Friday, March 29, 2013

Book Review: The Positively Last Performance (2013) by Geraldine McCaughrean

If the writing game was anything like kung fu films, Geraldine McCraughrean would be the serene, peaceful-looking elder with long white hair who mops the floor with legions of cocky writers who think that no one who uses YA-style kung fu could possibly defeat their literary fiction-style kung fu. McCaughrean, as I've said in every review I've done of her other novels, is a masterful writer; it would be very hard to think of a contemporary writer from any genre who has her skill with metaphors and similes. Reading one of her novels is a reminder that there are always new ways to describe the world and human emotions.

Having said all these wonderful things I have to admit that this novel is a tiny bit of a letdown. McCaughrean's writing is up to par, but there's a sentimental streak that's been absent from her other books. The novel's main character is Gracie, an eleven-year-old girl who come to the English coastal town of Seashaw with her parents, who want to take over the shuttered and decaying Royal theatre. The old theatre is in terrible shape and comes complete with a motley collection of ghosts that only Gracie can see. The ghosts come from all walks of life and from different eras, and seem to have ended up in the theatre the way floating debris is caught in an eddy. The ghosts are shocked that Gracie can see them, and thanks to her prodding they reveal something of their lives and how they died. The ghosts also have to deal with a plot by a property developer to burn the theatre down.

As is usually the case with McCaughrean's novels the character-building and descriptive writing are top-notch. She has a Dickens-like ability to churn out sharply-defined, cliche-free characters, and her eye for the telling detail is unmatched. She even adds an interesting wrinkle to the ghost genre with her explanation of why the spirits of the dead linger on. All that's to the good, but unlike her previous novels there's a tweeness and softness around the edges here that's a bit unfortunate. McCaughrean is light years away from being hard-boiled in any way, but her writing normally has a bit of an edge, enough to throw the profound humanity of her writing into greater relief. With one exception all the characters are lovely people with lovely life (and death) stories to tell, and that sameness is a bit disappointing. And the threat posed to the theatre, which is the backbone of the story, is a tired plot device and McCaughrean doesn't find any way to freshen it up.

Even though this novel isn't up to McCaughrean's usual standards, it's still head and shoulders above what other people are doing in the field, and if you've never read one of her books, read this one and bask in the knowledge that you've discovered one of contemporary fiction's great prose stylists, and then rush out and get your hands on The Death Defying Pepper Roux or Not the End of the World or Lovesong. Satisfaction guaranteed.

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