So, in the interest of full disclosure, I don’t get paid to do this. I select books by going through Amazon, Smashwords, and Lulu and find things that look interesting to me. I don’t have the time to spend whiling away reading books I don’t like. I was, until I finished Songs From the Other Side of The Wall, fairly sure I’d never give anything less than a three star rating, because I wouldn't bother to finish anything with a lower rating. And then I finished it. I’ll keep it at three stars, because it’s very well written, but I’ve got some serious concerns about this as a story.
Let me start with the good things: Holloway can really write. He’s handy with his words. The book is detail and image rich, and they are in the service of the plot, rather than the other way around. He’s done a remarkably good job of creating a teen-age lesbian, which since he’s a middle aged man, I’m fairly certain that’s something he’s never been. Sandrine is, for a teen girl, engaging, and for a coming of age story, has some stuff to actually be angsty about. This is not just whining for the sake of whining. I tend to think part of the reason coming of age stories are so frequently Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Historical is because those conventions make it easy to manufacture crucibles in which to create adults. This very real world, very now, set book did a good job of creating a situation to push Sandrine out of childhood towards adulthood, which is hard to do without falling into the whine whine whine of traditional adolescent angst.
The book is simultaneously very European, while being very true to the humanity of anyone who reads it. What I know about Hungary, the cutting edge of radical art/politics, music, and wine can pretty much fill a good sized thimble. Yet the book is well enough written to deal with all of these things without leaving me behind.
The bad: The plot twist. In an effort to create suspense Holloway gives us a mystery, several actually, but only one belongs here. After the death of her… lover…crush…object of desire…obsession, one thing that is never actually clear is what precise level of relationship Sandrine and Claire have, Sandrine begins to get bits and pieces of Claire’s diary. Why? We don’t know and the one thing that might potentially be called a hint is so tenuous as to be only useful in retrospect, and only barely. By whom? Same as why. Does it help us understand Claire better? Sure. Do we learn more about Sandrine’s mom because of this? Yes. Is it vital for the plot? Probably. Did he do a good job of setting up why Sandrine is getting this? No. Honestly, magical fairies riding on black unicorns prancing about with vampires would have been just as believable as the set up he came up with.
To take this a step further, this overarching mystery is what sets the ending in motion. And, because this mystery is so far beyond the level of mad coincidence, the ending is deeply unsatisfying as a result. Within two pages you go from thinking, ‘Everything is wrapping up nicely’ to ‘What?!?’
The in-between: This would be the stuff that didn’t really float my boat, but I also think is intentional and if you like this sort of thing, would be a boat floater for you.
The genre. If I had to make a category for it I’d call it Young Adult Literary Fiction. There’s something to wrap your mind around. It’s a coming of age story. It focuses mainly on growing up and the human condition. It dwells on a group of emotionally stunted perpetual adolescents paralyzed by their fear of… Joy maybe. Hard to tell precisely what they’re afraid of. But there is precisely one adult in this story, by which I do not mean a character over the age of twenty-one, but a character who owns his life and is living it fully. Sandrine can be forgiven for being adrift and unsure of herself and her place in the world, she’s seventeen-eighteen. The rest of the cast of characters cannot.
Sandrine’s credibility. Throughout the story we are given little hints that Sandrine may not be all there. She loses time. She loses conversations. But by the end of the story we’re left with the possibility that she may have fully hallucinated one of the characters, and there’s no telling how real any of her interactions with the others are.
The other characters: Most of the supporting characters in this story are deeply unsympathetic. From what I can tell this is an intentional plot point of the author, and it works for the story, but at the same time, it’s annoying. I find myself wanting to smack Claire. A seventeen-year-old can be forgiven for falling in love with an image of a person. A thirty-seven-year-old cannot.
Sandrine’s mum left me with the desire to grab her by the shoulders and start yelling, “YOU ARE AN IDIOT!” I think that’s the response I’m supposed to have.
I feel a deep sympathy for Sandrine at the end of the story, crying for her father, the only adult in the entire story, who has died and left her adrift among these insane perpetual adolescents trying to forever remain in just one moment in time.
If the idea is to explore the human condition, the reader is left with the conclusion that the human condition is paralysis mired in misery with occasional fleeting glimpses of something better, but those glimpses are just a mirage, and misery will win. This is not a light or uplifting read. However, judging by the fact literary fiction exists, and is rarely an exploration of the nuances of joy, there appears to be a market for it.
Finally, the love story. It’s not a love story. At least not love in the way most of us would recognize. It’s an obsession story. And this is an area where I cannot tell if the effect is intentional or not. No one in this story actually develops a romantic interest in anyone slowly over time while getting to know each other. It’s all about immediate attraction, deep passion, and amazingly enough, it always falls apart. Now, is this supposed to illustrate the futility of thinking with your libido and not your brain when it comes to sex? I don’t know. Sandrine is seventeen/eighteen in the story, and she’s the one telling it. She falls in “love” twice at first sight. Neither time works for her. But at no point do we get the sense that the problem is not bothering to learn anything about the objects of her desire, as opposed to the problem being ‘love’ and the expectations that come with it. In the end we find her face to face with the adult responsibilities of love and running away from them. Another perpetual adolescent? Or, having realized those responsibilities are also based on a whim of desire from someone obsessive on the verge of stalkerhood, and not much more, is she being sane and cutting away from a person who fell in love with a dream shaped like her? With where the story ends you just can’t tell.
Songs From the Other Side of the Wall is available on Amazon.com for the Kindle. You can get it at Lulu.com if you want it in physical form. Do you want to read it? Good question, it’s about 220 pages long, and 218 of them were really interesting. It’s very well written. If you get other people to read it it’s got good discussion potential. But it’s not light, it’s not fun, and the ending hinges on the least satisfying collection of coincidences I’ve read in a long, long time. Some mysteries don’t need to be solved, and this book would have been much stronger if Dan Holloway had left us wondering who sent the diary entries.