September 21st, 2012
I liked Sarah Dearing‘s short novel The Bull Is Not Killed far more than I expected to. The cover blurbage makes it seem exclusively like a caught-between-two-cultures love story of the sort we have all read a million times. But *The Bull…* is far richer and more complex than that. It takes place in a small fishing village in Portugal, and Dearing clearly has a good grip on that country’s history, its economy, its social rituals and most importantly its landscape: the descriptions of beaches, breezes, squares, and bars all ring with accuracy and intimacy.
I also really liked the characters. Yes, the young lovers–a 25-year-old Portuguese virgin named Luis and a 15-year-old Romany princess named Luisa–go through a lot of “I love you so much much much” nonsense, but in themselves they are both fully realized, complex characters. And though it sounds like a big squick, the age difference didn’t bother me much, probably because Luisa is so clearly wise beyond her years and Luis, wise behind them.
There are lots of other well drawn characters in the novel–Luisa’s abhorrent mother, the fascist police chief, various lawyers and self-seeking peasants, but the most interesting is Montiego, the kind-hearted cop. His right-heartedness and wry temper are a pleasure to read about–and when he is a key instigator at the start of the revolution, it is both thrilling and moral.
At least, I think it was moral–because the revolution wasn’t really ever clear to me, in reasoning nor execution. As I said before, I don’t doubt that Dearing has done the research and understands the social and economic conditions that set the revolutionary flames. It was just that I didn’t really get a sense of what these characters *in particular* were so angry about. Yes, the police chief is a big jerk, folks are unemployed, there’s an overseas war going on that I didn’t fully understand–and neither did the characters, it sometimes seemed to me. These are the reasons for the entire nation to take to the streets?
In many respects, my opinion of *The Bull* is suffering from my having read it very shortly after The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. That novel concerns a swirl of personal stories–like Dearing’s book, *Oscar* is told from various points of view–set against another oppressive and troubling polical regime, this time Rafael Trujillo’s brutal dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in the 1940s and 50s, and the far-reaching effects of his rule on that country for many years afterwards.
As I say, that’s not a fair comparison–*The Bull…* is a short, tight, solid little novel–*Oscar* is a huge sprawling masterpiece. But I do think it’s fair that I was disappointed in the second half of *The Bull…*–most of the “minor” characters disappear, including Montiego, whom I didn’t think of as minor at all. Some who remain are reduced to jokes, like Margaret Brown, the admittedly rather stupid Englishwoman who had nevertheless been depicted with some sympathy–until she wasn’t anymore.
So we end up with the young lovers on the run, which is sort of cliche and sort of moving, but I don’t think really the point of the novel. There were a number of points in the book where characters sat down to tell a personal or historical anecdote, but wound up with something that sounded very much like a fable or myth. These were my favourite parts of the book, both for their simple beauty and for the comment they seemed to make on book-writing as a construct. At one point, challenged on the veracity of her “history,” Luisa insists that it must be true because it makes her happy, and is therefore what she prefers to believe.
To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how that ties into the larger story but I *feel* that it does, and that somehow made the book satisfying for me, though the ending was lacking. I should read this book again one of these days–and it’s short enough and good enough that I might actually do so!
This is my 9th/September book for the To Be Read challenge. I thought there should be three more to go (12 books on the list, 12 months in the year, 9 months achieved/read) but then I realized that way back in January when I made the list I included two #4s. So there’s an extra book on the list! I might well get around to reading them all, but if I don’t, which ones are the most urgent? Feel free to vote in the comments:
4. *The Story of English* by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil
7. *The Beauty Myth* by Naomi Wolf
10. *Mouthing the Words* by Camilla Gibb
12. *On the Road* by Jack Kerouac