Rates of Exchange, by Malcolm Bradbury

Rates of Exchange, Malcolm Bradbury, reading review by Ruth Livingstone This book is set in a mythical mid-European country. It opens with a 10 page travel guide to the imaginary city of Slaka and the first chapter follows with an account of a plane touching down on the tarmac. Aboard the plane is a Dr Petworth. He may or may not be an important character in the story to follow. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you whether he was, nor can I tell you what happened to him – as I read no further than the first twenty pages.

I rarely abandon a book and always feel guilty when I do. And, after struggling through a mere 20 pages of a 340 page novel, it didn’t seem fair to post a ‘review’ on this blog.

Then I tried to understand exactly what it was that I found so unappealing about this particular novel and I came up with three factors.

  • The book is narrated in the present tense by an omniscient narrator. Usually, I like the present tense because it gives immediacy to a story and can easily suck the reader into the flow of the narrative. What is amazing about this book is how the use of the present tense does little, if anything, to draw the reader into the story. This is possibly because the narrator has both a strongly intrusive voice and a cooly-detached style. I felt I was reading the cynical musings of an elderly, and rather bored, travel writer.
  • There are masters of science fiction who effortlessly kick you into their complex fantasy worlds with a few sentence of description and a couple of lines of dialogue (Frank Herbert, Philip K Dick, Iain Banks – to name just a few). This book kicks off with a detailed introduction to a make-believe city which continues for many pages. After 20 pages, I still had no character to focus on, no action of any interest had happened and there was no hint of anything exciting to come.
  • My paperback version of the book contained pages of densely-packed small print. This may be a trivial point, but a novel presented in this way is tiring to read and gives an appearance of indigestibility.

I must say, my initial impression was that this would turn out to be a tale of personal angst, set in the bleakness of the old Soviet bloc. It came as a shock to read the blurb on the back and to realise this was supposed to be a comic book. So I went back and read another couple of pages. Failing to find anything remotely amusing, I stopped reading again.

Now, other people may love this book’s slow build-up and, for all I know, the rest of the story is truly brilliant. But, from my point of view, there are thousands of wonderful novels in the world and I am too impatient to struggle further with this one.

The next books I plan to read are taken from my Birkbeck reading list. I am trying to choose between the The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje and I’m hoping they will prove to be a little more entertaining.

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