Published: 01 May 2008
Canongate Books Ltd.
Anne Donovan's second novel (or third if we include her collection of short stories Hieroglyphics) Being Emily is a classical coming of age novel. Not particularly incisive, rough or intense; this not being its intention anyway. There are certainly melodrama incursions in the life of Fiona, the main character, as sooner or later tragedy crosses the life of any of us and Fiona is no exception, but Anne Donovan's intention is more focused on the personal development of her heroine than in the melodratic elements surrounding her.
There are several points in common with Anne Donovan's previous novel Buddha Da which articulate what we may call the Donovan style: a common landscape - Glasgow - the use of the Glasgewian dialect and a common socioeconomic background for their characters.
Its main virtue is also its main problem. This normality, this minor key narrative, gives credibility, develops currents of symphathy between the reader and the characters but also tends to boredom, to a sense of déjà vu. This is no new Salinger, no renovated Kate Atkinson unveiling family secrets, this is just (but no less) a fair narrator of a conventional (not to be taken pejoratively) story.
Fiona likes Emily Brontë. Like Anne Donovan herself, she has read and reread her poetry and Wuthering Heights, as much as any of us before her, and is fascinated by the life of the Brontë family. The moors and Haworth mythology represent an ideal mental refuge from the chaos and the lack of understanding of a much-too-conventional family. Her artistic ambitions and her own quest for her place in the world are mirrored in the I-wish-to-be-as-God-made-me Emily, the Emily-sphinx, in short the Emily-Romantic icon (with a capital R).
As Stevie Davies has pointed out, the novel has a turning point when Fiona visits the National Portrait Gallery and sees Branwell's portrait of Emily. She somehow realises the power of the myth but also her flaws. Branwell's Romantic image of her sister matches her own idealised image of the version of Emily she wants to be. And from then on, Fiona's character takes a new path that will eventually result in a rather conforming ending. Not altogether unconvincing, but nevertheless somewhat tame.
The novel is full of Brontë references (explicit and non explicit), from Fiona trying to emulate the Brontës' little books with her own sisters (and failing miserably), to a trip to Haworth (including the Brontë Parsonage Library!), to echoes of Wuthering Heights in Fiona's two boyfriends: Jas and Amrik, to Branwell's fire episode at the Parsonage... The mentions are not gratuitous and mix well with the narrative.
In short, a well-crafted novel that reads well (the description of the Glasgow Festival of Light is particularly charming), which for once doesn't take all teenagers as uncanny hooligans and which is able to create some lovable characters (sometimes even much-too-nice, like the almost perfect Jas). The Brontë substratum is nicely interwoven into the narrative, and this is one of the best things a blog like ours can say.
http://www.theskinny.co.uk/article/42590-being-emily-is-pure-great-but (Retrieved 30 June 2008)
http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2280527,00.html (Retrieved 1 July 2008)
http://www.britishcouncil.org/hungary-arts-literature-donovan.htm (Retrieved 1 July 2008)
http://www.winterfestglasgow.com/whatson/radiance/ (Retrieved 1 July 2008)
Categories: Books, Review