Thursday, 11 July 2013

Let It Be (Chad Gayle)

--The blurb--
"Newly-separated Michelle Jansen longs to create a new life for herself and her children, Joseph and Pam. Crossing the state of Texas, Michelle puts down roots in Amarillo, where she winds up in a low-paying job that comes with a fringe benefit—a burgeoning relationship with a co-worker who wants to love her the way she needs to be loved. Making a fresh start isn’t easy, however. Michelle’s ex-husband is willing to destroy her new life if he can’t have her for himself, and although she finds solace in her new romance and her favorite music, the music of the Beatles, Michelle is hurt in an unexpected, almost unimaginable way when she is betrayed by her very own son. When passion and rage collide, one man will nearly lose his life, another will lose his freedom, and a family will be split in two. Can they find healing and forgiveness in the midst of so much sorrow and guilt? Or will love give them the strength to let it be?"

--The review--
Books based on the oeuvre of popular and cherished artistes stray into risky territory, frequently being overly reverential or failing to do justice to the work the author clearly admires. Let It Be, as betrayed by its title, has the songs of The Beatles as its basis. However, its writer, Chad Gayle, does not succeed in allowing the music to swell through its pages, thanks to a combination of distance, obscurity, and inconsistency.

At times the links back to the book's title are too obvious and superficial. At other times they are barely there at all; having the chapter titles named after Beatles tracks is insufficient when there is no discernible thread of this laced through the plot itself. Equally, it's possible that the Beatles' lyrics could be so deeply woven into Let It Be's prose that only the most diehard fans could pick up on heavily encoded references, meaning that the book possibly presupposes knowledge. This is not a book for those who know little about The Beatles - Gayle's references to songs are ostensibly flat and rushed - and even hardcore fans might be disappointed by the lack of musicality emanating from the pages.

There are other problems too. The constant switching between different characters' viewpoints is initially disorienting and there are significant difficulties with the characterisation of child protagonist Joseph and his twelve-year-old neighbour Jud. (Curiously, despite showing the viewpoint of every other character, Gayle does not even try to show the perspective of Joseph's thirteen-year-old sister Pam.) Joseph is a conglomerate of a four-year-old's naivety and a fourteen-year-old's cynicism, while Jud acts more like a rebellious sixteen-year-old than a twelve-year-old. All of this suggests that the author has had little to no interaction with children of this age, giving even further credence to the maxim "write what you know". Given that Joseph is supposed to largely be carrying the story, it is disappointing that his traits do not seem to gel as naturally as the child protagonists in American modern classics, such as Sam Krupnik or Ramona Quimby. One could even go as far as to say that none of the characters' voices sound fully authentic, including those of the adults (Michelle, Bill, and Dan).

The interactions between the adults pose further questions. Anecdotes are forced, the domestic violence scenes are hackneyed, and one wonders if Gayle is trying to satirise misogyny or if he is genuinely serious. Either way, it's a dangerous line to walk. The cliché of the single father ending up in the sleazy motel is also nothing new. Gayle's tendency to tell, rather than show, means that it makes it difficult to believe in his characters, who end up seeming one-dimensional to the reader. For the most part, their actions are not especially surprising or radical either. Consequently, by the time Joseph's 'sin' is revealed, this has no impact on the audience. His actions were perfectly understandable, and as with the protagonist of Philip Roth's The Human Stain, the 'confession' is meaningless, undermining the sharp and unexpected opening which was one of the book's few positives.

Gayle does, however, show some signs of promise. There are glimmers of developing character in Michelle and Dan, where they say things in their minds that seem to have come straight from the heart. One intriguing segment sees arch enemies Bill and Dan paired together, making for an interesting juxtaposition of thought and action, and Gayle's balance of direct and indirect speech is used skillfully to create different effects. 

Ultimately, Let It Be is a story full of opportunity - be that as a chance to show Michelle as a strong woman, or the chance to weave a truly rich, synaesthetic tapestry of the Beatles' legacy. Unfortunately, it would appear that this opportunity was not fully taken up - meaning that there is still plenty of room for Beatles fans to pay literary homage to the Fab Four.

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