Thursday, December 22, 2011

SPL Shelf Life [adult]

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

For my money, 2011 has been the year of the debut novel. Without so intending, I've reviewed more than a few of them in this space, from Matthew Norman's smutty, snarky Domestic Violets, to paranormal romance sensation Deborah Harkness' A Discovery of Witches, to the vintage appeal and gentle romance of Erin McKean's The Secret Lives of Dresses, just to name a couple. I'm not sure why I've been drawn to so many of them this year; maybe it's that the authors pour so much of themselves into these novels? Whatever it is, thank goodness publishing houses have discovered them too, and decided to put the time and resources into marketing these newcomers.

Perhaps the best-written debut novel I read this year is Vancouver author Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists. A compact saga detailing the rise and slow decay of an English-language newspaper based in Rome, it packs a lot of humanity in under 300 pages.

The novel is broken into two parallel narratives. One narrative focuses a chapter at a time on the lives of the various staff working at the paper. This is where Rachman's prose really shines – each chapter is really a character study of the personal and work life of the chapter's subject. Incredible empathy is brought to each character, even those who don't come off at all well in earlier chapters belonging to other characters. All these chapters are set at the end of George W Bush's war in Iraq, as the paper struggles to make ends meet in a fraught economic environment, battling it out in print-only format as the general news media's physical presence slowly fades to bits and evanescent silver LCD screens. Rachman slips seamlessly into the worldview of each subject, letting the personality colour his prose with humour, kindness, exhaustion, or whatever other dominant trait tints each particular worldview.

Between each of the character study chapters are brief narrative chapters detailing major events in the history of the paper. These give context to the character studies, and help build anticipation as the reader moves toward the conclusion of the book – will the paper's staunch anti-electronic stance gain it a certain cachet in the market? Will staff be able to amp up their investigative skills and their feature writing to gain enough new readers? Can the paper possibly survive the strife in its Board?

With a spare, empathic beauty to its writing, The Imperfectionists is a masterpiece of a debut novel. It's earned a place solidly within my list of top 5 reads for the year, and is well worth a glance for readers who value spare, lyrical prose in character-driven literary fiction.

This review appeared in The Stratford Gazette on December 22nd. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

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