Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Book Review: "Lemprière's Dictionary"

Lawrence Norfolk's first novel, Lemprière's Dictionary (1992) caught my eye on the paperback stacks at the shop a few weeks ago, and since my fiction "to read" pile was fairly short at that point, it soon found its way to the top of the heap. It took me a while to get through; at a dense 530 pages this is not a book that lends itself well to T-rides. When I got close to the end I felt the need to devote an evening's reading to finishing it so I didn't lose any of the twists and turns.

This is in some ways a bizarre novel, filled with anachronistic technologies, quickly shifting perspectives and enough allusions to classical mythology to bridge the River Styx (it had to be done). Its sprawl reminded me slightly of Palliser's The Quincunx, but there were also elements of Ian Pears, Umberto Eco, and even Charles Dickens at play here. Norfolk's writing is excellent at times and plodgy at others (that's plodding + stodgy), and most of his characters (even the human ones) offer little emotional connection. I finished the book without any sense of triumph or loss for any character at all.

Norfolk's got a few other books floating around since this one, and I suspect I'll eventually give another one of them a whirl. I didn't dislike this one (the suspense and plot-twists alone would have kept me reading), but I can't help but think it could have been better.