Window On the World
Botanical writer James Thornberry's life is irrevocably changed when he meets up-and-coming artist Katherine Gaunt. Falling madly in love with her, he begins to collect her paintings secretly and obsessively, until his relationship with them and her merge into delusion, and the paintings take on a life of their own.
I struggled with this book to start with, but confess I got drawn into the story. You don’t have to be an art buff to enjoy it as it less about art than about the single-mindedness of an avid collector. Jamie Thornberry starts off as quite a rational character who develops an obsession with an artist, or more truthfully with an artist’s work. The epigraph on each chapter is a story of how somebody died by falling, jumping or being pushed through a window (defenestration). It is therefore fairly obvious what the denouement of the book is going to be, but this adds to the anticipation rather than detracts from the story.
The writing tends to be laboured and unnecessarily padded with minutiae that the reader doesn’t need to know and does nothing to move the story along. None of the characters is really fleshed out, even the main protagonist. Certainly none of them are likable.
The book is written in the first person by Jamie, an unreliable narrator (we discover). On occasion, he can also be a not terribly interesting narrator. The storyline, however, is well plotted, with Jamie’s psychosis unravelling in an interesting way.
There are some huge timing problems. The book starts set in the late 1940s or early 1950s, when Jamie is an infant. Later there are no specific dates, but lots of clues as in regular use of mobile phones and the internet, so maybe the early 1990s? This would make Jamie early 40s, which is feasible. But Google is used as a verb, so probably early 2000s? Then there is mention of Luke Johnson, Chairman of Channel 4. Luke Johnson held this post from 2004-2010. So this must be at the earliest 2004, when Jamie would be mid-fifties, which is less likely given the story. Right at the end of the book, we find out he was born in 1964 … so what was all that about the 1940s and 1950s?
There are some incorrect facts; for example, the name of sculptor of the Angel of the North is given as Andy Goldsworthy, when it was Antony Gormley. There are incorrect spellings; for example, ‘Furstenburg’ rather than ‘Furstenberg’. These kinds of mistake are inexcusable – one error would be annoying, but there are several, and all of them easily verifiable. There can be no defence for the timing errors. It feels as though originally the book was set in an earlier time and was later changed because the publisher requested it, but nobody went back to the beginning and altered that. The reader (that would be me) then starts looking out for plot holes, rather than concentrating on the story.
I was also intrigued – and not given an explanation of – as to where Jamie got all his money to buy so many artworks. He does run out of money and has to get a mortgage to buy a flat, but then goes on to buy paintings worth tens of thousands of pounds. He was a lecturer and then wrote books about plants – hardly the bestsellers, I would have thought, to finance such a hobby.
I will read another of Hugh Cornwell’s novels, but I doubt I will be able to have a truly open mind on it, so it will have to be really good to make it worthwhile.
Editorial Input & Design
This book was published by Quartet Books. I would find the errors indefensible in any book, but find them extraordinary in a book put out by a respected publisher. The Kindle version is published by Bloomsbury Reader. I read the Kindle version, so some of the proofreading errors could have been introduced in the digitising process – but they still shouldn’t have been there.
A developmental editor would have made sure there were no plot holes, the timing was right, the characters were three-dimensional, the prose flowed, whole unnecessary paragraphs were deleted … all sadly lacking in this book.
A copy-editor would have tightened the text and checked the facts … clearly not done.
A proofreader would have made sure there were no spelling errors, that names were spelled consistently, that the right word was used … proofreading was obviously done, but it was possibly rushed to meet the publishing deadline – there are too many errors for a professional to be proud of the work.
A thorough edit could have turned this book into an enjoyable read. I wouldn’t suggest not reading this novel, but I would advise putting your critical reader hat to one side. (Clearly I didn’t do that.)
Cover: The paperback version doesn’t have a particularly inspiring, attractive or relevant cover. The ebook version has absolutely nothing to recommend it. It is a generic cover for all Bloomsbury reader books – it certainly has zero impact to make you pick it off the digital shelf.
Internal design: I had no formatting problems on my Kindle.
Book Clubs & Reviews
Not recommended, although you could while away an evening drinking wine and seeing who spotted the most errors. In fairness, it does have some good discussion points: mental instability, love, obsession, the art world and writing style, but I don’t think you would gain any fans by picking it for your club.
What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it 4.2 stars (19 reviewers); Amazon US readers give it 5 stars (7 reviewers); Goodreads readers give it 3.33 stars (3 ratings).
Buy & Author
Published by Quartet Books, UK, 2011
Quartet Books (paperback £12)
hive.co.uk (paperback £9.16; epub £4.48)
Amazon (Kindle £3.00/$6.39; paperback £12.00; audio download £13.10)
iTunes (audio $15.95)
Follow the author:
Website www.hughcornwell.com (for his music as well as his writing)
Twitter @HughCornwell (mainly promoting upcoming gigs and, rather bizarrely, is written in the third person)
Links of interest