Tuesday, April 03, 2007


10-pages-in book review: The Calligrapher

I haven't been writing a lot of 10-pages-in book reviews lately simply because I haven't been reading any books worth talking about. In fact, it's been about a month now that in my prime book-reading time (on the bus going home) I've been reading magazines. Or just staring out the window. It's been a horrible drought.

Thank goodness, the drought has been quenched (that seems a little hyberbolic, but I've written myself into a corner barely five sentences in - that can't be good) with this latest book. I received it as a gift from the commenter otherwise known as Trixie, who really needs her own blog. (And again, I'm off track. FOCUS, woman.)

Ahem. So, this book - it's amazing. It's delicious. I can't remember the last time I savoured a book like this - the story, the language, the turns of phrase. It's exquisite and delightful, intelligent and wryly funny. It's called The Calligrapher, and it's a first novel by a British chap named Edward Docx.

The Calligrapher is the story of 29 year old Jasper Jackson of London, told in cheeky and clever first-person narrative. He's a raffish sort of fellow, a sophisticated and self-aware womanizer and serial heartbreaker; a younger, hipper Hugh Grant sort of character. He's a scamp and a scalliwag, just the sort of fellow whom I would find absolutely irresistible in real life - and as a literary creation.

He describes, for example, his preparations for the perfect aprés-amour breakfast when his latest conquest requests strawberries :

Even here, there is danger. The talented amateur, for example, will stride merrily out to the shops on the eve of the assignation and buy everything his forthright imagination can conceive of - muesli, muffins, marmalade, a range of mushrooms, perhaps even some maple syrup. Thus laden, he will return to stuff his shelves, fill his fridge and generally clutter his kitchen with produce. But this will not do. Not only will his unwieldy efforts be noticed by even the most blasé of guests - as he offers first one menu, then another - but, worse, the elegance and effect of seeming to have exactly what she wants is utterly lost, drowned out in a deluge of petits déjeuners.

No, the professional must take a very different approach. He will, of course, have all the same victuals as the amateur, but - and here's the rub - he will have hidden them. All eventualities will have been provided for, and yet it will appear as though he has made provisions for none. Except - magically - the right one.

Anyway, thank fuck I got the strawberries.

Jasper is also a formally trained calligrapher, and he is working on his largest commission to date, transcribing 30 songs and sonnets by the poet John Donne for an American buyer. Each chapter opens with a few lines of the Donne poem Jasper is currently transcribing, which happens to reflect the changing state of Jasper's life.

I must admit to an ignomious lack of awareness about poetry. Poetry is one of those things that I've tried valiantly to 'get', mostly unsuccessfully. About all I know of Donne is that he was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and that he wrote both holy sonnets and erotic love sonnets. In this book, I adore how the narrator uses the little bits of verse to explore how he feels, and also gives a little Poetry 101 lesson by walking the reader through Donne's verse. Donne's poetry is so cleanly woven into the fabric of the story and such a perfect foil for the unfolding storyline that I'm curious as to how the author constructed the novel. Did the author choose the sonnets and then build the story around them?

At just shy of 100 pages into the book, I've just come to a critical point in the story. Jasper, recently caught in flagrante delicto with another woman and turfed by his girlfriend, has become mesmerized by a mysterious woman who appears in the garden courtyard outside his home studio. In his own words, he falls apart as he tries to discern who this perfect beauty is and whether she is available.

I've long been a fan of 'lad lit', and this book seems a particularly worthy example of that genre. In one of the reviews of The Calligrapher I read, I think it was in the NYT, called author Edward Docx the little brother of Nick Horby. I can see that. Docx writes with the same delicious dry wit, but with an extra attention to language and turn of phrase that makes me positively salivate. I also enjoy how each phrase drips with what I can only describe as inherent Britishness - you can't read this prose without hearing the clipped wry British voice in it.

While I'm curious as to the outcome of the story, far from racing to the conclusion I'm content to savour each page as I read it. True, like a lot of first-time novels this one seems to succumb to its own bravado at times. Like Jasper, the book is perhaps a little too aware of its own cleverness on occasion, and the language comes dangerously close to excessive embellishment. But these are minor quibbles, and the literary excesses are actually a large part of this book's charm.

A book is a lovely gift at the best of times, but giving fiction - especially fiction you haven't yet read yourself, as Trixie admitted she hadn't - can be tricky. There are simply so many bad books out there, and so many more that are simply mediocre, that it takes an extraordinary amount of luck to have one so exquisitely enjoyable as this one simply be gifted upon you.

A bad boy who has a way with words. I never stood a chance.

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