Review

Disobedience

by Jane Hamilton



"The only story I want to tell, the only one I seem to have in me,
is this one. It is always about her." So ends DISOBEDIENCE, a far
cry from Jane Hamilton's moving A MAP OF THE WORLD and the fun THE
SHORT HISTORY OF A PRINCE. DISOBEDIENCE is a strange book, told
from the perspective of a son who has a love for his mother that
borders on strangling and a secret desire to bring her down at the
same time. Henry revisits his past from the secure foundation of
his future in order to relive the details of the summer that his
family came apart and came back together, tethered with crazy glue,
experience, and a little love.

   

The story is like a bad student film --- it goes on way too long
and somewhere along that long ride it loses its narrative grip. The
intensity and complexities of the situations that make her other
books so unforgettable are missing here --- Hamilton took too
little time working out the intricacies of this complicated tale.
The idea of the past invading the present is a decent theme, what
with Henry's remembrances, the mother-son theme, and the Civil War
stuff that goes on and on. But we are uninvolved emotionally in the
goings-on. Henry, for all his being "perfectly agreeable," is
really a big whiner --- descriptions of fondling in the bushes at
camp have greater virility than all his plodding concern for his
mother's situation. His sister's brutal unveiling at a Shiloh
reenactment has all the elements of an abusive beating, but the
emotional register never hits the right level. Everything feels
very halfhearted emotionally.


It's not often that a protagonist gets to unload all his anger and
wonder about a parent's seemingly despicable behavior after the
fact --- but that is exactly what keeps DISOBEDIENCE from being a
really great read. Henry, the son, drones on and on for hundreds of
pages about the minutiae of their lives --- Minty, the rich
grandmother who gives them all her money and all her contempt;
Elvirnon (or Elvira), the crazy sister who lives to reenact Civil
War life, from head to toe, and who worries her mother with
thoughts that she is becoming, of all things, a "bull-dyke" because
of her interest in dressing like a soldier (clearly considered a
lousy alternative to adulterous adulthood); a father of little or
no authoritative consequence; Karen, the friendly intellectual who
supports Henry's life of the mind; and Lily, the wistful girl from
music camp for whom he lusts while trying to figure out why his
mother's passion is tearing her away from their already
dysfunctional family. There are no heroes here and no particular
characters with whom you can immediately relate, thus keeping the
reader somewhat distanced from the emotional core of the story.
Henry's telling doesn't draw us in as it should.

If only the story were told from a more umbrella point of view
perhaps DISOBEDIENCE would have been a much more compelling story
altogether. As it is, it's a lesser effort from a usually
first-rate novelist.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 21, 2011

Disobedience
by Jane Hamilton

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2001
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385720467
  • ISBN-13: 9780385720465