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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley: My Preliminary Review upon reading it through the first time

So, I finished PD James's Death Comes to Pemberley (DCTP) and here are the thoughts that come to mind now, although I do intend to reread parts of it in order to better grasp James's subtle narrative strategies:

1. On balance, I recommend (let's say, a 7 out of 10) James's novel to Janeites who know the story of P&P well, I think most who read DCTP will get comfortable after the first 40-50 pages with the idea of a continuation (you can tell, I am not a Janeite who reads continuations as a rule, there has to be a good reason for me to do so), and then you will be carried along by James's easy, subtle, elegant writing style, and by curiosity to see how she lands the plane, so to speak. Those who said there is no suspense are being unreasonable, in my opinion. Okay, it's not The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but there is good character development, fair play in terms of clues to the reader of what is going on behind the scenes, and a satisfying if understated denouement.

2. Apropos James's writing style, the good new is that there is no presumptuous attempt by James to imitate JA's writing style. As befits an excellent fiction writer, James seems to me to be writing in her own style, based on my reading of one of her earlier novels (the one I have not identified).

3. Aside from the above difference in writing style, there is a fundamental difference between James's and JA's narrative structure. To wit, all of JA's novels, including P&P, are written 95% from the point of view of the heroine, with only very brief and sporadic "trips" inside the minds of a few other key characters. So, in P&P, almost everything we read is presented to us through the filter of Lizzy's mind. Obviously, this creates rich possibilities, which JA exploited as well as any writer ever did, for ambiguity and natural psychological mystery--the mystery of everyday life, if you will.

In stark contrast, point of view in DCTP is divided more or less equally (I did not attempt an exact statistical analysis) between that of Darcy and that of Elizabeth. Ergo we no longer have Darcy as a mystery man as he is in P&P, we _know_ what Darcy thinks about everything that happens. I would have hoped James would have followed JA's practice, but in the end, I accepted James's and went along. There was still plenty of room for mystery as to the motivations of the other major characters in the story, which James does exploit to good advantage. In the end of the day, she does seem to be carrying forward, in a different way, JA's basic premise, which is that life is mysterious because we are trapped inside our own minds, and we only know what others show us as to their minds and motives. In that sense, DCTP really is a sequel to P&P, which happens to play with the same characters (and the few new ones who are added).

4. I will come back with more in the next week after I spend a bit more time delving more deeply into DCTP, giving it my usual treatment to try to dig down to the mysteries still left unresolved at the end, despite the appearance of closure. I am pretty sure James was playing that same Austenian game of authorial cat and mouse, and that we are meant to question the validity of the explanations presented to us in the final of the novels six sections, where most of that explaining is done not by the narrator, but by the characters themselves, either in spoken words or in letters. It is for sure that James means for us to spend that extra time with this novel, and to try to figure out what she has slyly left in the shadows. And in that, she is paying the most sincere homage of all to Jane Austen, who was the master of that art as no other writer before or since.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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