Thursday, 3 April 2008

Vellum, Hal Duncan

This is a difficult book to review.

First of all, there isn't a clear straight line narrative in this book. The plot and pace are sparse yet convoluted due to the lack of the linear progression. It's not an easy book to read. In many portions, it reads like an extended version of an epic poem with many remixes. This is clearly due to the fact that, as Hal Duncan admits in his Acknowledgements section, "large portions of this novel involve adaptations of various ancient myths, poems and plays." And Vellum is repetitious, mainly because Hal Duncan is out to prove a point, that I will mention in the next paragraph.

Secondly, I'm not going to lie and say that I understand Vellum. I'm guessing someone with larger and deeper knowledge of ancient mythology might do better than I did with this book. Hal Duncan seems adament about proving, through his novel, the theory of archetypes in myths that recurr in different cultures in different times. Almost all the subtexts, premises and underlying connections between the central characters in his book are based on knowledge of these myths. This also leads to the repetition of passages, used as a stylistic means for expressing the idea of cycles.

The tone, pacing and prose in this book is also very uneven. I was bored to death in certain portions and gave in to my frustration by skimming through several long passages and some pages. But in other portions, Hal Duncan's prose is lyrical, the imagery lush and raw. I experienced quite a literary rush reading those parts. And in 2 to 3 instances, where there was actually some plot driving the story forward, it became quite exciting to see ideas and events unfold.

My personal view is that if Hal Duncan wanted to dabble with or make an argument about theories, I think he might have done better to write an essay. There are some interesting ideas that he presents in this novel that I wish he expanded on, eg. the Vellum, the war between the forces of good and evil angels, etc. but he only keeps harping on the idea of beings trapped in cycles of action / fate / destiny. It's sad to see promising portions drowned in Hal Duncan's obsession with this idea.

I'm having second thoughts about reading his follow-up novel Ink, because to be honest, I'm not done with Vellum but I'm already thinking of giving up, at page 369 out of 499. But since I'm already amost done, I'm going to spend a couple more days with Vellum and see how it goes, then will read Ink and see how I feel about it.

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