Finnikin of the Rock

by Guy

Guy reviews Melinda Marchetta's Finnikin of the Rock.
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There's a whole lot of different things I'd like to say about this book, but I really don't know where to start so perhaps I'll begin by saying something about something else altogether.

I saw a documentary a while ago about Pedro Almodovar and he was talking about melodrama and the way that he likes to use conventions from Spanish melodrama in his films, and it struck me as a strange thing to say because his films have never seemed melodramatic to me, but then they showed a series of little clips from his films and every one of them had me nodding and thinking, yep, that looks like melodrama, alright. But it's strange because to me "melodrama" had always seemed to be a pejorative term. You call drama melodrama when it goes so far over the top that it stops being moving or engaging and just becomes ridiculous. "Respectable" drama, proper drama, knows how to stay within its boundaries, to make you feel something but without asking you to feel "too much". I suppose there's also a kind of snobbery in this dismissal; the profound and meaningful emotions I experience in reading great literature come from its mastery of drama; the cheap theatrics that my neighbour responds to are merely the result of the tawdry manipulations of melodrama.

I suppose part of the reason I find the distinction interesting is because there's a kind of... ambiguity in the whole thing. If I just thought that it was a false distinction then railing against it would be kind of boring. I don't think it's a false distinction, though - there are plenty of works of fiction that do employ cheap tricks and sentimental ploys to manipulate their audience, and when I see it I dislike it immensely. And yet... another work of fiction, employing techniques that to my eye appear to be very much the same sort of thing, not only seems unexceptionable but actually admirable. I am moved and I feel grateful to the author for finding ways to move me, and rather than resenting the "manipulation" I feel inspired, impressed. And saying that the difference between one and the other is simply a matter of "how much" is a deeply unsatisfactory explanation. It's not just that melodrama goes "over the top", one step too far, or the like. I suppose the best that I can express it would be to say that it does the same thing but in a different spirit, and that spirit, while hard to pin down, has such a clear and obvious effect on the meaning of the result that it seems to be an entirely different art.

So, all of that is a prelude to saying something about teenagers (I will get to the book eventually). One of the painful things about being a teenager, I think, is that you feel things very passionately but when you talk about them you sound ridiculous. Well, I suppose it depends on who is listening, but a lot of the time that seems to be the reaction; teenagers take themselves far too seriously, every little thing is the end of the world to them, When You're Older You'll Understand It's Not All That Important. To put it another way, teenage emotions get relegated to the realm of melodrama. I guess it's a kind of condescension that comes out of the fact that adults have learned not to respond with violent passion to each new development in their lives. Probably a good thing for all kinds of practical reasons but... frustrating and worse than frustrating to the teenager who needs something better than condescension from the people around them.

What I think is the hallmark of the stuff in the YA genre (doesn't seem like quite the right word but then neither does "category" so I'll leave it) that I've liked best is that it somehow manages the Almodovar trick of resembling melodrama but without seeming ridiculous or false or overblown or manipulative. It takes the intensity with which young people respond to the events in their lives seriously, not as a cliche or as a stereotype but as a... proper way of seeing things, in its own right. A better way of saying it might be that the author actually writes from within the intensity of those feelings, instead of "striving to achieve mimesis" or somesuch from the outside. And if it works on you as a reader, you actually feel it yourself, that... larger-than-life, operatic, melodramatic passion that is so vivid from the inside and so easy to dismiss or ridicule or condescend to from the outside. J.K. Rowling gives us teenagers who sporadically explode with anger for no apparent reason, and as readers we're supposed to nod knowingly and think "ah, yes, rampaging hormones" and think we've "got it". Melina Marchetta's characters, though, aren't there for us to nod knowingly about. While the story lasts, they are friends, confidantes, companions. If you don't fall in love with them, at least a little, your heart is harder than mine is.

After I read Marchetta's On the Jellicoe Road (which is every bit as good as Kyra says it is) I was hungry for more so I checked out her website and found that her latest book was a fantasy adventure novel, Finnikin of the Rock. I was very curious to see what it would be like, since I've loved the fantasy genre since I was a child but have become regretfully cynical about it from reading too many fantasy "epics" (*shudder*) of very indifferent quality. I looked at a few reviews, which said nice things but were, if anything, a bit lukewarm, which in retrospect I'm a bit astounded by. Anyway, I buy a copy, open it up... and the first thing I find is a copy of the poem "If This is a Man", by Primo Levi. It's the same poem that Levi uses to open his memoir of his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Levi calls on us not to forget what happened there; the title comes from a passage that asks:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes and because of a no
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter

Well. It is a very sobering thing. And it... worried me, a bit, because it made me think that Marchetta had decided to write a fantasy novel about the holocaust. Somehow the idea of such a thing seems wrong, I suppose because most fantasy novels are a kind of escapist fluff. Of course it's not all escapism and its not all fluff. But a lot of the ostensibly "dark" fantasy still is driven by a kind of wish-fulfillment, and the "gritty, realistic" elements are there either to disguise the wish-fulfillment aspect or they're there because they are requisite to the fulfillment of certain kinds of wishes.

Anyway, rather than telling you about my speculations about how such contradictions can or could be resolved, I'll tell you instead that the book is not, in any direct way, an allegory about the holocaust. There isn't a country that is identifiably "Germany", or "France", or whatever, and Finnikin's people aren't Jews with a different name. But there's a reason for Levi's poem to be there on the opening page. It's the story of a country that has been betrayed, attacked, and cursed, and many of its people exiled. And Marchetta's descriptions of the consequences of these events are clearly informed by the realities of these things as they occur in the real world. There is a consciousness of the holocaust which informs what she describes. And the misery, the suffering, the bleakness of the situations and the people she writes about is (or was for me, at least) genuinely harrowing. So, even though there are journeys and warriors and magic and so on (there are even maps at the beginning) the experience of reading this is really nothing like any fantasy book I've ever read before. And although the main viewpoint characters are teenagers and Marchetta writes about them with the same insight, respect, and passion that she does in On the Jellicoe Road it's really nothing like that book, either.

