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The Scar Night Problem, or ‘why reviews keep screwing me over’

30 October, 2008

I keep a record of all the books I read, including a short, 30 second summary of my thoughts on the book. I’ve recently finished reading ‘Scar Night’ by Alan Campbell and thought I’d share this particular summary:

Hugely inventive but sometimes macabre just for the sake of it. Ultimately rewarding but a bit of a slog to get to the end.

Now, I don’t want to get into a full review here – Scar Night has been reviewed dozens of times and generally glowingly. However, this book and my final summary of it have brought something home to me that I’ve been noticing a lot recently. I keep reading books that have received brilliant reviews and finding myself not liking them, although I can’t immediately decide why. Let me explain.

Scar Night is, as I mentioned before, hugely inventive. It has more good ideas in it than some authors’ entire back catalogues. It’s beautifully written with fascinating characters and an even more fascinating setting. On my paperback copy, there are eighteen positive blurbs from respectable sources and, as a whole, I agree with what they say. And yet, I’ve really struggled to get to the end of this book. It’s literally taken me weeks to read it.

I encountered this same problem a few months ago with ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora’. Inventive, great fun, well-written and generally well-received by reviewers. And yet, I really struggled to get to the end.

In that case, I decided it was the lack of female characters that put me off. There simply weren’t any, or at least none that got to do anything other than die horribly so that the male characters could feel bad. In the case of Scar Night, it’s more complicated. There are female characters and I even quite like them. So why was this book such damned hard work to read?

I’m still not entirely sure. Ultimately, I think it may be that even though I liked the characters, I couldn’t identify with them. Admittedly, I’m getting close to GCSE English territory here (I hope never again to have to write about why characters are ‘sympathetic’ to the reader), but I think my problem with Scar Night is that I feel I have nothing at all in common with any of the characters.

Clearly, this is my problem rather than the book’s, as plenty of other people liked it. Still, I’m starting to be more wary of books which are reviewed in terms of ‘gripping yarn’, ‘thrilling saga’ and ‘vivid imagery’ without really mentioning whether the characters are as believable – and yes, ‘sympathetic’ – as they are grotesque.

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