Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Propinquity / John Macgregor

This is the first half of a doubleshot. Come back later today where you'll get BigAl's opinion of the same book.

Reviewed by: Pete Barber

Genre: Literary Fiction

Approximate word count85-90,000 words

Kindle  US: YES  UK: YES  Nook: YES  Smashwords: YES  Paper: YES
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John Macgregor was raised in Melbourne, and attended Geelong Grammar School. After school he worked as a jackaroo (cowboy) and a truck driver.

In 1977 Macgregor received a grant from the Australian Government on the strength of Propinquity's first four chapters. Macgregor and his young family spent the next several years moving between Melbourne, Mullumbimby, and Adelaide as he completed the book.


Told mostly in the first person, the story follows the life of Clive Lean, beginning in Australia during his final year at grammar school, and moving through his unsuccessful attempt at running his deceased father’s business. After the business fails, Clive moves to England and makes a half-hearted attempt to obtain a medical degree. While at Oxford, Clive visits London and happens on a love interest, Sam (Samantha), the daughter of the Dean of Westminster Abbey. She sneaks him into the Abbey and involves Clive in an attempt to awaken the 800-year-deceased wife of Richard The Lionhearted.


This story was a tough slog for me. If I hadn’t agreed to take it on as a “Double Shot” with Al, I’d have quit early on. How early? Well, after reading the opening paragraph of the story many times, I’m still not sure what it means—I have ditched books for less—the beginning really should convey important information.

Originally published in the 80s, now the rights have returned to the author he’s re-released (self-pubbed) the book. Much of the blurb and commentary on Amazon compares the plot to that of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. So far as I could tell, the only similarity between the two stories is they both have scenes set in Westminster Abbey, and they use (or misuse) history to motivate the characters and drive the plot. Dan Brown’s story is an action-packed thriller. Propinquity is anything but, and that marketing presentation constantly niggled as I read. I think the comparison does Propinquity no service.

I struggled with the pacing. The story is forty-percent over before the plot (about the queen) begins. Prior to that, it is a series of meandering chapters detailing Clive Lean’s life and that of his friends. The exception being a couple chapters told in an omniscient voice about one particular high-school friend of Clive’s who is personally driven to discover the meaning of life. Oddly, I found those chapters the most appealing, and I think that’s Clive’s fault. I found the main character distant, privileged, spoiled, shallow, and often guilty of snobbery. I didn’t warm to him--quite a problem as the story comes from his perspective.

The story was largely ‘told’ in narrative form, making the action difficult to ‘experience.’ Conflicts quickly dissolved when Clive threw money at them, or miraculously coordinated his college buddies to undertake difficult-to-believe tasks that solved perceived problems well before any tension appeared. In particular, the body-snatching scene read so like a Keystone Cops episode that I found it difficult to suspend disbelief.

And finally (I warned you it was a slog), the premise baffled me. Supposedly, 800 years ago, Queen Berengaria was entombed in a secret room buried deep under Westminster Abbey. Alongside the queen were a series of scrolls and letters detailing a gnosis, which she had discovered. This enlightenment conflicted with the Christian Church’s teachings and threatened their credibility (which is why those nasty Christians topped her).

Now, if Berengia’s gnosis was such a threat to their existence, why would the church keep the documents? But wait—there’s more--the premise of the story was that Berengaria, once awakened, would shake the foundation of the modern church, exposing their teachings and religious foppery as fraudulent. I couldn’t fathom how that would happen, or why, and in fact it didn’t. To me, the ‘real’ story would be that an 800-year-old queen had been brought back to life. Yet, this aspect was neither considered interesting by the news media, nor was it particularly emphasized in the novel.

We were told that she came to life, but didn’t ‘see’ the reincarnation (she wasn’t really dead, merely catatonic, and perfectly preserved because the tomb was suitably chilly). Trust me, if I gave two slugs of Absinthe to perfectly-preserved 800-year-old hottie and she sat up and started speaking Old French at me, I’d be the guy running too fast down the road and screaming, “She’s alive. She’s alive!”

Whilst I understand that literary fiction uses more of a narrative style and focuses on character rather than plot. The characters should be multi-layered and the plot should develop through their motivations. For me it didn’t. In summary, this story didn’t work for me . . . over to Al J.

Format/Typo Issues:

None noted, but be prepared for a few obscure words. Such as: sequelae, and  palaeocrystic. Oh, and to a lesser extent, Propinquity. Why, I wonder, would an author use words that many readers will likely not understand?

Rating: ** Two stars


?wazithinkin said...

Interesting review, Pete. It sounds like it was a taxing read. I can't wait to see what BigAl says this afternoon.

Vicki said...

Even from the blurb, this doesn't sound like my sort of read, but I'll be interested in BigAl's take on it.

The quotes from the book's reviews in The Australian and The Age (major Australian newspapers) are certainly interesting. What I'd give for a favorable review from either of those two heavyweights.