When I was young, I used to play in the Pacific Ocean, where it meets the Oregon Coast. Even in summer, the water is cold – so cold that it hurts. Children, though, are tough, and I found that if I could take the pain long enough, eventually it would stop. My body would recognize that my brain just wasn’t listening, and it would turn off the signal; I’d go numb, and then I could play in the water as long as I wanted – so long as I didn’t get out again.
I hope that’s not what’s happening to me with The Alexandria Quartet. Whatever the case may be, I am warming slowly to it as I plod my way through. In fact, with Mountolive, I was able to manage a slow meander.
This book is substantially easier, and I would say substantially better, than its predecessors. Moving further away from Justine and Darley, respectively the focus and narrator of the first two books, it centers around a British diplomat, Mountolive, who made only the briefest of appearances before this. We start with his relationship with Leila, Nessim and Narouz’ mother, and cling to that while fast forwarding through much of Mountolive’s career, until he is at last posted back to Egypt.
The more linear nature of the story makes it substantially simpler to follow. Plus, of course, we know many of the characters by now. Pursewarden becomes more central, and Nessim remains. Others play smaller parts. We learn, as we by now expect, yet more and different things about certain events, and see them from yet another perspective. Durrell adds layers to his narrative even as he peels others back.
Overall, this is a substantially better story than the previous books. Mountolive is more interesting and less whiny than Darley. Even if we see now that Darley is meant to be somewhat foolish, it doesn’t make the first two books more appealing. Justine becomes more and more complex, but unfortunately no more believable. In fact, the pieces of her that we’ve been provided become increasingly difficult to add up.
About two thirds of the way through (around Chapter X), the book begins to lose its grip on a decent story. Mountolive, always as self-absorbed as many of Durrell’s characters, simply becomes more feckless, and less interesting.
At the end, Durrell seems to lose interest in his story altogether. While we have an intriguing scene with Leila that revisits the start of the book, they’re relatively flat, unaccented. And then Mountolive disappears almost entirely, and we’re left with Nessim and Narouz. Their relationship, initially interesting, but now merely opaque, is a sideshow, not the main attraction, and I can’t account for its centrality here. It gives Durrell an opportunity to bring in Clea, for whom the last book is titled, but it seems otherwise irrelevant. One could argue that it helps close the story of Nessim and his dealings, but while they are important to the story, they are not what the book is really about. It’s about Mountolive. I think that perhaps the book should have ended after Mountolive’s reunion with Leila. The remainder could have been labeled epilogue, but could equally have been conveyed with a few sentences in Clea.
Thankfully, the prose in this book is also considerably lighter than the first two. Perhaps that’s meant to indicate the difference between Darley’s literary, and Mountolive’s diplomatic approach. Whatever the reason, I found it a relief not to have to wade through metaphor on metaphor just to get through a street of the city.
All in all, a reasonable stand-alone story, and a good companion for the first two books of the Quartet. If you liked those, you’ll enjoy this, with its new perspectives. If you didn’t like those books, but are determined to press on, take heart! The going is easier here. All that said, I can’t positively recommend this on its own. The abandonment of the main narrative means that the book functions largely as a support for the Quartet, and not as its own book.
A final note – my copy, part of Open Media’s single-package Quartet, was very poorly proofread. It had quite a number of typographical errors – many of them with the feel of OCR errors. The first two books didn’t have this annoying problem.