‘Demi-Gods’ is the debut novel from Eliza Robertson who was a recipient of the Man Booker Scholarship and the Curtis Brown Prize, she was also the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
The book is set in the 1950’s and follows the life of Willa. A child that has had a very difficult upbringing, surrounded by various corrupting forces at work in her live; whether that be from the robbing of her innocence from the brilliantly written Patrick or the damage that her absent father and alcoholic mother have inflicted.
As well as having the above influences on her life; the books setting in the 1950’s has its own controlling issues. Willa, a young woman, fighting to discover her independence (a story that could be as relevant today as it is in the 1950’s) at a time where many women and young girls were looked down upon when they started to get ideas above their stations.
The premise of the book is great (a young girl on a journey of discovery) and causes the book to be an easy read. I feel that the ease of reading is in part due to Eliza Robertson’s background in the short story genre, the pace throughout the book is great and at no point did I find the book losing its way. Having said that, there is a section I felt that was missing though, the story focuses a lot on her as a child and a fair bit of her as an adult but the intervening years were somewhat neglected in my opinion.
In places, there is far too much description which at times can bog the reader down. The use of over describing scenes or actions is a common theme discovered in short stories, as the writer has limited time and space to get all their meaning across. ‘Demi-Gods’ could have had some elements of this stripped out, neatened up and enjoyed over a few pages instead of large paragraphs detailing everything in the scene over a short space of time. I found that this in some places caused me to break from the story as I thought ‘Here we go again’.
The language and writing style that Robertson deploys is beautiful and causes some of the more disturbing and harrowing issues and incidents in her characters’ lives to have more of an impact on the reader. Robertson’s eye for detail and her use of (comparing) are second to none and something that really sticks out in my mind when thinking back to the book.
‘She slipped her underwear to one ankle and unpeeled her knees. Her groin was hot with thrush. We didn’t know the name for it then. Her vulva gaped like the beak of an infant bird. Joan saw me hold my breath. I didn’t know what to say. She thumped her hips on the bed and jabbed her crotch with her fist.’
Robertson has also opted to have the dialogue integrated into the page, instead of separating this with quotations; I can’t work out if this was a brave choice or not. At times, it caused me to have to re-read portions of the book and I struggled at points to work out who was speaking, were they speaking out loud or was this an internal monologue etc. but if that was the effect Robertson was aiming for, she did a good job.
I think Robertson with ‘Demi-Gods’ has done something rather rare in writing and captured a feeling within the book (at the expense of a detailed story) that is as relevant today and in the society we live in as it was in the 50’s and stories like this, discussing themes such as this are essential to breaking through the prejudices of today.
‘Demi-Gods’ is a brave book that has a strong voice; dealing with issues that are at times challenging to read; which reminded me somewhat of Jenny Zhang’s ‘Sour Heart’ also released by Bloomsbury.
Eliza Robertson attended the University of Victoria and the University of East Anglia, where she received the 2011 Man Booker Scholarship. In 2013, she won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was a finalist for the CBC Short Story Prize and the Journey Prize. Her first story collection, Wallflowers, was shortlisted for the East Anglia Book Award and selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice. In 2015, she was named one of five emerging writers for the Writers’ Trust Five x Five program. She lives in Montreal.
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Review by Ross Jeffery
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