Book reviewers know better than anyone that behind every great book there’s a great editor. A literary editor works behind the scenes to help a novel reach its full potential, but there is rarely any glory or ego-stroking for the editor. There is just the satisfaction of a job well done and hopefully a heartfelt thank you from the novelist they have nurtured through the long process that turns a manuscript into a novel. But crack open enough new novels these days and you’ll notice an alarming trend in the publishing industry.
The professional editor’s role, once the guarantee of literary quality control, has been dramatically diminished. The result is the regular appearance of new books rife with errors, inconsistencies and aggravating stylistic missteps. Unfortunately, Thomas Armstrong’s debut novel, Of Water and Rock, is one of these books.
Of Water and Rock was initially inspired by the stories Thomas Armstrong heard from his mother-in-law. The author first visited the Barbados in 1979, met and married a Barbadian woman, and has a deep respect and affection for the country.
The book’s protagonist, Edward Hamblin, goes to the Barbados to claim a cottage left to him by his Great Aunt Sarah. He intends to sell the property but finds himself increasingly attached to the island and the inhabitants of Hamblin Hall, the small community where his inherited property stands. The plot involves a handful of colourful local characters, a mystery, and a romantic liaison with the rich daughter of the colonial patriarch who lives in a mansion on the hill. Armstrong has made a great effort to include transliteration of dialogue so that the reader has a sense of the Bajan dialect, and he clearly wants to convey how important and enriching community life can be there.
But even the best of intentions can’t compensate for this novel’s limitations. Most annoying and pervasive is the way Armstrong uses language. Armstrong is strangely enamored with the passive voice, and makes of habit of avoiding more direct verb tenses whenever possible. Sentences like, “Mrs. Weatherby’s high-pitched voice gave her words a penetrating quality, which caused Edward to flinch inwardly,” fill the book. Inevitably, the reader feels removed from both the protagonist’s inner experience and from the plot itself. Tenor of language also contributes to the reader’s feelings of disengagement from the protagonist and the action. The author’s tendency to choose more formal Latinate words over their Anglo-Saxon equivalents creates a stiff and awkward tone and gives one the sense that the writer is trying to impress us with his vocabulary rather than draw us into the fictional universe he has created.
Another problem is the shifting narrative voice. Most of the time the narration is from Edward’s personal perspective but occasionally for no clear reason the point of view veers into the realm of the omnipotent narrator. In addition to all these stylistic concerns, as well as the typos in the text, the protagonist is misnamed in H. Nigel Thomas’ plug on the back cover; these errors should never have escaped the book’s editor and publisher.
Of Water and Rock has the potential to be a much better book than it is.
B.A. Markus is a writer, teacher, and performer living in Montreal who knows that a good editor is hard to find.