Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Enigma By Robert Harris Review: Deciphering the Value of the Novel

I have a lot of books. I have a book shelf that is absolutely crammed with novels, textbooks and books, while I have numerous other tomes that are relegated to boxes or spare corner in my home (or even my parents). I love to read, and as a fledgling writer (and author), I believe that is a crucial trait since you can't refine your craft without being exposed to other great works and styles. The fact is, there are a lot of books I've never read that are occupying space. My goal is to eventually be able to claim that I've read every single books that claims area in my abode. The problem is, I tend to reread some of the books or novels that I really like while others lay dormant and continually unread. Actually, I still go out and purchase new books or novels while these poor collection of words remain unnoticed and unloved. The brand new book gets several hours/days of my attention, while the perpetual neglect of the older books continues. So, why am I so cruel and negligent towards some of my novels?

The thing is, my parents know that I love to read, and that I really enjoy a fantastic story with intrigue and adventure. The problem is that my parents' taste at the moment seems to side towards the spy and espionage like thrillers (such as Robert Ludlam or Ken Follett), which means over the last 6 years any gift that was a novel happened to be of that persuasion. While I will admit that there is some really great books that come out of that genre, and I have read several of the novels they bought me, there is just as many that have laid dormant since the day they jumped into my grubby, little paws. My biggest problem is that I find many of the novels follow almost the exact same storyline except for a setting, character and time period change. Though, a huge majority of them seem to be set around World War 2, which was a huge and interesting time period, but the stories seem to always revolve around similar themes and issues regarding that time. My thing is that I am often drawn to the characters of a story, and how the issues or obstacles effect them emotionally and physically. I really enjoy watching a character develop, and tend to be more engaged in stories that focus on the quirks and behaviours of the character, along with how the events in the story begin to shape or change them (or how inner traits start to be exploited by outside actions). From my experience of reading spy thrillers, character development is a secondary thing, and the big explosions and plot twists seems to be a major focus. I really do love my explosions and twists, but it seems like once you've read a few thrillers, you can sort of predict with great accuracy exactly what will unfold in the story. So, I usually am not too amped up to read many spy novel in a short time frame, and thus many of them do a great job in collecting dust.

The novels remain on my shelf (or hidden away in boxes) just begging for some attention and love. I decide to play the role of good father and halt my neglect in order to provide some good one on one time. Plus it sort of pains me to actually have books in the house that I haven't completely read, and so I eventually come around to reading the stuff that doesn't instantly grab my attention (and wouldn't have bought on my own).

This now leads me to Robert Harris' Enigma which was first published in 1996 and apparently, now has a major motion picture starring Kate Winslet and some guys that looks like a young Dennis Quaid (if the cover is to be believed). The story is about cryptanalysis Tom Jericho who works at Bletchley Park, which is the famous site of where numerous British mathematicians, scholars, and military where stationed to break German codes. The novel is set in 1943, which is obviously during the time of (SURPRISE!) World War 2. Jericho is suffering from a bit of a mental breakdown, but is called back in order to help break the German U-Boat code named Enigma (what a coincidence, that is also the novel's title!) which inexplicably was recently changed. In order to add on a extra layer of intrigue, Jericho's ex girlfriend has recently disappeared, and Jericho just so happens to be very far from getting over her. It not only reaps all kind of delightful havoc on the protagonist's mind, but it also becomes the focal point of the thriller's mystery.

Enigma is very similar to most major spy thrillers, especially since once again those dang Nazis are the key villains and the setting happens to be right in the middle of history's most infamous and well known war. The big difference is that Tom Jericho is a mathematician and academic that was hired on as a codebreaker, rather than some tough, rugged spy that can beat down 7 well trained Nazis while reading the morning paper and buttering his toasted biscuit. Actually, Jericho is the farthest thing possible from a well trained fighting machine. Any time he is in a spot that involves physical confrontation or the use of firearms, he does his very best at doing quite awful. The man isn't a fighter, and actually not a great lover either (which is usually the fall back for thriller protagonist) considering his girlfriend disappeared on him. The sex, explosions and flying fists are not performed by this novel's central figures, and thus are not activities used to any extreme extent in this story. Rather than a story that is overflowing with fast paced actions, it is more of a cerebral thriller. It contains an intricate puzzle that must be solved by one of the world's brightest minds. It allows for a very different take on the overused World War spy thriller genre.

The story may contains a different kind of hero, but in the end, it still follows the usual World War 2 thriller path. It tries to be full of twists and surprises, but a common reader of the thriller won't be overly surprised. Despite it being a novel that focuses more on the cerebral and the puzzles, it still falls in the trap of the thriller that is snared by a few glaring plot holes in its attempt to surprise. There is a focus on some mathematical elements, yet some things just don't add up. The big reveals at the climax don't end up packing the big bang, but rather end up being a poof in the pants. Though that might not be entirely fair, because a pant poof can resemble a batch of rotting eggs, but this would be more like a loud fart that sounds bad but isn't all that smelly. The revelation of all the twists and surprises is not bad enough that it causes the entire story to wilt away, but it is one that tends to be a little predictable but also slightly nonsensical. It is irritating having an end that you can predict, but also when you start tracking back realize it doesn't entirely fit in the story. This is not a problem that is solely owned by this particular novel, but rather, one that is quite common in stories that contain thrills and twists (sort of an occupational hazard when a stories goals is to shock and surprise). The part that makes it so frustrating here, is that the entire story is about the importance of logic and an analytical mind (the story plays like a giant puzzled to be solved). This lead me to believe it would be a little smarter and far more careful in its structure.

I do appreciate a novel that tries to create a different hero. The cast of characters is large and there is some depth to them which is a rarity in tales like this. Characters don't just do things to move a plot, but rather act in a way that fits with their established traits and personalities. This type of writing allows for a few interesting sub plots and events that creates a more layered story. Unfortunately, some of these subplots are far more intriguing than the main story, but they are never followed to their full fruition. It is an attempt that isn't usually made in a story like this and was very appreciated by me, but was also frustrating to have some glaring loose ends or obviously forgotten story lines.

In the end, I got my spy thriller fill for the moment. Though with the large catalogue of thrillers in my possession (thanks parents!), it is inevitable that I'll have to turn to one again soon enough. Like most of them, this is a novel that I'll probably forget about soon enough, and won't be one I'd clamour to read again any time soon (or ever). It was a different spin on a very common story, and there is a lot of appreciation for trying something new. If spy thrillers are your things, then I will recommend spending a few days trying to crack theEnigma.

3 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:37 pm

    Aaron Pluim via Facebook:

    This might be a stupid question, but have you ever read Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient"?

    ReplyDelete
  2. The most I know about "The English Patient' is that its movie adaption won the Best Picture award and Elaine got a lot of people upset for finding it boring. Should I put it on my reading list?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous10:04 am

    Aaron Pluim via Facebook:

    Definitely!

    ReplyDelete