Saturday, January 16, 2010

Readings — Beauty

by Sheri S. Tepper

I’m of two minds about this book. Briefly, it’s the story of a fairy-tale princess who avoids the fate of Sleeping Beauty, and embarks on an adventure that takes her to the present day, the future, elfland, and realms beyond. There’s a remarkable level of invention in the book, and a lot of story, which unfolds smoothly through mostly above-average prose. So that’s all good.

The main character, though, is uninvolving. She’s not particularly intelligent (and is aware of it), and not particularly gifted in any way other than her eponymous beauty. Unfortunately, she’s also the narrator of the book. As a result, much of the elegance of the story and prose is undercut by the flatness of the main character, and her flat perception of the world around her.

The book is often engaging, but wildly uneven. When Beauty (for that is indeed her name) finds her way to a future dystopia, there are no redeeming features to it whatsoever, to the point where the credibility of the society in question is strained (particularly, the fact that society’s in that state and they use time travel for relatively trivial ends). On the other hand, structurally the book's intriguing in the way that Beauty’s tale ends up encompassing other well-known fairy tales, and in the way certain other characters get to provide commentary on Beauty’s own text.

It’s certainly an interesting book, and worth reading. That said, I admit I came away from it frustrated by Tepper’s handling of political issues; in points where I disagreed with her (when she comes out in favour of censorship, most notably) I felt her treatment of the ideas involved was shallow, and in fact this sense was notably present even in the areas where I did agree with her. There’s a sneaking suspicion at that point that Beauty’s own simplistic view of the world is actually meant to be taken at face value, and that suspicion becomes more pronounced the further into the novel we get (there’s a very good review here that makes much the same point). Ironically, Tepper’s paeans to the need to suppress imaginative work she finds personally offensive is itself one of the uglier things in the novel; the book, which aims to be about the gradual thinning of beauty in the world, can’t help but suffer as a result.

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