Debatable Land

Candia McWilliam, Author
Candia McWilliam, Author Nan A. Talese $23.5 (284p) ISBN 978-0-385-26310-8
Reviewed on: 01/30/1995
Release date: 02/01/1995
Hardcover - 224 pages - 978-0-7475-2743-5
Paperback - 224 pages - 978-1-4088-2299-9
Hardcover - 216 pages - 978-0-7475-1708-5
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McWilliam (A Case of Knives) is one of the more admired younger British writers, and it's easy to see why. Her writing is brilliant in the extreme, full of cunning metaphors, sharp insights, gorgeous turns of phrase; it is also a bit excessive, to the point where the reader longs for some uninflected narrative--which fortunately turns up often enough to sustain interest. Her novel is an artificial construct, all the same: a picture of six people on a small boat during a Pacific voyage, enjoying island landfalls (some fine travel writing here), three of them remembering in vivid detail their native Scotland (superb evocations of Edinburgh, the author's native city). What's lacking in her tale of the interrelationships among a group of oddly assorted characters--powerful Logan Urquhart, the boat's moody skipper; his shadowy wife, Elspeth; the exile artist Alec Dundas; the young English girl, Gabriel; and the deck hands, Nick and Sandro-- is any sense of inevitability or real momentum. McWilliam writes with considerable imagination, but the characters seem to exist in a vacuum; and the inevitable storm at sea that forms the book's climax, magnificently evoked though it is, does not create the significant changes the author seems to be trying for. Any connoisseur of fine writing will find much to rejoice in here, but the book adds up to no more than a collection of bonbons. (Mar.)
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