The Choir Boats
Reviewed by Sue Bridgwater
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:12 (#353) in December 2011.]
I intend to begin this review by cheating. Here is a link to the section of the author’s website that displays previous reviews of this novel: http://www.danielarabuzzi.com/Reviews_ChoirBoats.html
I’ve done this because a lot of good points are made in these reviews about the story, the characters, the narrative and so forth that I could simply repeat here; but there are particular points to the work that I think none of those reviews mentions, so I would prefer to focus in on those. They are: (1) an exuberance, an ebullience, a delight in language; (2) an irrepressible intertextuality, that ought to be annoying but isn’t; and (3) Georgian London.
Language — I have the text of the novel on my PC, and I do not believe my spellcheck has ever come so close to a nervous breakdown. Rabuzzi uses nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, that I have never seen be-fore. Indeed, searching for the arcane vocabulary items in Chapter One alone, I failed to find any definitions at http://www.onelook.com; however, I don’t get the impression that Rabuzzi is making the words up (at least not all of them). I suspect that were I able to access the Oxford English Dictionary, and a few good dialect dictionaries, I might find the majority of them.
They are words from the regions of England, notably Norfolk, and from the period of the Napoleonic wars. They are, I think, quite different from the made-up samples of the Yountian language. If not, if they are sprung from Rabuzzi’s head, then he has a fertile imagination indeed. But since his historical research in other respects seems watertight—just look up any of the name s of those unlikely-sounding churches, or the German expatriate community of east London to name but two—that I think the linguistic delights fall into the same category. The text is permeated with these words, but here is one example:
“Beetle-headed I said I was, and so I am!” said the cook. “We never should have gone last night to the bishy-barnybees. ’Stead of mardling there, we should have been here fighting off those reasty devils.”
Intertextuality — This is great fun. Links pop up whenever Rabuzzi can manage to fit one in. How about: “Mr. Edward Gardner, the merchant in Gracechurch Street (whose niece, Elizabeth Bennet, when visiting from Long-bourn in Hertfordshire, had become fast friends with Sally).” Or, especially for Mythopoeics, two from close to home:
One evening, in a swaying circle of lamplight, they heard the tale of Sam and Fred who took a magic ring into a bleak, murderous country far to the east and cast it there into a mountain of fire and thus destroyed a wicked sorcerer. Some claimed that “Sam and Fred” were Yorkshiremen, others that they were from Oxfordshire. A fight nearly broke out when a fellow from Cork swore they were Irish, since only the Irish were that brave.
“In an accent that neither Barnabas nor Sanford could place, he asked, “What do you have in your pocket?”
At the very edge of memory, Barnabas vaguely recalled that question coming into an old story of another riddling contest. But didn’t the question in that story have to do with a ring?”
This sort of thing may irritate you, but I enjoy it for its own sake. Also, an important point to remember is that Rabuzzi is doing this for the same reason he employs all the strange and evocative vocabulary: it’s part of his world-building. These literary persons and episodes are recalled in association with people and events from real, as well as literary, history, and they are so evoked in order to build this world that is London in 1812—and yet isn’t. There are elements in the story that have led to this tale being described as “steam-punk”, but that’s not all it is. It makes enormous use of mythology, drawing together symbols and ideas from African as well as European myths, and blending them with the history and literature.
And where there is mythology, there is of course language—as Mythopoeics know well. Chief among the characteristics of the people who are evidently going to be key figures in the fight against evil in the coming volumes of the trilogy, are their facility with languages and their ability to sing. They are also good at maths and science, which means they have to be alarmingly well-educated as well as brave and strong—it’s a tough world for heroes.
London — I was delighted when I opened this book and found that its story begins on the boundaries of the City of London and Whitechapel. I worked in that area for twenty years before my retirement. The street names, the routes from one place to another, the names of the churches; it’s all wholly convincing, and indeed I can picture some of the locations from my own memory, despite the intervention of the Blitz. The social milieu of the city is well evoked too; the depths of poverty, the mercantile class, the local bureaucracy and the domestic scenes of each class are well done.
I look forward to the next volume of this work. It’s not perfect—I find the characterisation can be thin and the narration dull, but the story pulls one along and most of the important characters engage the reader. Just one teeny quibble: if it’s London in 1812, then a gentleman’s waistcoat is a waistcoat—not a vest. ≡