When I read 2012 short story collection Battleborn I was 100% convinced that I had found a writer that would rank among my favourites. Debut novel Gold Fame Citrus dulled that excitement. It wasn’t that it was a bad book, but rather that the storytelling simply didn’t match up to the power in the creation of the characters and the absolutely sumptuous prose. With I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness it does, unfortunately, seem like the same issue still exists. While we have a great many engaging characters, particularly in the early stages of the book, the premise that is set up in the opening quarter seems to dissipate as various decisions slow the pace and dull the edges.
But first, the good: because this starts superbly. Within the scenes in which our protagonist struggles to bond with her child while answering the questions to a post-natal depression scale questionnaire, we have the beginnings of a truly relatable and engaging piece of writing. This intrigue only grows as we move to a second character named Paul, who seems to be playing a role in finding women for Charles Manson and his crew. How these things join up is initially unclear, but as we move through these sections there is a sense that a masterful tale might be coming together.
I should add that the intrigue is only ramped up by the fact that the main protagonist, like the author, is called Claire Vaye Watkins. The Paul character is her father. The book is clearly marketed as a novel everywhere, but Watkins has done more than just write what she knows – she has taken elements of her own life and entered them into a larger, fictionalised whole. It makes for an involving read at times, as you end up trying to pick about what’s real and what isn’t. And Watkins is a supremely talented writer on a basic, sentence structure, cadence, and dialogue level – so she really makes some of these ‘is this truth or fiction?’ sections sing.
The problem comes as the book progresses and meanders, moving away from the central ideas that captivate in the early pages to something less concrete. We witness the protagonist go on a journey away from her new role as a mother, but rarely do we fully connect the dots between what is happening on the page and how the opening chapters have led to it. It feels like something has been missed. And with the sections that include letters from the protagonist’s mother to her cousin, in reverse chronological order (?), it feels like something has just been tacked on because the author felt that the novel was incomplete. All sense of pace and narrative drive disappears in these moments.
Any Cop?: I am still holding out hope for the career of this author. She writes gorgeous sentences fully of wry and witty humour and is great at creating a situation that grabs you by the throat in a matter of minutes. But this is the second novel in a row that has not met its early promise. Neither are bad books, and maybe I have judged both of them harshly because of high expectations – but when you put out a book like Battleborn you create standards that people are going to hold you to. This book doesn’t quite get there, but Watkins does enough to show that she can do so in the future.