Friday, May 28, 2010

Kept by D.J. Taylor

Back in high school creative writing class, I had an assignment to write a soap opera script, which would then be read in front of the class. It’s not often that you get assigned to write something so ridiculous, so I went all out. In the span of 10 pages, there was amnesia caused by a tragic ladder accident, rival doctors, scheming exes, secret twins, buried treasure, familial revelations, covert relationships, and dramatic comas. It was a masterpiece. Of course, soap opera conventions are in and of themselves simple; it’s how the writers combine them that makes the whole thing complex. When you take something with already complex conventions and try to shove them into one document, things get a little hairy.

D.J. Taylor’s Kept is a web of Victorian literature tropes that can be mind-boggling to decipher. Here’s a short list of the conventions I was able to identify: deranged woman in the attic, heiress kept against her will, gothic setting, people reaching too far about their station and failing miserably, paid-by-the-letter subscription wordiness and servant/master relations. I am not faulting Taylor for these conventions; indeed, he does well by them. There were some points that I thought I was reading Dickens. However, the combination of all of the little details, instead of creating a Victorian supernovel, just becomes confusing. The connections between a murder in the beginning of the novel, a naturalist, a daring train robber, and the woman in the attic are all drawn by the end, but tenuously. I’ve had a night to marinate the story in my mind and I’m still not entirely sure what happened.

Though the plot is convoluted and the novel itself suffered from Too Many Characters Syndrome (if I’m bored someday, I’m going to count them all), it is in no way a bad book. I think that we have Kept credit for striving for authenticity. I honestly believe that if you had plopped this book in front of me after finished my college Victorian Literature course, I might have mistaken it for some Dickens protégé. If you read this book, you’ll appreciate the level of detail, but, for your own sake, take notes. Then share them with me.

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