Thursday, January 28, 2010

Review: Iodine, Haven Kimmel. Simon & Schuster, 2008.

Iodine: A NovelThis may be the only book I've ever read which induced me to say, "that was horrifying," as I put it down. Mind you, the entire book itself wasn't that horrifying, okay, maybe a bit horrifying. But the end was particularly so. I won't spoil it for you by telling you why.

Anyway, I'm still trying to decide whether or not I like the book. I've loved all of Haven Kimmel's previous books, the two Zippy memoirs that were popular a couple years ago, plus several novels which most people don't seem to know about. Her books are smart, interesting, and full of quirky characters. But Iodine is something completely different. It's still smart and interesting, but I have to say the characters go way beyond quirky, the book is much, much darker than Kimmel's others, and the style much more experimental and internal.

Basics: a college girl falls in love with her professor and he falls in love with her. That seems like a simple premise. But the story is complicated because it focuses not so much on the boy meets girl aspect, but on the internal life of the narrator, the college girl, who's using the alias of Ianthe Covington because for some reason she doesn't want anyone from her past to know where she is. (That reason is revealed at the end.) Ianthe is an unreliable narrator. She seems to waver between reality and a dream-state, and it's hard to tell at any given moment which is which. I found myself confused, often, about what was actually happening. This was frustrating, but toward the end we find out why Ianthe/Trace experiences the world in this manner. And then it all makes sense. Well, sort of. We are still left wondering which things in the book Ianthe/Trace imagines, and which she actually experiences.

As I write this review, I'm starting to realize that I do really like the book because wow, it is masterfully crafted. Very complicated and internal and intellectual and strange. In these aspects it reminds me of Iris Murdoch's novels, which I love, but which are extremely dark and challenging to read. Kimmel conveys the dream-like state of the main character so well. I'm supposed to be confused! I'm supposed to feel the strangeness of Ianthe/Trace's mind right along with her. Kimmel has accomplished what she set out to do! Perhaps I felt uncertain about the book just because it wasn't the sort of story I expected from Haven Kimmel.

But I take back my statement that the end contains the greatest share of horrification. It starts right at the beginning, with the very first sentence: "I never had sex with my father but I would have, if he had agreed." Whew! I should have known immediately this wasn't going to be an easy read.

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