The Rowing Lesson by Anne Landsman

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The Rowing Lesson by Anne Landsman

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An awkward style manages to hamper this book and disguise its more interesting elements – like those of a medical student in WW2 apartheid South Africa. While some sections are very good the whole cannot really be recommended to the casual browser.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Granta Books
ISBN: 978-1862079892

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When the second person narrative is used – you this, you that – you have to be told quite quickly who is telling whom, and why. In this instance it would be a woman, Betsy, who is surrounded by her mother and brother and more, at the hospital bed of a dying man, her father. He has been a doctor at that same institution for over forty years, but is now suffering with hardly any chance of recovery.

However that is not initially clear at all, especially when the first chapter is set way before that, with no clear sign of being a flash-back. Betsy claims to be smaller than a pin, a memory of yesterday – and therefore unseen, however the father she is narrating to – Harold – is nowhere near his mid-teens. He is instead a slight scrap of a boy, proud of his rowing ability to take some friends and bother's friends upriver for a swim, but more likely just used as a jokey mule by the older males.

The expedition ends in a guilty sort of trauma for the young Harold, but this and other youthful experiences settle him on a medical career – mostly, it seems, due to his fascination with the great unseen and unknown that is the female breast. Still, medical training, even as quease-inducing as that described here, is duly passed through – even though Harold would much rather be allowed to partake in WW2 many miles north.

This is the kind of book that leaves me feeling generous when reviewing – without giving anything away, I am saying what the book disguises, keeps eluded, almost secret. It takes time to work out that the daughter Harold starts the book nowhere near having is the narrator – he has no chance of finding a wife until well into the second half. It is not the easiest thing to pin down the narrative time zones – the modern scenes at the death-bedside must be in our recent past, with the rest in the 30s and 40s.

And you can read the entire thing without realising, believing or otherwise crediting the cover blurb that the entire work is in the imagination of Betsy, offering supposition. It is clear there is never an opportunity for her to physically say everything contained herein to her father – and there is never the thought to talk to him to wake him up as the family wait for a natural death. But the core of the book as a ghost-written biography based part on family rumour, part on the daughter's literary imagination, is nowhere near clear enough.

Elsewhere there is a lot I cannot help you with – the style, with no speech marks at all, for instance, not being the most penetrable. I am sure there were moments where I assigned the speech to the wrong character – whether the narration, the narrator's reported speech or someone else. The way the story glides from past to present – truth and fantasy – is another small hurdle to be breached.

There are several scenes I did like, I have to admit, although they certainly took their time coming – perhaps I was expending more energy on getting used to the style than I realised. The medical school scenes were very vivid – perhaps too much so, as I intimated. The daughter certainly does get into the head of the father when telling him all he thought about his first and lost loves – the girl that got away when (I daren't tell you) falls from her handbag. The flipside of that is that the jury is still out about her own memories – the scene where she sees her father turn into a giant might be a little too sappy and novelistic.

The book is quite successful at telling of wartime hospitals in segregated South Africa – one character says something about the coloured patients being used for practise once the cadavers for dissection have served their purpose. The tale of this underfed-looking boy turned medical man would I am sure have been distinctive enough without the added arty layers of the daughter's retelling. The prose, the wispy transformations in narrative, the paddling in Afrikaans and references to coelacanths, the very wrongness of a daughter telling her father in great intimate detail about when he lost his virginity to a prostitute upon first arriving at med school – all squash a regular and enjoyable narrative into something too hard to engage with.

There is a good book struggling to get out through the layers here one I might have recommended; as it is I do not think I would rush to encourage the reading of this novel – for me it remained too elliptical, non-lucid and unnecessarily beyond the straightforward.

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