Book Review – Psalm 119 by Heather McRobie
I picked up Psalm 119 for two reasons: one, because of my desire to read more books by women, and two, because of the startling cover. From the blurb, the book appeared to be about post-2001 student travels through various war zones. Okay, I thought, I’ll give it a try. Psalm 119 opens with some moderately interesting poetry, and then we are introduced to Marie (or Maria, or Anne-Marie), who appears at first to be our protagonist. This is where I encountered my first problem with this novel, as Marie (as I’ll call her) isn’t especially likeable. At the beginning, we witness her meeting David, a rich young Jewish boy. She proceeds to spend lot of his parents’ money and do very little else, except for screwing him I guess.
I should mention at this point that McRobie is a few years younger than myself, and that her novel was the winner of the Helene du Coudray Award for a novel by an undergraduate under 25 years of age at an English university. What I’m trying to say is that McRobie has done very well for herself just to get a novel in print at her age, and as such I am going to cut her a little slack. So Marie isn’t the most sympathetic of characters, but we soon realise that the novel isn’t so much about her as about David, and another young man named Mohammad. These three form the core characters of the novel, and they all end up in sexual relationships with each other at various times.
The plot of Psalm 119 is, to my mind, rather weak. It details the Oxford student life of Marie and co, where they meet a Palestinian professor (and Marie manages to screw him too – in fact she does rather a lot of this in the novel). David and Marie go to live for a while in the Palestinian territories (which are of course very topical at the moment), and there are various escapades in Israel and later in Europe. There’s not much of a grand narrative here, which is something I like books to have. I suppose you could call this a more personal tale of three intertwined lives.
The further I read, the more I disliked Marie. To McRobie’s credit, the reader is positioned to view Marie’s facile nature with disdain, so that was okay, but there is a shift needed, from thinking we are to sympathise with Marie, to thinking (with the author) that she is beyond redemption. David and Mohammad are more likeable characters, and the latter of which is probably the best drawn character in the book. One thing that this book has going for it is in its descriptions of the Palestinian territories, which I thought were done well (even though I wouldn’t know any better if McRobie made the whole thing up). It’s interesting to note that Psalm 119 is already a quasi-historical document in that it describes a time when Palestinian-Israeli relations were decidedly better than they are today.
There is another dimension to this novel. Several chapters don’t concern David, Marie and Mohammad at all, and instead seem to be told from the point of view of the poet Rumi or something of that nature. There are letters to God and the like, and a lot of discussion of Samson and Delilah. Not having much of a background in Biblical studies myself, I found this perplexing and of little relevance to the rest of the book. Perhaps I could have tried harder, but toward the end I was skipping these chapters altogether. Whatever McRobie was trying to do here, it didn’t work. I feel confident in saying that, because it should not be necessary to have particular Biblical knowledge to make head or tail of large sections of a fictional text.
The plot meanders along in somewhat slow fashion. The various characters fall in love with each other, engage in relationships, and split up again. By around two-thirds of the way through, I was struggling to maintain an interest. The prose, at least, is quite easy to read. And then, at long last, we get an event of some interest, which takes the form of Marie’s breakdown in Tel Aviv. In this, Psalm 119‘s most powerful scene, Marie tries to rescue a dying cat that she has seen be run over by a car. Her increasingly desperate wanderings lead her nowhere good, but she does confront her own vapidity. And then we get a fairly major event in terms of the main characters (which I wont’ spoil) and a fairly unsatisfactory aftermath.
Did I enjoy reading Psalm 119? In parts. This is the kind of book that reviewers say shows ‘promise.’ My hope is that in future novels McRobie will be clearer about what she is trying to say through these events, and also that she will construct a more robust narrative. It’s not essential to have a sympathetic main character, but I feel that the reader needs to know the rules of the game from an early stage. My confusion regarding this causes me to feel that I was failing to symapathise with Marie early on, when in fact McRobie was working toward this very understanding. But who I am to complain? Heather McRobie has had a novel published at the tender age of twenty-three or so, and there aren’t many people who can say that.
Anyhow, this was my fifty-eighth and final book for 2008. Happy new year to you all.