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Seven Types of Ambiguity (2004)

by Elliot Perlman

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1,1753013,818 (3.96)47
At once a psychological thriller and a social critique, is a story of obsessive love in an age of obsessive materialism. Of impulse and paralysis, of empty marriages, lovers and a small boy, gambling and the market, of adult children and their parents, of poetry and prostitution, psychiatry and the law.… (more)
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English (27)  Italian (1)  French (1)  All languages (29)
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
(8.5) Well this book really slowed the reading process down. I thought being over 600 pages it would be good to read on kindle but with 3-4 swipes for every page it felt an even longer read. Where to start?
The plot revolves around the events pertaining to the kidnap of a young boy, Sam, by his mother's, Anna, ex-college boyfriend Simon, whom she has not seen for 10 years. Meanwhile Simon has been obsessing about her and believes that by taking her son he will get to see and speak to her again.
The book is divided in to seven sections, each giving voice to a different character in the story and hence projecting different points of view on to the events pertaining to the alleged kidnap.
The book opens with the voice of the psychiatrist Alex. This is the section I struggled to engage with the most. As he is addressing Anna about Simon, it would appear later in the last section that these were extracts from his personal journal. It moves through the various characters voices, Angela/Angelique, a prostitute whom Simon befriends and indeed she falls in love with him despite his problems with alcohol and declining mental health. Joe, who works in the stockmarket, Anna's husband and Sam's father who is visiting Angelique professionally every week for two years. Anna, of course, who is unhappy in her marriage and engaged in a platonic affair with a lawyer she met through her husband. Simon with his relationship with Angela and the friendship that develops with Alex his psychiatrist, which sees Simon lose his professional perspective of Simon's mental decline. Mitch, Joe's business associate, whom Joe perceives as his closest friend but Mitch actually resents Joe and has a totally different perception of their relationship and following an accident seeks Angelique out professionally and finally Rachael, Alex the psychiatrist's daughter, ten years on is reading her father's journal, where we find the outcome of the trial and what has become of the various characters.
Sounds confusing but they do become distinct and each voice moves the plot line forward and provides insight into modern lifestyles and the somewhat materialistic values that reflect contemporary life and impinge on everyday life and relationships. ( )
  HelenBaker | Aug 5, 2022 |
Jan 2019 review: My Nov 2016 rating still stands; every word. However, I can no longer excuse the fact that every character is in dire need of a year of strong attendance to strict Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, with two characters desperately needing strong attendance to the most welcoming, strong-boundary having of Codependents Anonymous meetings. This book isn't fun anymore. Everyone needs to grow a fucking spine. Divorce is treated as a crime worse than any grisly murder. Simon fucking ruins everything and is a massive douchebag. Joe has the thought patterns of a Misogynist Rights Activist. Alex needs a course or a few of ethics in psychiatry, and to step away. I'm still sad about his ending, though. Mitch would be an ableist, whiny manbaby if he weren't simply a bitter, ableist man. Angelique deserved so, so much better and my heart broke for her. Accurate disability portrayal that wasn't tragic, was appreciated. Anna certainly faced tragedy, but psychologically is a fucking teenager who's still scared of the nuns. She has no boundaries and while her and Simon's narrations were two of the most interesting, I was just so annoyed by her. She refuses to be active in her own life and can't make a single decision for herself or the well-being of her son, and, grr. I used to adore this book tons. The writing is still wonderful. The characters drained my enjoyment, over the years, and now it was a chore to finish. I'm grateful for how the book shaped me as a reader over the years, the joy it gave me by being a great book, and the wonder upon each reread. I'll still hang on to my signed copy, but the other two will be donated to my local library.

