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Past Imperfect - John Matthews
Member Name: SWSt
Past Imperfect - John Matthews
Advantages: Promising plot...
Disadvantages: Let down by plodding pace, lack of atmosphere or characterisation, poor writing style
Past Imperfect is one of those annoying books that should be very good, but which never lived up to its potential. All the ingredients are there for a cracking read: a storyline spanning three decades and several countries, a tale told from multiple viewpoints and a plot which combines elements of police drama, supernatural tales and medical and psychological elements. It's hard to see how Past Imperfect can fail
Yet, it does. It never gripped me, never engaged my attention in the way I hoped and expected. There was always the promise of a good read dangling tantalizingly before my eyes, but it was never delivered, leaving me feeling disappointed and frustrated.
I desperately wanted to like Past Imperfect and gave it every chance I could. The back of the book sets it up as a very intriguing storyline - a sort of modern day ghost story with a twist. A young boy is sexually assaulted and murdered in France and the local police swiftly make an arrest. Over 30 years later, another young boy, who has just lost his parents in an accident, seems to see the French boy in his dreams.
See what I mean? That's a gift of a plot, isn't it? I'll bet you're already intrigued. The hook is already there, right from the off. Yet, Past Imperfect never capitalizes on this instant hook. Instead it kills you with its turgid prose and slow plotting. It goes into excruciating detail about pretty much anything and everything - even if they aren't necessarily connected to the plot. Of course, there is such a thing as building up colour and background to provide context to the main story, but this Past Imperfect takes this idea to ridiculous lengths.
Elements of the plot which could easily be dealt with in 50 pages often take 150. This seriously slows down the pace of the book and deadens the will to want to carry on reading. I'm not against slow-paced books per se, but there has to be a reason for the additional background - whether that is to provide depth or add atmosphere or develop characters. For all its verbosity, Past Imperfect never does any of this. Characters always feel false, the atmosphere feels flat and the reader always feels like they are just reading a book. All the extra words are simply there to add to the length of the book and make it appear more "worthy" than it really is.
Such prodigious length could be excused if it were done to baffle and bamboozle, to create a supernatural murder-mystery so cunning that the final revelation leaves you flabbergasted. It doesn't. Yet, the plot arc is hugely predictable and most people will be able to guess the key plot points long before they are "revealed". Just to take one example. Around page 30, I made a remark to Mrs. SWSt saying where I thought the plot was leading. I was indeed correct, but it was not until around page 250 of the book that this "startling revelation" was finally confirmed. That's over 200 pages of pointless words and that's one of the key characteristics of Past Imperfect: Slow, cumbersome, lethargic plotting which serves little by way of either atmosphere or surprise. Whilst there might be a couple of minor revelations that catch you on the hop, they are so negligible that they don't compensate for the dullness and predictability of the rest of the book.
The characters are similarly superficial and unmemorable. Many of them are unlikeable - following their own agendas and not caring about the wider consequences. You could argue this is very life-like - most of us try to get our own way, but as with the atmosphere, the characters just feel very flat. They are very ill-defined and, even though we spend pages and pages reading about them, you never feel that they have developed into "proper" characters. They always remain artificial constructs of Matthews' mind. During the early stages of the book, I found myself constantly having to flip back dozens of pages to remind myself exactly who someone was, and that's never a good sign.
Matthews doesn't help matters with his writing style. He favours very long chapters (admittedly with some breaks) which don't really aid readability. Increasingly, as I ploughed through it, I kept looking ahead to see where the next break in the text was and realizing with dismay that I still had another 10 or so pages before I got to a suitable stopping point. Long, unbroken sections, combined with dull, pedestrian plotting don't make for an entertaining read.
Matthews also likes short sentences. Often three words. Maybe less. Can be effective. Can be annoying. See what I mean? There are large parts of the book written in these short, staccato sentences. Now, as I say, these can be effective when their use is limited and introduced for appropriate dramatic reasons. They are very useful as a means of implying danger or a need for urgency, for example, impressing on the reader that time is short and relaying events in a quick, hurried fashion (which is something Past Imperfect rarely threatens to do). Like any literary device, though, when it's extremely annoying when over-used. I found myself starting to notice (and get annoyed by) the sentence structure, rather what the words were saying. Once that starts to happen, you know you've lost the attention of your reader.
In fairness, Matthews is not helped by his publisher. The book is well over 600 pages long in the paperback edition and the text is tiny and cramped. This means that every time you turn the page, you are faced with two more pages of densely packed words. This does nothing to aid the readability and instead encourages in the reader a sense of gloom and despair, which is not a good thing.
At heart, there is still a very good, intriguing and strong storyline in there. It's just that it's buried a wealth of superfluous detail. It might not be startlingly original and its overall direction is obvious from a very early stage, but that doesn't stop the story from being inherently interesting. There are several potentially fascinating aspects to the book and there were times when I suddenly felt a spark of excitement at the book's potential. Sadly, that quickly waned when I realised it would take the author another 150 pages to arrive at the conclusion I had already reached. Ultimately, what cripples the book is that it is around 300 pages too long. At a length of 300, even 350 pages, it could have worked, as a brave novel which melded together a range of different genres. At over 600 pages, it's too long, drawn out and dull, filling the reader with despair, rather than excitement.
I do appear to be in a minority on this one. The reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, with an average 5 star rating from 31 reviews. Perhaps I missed something, or wasn't in the right frame of mind when I read it? I don't know. A t the end of the day, I can only speak for myself and I couldn't recommend it. If you do start to read it, my advice would be to give it 100 pages. If at that point you're not enjoying it, don't bother wasting your time with the rest of it, because it doesn't get any better.
Penguin Books, 1999
© Copyright SWSt 2009
Summary: One book I am glad is in my past, it was so imperfect.