Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft

I've tried twice to write the review for Alex Beecroft's The Wages of Sin and each time I've gotten bogged down in trying to explain something that feels fairly ephemeral. At a very basic, big-picture level, I liked the book. The story idea was one that interested me and I did feel invested in the romance between Charles, youngest son of the Earl Clitheroe and Jasper, the priest with a mysterious past.

But, at a more fundamental level, I think the book failed. Because how you write a book is just as important as what you're writing about. Language matters. And while I understand Beecroft's to immerse the reader in her historical background by writing in the old-fashioned, bordering on florid prose of the time, I think it was ultimately a mistake.

Beecroft's story is one that predicates on passion. The ghost Margaret was betrayed by her love for Henry Latham, Charles's grandfather (iirc); he seduced her, knocked her up, refused to marry her and then, as the topper to a very moldy cake, sealed her and her unborn child in a wall to suffocate and die. Margaret's ally, the servant girl, Mary, was fucked by first Charles's father, the Earl and then, later, Charles's brother, George and though it's not entirely clear what Mary felt about the Earl or the exact circumstances under which either of those relationships started, it's clear by the end of the book that Mary (who's a bit unbalanced and who can blame her) both loves and hates George. And she's hardly alone in that.

Jasper's story is just as intimately entwined with George as Mary's and from Jasper we get a larger picture of George as both very charming and incredibly careless with people (arguably, even Charles, though in a non-sexual way). Jasper is the first to show us George the seducer, who attracts men and women like moths and flame and who burns through them with equal disregard. And, in this respect, Jasper is the avatar for everything that's wrong at the root of the Latham family tree; helplessly in love with George, willing to do anything to have a moment of George's time…and ruined for it. Then, later, when he tries to extricate himself from George and refuse George's advances, George presses the point anyway, taking what he wants by pressure or personality and the power of his status. And Jasper, a bastard son who only had his calling to the church and his hopeless love for George, loses everything, defrocked and sent home in shame.

It's a powerful story, one about abuse and privilege, love and hate, murder and ghosts, but in the end, it's that much weaker (to me, at least) specifically because of the distancing of the elaborate, pseudo-historical prose. Beecroft's prose was purple enough that, at times, I didn't even feel like I had a good grasp of what was happening, let alone why, and the passivity of it robs it of most of its impact. I could decipher what was going on, I understood it, but I didn't feel it. And for a story predicated on such deep, raw passions, it (heh) killed the story, a story that, otherwise, would've been perfect for my story needs.

So obviously the prose was the biggest obstacle for me, from it's puzzling vagueness to its passive distancing, but it wasn't the only one. The pacing seems very much like a Poe or Lovecraft story—which fits with tone and (mas o menos) the time period—very heavy on the windup and entirely too fast and sketchy on the denouement. At 86 ebook pages, there isn't a lot of space to tighten up the body of the story, especially since much of it is taken up with details that may seem trivial at the time but go into the overall picture, but there's definitely room for the denouement and epilogue to be expanded and built upon into something that feels more natural and less rushed. I'm always loathe to pass judgment on a book until I read the ending because so many authors see that light at the end of the tunnel and start running for it, ruining (or at least dinging up) an otherwise good story. Such is the case here.

Beecroft doesn't spend enough time explaining or exploring Jasper's supposed supernatural sight—its parameters or uses—and his appearance at the end is fairly deus ex machina. As well, Charles doesn't seem disaffected with his family enough to justify throwing off the expectations and obligations to throw it all over (and he certainly doesn't seem to have developed enough backbone, imo) to go into a (scandalous) ghost hunting business with Jasper and the idea itself seems unfounded and comes out of nowhere. For it to work, I would've needed to see Charles come across as more disgusted and more angry with George, in particular, and some hint that he was interested in greater independence from a family that seemed, largely to have little use for him anyway. And though Jasper makes a one-line mention of how he needs to figure out what to do with himself now that he's defrocked and disgraced, it still elt abrupt for him to suddenly turn up with the idea and for Charles to agree so easily and quickly. I could totally buy all of these things, but I felt like they needed to show up—or at least be foreshadowed—before the last 3 pages of the book.

Overall, The Wages of Sin is an okay read. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it and I was certainly a lot more turned on by the ideas inside it than the way Beecroft executed those ideas.

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