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A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony

 A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony

Yesterday I looked at Sarah Waters The Night Watch, in which a reverse chronology storytelling approach is used as a device to mirror the confusion and disconnectedness felt by the characters. By beginning the story with its end, it seems that the intention is to create a sense of un-anticipation, of pointlessness, of inappropriate awareness of these strangers to whom were just being introduced.

Its certainly not unheard of for authors to ask the structure of their novels to multitask. After all, the way in which a story is written is often just as important as the story itself. But toying with structure isnt an easy task. Sometimes when something is so very complicated and intricate its difficult to know where to look, and its impossible to find a pattern or rhythm or meaning to it all until you step back a bit. When you do this, key motifs and designs make themselves apparent. But when youre pressed in up close, you dont have that context: all you see is chaos and disorder.

In The Ruins of Lace Katharina, a gifted lace-maker who spends her days in what are virtually sweatshop conditions, knows this all too well. Her long days of close work mean that, like the other girls around her, her eyesight is failing. Though her entire life is about lace, she works so closely with it that her knowledge of her work is utterly decontextualised. But as Katharina scarcely knows what shes creating beyond the numbers of knots and stitches it involves, neither does she have any understanding of life beyond the walls of the convent where she works.

Just as Katharina only sees an isolated fragment of her world, so does the reader when working through this book. Told from seven different points of view, all of them first personincluding one from the point of view of a dogThe Ruins of Lace is itself a piece of lacework viewed up close from various aspects of its pattern, and as a result its a blurry and disorienting read. Although these different points of view are linked together through their interactions with lace they never come together adequately, and the end result is unsatisfying.

We loop through the various points of view so quickly that we scarcely settle into one characters situation when we switch again, and with everything being told in first person, regular trips back to the beginning of each chapter so that we can recall whos who are an irritating necessity. This is only compounded by the fact that theres no one person whose story this is. Really, its the story of lace itself. Although its fascinating to see how such an innocent and frivolous thing can cause so much pain and ruin, theres something disappointing about reading a novel thats more about an object than it is a person.

While the stories teased out within the larger structure are of course human, theres no real protagonist. Because of this theres no real sense of an individual journey we want to trace, and its hard to feel truly engaged with the book. This is particularly true towards the end of the book, where were quite forcibly reminded that this is the story of lace, and not the story of a particular character. For example, though we open with Katharinas point of view, we dont end with it, and though I understand the suggestion that Katharina is both invisible and expendable in the wider world of lace, theres something jarring about this. Its as though our lacemaker has lost their place in their pattern. There seems almost to be an awareness of this from the author to some degree given that the book is bookended with discussions about lace as an object and the historical importance of lacethe characters are secondary.

The choice of the multiplicity of first person points of views, although evoking the same-ness of a piece of lace, is questionable as well. A ubiquity of I characters so often results in a novel where the characters end up involved in a sort of book equivalent of a shouting match, and the result is a dull roar where no one stands out from the rest. And, personally, I find myself very grudgingly going along with multiple first person narratorsI feel as though Im being clad, against my will, in all sorts of costume changes and personas.

The Ruins of Lace has an intriguing subject, and the historical context is certainly fascinating. However, the characters utter preoccupation with lace is mirrored in the books lace-like structure, and I couldnt help but feel that the attempt to draw parallels between subject matter and structure undermined the actual story being told.

 Rating: star A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthonystar A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthonyhalfstar A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthonyblankstar A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthonyblankstar A multiplicity of points of view and The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony (not bad)

With thanks to Sourcebooks (via Netgalley) for the review copy

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  1. I too often grudgingly read multiple first person narratives. I think they can be used effectively, but often are over used and create dissonance removing the reader from the story with a lack of harmony among the characters. Which is too bad, because the concept of a book about lace sounds interesting.
    Jami Zehr recently posted..Gray Hair, Causation, and Barbie in a Bottle

    • Stephanie /

      I pounced on this one because it was such an intriguing topic (whoever knew that lace had been outlawed?). But seven first person narrators was just too much, and the voices weret really different enough from each other, meaning it would take me a few pages each time to settle into a POV. A shame, because its a fascinating idea for a book, and Im quite taken by the idea of something so beautiful and frivolous causing so much damage.

  2. I have this book as well, but havent read it yet. I thought it would be outstanding because of the lace idea.

    THANKS for an EXCELLENT review.

    Your blog is outstanding. I am a new e-mail subscriber.

    Silvers Reviews
    Elizabeth recently posted..The Literary Blog Hop

  3. I tend to like a character-centered story more than an idea-focused one myself. So, I dont really think this one is for me. Ill have to pick up The Night Watch though. Ive been trying to figure out just how well done a reverse chronology can be.
    Cassie B. recently posted..Adults Reading YA Fiction — What It’s Not

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Cassie! Yes, I found myself wanting to connect with the character in the book, but not really having the opportunity to do so. It was a shame, because I tend to be a character reader first and foremost. The Night Watchs structure was flawed, too, I thought, but the characters in it are beautifully drawn.

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