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The Book of Color by Julia Blackburn

The Book of Color (1995)

by Julia Blackburn

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914199,429 (3.66)7



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E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, doesn't see why the novelist has to wrap up everything at the end. Why can't the novelist just stop, he says, or something to that effect. I have often wondered so myself given the painfully elongated summings-up so many novelists, even present-day novelists, impose upon their readers. Now, however, I think I understand why such advice might not always be applicable. Take Julia Blackburn’s short novel, The Book of Color. This novel is for the most part enjoyable. One gets 165 wonderfully modulated pages, pages in which the novelist’s art is masterfully on display. One glides along them with such ease, such delight. Then—splat!—you’re in a gutter and the cold water is washing over your splayed and alarmed form. I understand that part of the charm of Ms. Blackburn’s book is in what it does not address, its elisions. She’s very good at leaving things out, as good as Ernest Hemingway ever was in that respect. There are wonderful uses of elision here, but with regard to narrator motivation, more, I think, must be provided. In such a case it does not seem right to simply stop, which is what the abrupt ending here feels like. The narrator is obviously compelled to this oneiric study of her family’s past, but why? Some sense of the significance it holds for her must be given. But we get nothing, nothing. The omission of the narrator’s rationale seems to me a terrible mistake. As a reader I was utterly lost without it. Let me take this opportunity then to recommend other works by Ms Blackburn, including The Emperor's Last Island and Old Man Goya. Both are nonfiction works that blend biography and memoir. Quite wonderful, I think. ( )
  William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
I love when a book is beautiful and poetic, I love when it tells a good story, and I love when an author finds a creative way to put everything together. This book blended all of those things into one experience that was somewhat over the top on all, but is also very hard to explain. This is a story about a family history, but it is not told in the typical way, but through memories of a life lived between grandfather, son, and child. There were moments when I found myself completely wrapped up in the story, however they were contrasted with times when I felt I wasn't really certain where things were going. It was worth sticking through the short chapters, because in the end I was touched by something powerful, even if I wasn't quite sure what it was. ( )
  mirrani | Sep 23, 2013 |
Julia Blackburn has written a biography or a memoir if you will about the paternal side of her family that goes back as far as her great grandfather. But this is not a conventional, genealogically straight-forward biography. The author swoops in and out of her father and grand-father’s lives through dreams and nightmares, mentally visiting rooms within a large ethereal house each connected by long white corridors. In each room she encounters a place in time inhabited by her ancestors. The author becomes a part of her ancestor’s lives as if by some form of bilocation. While in this fantastical state of bilocation she interacts most often with her grandfather (whose name we are never privy to), the dark-skinned son of a white missionary and his son, Eliel, the author’s father. On the island of Praslin, one of the smaller islands of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the white missionary is busy trying to stamp out copulation while simultaneously trying to deny the colour of his own act of copulation. The Missionary’s dark-skinned wife is cursed by a witchdoctor and she and her son flee to the island of Mauritius to try and hide or outrun the witchdoctor’s curse. Julia Blackburn’s father arrives In England aged eighteen having been trained as an Anglican Priest on Mauritius but the curse appears to have followed him over the ocean.
The book is not an easy read. The subject matter is unsettling; racism, self loathing and mental illness, and the writing style has a surreal texture to it. However, if you want an easy read there are plenty of celebrity biographies out there to satiate your appetite.
The book is laid out in a series of short chapters with an average of five pages per chapter. It is said that we have an average of six dreams per night within an eight hour sleep. The short chapters reflect that dream state. They allow the reader to end the dream or nightmare with the close of a chapter. The short chapters allow you reflect and cogitate what you have just read before moving on to the next chapter/dream.
As with any surreal style of art, symbolism features rather heavily. There is a lot of looking out of windows, standing at windows, looking at one’s reflection in windows. There is a barely a chapter that doesn’t mention the act of shaking; the Grandfather shakes, the grandfather’s friend shakes uncontrollably, the author’s father shakes and trembles at various times through the book, Uncle Julius the missionary’s brother shakes Eliel by the shoulders when greeting him and zombies shake themselves free from the ground.
This prevalent image of shaking is not simply a symbol of the fear that the every character in the book feels quite palpably but is symbolic of one of the thematic motifs that run through the book, a curse. The grandfather states that curses are “very hard to shake off”. The curse placed on the author’s grandmother appears to follow the family down through the generations culminating in the Eliel’s mental illness in his fifties.
Here is Ms Blackburn’s strength. Her ability through her rich, layered unpretentious writing has the twenty first century reader believing in witchdoctor curses by the end of the book. Like the curse, racist attitudes rear their ugly head throughout the book. But thankfully the author never lectures or gives an opinion on said racist attitudes. She simply lays out the truth of the matter and allows the reader to find their own feelings regarding this issue. This is rendered in a beautifully, understated passage that has Eliel being handed a book by his new teacher Mr Swann. In the book are the names of local families that are black but like to be thought of as white.
This is the first book review and I have been lucky in finding such a wonderful book to kick off my blog.
Julia Blackburn’s seemingly effortless style is at times beguiling and thought provoking. In the wrong hands The Book of Colour could have quite easily have became polemical and sentimental. The author has allowed the reader a peek into her ancestor’s lives and I believe it is just that, a peek. One can assume that there is so much more behind Julia Blackburn’s biographical curtains pertaining to her family. My only criticism is that the reader is left wondering what became of some of the people within the book; Eliel’s mother who suffered because of mental illness, Evalina Larose, relative or servant, and most importantly Eliel’s father who stayed behind on the island of Praslin. I have so many questions but so few answers. However, it may well be that the author does not have all the answers. It is a small criticism over-shadowed by my admiration and recommendation. ( )
  Kitscot | Jul 10, 2013 |
This is a difficult book to delineate. The beginning was so esoteric that I almost moved on to something else; however, I'm glad I trusted the Orange Prize judges who shortlisted the book in 1996. The sparse prose reveals a haunting tale of how a descendant of a wretched family traces her grandfather's story.

He was the son of a missionary intent on wiping out fornication among his island charges. Victorian Christian morality mingles with native beliefs about zombies and ghosts. A family curse drives a young boy's mother insane and into exile on Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island of colorful birds, verdant forests, and jagged mountains. It is a lonely place for a boy left in the care of his cold uncle, but he finds comfort in his dreams, imagination, and an unlikely companion.

The tale is beautifully told but there was no sense of completion other than a vague sense of sadness as the narrator delves into the past. There were only hints about the implications of mixed heritage that I wish had been explored in further depth. The author's family is from Mauritius and perhaps she intended to be hazy about her family history. It left me wanting more, though sometimes that can be a good thing in a book. ( )
4 vote Donna828 | Jul 10, 2012 |
Showing 4 of 4
This bare-boned if highly convoluted plot is laid out by Ms. Blackburn in rich, highly patterned prose that uses repeated motifs, images and phrases to create a narrative that is less literary than musical and visual in effect. . . intriguing but unsatisfying novel.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679758372, Paperback)

In the late 19th century, an English missionary arrives on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, intent on wiping our fornication among the natives. Instead he incurs a curse that strikes first his dark-skinned wife, then his son and grandson. But is the curse supernatural--or a white man's guilty fascination with an alien new world? "A hypnotic, cryptic, haunting exploration of the power of memory."--Boston Globe.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:58:48 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A Christian missionary arrives on an Indian Ocean island to convert the natives and the local witch doctor replies with a curse. The novel traces the effect of the curse. The missionary marries a native woman and his descendants, who return to England, are cursed with a colored skin in a white man's world.… (more)

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