I first posted about Robert Hough’s novel in a whirl, having read Dr. Brinkley’s Tower in less than 24 hours, falling fast and fully into the story. I avoided specifics about the plot and the characters, because the wonder of this novel is rooted in the telling.
With the news of its being longlisted for the Giller Prize, I was inspired to revisit the work. This time, I thought, I could step outside of the story, observe the telling. But I was wrong: I fell in once more.
It’s 1931 in Corazon de la Fuente, the “long, bloody years of the revolution still a fresh wound”. The novel opens with Francisco Ramirez visiting eighty-eight-year-old Roberto Pántelas, out of the entire town’s 800 residents, to ask advice on how to win the attentions of a young woman.
The “lovely and serious-minded” Violeta Cruz has attracted the attention of many young men, but Señor Pántelas has had experience with women, “having bedded somewhere between seven and eight thousand specimens during his long, virile life”; Francisco needs that kind of expert advice.
And that’s where I fell in, the first time I read it, before page 22.
Even in my first, fervent reading of this novel, however, I recognized the finely crafted sentences and paragraphs that assembled this story.
They are laid out just so, all their parts in order. If you read just the first sentence of every paragraph, they exist like a story within a story, each nestled inside the next like Russian dolls.
In re-reading, I can see another layer to this crafting, fragments of the first chapter, for instance, that echo throughout the novel. It’s even more carefully crafted than I realized. (And, perhaps because of the memory of having fallen before, I fell faster, almost immediately.)
And, yet, take a passage from early in the novel:
— Speaking of love, said the cantina owner. — Did you see who was with Francisco Ramirez?
— Ay si, said the mayor. –Violeta Cruz. My God, she’s a beauty. It takes the breath away. Do you think Francisco’s the one who’ll finally snag her? I always thought she’d marry away.
— You never know, said Frather Alvarez. — No woman is made of stone. Still, my guess is that Francisco is one muchacho who’s bitten off more than he can chew.
The three men all chortled sympathetically, each one having suffered the brutality of unrequited love in the past.
Out of context, it seems plain, doesn’t it? Though even this simple passage reveals other aspects of the novel’s themes: love, friendship, tension between ‘home’ and ‘away’, community, and brutality.
In the context of Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, however, simple passages like this align with others, building a sense of community with the reader, with a wide cast of characters and a series of passionate encounters (sometimes romantic, sometimes bloody, sometimes sorrowful) that pull the reader into the story. Every word builds.
Robert Hough’s novel pulls the reader in by the heart. Not with a jolt. With heartbeats. The rhythm is solid and the echo is resonant.
Strong. Look back to M.G. Vassanji’s storytelling (in The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall). Consider Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost). And Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe. Broad canvas, finely honed prose. These jurors obviously love story. And there is an abundance of story in Robert Hough’s Dr. Brinkley’s Tower.
Ostensibly simple: a beginning, middle, and end, in all the expected places, and occasional backstory woven in when required. But the narrative is kaleidoscopic, shifting amongst a wide variety of characters (it could be argued that the town is the main character) gradually building a community wherein seemingly “minor” characters play significant roles.
After my first reading, I suggested that the author had complied a Dr. Brinkley’s Lexicon. The story is peppered with Spanish words and English words which might have been pulled from the glorious and wondrous adventures of Scott and Dumas: slightly formal, bookish, romantic. Manoeuvre, not movement. Respite, not holiday. Mechanism, not method. It’s entrancing.
Mexican frontier in the 1930s. “The cantina owner pushed open the heavy knotted door, which had remained unlocked since the day that a thirsty commandante in the northern army had shot the padlock off with a Smith & Wesson the size of a rolling pin. The mayor and Father Alvarez stepped into the hot gloom and waited while the cantina owner lit an oil lamp….”
Depends entirely upon the immersion in the storytelling. There is no single character at the heart of the novel; though Francisco’s experiences frame the narrative he is not the main character, and though Dr. Brinkley’s building is the catalyst for the story he is not the central figure either. If the reader does not respond to this tradition of storytelling, s/he will remain disengaged.
You have been in love or dream of being in love. You would rather hear a chorus than a soloist. You’ve nothing against cantinas. Or brothels. You accept that one person/character might say ‘deflowered’ where another says ‘f***ed’. You own a pair of lizard-skin boots (or would like to). You are curious about birth control methods used on the Mexican frontier.
I’m reading my way through the 2012 Giller Prize longlist: have you read this novel, or are you thinking about reading it?