Friday, 12 February 2016

Review: Finding Gabriel by Rachel L. Demeter

2 stars
Trigger warning for attempted suicide

Once again, the universe is sending me reminders that being a pessimist is the way to go. This book might have well been a giant neon sign reading: Don't get excited about things, you stupid bint. You'll just be disappointed. 

(Romantic) literary depictions of the Napoleonic Wars from the French perspective are rare, as Regency romances are usually too busy following English roses and the tortured aristocratic officers they cure with their love. So, I was excited to see that Finding Gabriel was set against the backdrop of Napoleon's (first) exile, and the Hundred Days, even if the romance element was still very familiar: French fleur-de-lis cures tortured aristocratic officer with her love.  

There were some twists to the premise, though. The anguished hero in question, Colonel Gabriel de Laurent, doesn't have a physical injury (to begin with), only a solid case of survivor's guilt, which causes him stick his flintlock in his mouth and pull the trigger. The heroine, Ariah Larochelle, finds him washed up on the bank of the Seine with half his face blown off. Miraculously, he survives - more on that later - and Ariah coaxes him back to health with the help of her six year-old daughter Emmaline. Playing happy families starts to heal both Gabriel and Ariah, but then - surprise! - there is très drama and everything falls apart.  

Despite my high hopes for Finding Gabriel, it shot itself in the foot early on with florid and obtuse language. Here's a particular stunner, which reminds me of the mangled sentences you get when you translate something into another language in Google Translate, and then back again to English: 
Hours later, the hearth gently crooned, casting transient shadows along the walls and floorboards. Outside the home, the wind chime jingled as it was manipulated by a harsh breeze. (loc. 1586)
But it wasn't just the terminal overwriting, unfortunately. Other writing choices were equally inexplicable, like having the bulk of the story in third person past tense, but the flashbacks in first person present tense.  The past perfect was sometimes used when the simple past was the logical choice, and I needed to read the odd sentence two or three times before I caught its meaning. I get that incomplete and truncated sentences are useful in creating suspense, but sometimes it just seemed like the author couldn't be bothered to string some words together more coherently, like when Ariah first comes across Gabriel:
The shadowy figure materialized with each of her steps until she saw the things for what she was. A man. Ariah's first thought: he's surely dead. (Loc. 266)
Well, Ariah, it's funny you should say that, because he surely should be dead. Gabriel's face is described as half-gone, and having bone shards poking through the skin. In the days when even a scratch could lead to septicaemia and subsequent death, it does seem unlikely that Gabriel survived, and even if he did, splintering his cranium outward means that there would be nothing between his skin and his brain, leaving it constantly vulnerable to accidental trauma. Demeter was vague enough about the details of Gabriel's recovery and disfigurement that I was able to suspend disbelief at first, but as miraculous occurrences, dire circumstances and unlikely coincidences piled up, I found this increasingly difficult to sustain.  

It didn't help that some of the tragedies inflicted on the characters seemed a bit arbitrary. I found great poignancy in Ariah's backstory, whereas, with Gabriel, it was almost as though he author decided that a decade of military service wouldn't make him tortured enough, and so added some familial tragedies to the mix. But, for all the talk of Gabriel being a tortured hero, he was actually pretty low-key, especially when held up to the self-flagellating hero of the same name in Judith James' Broken Wing, a comparison made in the synopsis. Gabriel's transition from tortured hero to not-so-tortured hero is largely uneventful, and yet this was the part I enjoyed best, as we got to see the characters develop away from the more manufactured drama of the beginning and denouement, when a whole lot of external conflict is introduced. 

Overall, I didn't hate Finding Gabriel. It is, however, one of those cases where I am not sure I actually read the same book everyone else is describing. From other reviews I'd read, I had expectations of a lush, history-heavy story à la Joanna Bourne, but that just set me up for disappointment. Story of my life.

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