Rating: 2 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Read Around the World Challenge.
Eighteen months ago, Weezelle over at Words and Leaves interviewed Yannick Thoraval about his novel about climate change, The Current. I downloaded a free copy from his site, because I liked how he came across in his answers to Weezelle’s questions. I especially liked his perspective on self-publishing.
I read bearing in mind that this is a self-published novel, that despite employing a team to help polish the work in the way an independent publisher would, it might not feel like a traditionally published book.
The thing with the traditional publishing process is that the publisher has a more objective eye, backed by knowledge of the market and tempered by their need to make money. No matter how good the team Thoraval put together, no matter how rational and open to advice he tried to be, he was their employer, they were there to service his needs, and this novel is his precious baby. I thought it showed. There was a breathlessness about the opening to the narrative that seemed to come from a first-time novelist’s desire to show his workings in building his character and plot. For me, he didn’t manage to find a reason to get behind the protagonist, Peter Van Dooren, as a character with the result that the detail about his thoughts and actions felt flat. The same was true of other characters. Van Dooren’s wife and daughter, Alma and Gracie, and son Stephen are archetypal characters. There is nothing particularly memorable about them, no real quirks to make them interesting. The inner thoughts of all the characters are presented in italics, a tic I’ve never enjoyed and almost always find distracting. And then there are the petty things: the over reliance on a mean little word like ‘nibble’ when you could say ‘snack’ or ‘chew’; setting people’s lives in the USA but having them use Canadian or Australian slang like ‘runners’ instead of ‘sneakers’; presuming that Malians come from Malia and not Mali; the failure to spot typographic and grammatical errors. All of these should be picked up on by a decent editor.
I liked that the book has illustrations, and that they worked in the electronic format in which I read it. L’Eden Sur Mer is an imaginary island, but Thoraval has had an illustrator, Tauseef Ahmed, bring it to reality.
Van Dooren is a specialist in the shipping of food produce across the world. The way in which he has transformed the small scale family business into a multi-national concern attracts the attention of the government of the Independent Republic of L’Eden Sur Mer. They have a very particular problem that they hope Van Dooren’s ingenuity might resolve.
When his family are introduced, Thoraval makes sure that we know the Van Doorens are dysfunctional in typical ways. Bullied wife with a shopping addiction, super-religious daughter, porn-obsessed son who envies what he perceives as his poorer friend’s more straightforward life. I didn’t like Peter or his children. There was nothing about them that made me feel concerned about their lives. Alma, the reluctant wife and mother, interested me, though. On the surface she is a blank housewife, but underneath she is a woman struggling to know who she is or wants to be. Her life has been a series of reactions. Born in Iraq to a French diplomat and his wife, she has never felt that she belongs anywhere. She tried to define herself by learning Arabic and becoming an interpreter, but somehow ends up feeling even more removed from herself. I wish the book had been more about her, but then it wouldn’t have been a book about climate change. It would have been a book about immigration, belonging and displacement, and a woman’s place in the world.
I didn’t dislike the climate change story, but it wasn’t the thought-provoking tale I’d hoped it might be. At times it felt more like a vehicle for Thoraval to expound on his thoughts about the world than it did a novel about people who have a set of interests and values on the same themes. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Thoraval is better known as an essayist.
There were too many ideas on show and I found myself wishing that Thoraval had chosen only a couple to focus on and develop. Occasionally I became immersed in the story, such as when the President of L’Eden Sur Mer gradually reveals himself to be an autocrat dressed up as a caring paternal figure anxious to keep his people together, and when Jack Schroeder gives his spiel about resource guzzling multi-nationals investing in carbon offset packages as a business driven way of restoring the planet’s environmental balance. Schroeder’s cynically named company is a horrifying monetisation of environmentalism. It’s easy to imagine those who don’t believe in climate change and the impact their business practice has on it investing in it as a way of virtue signalling while continuing their destructive practices. Unfortunately, though, Thoraval has a tendency to interrupt these stronger narratives with plot lines that aren’t really plot lines, such as the whole of Gracie’s story arc and the creepy sexual fantasies that Stephen indulges in.
Thoraval’s writing did provoke a couple of thoughts. One was about the trend for mindfulness, of being in the moment, not replaying events from our past and not stressing about events that may or may not happen in the future. The islanders of L’Eden Sur Mer who are invested in their traditions are almost fatalistic in their habit of living for now. The younger generation seem to consider the future but, rather than try to influence it, choose to accept it and turn their thoughts to abandoning the island as a lost cause. The business men and academics invited to the island to find a solution to the problem of the rising water levels are all about the future – future profits, future reputation – while employing a type of mindfulness that allows them to continue consuming at their desired rate without needing to care about long term consequences. The carbon offsetting strategy of Schroeder’s company is an example of that, too. Humanity, Thoraval seems to be saying, is fundamentally selfish, to the extent that even our apparent altruism is about how it makes us feel.
The other thought was about the way Thoraval chose to make Peter, Gracie and Stephen so casually racist. All three of these unsympathetic characters have incidental thoughts about people of colour that demonstrate how much they think of them as ‘other’. Stephen is surprised that when an “Arab-looking guy” speaks, he doesn’t sound the way Stephen thinks an Arabic man should. Gracie wonders why all Asians are so good at maths. Peter’s thoughts about the islanders on L’Eden Sur Mer are patronising, rooted as they are in a condescending view that they are childlike and unsophisticated. This fed into something I think about a lot: how inherently racist white people are, often without even knowing it, because we believe that we are top dog and because, historically and in the present day, we have imposed suffering on other people and diminished their humanity in order to bolster that self-belief. Even white people who have been shat on by other white people have a tendency to believe that they are more significant as humans than people of colour. It seems to me, and I include myself in it, that the starting point for white people is one of racism and we have to consciously work at not being racist because viewing people of colour as ‘other’ is so ingrained in our culture. I’m sure the suspicion of those who are outside the community we identify with is a universally human thing. I’m aware that other cultures are also racist in their own ways. But I’m white, and I’m only qualified to talk about my own cultural norms. Seeing it laid out bare in The Current, though, without any attempt to address it, made me feel angry at the book and the way the characters are so unpleasant and in no way challenged for it.
At the end of the book, there’s a clichéd party scene that seemed like it belonged in a different story. Its only function was to show that some people are unpleasant and some easily made victims, and to bring the dysfunctional Van Dooren family to its senses. There was a violence to it that felt gratuitous, and that wasn’t resolved by the soap opera ending.
Overall, The Current felt like a confusion of stories pinned together by an essay on climate change and big business. It was part family saga and part corruption thriller, and yet neither of those things entirely. I was left wondering what Thoraval thought his readers would take from it, whether there was a point to its existence.