I found it a totally gripping experience, and I did fall in love with more than one of the characters, but I'm actually at a bit of a loss to describe what the book is really about, because in a way the heart of it is the... contrast between the bleakness of the terrible things that happen and the... liveliness, hopefulness, the passion of the young people who make it possible to believe that however terrible the damage done to a country or a culture or a society, somehow healing is possible. And... even though the fact that it's a YA book about terrible human suffering seems... odd or contradictory at first, by the end it actually seems to be... the only way that this kind of story could have been told, and it seems necessary that this kind of story be told.

So, after all that, I realise I haven't actually said much about the story itself, but I don't think I really need to. I'll just say, it's a great story, and beautifully written, but most of all the book is a unique and gripping experience and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 17:42 on 2009-08-19
Wow, not just one but two gushing reviews. I'm going to have to find and read some Melina Marchetta, evidently.
http://boojumlol.livejournal.com/ at 12:22 on 2009-08-20
I didn't love 'Finnikin of the Rock' quite as much as 'On the Jellicoe Road' but I think it was mainly because my response to the latter was unusually intense. It is seriously good quality fantasy though, and yes, there are some things you can only do in YA fiction.

I'm so glad Melina Marchetta is being read outside of Australia now. When I was in the UK (in 2007) I didn't see any of her works in bookshops.
Guy at 16:18 on 2009-08-20
@Rami - do! I'd read Jellicoe rather than this one first, just because the strangeness of this one might be a bit... disorienting, but I'm sure anything of hers you can find will be good.

@Boojumlol - I never read any of Marchetta's stuff before I saw Kyra's review because, I guess, as an Australian there's always a bit of cultural cringe, but I'm so glad I did. I probably also like On the Jellicoe Road better than this one, but only by a hair - both are so good that I will be recommending them to anyone who'll listen for years to come. :)
Wardog at 12:32 on 2009-09-15
Guy, I just wanted to say that I think this review is spot on - especially what you say about the way Marchetta uses tragedy. I want to say more but I've just ordered the book from Amazon and I'll comment properly when I've read it :)
Guy at 16:08 on 2009-09-16
Thanks Kyra - I look forward to reading your response. :)
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2011-08-01
So yeah, I finally got around to reading this one over the summer. Whoo-hoo! (I actually reviewed it over at my livejournal, if anyone's interested.) Next up: The Piper's Son. No idea what I'll do with myself after I've read that one.

Anyway, as regards the review; the Rowling/Marchetta comparison is absolutely brilliant, and I've found myself falling back on this article more than once to discuss How Not to Write Children/Teenagers.

But a lot of the ostensibly "dark" fantasy still is driven by a kind of wish-fulfillment, and the "gritty, realistic" elements are there either to disguise the wish-fulfillment aspect or they're there because they are requisite to the fulfillment of certain kinds of wishes.

Yes to this.

even though there are journeys and warriors and magic and so on (there are even maps at the beginning) the experience of reading this is really nothing like any fantasy book I've ever read before.

Actually, I find that while Finnikin of the Rock is very different from any other fantasy novel I've read, my experience of reading it often evokes my experience of reading The Lord of the Rings. Both provoke a deep sense of wonder in me, that I have a very hard time articulating. The best I can come up with is to say that they stir in ways that few other novels stir me.

Boojumlol: I didn't love 'Finnikin of the Rock' quite as much as 'On the Jellicoe Road' but I think it was mainly because my response to the latter was unusually intense.

I think my response to both books was unusually intense. But yes, I do believe On the Jellicoe Road has a pronounced emotional edge over Finnikin of the Rock. On the other hand, Finnikin of the Rock is set in a fantasy world, and for that I adore it to bits.
Guy at 08:04 on 2011-08-04
Thanks for the kind words. I liked your review - it does a much better job than mine of actually describing the book!

The comparison with the Lord of the Rings is interesting - I read LotR when I was probably too young too really understand it, so for me now it's kind of a haze of fantasy tropes illuminated by a few vivid scenes. But I can see a comparison in the sense of both novels having a huge scope, a sort of international-war-sized conflict environment, combined with a kind of tender attention to the details of character. But it's not the first comparison that would have leaped to mind for me. :)
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2011-08-05
Thank you, in turn, Guy. You do a very good job of discussing the feel of the book, and the philosophy of YA fiction.

I can see a comparison in the sense of both novels having a huge scope, a sort of international-war-sized conflict environment, combined with a kind of tender attention to the details of character.

Well yes, but ever since Tolkien, something like 70% of all fantasy novels have sported an international-war-sized conflict environment, and combining that with "tender attention to the details of character" is rarer, but probably still plenty of examples out there.

It's not that the setting or the plot or the themes remind me of Tolkien, it's just that for me, both works provoke a sense of ... mythology, I guess I'll call it. Of something greater than what I feel when I read a regular story. (Nope, still can't seem to articulate it.)
Robinson L at 20:30 on 2011-08-20
Oh, I keep forgetting to mention. My library's American hardcover copy of the book has “Praise for Melina Marchetta” prominently on the back, and only one quote … from Kristin Cashore.
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