I wanted to love Shell so much. I thought it would be easy.
I adored the beautiful pearlescent cover on the hardback edition. It’s dreamy quality felt nostalgic and apocalyptic at the same time (rather like Sydney last week during the dust storm)!
I love historical fiction. The building of the Opera House combined with Vietnam War issues should have been fascinating for me.
But most importantly, I was utterly mesmerised by Olsson’s earlier memoir, Boy, Lost. I still think about how graciously and generously she explored her own family story within the context of 1950’s Australia politics and culture. It was moving and powerful stuff.
I had heard from other bloggers, who raved about Shell, that the story was a slow burn, so after picking it up, then putting it down after about a dozen pages last year, I decided to try again recently, now that I have a bit more slow time up my sleeve.
But the same problem confronted me.
The start is not only a slow burn, but I also found it clunky with truncated sentences and phrases. This choppy sentence structure doesn’t stop. I never felt a sense of rhythm or flow. It felt like Olsson was trying to hard to be poetic and clever. The effect didn’t grab my attention or suit my mood. As she herself said about the Australian language (through the voice of Axel, the Swedish glass maker),
Its sentences were without rhythm, flat, featureless….He wondered if it was a matter of sophistication or history or even weather, this difference. This leaning into or away from another’s sentences, or into or away from landscape, or surroundings. The things you were willing to reveal, what you were willing to hear.
Sometimes he would stand on the quay and let the streams of people part around him like water, and he would listen. Words, phrases, perhaps a whole sentence….what was in the words that made these people. Did their language make them feel a different way?
But my biggest disappointment was my lack of affection or connection to the two main characters – Pearl and Axel. I never really felt like I was inside their heads or their hearts. I struggled to care for their issues or dilemmas.
I persisted past my usual stopping point of the 50 page mark, thanks to the number of comments about the slow burn, but by page 122 I realised that Shell simply wasn’t working for me. I had given enough time to a book that wasn’t getting under my skin, into my head or heart.
It’s disappointing to anticipate a book so much only to find that you’ve fail to find a way in. Normally not finishing a book doesn’t worry me too much – life is too short and there are too many other books I could be reading, but this one has left me with a sense of failure. What have I missed that so many others got? Why was I not able to appreciate the writing style or connect to the characters when so many other bloggers have?
Because I loved Boy, Lost so much, I feel the need to be fair to Shell and Olsson and share some of the reviews that rave about it so that you can make up your own mind.
- Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.