Nov 2016 review: This is not a psychological thriller at all. It is a character study, a brilliant portrayal of alcoholism, a searing look at how one person gauges their relationship to another and how differences arise and play out. Seven people talk about their relationships to one another, in particular how they changed when a little boy was kidnapped. Few of the characters are physically described, which adds a depth to the book I wasn't aware of until a few years ago. Sometimes, not describing how a character looks is lazy writing. In this instance, it was not.
Often, there are no dialogue tags, and during entire conversations, the reader doesn't know who's doing what--only what people are saying. It adds a sense of urgency, and can lead the reader to worry for a character. Australian cultural and location references are cleverly slipped in. Cultural and location references are often jammed into other books, addressed immediately on the first page, and lend little to nothing to the actual story. Here, it was done brilliantly and was necessary, particularly in regards to New South Wales' legal system: one character is tried for kidnapping; another earns her living as a prostitute. In the eyes of an American, it could seem like every character in this book drinks frequently, and why is there so much emphasis on turning twenty-one? In America, that amount of drinking is not socially accepted, and turning eighteen is emphasized. Not to mention America's views on sex work (widely illegal and stigmatized) compared to New South Wales (legal depending on the state, but still stigmatized. Working on the streets is seen as illegal and dangerous, whereas in America, it seems as though that's what everyone thinks sex work is).
I would have liked for the psychiatrist to reveal more about his upbringing, and his patient would like for him, as well. How it was eventually done was annoying and felt like a cop-out. A reconciliation that took place in the book was glossed over, and it always annoys me. I do not want to -imagine- how it happened, because it's something the audience needs to -know.- How did the characters get to that point? It seems like the author got tired of his own story.
The portrayal of a disintegrating marriage and the level of the two spouses' disdain for each other, was written so well that certain paragraphs still take my breath away. The author leads us through those characters' thought process for each decision they have made in their lives. Sometimes when I read the book, it makes me angry and judgmental. Other times, it breaks my heart. SIDS is a topic covered in this novel and it was treated with the respect it deserves. The pages describing it have always stayed with me. Lack of sexual consent is also portrayed in various circumstances, and the realistic portrayal is always disconcerting, to say the least. I wanted to vomit the first time I read those passages. I do feel they are necessary to plot and characterization of some relationships, though. There are few descriptions of the acts themselves; the focus is almost entirely on the characters' emotions. The characters do talk about ongoing emotions they have as a result, and the author evokes empathy.
One thing I appreciated about this book is that people actually went to the bathroom. In most books, people don't because the audience doesn't need to know, and it doesn't add anything. In omitting this, though, it makes every character seem--too good for it or something. I don't know. But in this book, it is sometimes used as a subplot point (he leaves the bathroom and gets a phone call. He wants to use the bathroom because he is so worried about a business meeting. He walks his dog so his dog can relieve itself), and for another character, the fact that she pees more often than others is revealed to be a symptom of MS.
On that character's MS: The fact that she pees more often than others, often unexpectedly, is portrayed as a symptom of MS. It is one of many things that leads to her diagnosis. Another is vision issues, particularly in her left eye. After her diagnosis and ongoing treatment, her vision problems aren't widely discussed, but the uncontrollable urination is. I thought that was an interesting choice, to omit the vision issues after the treatment had begun. Living with a disability that affects mobility, vision and bladder control was accurately portrayed. The audience is never supposed to pity her for her illness. It just -is-. I appreciate this more with every re-read.
Religion: Several characters in this book are lapsed Catholics and their upbringing led them to make certain decisions. It drove me insane until I asked a lapsed Catholic about it. She used the word "brainwashing" as she answered my question. I was shocked, but calmed down and was able to understand the characters' choices more from them on. ("Brainwashing" is still a strong word. I'm not Catholic. I need to calm down.) I later asked a highly strict Catholic the same question, and got some...interesting insight. I was glad to learn something new.

I will admit the outcome of the trial was convenient. After a few years, I realized I considered it stupid. In current re-reads, I felt cheated. I was quite expecting something that did not happen. And no, this is not a cultural difference. The author set the crime, arrest, interrogation, incarceration, and trial all to be realistic, so, for the trial conclusion to be what it was, was...uncalled for, is the phrase that comes to mind. At the same time, it...fits. It fits with every single major character in the book. We understand -why- it had to end that way, even though it -shouldn't- have.

