The Waves is often regarded as Virginia Woolf's masterpiece, standing with those few works of twentieth-century literature that have created unique forms of their own. In deeply poetic prose, Woolf traces the lives of six children from infancy to death who fleetingly unite around the unseen figure of a seventh child, Percival. Allusive and mysterious, The Waves yields new treasures upon each reading. Annotated and with an introduction by Molly HiteBuy on Amazon | Goodreads
After two wonderful Virginia Woolf books, I’ve come across something slightly less wonderful. It’s not a dud, and I did enjoy reading it (sort of), but it’s not at the same level as To the Lighthouse and Orlando. That confuses me, because The Waves is considered to be VW’s opus.
See, my problem with The Waves is that I think it’s too caught up in its narrative technique. The story isn’t directly related through a third person omniscient narrator, like in Orlando, and it isn’t even really inside the heads of the characters, like in To the Lighthouse. Instead, each character “speaks” their story. Their plot threads intertwine, which is nifty, and there is still some of VW’s stream-of-consciousness stuff, which is also nifty, but the narrative is definitely dominated by what each character “says.”
Okay, so, this technique is interesting, and definitely it’s an evolution of what VW was doing in her earlier books, but it also overrides whatever she was trying to do with the story. The story is secondary– it’s the style that’s paramount in The Waves, and while I like stylish books I also like them to have a good story.
Another problem with the style VW uses here is that all the characters sound exactly the same, which is both boring and strange, and they know stuff about each other even to the extent of repeating exact phrases another character had “said” earlier. This is also strange, almost like the six characters are a hive mind, and while they have different personalities they’re mostly shown through what each character obsesses about, which isn’t particularly nice to read about. I mean, how many times can you read “my father, a banker in Brisbane” without wanting to throw the book at the wall? Almost every other page I wanted to shout at them to just get over it already, but obsession with stupid, heartbreaking stuff is what VW does well, so. Yeah.
I hope I’ve explained myself coherently enough! I went into this thinking The Waves would be difficult and scary (and depressing), but actually, though the style is somewhat tough, it’s not nearly as bad as Jacob’s Room. I never had a problem keeping the characters straight, and not even the first 100 pages daunted me, like VW’s husband said they would (according to the introduction in my copy). I can see why people say it’s one of VW’s better books (kinda), but I don’t think it’s her best.
Nevertheless, what story I could glean from under the style was great, and so was the interesting autobiographical stuff VW put into it. Especially the stuff about being a writer! I think it was that autobiographical stuff that kept me reading, because after two books I really want to know VW more personally. I like that she’s sneaking in tidbits about her life into her books. It makes her books even more special, I think.
And though I’ve complained about the style overtaking the story, I still did think that the style was really unique and interesting. After a while I got into the flow and hardly noticed it by the end, which probably just negates whatever I’ve said about it being too much in the forefront. But I still stick by what I’ve said about the characters!
I think when I go back to reread this later on (as I inevitably will) I’ll like it more, because I’ll be used to the style and I can focus on the story/characters more. And I’ll probably be less annoyed at how everyone sounds the same, and how they’re all in love with Perceval even though he’s the most useless one of all of them (another thing that drove me insane), and how they keep repeating the same thing over and over again (much like the waves, actually). Yup!
Read: March 31-April 1, 2010
Important reading life lesson: if someone tells you a book is “difficult” or “hard to read” or “confusing”– don’t listen to them!! Read it and find out yourself. It might not be as confusing as you were led to believe. Now, if someone tells you a book is bad (or really, really good), that’s a whole other thing…