Nick Cave is both one of my favourite songwriters and, I think, one of the great songwriters of the era. (He is in my 20th century songwriting canon.) But I don’t think too many would argue that he has greatly improved as a songwriter from when he first started out in the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party to now.
This novel reads to me like someone who loves Faulkner and O’Connor brain-dumping, with not enough editing overall and editing for plot. It feels like a young person’s first novel and I imagine the critical reception this book received would have been entirely different were it not written by Australia’s greatest living songwriter. (I don’t know if he would have had the title in 1989 but who else would have?) All of Cave’s ’80s (to mid ’90s) themes are present, but they are present in absolute overload, to the point of caricature.
Euchrid is not a believable character, as written. I get what Cave is trying to do – he’s been kind of enough to explicitly explain himself in an essay – but I don’t buy Euchrid. Here’s one reason: Euchrid cannot pronounce I, my, under (and probably some other words I’ve forgotten) in his own mind but can pronounce everything else. In fact, he has the vocabulary of someone who is spending a lot of time with a thesaurus. One reason this reeks of being a first novel is that Cave throws every word he knows into Euchrid’s mind, including some I, an extremely well-read 30-something who does the New York Times crossword 6 days a week, did not know. If we’re to believe all he does is read all day, given that he can’t talk, that’s fine. But nothing about his life suggests he does this. (And, if that were true, it doesn’t account for his correct “pronunciations” of difficult words and his incorrect “pronunciations” of simple words.) Cave tells us the dialogue is internal and not meant to be spoken aloud. That doesn’t satisfy me one iota.
And there’s not enough plot for this long a book with this much crap to endure. We know what Euchrid is going to do relatively far from the end of the novel and, in the meantime, we have to endure his father’s and his awful behaviour towards animals (albeit through his lens) for pages and pages and pages. We get it. Does the book have to be this long to convey that he is angry and needs better outlets than his community will give him?
I understand Cave intentionally plays with perspective, and so we don’t always know whether it’s Euchrid, whether it’s an omniscient narrator, or someone else doing the narrating. But another nitpick is the sudden appearance of italics in Book 3. That would be a minor nitpick in a book I was enjoying but in a book I thought about putting down 7-10 times, it’s yet another thing that doesn’t make any sense.
Why didn’t I stop reading it? Because I love Cave as a songwriter and I kept hoping the book would become worthwhile. But it never did. Instead, I had to read about this unlucky boy treated awfully who becomes awful and takes it out on his awful community. But you stick some religious imagery into that summary and suddenly people think it’s profound.
It’s only profound if it’s well-written. This is not.
5/10 feels a little charitable
PS You want to watch a movie that handles “repressed people lashing out at their community” well, with subtlety? Check out The White Ribbon.