Saturday, 21 July 2012

Review: The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Rarely has any novel made me laugh and cry as promiscuously as Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2008 debut novel, The Descendants.

The subject matter is unlikely fuel for comedy.  Matt King is a workaholic lawyer, attempting to come to terms with the fact that his wife Joanie is in a terminal coma, leaving him with two daughters.  As if this wasn’t enough, we soon discover that Joanie was having an affair, and also that Matt is soon to determine the sale of his family’s ancestral property, making millionaires out of himself and his cousins.

In this dark territory, Hemmings creates in Matt a wonderfully human narrator, able to comprehend both the tragedy and the farce in this eminently believable narrative.  The novel is most effective when Matt is most impotent; attempting to explain to a linguistically challenged woman why it is inappropriate to sell bikini photos of his underage daughter in a hospital shop; listening in bewilderment while role-playing his comatose wife while his still younger daughter tells a tall tale about sea urchins and self-harm.  This Hawaii is subverts the stereotypes, and even younger readers will appreciate the detachment with which its narrator views its inhabitants.

Having not seen the recent film adaptation it is perhaps churlish to criticise it, but George Clooney is an odd choice to play Matt, whose emotional impact depends increasingly on his (self-perception of) mediocrity, particularly in contrast to his glamorous ex-model wife.  Maybe a strength of the book is that we only ever see this self-analysis, as Matt’s psyche undergoes its rollercoaster journey.

While this is very much a Matt-driven novel, other characterisations are also worth noting.  In particular Matt’s older daughter, Alex, is at times heart-breaking as she attempts to face up to her own demons about her dying mother, while rising to the challenge of assisting her father.  If the characterisation has any weakness, it is that this recovering addict seventeen year old is so improbably strong, and at times you cannot fail desire to know her better than her struggling father's narration ever can.

Elsewhere, Alex’s friend Sid is equally inspired.  Initially he seems to be included only for dad-hates-stoner comedic effect, but as the novel develops so does he.  Younger daughter Scottie also journeys from funny-haha to funny-scary as the story unfolds, but occasionally she does lapse into being one of the many flatter characters, not only beyond Matt but beyond credibility.

At the heart of the novel, though, is Joanie.  Never conscious during the novel’s chronology, and animated only in hindsight, the ongoing event of her death is what anchors the story and lends it its power.  The marital relationship is particularly (and paradoxically) believable in Matt’s ever changing view of it – he doesn’t know if she loved him, even (at times) if he loved her, but the increasingly steady stream of memories reveal his pain in a subtle but persuasive manner.

This isn’t, by any means, a perfect novel.  The latter stages drag on slightly too long, as we wait with Matt for Joanie to finally die.  The strength of the first-person narration lies in conveying Matt’s isolation, but this does leave us searching for more depth elsewhere.  Nevertheless, in addressing the dark absurdity of death itself, this novel is wonderful.

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