I'd heard of Gerard Woodward through John Self's Asylum. It sounded interesting. So on a whim, I picked up the first book of a trilogy, called August, and read it.
Every August, the Jones family of London stay three weeks on a farm in Wales. There's Aldous, teacher and painter, his wife Collette, Janus, their eldest son, gifted piano prodigy, Juliette, James and Julian. Every year they go to this farm and every year, as people grow up, they drift apart as a family.
Woodward's background as a poet has saved this novel. His prose is beautiful, and every turn of phrase is light and clear. Often, he compares something, by description rather than direct comparison, and it is so simply done that it's obviously impressive. This is probably his greatest skill as an author.
His weakest? Certainly the plotting. This novel smacks of mash-up; it feels like interconnected short stories. This means the overall plot meanders and follows paths only to abruptly give them up. Janus, the eldest son, has the most interesting and alluring psychological profile. He's so angry and confused about life, but every time Woodward gets deep into Janus, he drops off to focus on Collette, the glue-sniffing mother. I never thought I would read a literary novel that includes glue-sniffing. It was weird.
Even though August feels like short stories strung together, there is one breathtaking sequence that could have worked perfectly as a short story, and functions fully as a piece of an overall picture. There is one chapter in which Collette takes a job as a bus conductor to pay for the transplant of her mother's grave. The setup is nonlinear, starting media res, and the short series of events are beautifully rendered and include a ton of information about the characters. It's wonderful.
On the whole, August was a good novel, but not the greatest. Woodward's skills as a plotter and a novelist, rather than just a writer, needed to be developed further. His prose is exquisite and a delight to read, and he has a sharp eye for images and details that stand out to the reader. I look forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.
I gave up on Strong Motion for the second time in my life - this time because I found the novel to be far too amateurish and self-indulgent. There's a bit where Franzen describes what's to be found when the snow melts in a park, and it goes on for 400 words. That's too much. So I gave up, and now I'm starting Richard B Wright's Clara Callan, which won a bazillion awards in Canada.