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Fifteen years ago Jane Smiley wrote a Pulitzer prize-winning novel, "A Thousand Acres", inspired by Shakespeare's "King Lear". This book takes the same approach of pinching inspiration from elsewhere, but not from where you might immediately think. Ian McEwan's 2005 novel "Saturday" covers the same theme as Ten Days In The Hills (the Iraq war) and manages to do so within the course of a single day, 15 Feb 2003, when the big anti-war demonstration was held in London. Smiley, however, is American, so her version is bigger though not neccesarily better. Her 464 pages cover a longer period - those 10 days mentioned in the title in fact - at the start of the Iraq war at the end of March 2003. This time, her literary inspiration is Giovanni Boccaccio's classic "The Decameron", where 7 rich young ladies plus 3 young noblemen, linked by family and/or friendship, retreat to their country properties in the hills around Florence to escape the Black Death which has grabbed hold of practically everyone they know. Here they pass the time over 10 days, each telling a story a day.
Smiley's main characters are four men and six women who retreat to the hills near Los Angeles to get away from news of the Iraq war, first to producer Max's home and then to the fabulous house of a mysterious Ukrainian, known as Mike. There's Max's first wife Zoë (a film star who, in a flash of inspiration, chose the name Zoë at age 6, instead of her original name of Susan) and his current partner Elena, and Elena's son Simon from a previous relationship, and Max and Zoë's daughter Isabel. Zoë's new partner Paul and her mother Delphine plus her friend Cassie are also staying in the house, and the final members of the group are Stoney, Max's agent who is sleeping with Isabel, and an old friend, Charlie. Confused yet? It's rare to have such a numerous and intricate cast of main characters in a story, and this group certainly required concentration to keep track of who was who, who was doing who and who used to do who.
Smiley gives us a blow by blow account of their sex lives, their meals, their clothes, their dreams, the pills they take. It's like reading a society magazines where you find out every detail of a launch or party, from what was in the goody bags to what people wore, what they talked about and what sort of champagne they drank. In the book, every minute detail is explained and discussed, and they constantly recount, to themselves and to each other, stories about their past lives and, especially, the innumerable films (imaginary and real, famous and less so) that they have seen, or been involved in making, or would like to make. If you're a film buff, this might be a blissful read for you, but as someone with a good but not great knowledge of moving pictures, I was quite lost at times.
There are some striking similarities between this book and the one which inspired it. One of the stories featured, presented by Smiley as "the brother of one of Paul's ancestors was... Saint Joachim of Neibsheim" is the same as the first tale told in "The Decameron" by Pamfino about a character called Ser Ciappelletto. This tale of a wicked man who is wrongly canonized is recounted in detail by Smiley, as are many others, some interesting, some not. The level of detail with which she writes is immense, and sometimes overwhelming, leading to a book that can be a struggle to get through a times, but which certainly has its moments.
Interwoven with these stories is discussion of the Iraq war and comments by the characters on other, earlier wars. Charlie is the only character who is in favour of the current war, and the various debates between the different characters are the most interesting parts of the book.
The scenes constantly change point of view - just as films do- showing the same scene from the viewpoint of different characters. As the characters range from young college students to the over-70s, there is an interesting range of ideas, from Charlie's neocon beliefs to Paul's New Age theories, and this adds a certain something to the book that makes it stand out from more traditional novels. It's not what is said, but the way it is said that I recall from reading.
Once we move from Max's mansion to huge and mysterious house of the Ukrainian, we meet some new characters - Mike and his rich Ukrainian cronies and their employees who run the house. All speak perfect English and understand The American Way, but add an extra perspective: ´From the point of view of someone like myself, who has come from Russia and lived in France, most Americans are narrow-minded, ignorant and provincial´ says Monique the maid to Charlie. She has just appeared in his room at night and after a discussion of Russian literature they sleep together, a common theme in the book.
The book reads as if it was fun to write as the descriptions are animated and detailed. All the different rooms in Mike's mansion, for example, have a different theme (the Reformation / Counter-reformation Room, the Comedy Room) and full details are given of the carefully chosen paintings and furnishings. It's a bit of a surreal experience to read, reminiscent of the lands at the top of the Faraway Tree in Enid Blyton's children's series. The chance to create a fantasy world, completely unrelated to reality is, I suppose, what writing is all about.
Death and dying are a significant them of the book and there are deaths in the stories told, the films discussed, in the histories of the characters - and at the end of the book, some characters disappear, presumed dead. The book is full of things to think about and questions to ponder, but few are actually answered throughout the pages. The characters worry about the deaths of American soldiers and Iraqi children, but the questions raised by the war in 2003, remain unanswered in this novel - and in the real world of 2007.
The book is certainly interesting, and the curate's egg comment (´good in parts´) definitely rings true with me. It's not a book I could relax and read as it is too complicated, too long, and too bizarre for my liking, but there are certain pockets throughout that are a joy to read, and quite inspired. For a similar theme but a much shorter, more managable book, do look at "Saturday" which also has the benfit of a British approach, and therefore may appear more tolerable to UK readers.
This review originally appeared under my name on www.thebookbag.co.uk