Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Book Review: In the Company of Others, Or, A Reflection on Modern Fiction
I read a book recently that is different from my normal fare. This book, In the Company of Others, is by Jan Karon and is the second of her Father Tim novels. She wrote another popular series called Mitford with the same main character. This is the first book by Karon that I’ve read and I can see why she’s a bestseller. My dad, a voracious reader, read most of her books and enjoyed them; this one caught my attention because it was about a trip Father Tim Kavanagh, a newly retired Episcopalian priest, and his wife Cynthia took to Ireland.
Now first of all, I love Ireland - although I’ve never been there, I think it must be the prettiest country of all and certainly one of the most fascinating. And secondly, I’m on the lookout for books about contemporary England (if you know of any, please share them!) but this was close enough to be a profitable read. I was mainly interested in how Karon wrote about a trip abroad: what traveling details she included, like jetlag and travelers’ perceptions of Ireland, and how she put a story about people in a book about a faraway place, where readers would be interested in cultural information as well as what happens to the characters.
I would have loved more description of scenery and culture, but it would probably have had to have been included at the expense of the full and touching story of Father Tim and Cynthia’s involvement with their Irish friends. It was a story not dissimilar to my Adventure in England: a broken family, complete with a rebellious daughter, whom God uses the Kavanaghs to put back together. The characters were surprisingly well-drawn with the few brush strokes of description Karon used; even though she didn’t use clear character descriptions, she “showed” her characters through dialogue, action, and the casual inner observations of Father Tim. I got an impression of what they were like while I was reading, but I would have a hard time describing their personalities to you now.
Jan Karon is what I would call a minimalist, very sparing of unnecessary words. Often her sentences would have only one brilliant word, if any at all, while the rest faded into the background. It moved the story along, but I missed the beautiful prose of my favorite novels. However, I think it was a good lesson for me to see how few words are needed to tell a story; her prose felt free and uncluttered because she frequently used incomplete sentences and left out dialogue tags, the word “and,” (“She wiped her eyes, looked at her watch.”) and action that could be implied from the scene. She never refers to Father Tim by his name unless someone calls him that; he is always “he” in the narrative, as Cynthia is usually “she.” It creates an extreme intimacy with the main characters.
I wouldn’t like the informality of writing Jan Karon’s way, but it was interesting to see how it works for her. The story was wonderful and impacting and if you read modern authors I would recommend In the Company of Others. Father Tim and Cynthia are delightful and an intriguing subplot was their reading of the 1860s journal of a country doctor.
I don’t need to observe that the majority of modern authors are out for a “minimalist” style, at least as compared to the classics, and that reflects modern society; but I love words and find a wordy novel a work of art. I’ve found that the more wordy and descriptive a modern author is, the more I like him or her. The more words, the more information the book conveys and the more encompassing it is. Of course there are more reasons than that why I love classic literature, but that is a big one for me.
What about you? What do you like or not like about modern fiction as opposed to the classics?