published next month (March 2013)
Katherine Rundell's extraordinarily well-received debut novel, The Girl Savage, passed me by but my expectations of this, her second novel, could not help but be raised by all the enthusiastic comments about that first book filling the back page of the publicity sheet.
The writing is lucid and the chapters are short. Structurally I found the narrative a bit loose; somewhat languid. I wanted to hurry it along. I didn't feel enough was happening.
Sophie, as a young girl, survives the sinking of a passenger ship. She is, apparently, the only female survivor - found, as a baby, floating in a cello case in the middle of the English Channel. The man who lifts her into the rescue boat - a fellow traveller and scholar - becomes her guardian. The early part of the book concerns the difficulty Charles has in persuading the authorities that he is the right person to fulfil that role.
Sophie becomes convinced that her mother was a musician on the ship that sank; convinced also, against all the evidence, that she survived.
Once the action moves to Paris - by which time Sophie is considerably older - I expected the mother-searching to begin in earnest. Instead, the middle part of the novel is taken up with the relationship between Sophie and Matteo, a 'rooftopper'. Charles believes in freedom, so effectively gives Sophie his blessing to wander the rooftops of Paris all through the night with an unknown friend. Hmmm. Well, it is set in a different period of time, not the present, so I guess we can suspend disbelief.
But I did find myself becoming restless in this section of the book. Rundell seems to fall into the trap of becoming beguiled by her new character and the whole notion of roof-dwelling and too set on evoking the thrill of this lifestyle without actually moving the narrative along.
Matteo is eventually the agent who leads to a satisfactory conclusion to the quest, but it does not come about in any emotionally involving way. (There is a brief sequence of gang rivalry, with knives flashing, and the heroine kicking someone in the crotch, but this sequence is so out of character with the rest of the story that it appears merely gratuitous.) The finale is picturesque and seen from a distance, through Charles's eyes. It is over too quickly, and left me feeling frustrated. I could imagine the much better, more engrossing novel it could have been. It would have taken some reworking, some rewriting. But it would have been worth it.
I'm giving it four chicks, even though my review reads as if it deserves fewer, because it could so nearly have become a very fine five-chick read.