Review ~ The Specimen

This book was provided to me by Canongate Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Specimen by Martha Lea

The year is 1866. Edward Scales is a businessman, a butterfly collector, a respectable man. He is the man Gwen Carrick fell in love with seven years before. Now he is dead and Gwen is on trial for his murder.

From country house drawing rooms to the rainforests of Brazil, The Specimen explores the price one independent young woman might pay for wanting an unorthodox life.

Set in a Victorian world battling between the forces of spiritualism and Darwinism, polite society and the call of clandestine love, Gwen and Edward’s tale is a gripping melodrama, a romance and a murder mystery that will compel readers to its final thrilling page. (via Goodreads)

Back in October, Jim Emerson had a post at his scanners blog concerning comments cinematographer Wally Pfister made about Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Pfister complained  that the camera placement in certain scenes of that movie was distracting. Emerson continued in the post to discuss the concept of honesty when framing shots:

You’ve seen it, particularly in bad horror movies, where a shot is framed to conceal information from the audience that would have been perfectly obvious to the characters onscreen. You’re immediately made aware that you, the viewer, are being deliberately excluded — not by the story or the characters, but by the movie itself. (Jim Emerson. Wally Pfister, The Avengers & the ethics of composition.)

This kind of thing gets used as a narrative device all the time, in movies, in television, and in novels (and short stories and probably music as well). Anytime a chapter ends with a character discovering something, but the reader doesn’t know what, that’s the equivalent of framing out the villain’s identity before the commercial break. Used well the technique creates tension and suspense, or at least that sort of “Aw, come on!” reaction that isn’t really unpleasant. When done poorly, Emerson is right on the money. The reader is aware that they’re being excluded and probably being excluded because the author can’t continue the story the way he/she wants to without excluding the reader.

This was my biggest problem with The Specimen. Martha Lea not only withholds information from the reader, she hints at it with off-hand thoughts in her character’s heads. So, as a reader, I know I’m not getting the whole story. To a degree, that’s okay, but the lack of knowledge needs to be followed up in the near narrative future. What was tension became confusion as I wondered if I was just simply missing something.

The novel starts with a character, we don’t know who she is, reading a news article (which she finds as privy paper) about the trial of Mrs. Pemberton. Mrs. Pemberton is accused of killing Mr. Scales. The rest of story continues in this similar fashion. Important information is treated as throw-away information (figurative toilet paper) and the identities of characters are intentionally obfuscated. (Who exactly is Mrs. Pemberton? This mystery woman in the privy knows her and we should, as a reader, know how they know each other.) Plus, there are several instances in which objects in scenes are deliberately vaguely identified amid passages of fairly interesting detail. I could ask, is it better that an author (or movie-maker) not draw attention to the important clue of a mystery, or should the author tip her hand and let the readers in on it? Unfortunately, this question doesn’t even pertain to this book. None of the throw away pieces of information and none of the vague clues mean anything in the end. I’m not even sure how Scales died or who did it.

It could be that this book isn’t a mystery at all. Maybe it is more about “the price one independent young woman might pay for wanting an unorthodox life.” Alas, that aspect is wrapped up in an amazingly unpalatable romance. There’s nothing to like about Edward Scales. While the narrative keeps his nature from Miss Carrick, it hard to believe that he has enough charisma to propel her to leave her lunatic sister and follow him to Brazil. (And then there’s the sister. After tying up a dwarf character and sewing one of his eyes shut, she is admonished to stop her nonsense…it’s still before breakfast!) There are problems with this book and these characters.

I read the entirety of this book in the hope that the slowness and vagueness of it would have a payoff.  I was sorely disappointed.

Expected publication: February 7th 2013 by Canongate Books Ltd.

Genre: Mystery, squicky melodrama/romance
Why did I choose to read this book? Was intrigued by the science v. spiritualism aspect. There is an interesting aspect of collecting v. knowledge gained through scientific method v. the natural world, but it’s sort of munged in with everything else.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) I finished it, though it maybe the only “one star” book I’ve ever finished.
Craft Lessons: Be careful with the flow of information. You could piss a reader off if you keep too much back for too long.
Format: Kindle ebook/Adobe Digital Edition
Procurement: NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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3 thoughts on “Review ~ The Specimen

  1. Gregor White

    Thank you for this review – just finished reading The Specimen myself and all the way through I thought it was me just being a bit slow on the uptake! But I agree with absolutely everything you’ve written. Way too much that’s kept obscure for no good reason.

  2. I’m two thirds of the way through and couldn’t agree with you more. I thought maybe I was being thick as I read and re-read bits while thinking ‘there’s a massive red flag on this, but I don’t know what THIS is…’

  3. Pingback: Saturday Cinema ~ The Following & Hannibal (new horror series, pt 1) | The Writerly Reader

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