Home > Book Reviews, Fremantle Press > Book Review – Channelling Henry by Bruce L. Russell

Book Review – Channelling Henry by Bruce L. Russell

I don’t know if Bruce Russell was a late starter in writing, but he was certainly a late starter in getting his books published. His first novel, Jacob’s Air, won the TAG Hungerford Award in 1995, at which time Russell must have been over 50 already. I haven’t read Jacob’s Air or Russell’s second book, The Chelsea Manifesto, but I know where I can find a copy of both. I knew Bruce Russell slightly in 2000 when he taught a creative writing class at Curtin that I happened to be in. (in my salad days…) He must have been writing Channelling Henry around this time.

So what’s it about? Firstly, the title refers to Henry Miller, the famous (but now apparently out of favour) American writer. I’ve read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (but I never got through Capricorn) and Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, so I have an idea of what Russell is referring to here. I wonder if one could fully appreciate Channelling Henry without at least a rudimentary appreciation of Miller’s overblown genius. Anyway, a basic summary of the novel’s opening is this: an Australian writer comes to New York at the encouragement of his aunt; an English woman, also a writer, comes to New York with her teenage daughter.

Let’s see if I can get these character names right. Jeremy Moon is the Australian writer. Cassandra Goldin is the English one, and her daughter is called Demi. Maria Gaudi happens to be hanging around on the airport bus; she works for a professor called Matthew Crane. Henry Valentine is the seedy street vendor, who might be a paedophile and/or Henry Miller’s forgotten son. Jeremy’s aunt Felecity (but call me Flick) turns out to be much more than an aunt…and there are a few other notable characters later in the book. In short, this is a good, strong cast. I found that while the plot of Channelling Henry took a while to get going, I was fascinated with the lives of these people. Time for a small confession: most literature bores me to tears. But Channelling Henry isn’t boring. It’s beautifully written (and yet the words have a purpose beyond being beautiful), the characters are intriguing and the plot is unpredictable. All of this is good.

The novel takes place, for the most part, in pre-9/11 Manhattan. It’s curious that a novel published a mere 5 years ago should be ‘dated’ already, but isn’t it the job of writers to ‘record the present,’ the same way Jeremy Moon records conversations he has? The World Trade Center towers even make a brief appearance, and I can’t help but imagine the planes streaking toward them, less than two years into the future of this novel…. One of the things I enjoyed about this book was Russell’s eye for detail. Like all good writers, Russell knows that quality of detail is more important than quantity, and that there are times when it is not necessary to sketch detail at all. In doing so, Russell controls the flow of his novel masterfully.

I usually like to detail the plot of a novel in these reviews, without concern of ‘spoiling’ the novel for potential readers, but I think that it might be appropriate to withhold too much plot description on this occasion. As I said before, my main enemy in reading fiction is boredom. Dull, uninteresting characters, awash with cliches. Predictable plots with all-too-obvious hooks. Characters who talk precisely how people don’t. And worst of all, pretentiousness. Channelling Henry avoids all of these pitfalls, and it does it through an intelligent and elegant plot structure. It’s not often that books keep me in a state of surprise and attentiveness, but Channelling Henry did both. This is not only a well-written book; it’s also an intriguing page-turner. And here I think Russell may have bridged the divide between literary and popular fiction. Perhaps this is still very much on the literary side of things, but Russell is well aware (and perfectly capable) of telling an interesting story.

This is a meaty book. You can feel the years of work that must have gone into it. At somewhat more than 300 pages, Channelling Henry never drags. There’s even something of a bonus at the end (which I am yet to read): Henry Valentine’s manuscript. I’ve only got one potential criticism of this book, and it’s a technical matter. Russell uses an omniscient third-person point of view, thus gaining insight into the thoughts of central characters. I would have thought it appropriate to at least start a new paragraph before shifting between the thoughts of two characters, but this book seems to jump all over the place in this regard. Perhaps it’s just me, but I found that confusing at times.

I wanted to like Channelling Henry, but I ended up liking it much more than I had expected. I read it over the course of a weekend, and it was never a chore to read. I wonder whether Russell has a new book in the works, considering that this one has been in print for almost five years? All three of Russell’s novels were published by Fremantle Art Centre Press (which is now known as Fremantle Press). In addition to being an excellent novel, Channelling Henry is also a handsome tome with elegant cover art. Really, this is writing and publishing at its finest.

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  1. June 3, 2008 at 11:10 pm

    Hey Guy – Bruce does indeed have a new book in the pipeline; ran into him last week. Sounds good too. Thanks for this generous and interesting review.

  2. guysalvidge
    June 4, 2008 at 8:35 am

    Geez, I loved this book. I will re-read it again within the year, I’d expect. But I was less enthusiastic about Bruce’s first two novels. Jacob’s Air was solid but The Chelsea Manifesto didn’t do it for me. Bruce told me that his new novel is called Mick’s Museum and that it will be out in ’09. I’m looking forward to reading that.

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