Fall on Your Knees is the only one of this year’s Canada Reads selections that I’ve already read. I read it many years ago — more than seven years ago, anyway, because I’ve been blogging my book reviews for the last seven years and I don’ t have it archived. I could reread it to make my Canada Reads experience complete, but I don’t really want to.
So I should make it clear: this is not a review in the same sense I usually review books here on Compulsive Overreader. I generally try to review books within a week or two of reading them, so they’re still quite fresh in my mind. After seven-plus years, a lot of the detail about a book recedes into the background. I forget character names and plot details. All that lingers, usually, is emotion, a general sense of the feeling the book left with me.
So perhaps I could call this “Fall on Your Knees: what remains.” I’m just trying to sketch out here what I remember about this book many years after reading, what lingers with me, and why I have no desire to reread it — which is also why I wouldn’t vote for it as the book all Canada should read.
First of all: it is beautifully written. I do remember that. It’s a breathtaking novel in many ways, and it does have the things I love that many literary novels lack: strong characters and storyline (even though I can’t remember the details of those after so many years).
What I remember most, though, is the general feeling of gloom and depression, despair even, that lingered with me when I closed the book. I mean, I do get that a lot of great literary fiction deals with very solemn themes and includes a lot of the dark side of life. But unrelieved darkness, with no sense of hope or joy or triumph of the human spirit — well, I have a problem with that. I don’t demand happy endings but I want endings that leave me with some hope.
One plot point I do remember from this long, sad, beautiful novel is that there is a girl. A very, very Bad Girl. And she wants to sleep with a man, a very, very Good Man. I can’t remember why she has made up her mind to sleep with this good man who has no intention of sleeping with her and is truly dedicated to his wife, but the key thing is: she succeeds. She seduces him. That part made me so angry, because it’s such a literary cliche (and such a huge piece of reverse sexism) that any woman who sets out to seduce any man will eventually succeed, no matter how good and true he is, even if he’s not attracted to her at all. I think at that point I might have thrown the book across the room a little.
The only other plot point I remember is that near the end, a character walks from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to New York City. Walks. Which just seemed so unrealistic that it pushed my disbelief past its suspension point, where it fell with a splash in the chilly grey Atlantic.
So, that’s what stays with me years after reading this book. Beautiful writing, one annoying plot point, one unbelievable plot point, and a general sense of gloom and despair. And to be fair, there are probably tons of books I read during that same year that I don’t remember even that much about. At least this one lingered.
But I don’t think it lingered for the right reasons, not for me, anyway. I know a lot of people really loved this book and it’s a huge favourite with many, but judging it in the harsh light of nearly a decade’s memory, I can’t say I want to reread it or recommend it as the book all Canada should read.
It’s not a fair comparison, of course. I’ll compare it to four other books I will all have read recently. What will I remember about Good to a Fault or Generation X seven or eight years from now? Hard to say. But I think it’s a safe bet that if the main feeling I’m left with after finishing a book is that being human is really not such a great thing at all, I probably won’t be recommending that book to the whole country, or even to my friends.