Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Just Read: Sixpence House by Paul Collins

This comes with possibly too much hype: the back cover (tastefully) screams "A #1 Book Sense Pick," and the quotes are all about how absolutely wonderful and special it is. After that, it's quite likely anything would be a disappointment.

But it isn't really disappointing, actually; Collins really can write, and Sixpence House is consistently engaging. What's more, the stories he tells will be instantly familiar to any book-lover. It's just that Sixpence House is the story of something that didn't happen, so the whole shape of the book is formed around expectations that will not be met.

Let me back up. Collins is a young writer (sidebar: he seems to be my exact contemporary, and his young son Morgan is about the same age as Thing 1, so I'm inclined to be very interested in his life, since it seems to be a alternate-world version of my own), associated with the McSweeney's crowd, who moved to the famous booktown Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border in what seems to be the early fall of 2000. This book is the story of how he settled in there; or, rather, that's what it looks like the book will be about.

It's actually mostly about how Collins loves old books, or just books in general. And that's fine, because anyone who might possibly want to read this book will share that love, and Collins writes about books engagingly. He's also read a lot of obscure, odd books, which is perfect for that kind of writing. The minor thread of Sixpence House is Collins's feelings as a new writer: he's just turned in his first book, Banvard's Folly, as this book opens and he corrects the Banvard proofs in the last chapter. Collins works briefly for the King of Hay, Richard Booth, but that doesn't really go anywhere. He and his wife search for a house, but don't find anything they both like and can buy.

(If there's anyone out there who has both read this book and bought a house in the UK, I'm dying to know if the ridiculously unfriendly and Byzantine world of UK realty depicted in this book is accurate. Buying a house in the US isn't easy - buying anything that large can't be - but the UK system seems designed to rook buyers at every turn.)

So this ends up being a book about digressions, since the main thread turns out to be a vacation rather than a life-change. That's OK; books about digressions can be quite fun. But I can't help thinking that this is an awfully slender framework to wrap a book around. I certainly enjoyed it, and I'd recommend it to book-lovers (basically: if you've heard of Hay-on-Wye before you read this review, you'll want to read this book), but I don't think it would have general interest outside of our eccentric circle.


Anonymous said...

Two families I know in the London area are in the midst of house-buying, and it sounds like an absolutely horrific process. It's hard to tell how much of that is user error, though. This journal entry from one of them gives an example of the myriad ways things can go wrong. On the plus side, that story has a happy ending: they got the house they want and will be moving soon.

Anecdotal evidence proves nothing, of course, but it's no less entertaining for all of that.

Anonymous said...

I've been to Hay-on-Wye; it's not as good as one might think.

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