Most helpful critical review
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 20, 2012
I finished this book over a week ago, mostly in an effort to write a review that would give it the justice it deserves, but I feel that time might have been spent it in vain. This is a strange, lyrical book - an idyll, really - that takes place on a Mediterranean island named "Illyria." The name is obviously meant to evoke Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and its paradisiacal setting, but Hawkes plants something haunting and evil here that never lets the reader get too comfortable.
The plot is as unencumbered with passé concerns like pacing or character development as its characters are fascinated by their own sexual lives. Fiona is married to Cyril, and Catherine is married to Hugh. The novel traces the whole range of their interactions, from mundane conversations, but mostly is concerned with their complicated sexual entanglements. Everything is told through flashbacks, and opens with Cyril trying to console Catherine for some reason the reader has yet to ascertain. Hawkes bounces back and forth in time, telling how the two couples met (Fiona and Cyril look on as Catherine and Hugh are rescued from a bus that has fallen into a nearby waterway) to the whittling away of endless hours on the beach with Hugh and Catherine's children in the background.
Most of the action, such as it is, revolves around the eventual untangling of the formerly monogamous relationships of the two couples. Catherine initially stammers and hedges in her attraction toward Cyril, but Fiona is more open-minded and adventurous with Hugh. Hugh, on the other hand, tends to be slightly more cautious, and on several occasions voices his reservations to Cyril, only to be reassured that Fiona is perfectly okay with the arrangement. This is pretty much how things proceed, playing footsy in the sand, the sly unbuckling of a bikini strap in the white Greek sands. But Hugh eventually finds it to be too much, realizes that he's gone too far, and proceeds to take matters into his own hands.
Aside from the children that Hugh and Catherine have, none of the characters are bothered by anything approaching responsibility or are interrupted by growth or self-afflatus. It seemed like a big exercise is omphaloskepsis. But for those interested in something truly off the beaten narrative path, this is worth looking at. While the singular obsession of the characters seemed unrealistic, there is at least a rhythmic lyricism to the prose that makes it a unique reading experience.