And yet, I love this book so much, that even though it is a shining example of "white, straight, cisgender male gets everything he ever wanted in this world with over-the-top suffering at certain moments," I read it often. This is the book that introduced me to Elliot Perlman. It made me want to read all his books, which I have. My life has been changed and I learned a lot about myself when I read this. Cliche, but true. I rarely recommend this book to people, as it certainly is not a book for everyone. But when books come up and I am asked my favorite, I say a few sentences about this one and offer to lend the person my to-read (lend out to friends) copy. I have three copies: a "my own personal" copy, with a spine that is beginning to split, a "to-read" copy that I understand I might not get back (if someone loses it or something), and a signed, hardback copy that was lovingly given to me by a dear family member. I gushed about how beautiful it was in hardback edition, and grabbed it to put on my bookshelf. My family member gently stopped me and told me to look inside. I ran around my house screaming when I saw it was signed. I was eighteen when that happened, and no, my behavior was not juvenile. It was entirely appropriate for the situation and I would likely do it again if I were given the signed copy today! ( )
  iszevthere | Jun 21, 2022 |
If I'd had to guess, I would have said 'tour de force' is one of those expressions we use, but the French don't. Not that we do use it, it's one of those expressions you can't use because it's been watered down in that way, you know. The coffee is awesome. That kind of way.

To my surprise, however, I see this book, which the French love, described by them as a 'tour de force'. I can't help thinking that when the French use this expression they probably don't mean it is a trivial thing, slightly better than another comparable trivial thing.

I was reading what the French have to say about Perlman because he is regularly described as being 'one of the 50 most important writers in the world' a tag accorded him by Lire magazine. I couldn't find that when I looked at their site. But they clearly adore him, as do the Germans:


His second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was a national bestseller in France where it was described as 'one of the best novels of recent years, a complete success' (Le Monde). In Germany it was called a 'literary sensation' (Deutschlandradio), 'an impressive, iridescent all-encompassing view of feeling' (Der Spiegel), and described as having "the virtues of the great modern European novel' (Süddeutsche Zeitung).


So good, his work could be considered European. Thus does a blatantly Australian writer arrive.

How about in Australia? The SMH, in an interview, observed of this novel that 'it has also brought him extravagant praise he has not quite yet won here.' I guess I have to 'fess up. I've never read any of his books, though I did see the movie of his first and it was terrific. I'm making up for it, the others will be read soon.

Australians may take for granted this writer who has electrified the world with his work, but of the many awards and accolades Seven Types of Ambiguity has received, I wonder if one that would sit best with the author is The Queensland Premier's award for Advancing Public Debate. Here is a man who cares, Elliot Perlman, he cares passionately and he does not disguise that for one moment. This book is a moving indictment of white first world attitudes, the ones that have forgotten any sense of common good and are all about get more, more, more for me, me, me. In some writers you'd be relieved that he got away with this, that it didn't spoil a good yarn, but Perlman is so good he has you all but weeping with disgust at the way you live whilst utterly unable to put down a book which has a plot, characters, dialogue, clever construction and technique.

For several days in a row I did almost nothing but sit with all 607 pages in two point font. There are times when I feel bad that I give so many books 3 stars that others give more generously to. But then, every now and again a book comes along that is so obviously so superior that I remember why I save up 5 stars. In fact, right now what I think I'm going to do is review my 5 star ratings, just to make sure the others are worthy enough to be in the company of this book. It's that good. ( )
1 vote bringbackbooks | Jun 16, 2020 |
It is surprising that I hadn't included this previously. There was at the time of its publication a certain buzz about the book, one hued all Franzen-like and I found out that it was availible in a local library outside of our county (this was before reciprocity) and I arranged for a friend to check out the novel and i quickly read such in the wake. It was very bleh; authorial wrinkles, people living suburban lives with a thoughtful poet at the core. Okay. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
Re-read. Still fab. ( )
  davidroche | Jan 10, 2015 |
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At once a psychological thriller and a social critique, is a story of obsessive love in an age of obsessive materialism. Of impulse and paralysis, of empty marriages, lovers and a small boy, gambling and the market, of adult children and their parents, of poetry and prostitution, psychiatry and the law.

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At once a psychological thriller and a social critique, Seven Types of Ambiguity is a novel of obsessive love in an age of obsessive materialism.

Following years of unrequited love, an out-of-work schoolteacher decides to take matters into his own hands, triggering a chain of events no one could have anticipated.

This is a story of impulse and paralysis, of empty marriages, lovers and a small boy, gambling and the market, of adult children and their parents, of poetry and prostitution, psychiatry and the law.

Published to huge acclaim in the author’s native Australia, Seven Types of Ambiguity was hailed as ‘a tour de force’ (The Age) and described as ‘Perlman’s achingly humane, richly layered and seamlessly constructed masterpiece’ (Canberra Times).
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