Is a novel by the Guardian hack Bidisha Bandyopadhyay, who, for reasons best known to herself (probably trying too hard, let's be fair), she wrote under only her first name when she was only seventeen (a pretentious habit that she still sticks to - unless you are a Roman you should not do this). I figured it a prime candidate for inclusion into this series of writeups on bad novels on pseudo-intellectuality and hipster-pandering grounds, for a number of reasons. Notably that almost every review of it on both Amazon and Goodreads is crushingly negative, and the positive ones are by people with no other reviews to their name and snarky comments underneath saying, "Hi Bidisha!"
So onto Amazon I went and paid my 1p (plus £2.80 postage and packing) so I could see whether it lived down to expectations.
Look, Mum! I wrote a NOVEL!
A bit more detail if you don't mind?
Before getting into any more detail, firstly, a little story. Gather round, children. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
When I was seventeen, and spent my spare time lusting after a clarinet player I knew whose name was almost Lana (who turned out to be a mentalist tsundere hell-bitch), I liked to think I could write. Okay, I still do think I can write and if you must know I'm gradually throwing together a really badass law procedural novel set in my corner of East London, but still. Back then, I also did A level Latin and for this had to read the Aeneid. Among other stuff. So I threw myself into writing the definitive epic urban fantasy of our times, about an ordinary student living in a questionable home counties town who had an affair with a Fury. Or rather, an escaped Fury, who the agents of Hades and Persephone were looking for, not to mention with scathing indictments of the war in Iraq and other aspects of Tony Blair's premiership. It was going to be mega. I'd be on Radio 4 with it. The toast of book clubs everywhere. And most importantly, Lana would come running at me in admiration of my awesomeness with open arms and legs, and I'd make loadsamoney out of it to boot.
I did mention that I was seventeen, right?
Well, I got about a third of the way through it. Then I had my exams, lost interest, and went to university, upon where I discovered beer. Hazelnut's Thoroughly Incomparable Urban Fantasy Novel got lost somewhere on a hard drive. Recently, I found it on one of those disks when clearing them out to make new space for important things. I read it over again.
The resultant screaming in agony made me glad I never finished it. Otherwise someone else would be doing the Books Hazelnut Read So You Don't Have To writeups and this writeup would be about it. It was rotten! The plot was threadbare, full of ham-fisted low-quality political aesops and broadsides which have no relevance to anything, look-at-me-aren't-I-cultured references to the more obscure bits of Classical mythology, pointless use of abusive parents and rape as backstory (both of which are hallmarks of lazy writing), and the protagonist was a horrible Mary Sue that I, in a fit of cardinal hopelessness, named Bradley Throckmorton.
Thing is, the above is a pretty accurate summation of Seahorses as well. Only Bidisha, unlike myself, never got told when she showed it to people, "Sorry, but this sucks." She, being in her teens a hack for Dazed & Confused, and thus surrounded by Nathan Barley types, only got warm fuzzies. At Oxford, where she went (I, for the record, didn't get into Oxford, and I'm glad I didn't, knowing what I know now about it from former school friends who did go - as grammar school boys, they were very much the token oiks, and this was in the so-called left wing colleges), she was surrounded by other ex-public school folks who reckoned (wrongly) they could write, and they too gave her the same warm fuzzies about it. Small reference pools meant that there was no constructive criticism - which, to be honest, does sometimes take the form of "scrap it all and start again." (Ask Terry Brooks - he got three quarters through a sequel to The Sword of Shannara before he was convinced he was going completely down the wrong path and should start again, and that led to The Elfstones of Shannara which is widely recognised as the best of the entire series.)
Had there been constructive criticism, here are just some of the things that Seahorses would have avoided.
Well, firstly, it seems that Bidisha never met an adjective she didn't like. Especially colours. After all, why use one adjective when you can use five or six? Better still, why not compound them? Yay for overwrought descriptions of everything! So rather than say how it's sundown, explain how London puts on a sable-brown evening dress or suchlike. Or better still, get ye to the True Art Is Offensive box and describe someone's shirt as "menstrual explosion of burgundies." Oh yeah. That's exactly what you should do right now. Not. The proliferation of frankly absurd descriptions of things results in passages that rival The Eye of Argon in their terribleness. Okay, nothing happens in Seahorses "with a sloshing plop," but it's equally hopeless. Furthermore, the constant description of irrelevancies such as what the characters are wearing, potted biographies of them upon introduction, and purplescent descriptions of life going on all around the characters - none of which is really relevant whatsoever to any element of the novel - make the novel seem bloated - and it's under 300 pages as it is.
Secondly, the constant shout outs and nods to literature. Yes. We get the idea Bidisha. You've read English Literature at Oxford. Congratulations. So why constantly cockwave about how well read you are by chucking in quotes from Philip Larkin, rattling off what minor characters' favoured reading materials are, and similar. None of this adds to the novel whatsoever and just screams, "look at me! I'm well fucking cultured I am!" Through a bullhorn, no less. This is at its most offensive when it comes from the protagonist, the ridiculously named Pale Jessen. Hmmm. Pale Jessen is sixteen. Pale Jessen wants to go and study English Lit at Oxford. Pale Jessen is a beautiful and unique snowflake. Everyone likes her, apart from people who are wrong. I think the phrase you're looking for here rhymes with "hairy pew." The stupid bloody name only confirms one's suspicion. The author also seems not to understand that to make your characters convincing, you have to have them do what they would do, not what you would do, in a given situation.
Then there's the fact that Seahorses is bereft of a plot. Apparently this Pale Jessen has a fling with an aspiring (and very pretentious) filmmaker who's as old as her father. And also has an affair with her father as well. I don't know why. For science, maybe. This is the entirety of the plot and it's spread out amongst pages and pages of padding. There's also excerpts from some woman's diary about how she left her husband thrown in here and there, the relevance of which is tangential at best and ends in a lip-curl-worthy "only women bleed" author tract. Christ on a bike, Bidisha. Don't you know that your radical ideas about gender relations have already occurred to others, who put them way less anviliciously and were still full of shite?
But all of this is moot compared to the worst thing about this novel, which I've touched on above but bears repeating. The writing. Dear God this is painful. Absurd, jarring metaphors and similes tumble from the page like... like opening a portaloo door at Wacken Open Air and fleeing in horror as a torrent of bangers and mash emanates from that boisterous portal. The prose is best described, in its own words, as "dragging and pinching like thousands of tetanus jabs." And it gets worse. It's not enough to say that it's dawn, no, the author has to say how "Sunday morning burst out of the darkness like an eagle on a bloodhunt." Then there's the colours. The author just loves her colours. Thesauri were humped in considerable measure during the creation of this book, I'm sure.
And in the end? Well, nothing happens. There's a long paragraph of wet analogies about suicide, and that's it. White space and "About the Author." Speaking of which, in the front cover there's a picture of the author in a leather jacket trying to look all edgy, yet undermined by the fact that she went to a public school, Oxford, then to write for the Guardian (where her columns are mostly pseudo-intellectual drivel about stuff she has no understanding of - though this is a common failing of many pundits - and one included a pout about how Wikipedia was chauvinist because they wouldn't let her censor her real surname from it). This kinda spoils the effect, as due to the above, she's approximately as "street" as David Cameron.
Oh, one other thing - there are no seahorses in Seahorses. There is no possible relevance of the title to the rest of the book.
So, what have we learnt from this, I hear you ask? This - take everything you wrote in your teens and burn it. Otherwise your godawful pseudo-intellectual juvenile maunderings will be attached to you forever.