whatever that may be.
I’m being facetious, but I don’t have anything against Jennifer Egan. A Visit from the Goon Squad is not at all bad.
But Sydney Bridge Upside Down is in a different class altogether, and should be the one winning the prizes.
Am I right, or am I talking rubbish?