The reviews, up to now, of The Beggar’s Opera have been spectacular. But Yvonne Klein, a retired English professor living in Montreal reviewed it on her blog, Reviewing the Evidence, and didn’t much like it. Here’s part of what she had to say:
“Neither Ellis nor Jones are particularly interesting characters in themselves. To be effective, the stock fictional nightmare of the innocent tourist falsely accused and facing uncertain justice in a language he does not understand really requires a sympathetic victim to work; either that or an extremely deft hand at characterization. And Jones is very much out of the stock character bin – an ex-hostage negotiator haunted by a failure that ended in tragedy, a woman unable to conceive who drowns her sorrows in work, she is a familiar type.
“Much of the central part of the book is punctuated by endless criticism of life in Cuba. The time is 2007 and the economy was in very rough shape, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its support, the tightening of economic sanctions by George Bush, and the toll taken by several historic hurricanes. All of the poverty and deprivation is chalked up to Fidel Castro, or so it seems from the complaints of the Cubans that Jones comes in contact with. Turning to taxi-drivers to convey a sense of how things are is a standard journalist’s dodge when time is too short for real research, but it has its problems in a novel. Castro’s Cuba is presented here as a unrelentingly repressive land where the slightest deviation from orthodoxy is rapidly punished. The ease with which passing Cubans vent their discontent with the regime to utter strangers rather undercuts that particular message. Havana is seen to seethe with prostitutes, beggars, and corruption at every level. To what degree this is in fact the case is unclear – the sole claim to direct knowledge of the country that Peggy Blair announces is that she and her daughter spent the Christmas holidays there six years ago.
“Like many first novels, THE BEGGAR’S OPERA would have benefited from stricter editorial pruning. There are a number of twists and turns at the end, some of which are unexpected but unfortunately unconvincing and seem introduced for no particular reason except as an attempt to lob a final firework or two into the air.”
Oh my. That reminds me of one of the rejections I got from a (since deceased) Canadian literary agent who said that she found the book “de trop” (French for “over the top”) with too many twists and turns for her liking.
The first thing you notice in Cuba is how freely the taxi drivers, guides, and ordinary Cubans talk to tourists about the conditions, although always with a watchful idea for the CDR and the police, so my guess is that Professor Klein has never been there. But it’s the American trade embargo that Cubans mostly rail against, not Castro, both in real life and in the book.
It is funny that when Klein reviewed Alan Bradley’s book, Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (which she loved), she noted that it “has been very warmly received despite the fact that the author has never set foot in Flavia’s own country.”
You can read the entire review here.