Despite my doubts after attending the launch of Jane Tulloch’s debut novel, Our Best Attention, I attempted to remain impartial before reading it. It is difficult to reserve judgement, having been provided with such in-depth information about the novel and author before reading. However, my doubts about the book before reading were confirmed, and I found the experience hugely disappointing.
Most of my issues with the book result from Tulloch trying to achieve too much. The premise of the novel is simple – the story is based in a notorious Edinburgh department store in the 1970s, and narrated by various different characters, all (theoretically, at least) interrelated. Multi-narrative novels have proved very successful, and I personally am a fan of such novels when executed successfully, such as Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. For me, the – undeniably difficult – skill to be mastered with this style of novel is the construction of convincing characters with uniquely identifying qualities, and it is here where Tulloch’s novel fails. The book contains seventeen chapters, each with a different protagonist. In a relatively short novel, this is simply too much with which to deal, leaving the characters lacking any real depth. This was the case with Tulloch’s characters – whilst I understood their basic role, I was unconvinced by its execution.
Part of the reason that it was difficult to connect with the characters was the way in which Tulloch described them. She has a habit of introducing a character offering a usually unflattering description of the character’s physique. At best, this could be described as an unnecessary habit, and at points, it was downright offensive. This did not contribute anything to the plot – in fact, since the majority of female characters were described in this way, it made the multitude of characters even more difficult to distinguish between. I remain utterly confused about Tulloch’s motives for such sneeringly pejorative objectification of her characters, but I feel the fairest way to assess this bizarre habit is to note that this is a novel very much of its time – it is intended for an audience that is most definitely not myself. Though this is a potential way of excusing the unnecessarily negative presentation of women in the book, I don’t find this particularly convincing – even though I’m evidently not the target audience of the book, there is nothing innovative about negative portrayal of women in literature. I’m unsure of where the appeal of this lies for any reader.
Overall, I feel the book hovers uncomfortably somewhere between being a collection of short stories and a multi-narrated novel, achieving neither successfully. The heart of multi-narrative novels is character development, and it is this area that Tulloch fails in, forgoing quality for quantity.
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