Book Review: Fearsome Particles

I have not read Trevor Cole's much vaunted first novel Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life. So I had no great expectations of the author to fulfill or falter, just the natural curiousity and anticipation of turning to a fresh book.

In The Fearsome Particles, Cole recounts the story of a modern, middle-class Canadian family (father, mother, son) whose life has been skewed since the son dropped out of school to work as military support in Afghanistan for a year.

The story begins with the son Kyle's mysterious early return, though it's clear something has been amiss since his departure. His anxious father Gerald (a business exec for a failling window screen and air-filter company) starts the novel dithering about his wife Vicki's strange emotional withdrawal and lack of curiousity as to the reason of Kyle's return, as well as the continuing failure of the company for which he works.

The narration is handed round between the characters like a talking stick - Gerald, Vicki and Kyle each get their turn and Cole gives them each a distinct voice, manner and depressing collection of problems.

Because, you see, Fearsome Particles is a sad book, about sad people in sad times. The family drama is vaguely remniscent of American Beauty (replacing sex with war and business). The family, who should have enough, struggles to communicate, and is hamstrung by an inability to take action.

I have the same problem with this book that I have with Wuthering Heights - the characters aren't sympathetic enough for me to care about. I can't like them, I can't love to hate them. I can only hope that real people feeling the way they feel get professional help.

They're well drawn, almost too believable, but at best all I could feel for them was pity (rather than fully relating to them). They are all so internal and so distant from each other and the lesser characters that people their story, there's no way for them to reach a reader in spite of our access to their innermost thoughts.

Gerald, with his throes of anxiety mixed with selfish belligerence, struck me, but also kind of appalled me. His desperation for control of his family and logical, rational behavior make him painfully repressed. He has no outlet, no passion, only planets of worry.

Vicki, who 'stages' mansions for sale, shows more attention and parental affection to her fantasies than her family. Yes, it's escapism, and insufficient at that, as her symptoms of falling apart around the edges are thrust in our face, but I can't buy a mother so distant and laissez-faire. Where Gerald demands control, Vicki has surrendered it entirely.

The key mystery in the story is Kyle. The 'incident' in Afghanistan that brings him home early is teased like the the last episode of Survivor; yet it's ultimate reveal is weak. Kyle's irritating-as-hell and bizarre behavior is meant to come off as a kind of post-traumatic stress, but falls short and reads plainly as 'immature jerk whose psych profile would have prevented his going to a warzone.'

Cole's story does have a point, and his characters do exhibit some change in understanding by the end, each as befits their issues, though a little too neatly (which isn't to say too dramatically, fear not - they are left with plenty ends untied).

Ultimately, though I can admire the skill of the writing and the voice of the characters, I just didn't enjoy reading the book. The characters have no joy, no small satisfaction, only coping mechanisms, disappointments, and guilt.

The characters will stay will me, but have given me nothing more than their problems.

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