The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French

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The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Worth reading if you’re into magical realism, otherwise this portrait of grief just gets too confusing.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 218 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Cauliay Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0956881014

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I like to read the blurb after I've read the book. Too often it gives away things you need not to know in order to enjoy the book properly. In this case, you can freely read the blurb – it tells you nothing at all.

One reviewer quoted (and my apologies for not knowing the author concerned) quotes the book as being "One of the most extraordinary novels I have ever read". I can't argue with that. I'm just not sure that it's a totally unadulterated compliment in my case.

The word that really sums the work up is "strange".

Isaac is married to Rebekah. They have sons, Esau and Jacob, naturally. There is a half-brother Ishmael and a back-story of marital betrayal and the out-casting of sons.

Rebekah and Isaac are very much in love. He celebrates a birthday with his family, and champagne and candles on the cake. When the children have gone to bed, he and Rebekah wander out to the woods at the bottom of their garden and lie beneath the trees and jest about their early dates and the games they played and the stories they told.

Then (or maybe now) Isaac is alone: his wife and children gone; reminders of Ishmael so painful that there is only one thing to do with them.

Then (or maybe now or maybe on a plane where then and now have no meaning) we are in the world of Jidlaph and Laban and Abimelech who lurk below Isaac's subconscious where a prison exists to hold the memories that cannot be set free, and creatures exist whose mission is to set them free.

There's a hospital and a child hanging to life by a thread and a man doing likewise to his sanity.

Gabriel puts in an appearance as do the entire cast of Punch and Judy.

At the heart of the story is a man wracked by love, and grief, and loss, and guilt. That heart is deeply buried in surrealism or magical realism or whatever the technical term is these days. For many that will be the whole point of the novel. For me it is its undoing.

I quickly warmed to Isaac and the sections where we returned to him in what passes for the real world I continued to empathise and to be moved by his plight. Sadly, those passages are overwhelmed by the other aspects of the telling.

There's no doubt that French can write. He captures characters with swift strokes and few words, he ignores place in favour of perception and when he chooses he can deploy the most lyrical and picturesque turns of phrase. Why then, I have to ask, does he choose to obscure this by wandering off into a metaphysical surrealist nightmare that makes as much sense as any of our disrupted disjointed dreams?

Many of the 'otherworld' sections I found simply unintelligible. Others were more-or-less plot relevant, but still I stumbled through them, slightly irritated, and hoping we could quickly get back to find out what was really going on. The fact that he chooses to use technical expressions as names for imagined functions doesn't actually help. It might mean the novel makes more sense to a psychiatrist or a brain surgeon – it just made me conscious I was missing something that I wasn't really motivated to look up (until now). It is a valid concept and worth doing as an intellectual exercise, but to work within a novel, you have to use analogies that people can recognise. Whenever a writer does this (s)he makes assumptions about the reader. It's clear French thinks most readers know more about the various areas of the brain and what they do, than I do.

I reached the end dispirited and confused. I've still no idea who Matilda Mother is, was or might have been, or why the supermarket is relevant. If, indeed, it is.

the ascent of isaac steward is (as the aforementioned reviewer noted) startlingly odd, boldly conceived but the execution left me, at best, bemused. I don't know if I've read a moralistic treatise, or if the Biblical references are sheer red herrings. I'm not sure if French has tried to capture the essence of thought and dream and simply muddied the waters by using biblical, historical and scientific reference points, that are meaningless to the average reader – or whether those references are highly pertinent and the book is not aimed at the average reader.

Make of it what you will. I was intrigued enough to continue reading, but ultimately disappointed.

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