Hmmm… I’m leaning towards a 2.5 here.
This is a difficult novel to review, because I wanted to like it, and it started out so well. MacDonald’s writing is mesmerising, and her initial setup is fantastic.
We start out with James and Materia, a Canadian piano tuner and a Lebanese child. One controversial marriage later, we begin their unhappy life together, and follow the lives of the actual protagonists – their four unhappy daughters.
This is a big book. If you’re looking for a theme, it’s probably here, from religious fervour to war and racism, from incest to queer sexuality, prostitution and the jazz scene. There are themes of sisterhood, of sacrifice. Ghosts, family feuds, language barriers and revenge. Some Macdonald tackles with great skill and great sensitivity. Others less so.
‘He knows Materia will pray, she’ll pray her fool head off. He’s right, she does. She prays so hard that her head really does seem to get a little wobbly. She prays he’ll be killed quickly and painlessly in Flanders.’
Hats off to MacDonald’s ambition, because every page sings with what this novel is trying to be. For a debut, Fall On Your Knees is a real testament to this author’s ability to tackle complex storylines. The writing quality is excellent, but there’s a big question mark hanging over whether it all comes together.
I’m inclined to say no.
Multiple protagonists is always a risky move, especially in long, third-person narratives, and this book is a clear example of how not to do it. MacDonald seems to have really struggled with who to focus on, because the tension is all over the place, and consequently, lacking.
I loved Frances, and Mercedes showed the makings of a great character in places, but Lily is just sort of there, and Kathleen… I will never understand why MacDonald left telling her story so late in the novel. After disliking her for 400 pages, it didn’t do to have this girl’s issues fixed in the final fifth. The transformation, though lovely, occurs without any evidence of internal conflict. It’s as though she becomes a new person in the space of a scene, and for no reason other than MacDonald wanted this girl to wind up a good person.
‘Tonight, Frances extinguishes her candle before she steps into the attic. It’s the moon. Four rectangles of light have swooned through the latticed window onto the floor. The moon may drive men mad but it can calm a savage girl, for it is cool, precise, it is lucid. Especially in such an empty room.’
The writing I’ll stand by. But what it writes about…?
So much flitting and so many characters making life-changing decisions with little to no motivation. Overall, a mess, and the ending is weak.
This book has more flaws than can be forgiven, but the truth is I still want so much to say that I liked it, because it is a sharply-defined shadow of what it could have been, in the hands of a better editor.