The Lace Reader

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 October, 2008, 12:00am

The Lace Reader

by Brunonia Barry

William Morrow, HK$200

Unfortunately the accolade 'best-seller' does not accurately reflect a book's literary merits. Rather it points to a compulsive, or at least effortless, read.

Brunonia Barry's debut novel, The Lace Reader, is such a book. It is already topping America's reading charts. Yet while it is easy enough to wander through it is far from being a remarkable piece of work.

The plot - a mystery with a twist - does offer enough snippets to maintain the reader's curiosity. There are also certain descriptions of places or activities, such as lobster trapping, and even of local trivia, which are genuinely evocative. These give the novel some grit.

However, Barry's writing style is often strained, her change of perspectives discordant. The characters are largely unbelievable and most are forgettable.

The Lace Reader is set in Salem, Massachusetts and centres on Towner Whitney, a troubled thirty-something woman who has recently returned home from California having heard that her great-aunt, Eva, has mysteriously died at sea.

Towner left Salem as a teenager following the death of her twin sister Lyndley. Now she has to face all the people and memories she has been trying to avoid.

She deeply resents her reclusive mother May who, 'in a fit of generosity', gave Lyndley to their barren aunt Emma. Towner is also keen to stay away from her former boyfriend Jack, whom she has been unable to see since the night Lyndley died.

Then there is the violent Cal, Emma's former husband, who has turned from alcohol to a particularly zealous form of preaching. He has a grudge against all Whitney women and there is a sense Towner is not safe as long as he is around.

There seem to be few people in Towner's life who are not mildly dysfunctional. Detective John Rafferty is another character struggling with demons. He spends the novel investigating Eva's death and pursuing Towner.

It is never clear why he is attracted to Towner, however. There is no sign of chemistry between the two. They struggle to communicate from the beginning and the process never becomes easier.

Towner's family is viewed as quirky in Salem owing to its women folk, who tend to be psychic and can all read lace, looking beyond the gossamer threads into a person's future. Towner has grave misgivings about this talent, believing it is behind Lyndley's death.

The book includes excerpts from The Lace Reader's Guide, which holds some genuinely interesting facts about the art and history of lace-making in America. Barry notes, for instance, that pins were scarce in colonial times, thereby holding back the production of the more intricate laces.

Whether readers are ultimately satisfied with The Lace Reader will perhaps depend on their response to its final twist. If you are taken by it you may feel the book's detractions are worth the perseverance. If you view it as implausible you may feel cheated.