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Audacity by Melanie Crowder
Penguin/Philomel, January 2015
Reviewed from ARC

I have a copy all marked up with post its; Audacity is full of lovely language, creatively placed text (srsly, such nice design), and strong recurring images, and I want to put lots of quotes in for oooh-ing and aww-ing purposes. However, I GUESS we are here for a slightly more substantive discussion. So let’s get started. With three stars and some buzz floating around, this historical fiction in verse is eye-catching and discussion-worthy — but will it go the distance at the table?

The writing is the draw here. (People! So many post its!) “It is as if my heart leaps out of my chest to strum the spines, thumb through the pale, hand-softened pages.” (Oh, I am a sucker for delicious book-related writing.) “[A] book for dessert after the long, hard days.” Yessss. Well, OK, that entire bit takes place at one of my ex-branches, the Seward Park Branch, so I MIGHT be a little biased (but for real, it is as glorious inside as the book indicates — soaring ceilings, huge windows, gorgeous wooden shelves, grand double staircases on every floor — Crowder is not exaggerating here, truly. People, click for the image of the rooftop reading room, my favorite favorite image of a library ever). The recurring images and motifs are powerful — fire, sparks, ignition, all over; birds and flight elements are mixed in throughout; it’s resonant and often stunning.

Just as often, her words and descriptions brutally bring to light the working conditions in NYC factories and sweatshops. She uses rhythm, text placement, and strong images to illustrate the dangerous situations.

I practice
under my breath
as I work:
      yesterday        was
      today                is
      tomorrow       will be

The reader can feel the relentless rhythm with Clara, but also understands her persistent work for knowledge. At work, in the library, at school, at union meetings, Crowder uses her language and imagery to make these situations come alive, feel textured, palpable, tangible. Counting your few allotted sips of water so that you can make it to the bathroom break, a single fan for an entire room filled with women working, workers locked in the room, clock hands moved forward to shorten breaks, brutality on picket lines — all of these details are carefully planted on the page. Clara’s work to learn English and to study is beautifully twined in as well; her desire to learn is tied with her hope to earn money for her family, and then is also tied to her mission to unionize — the flow is so elegant and natural that the moral arguments just seem like elemental truths.

So there’s a lot that works for this book. I have a few things that I’m thinking about, though, that RealCommittee members might be considering, too — and which may take it off the table once the gloves come off and people take hard looks at all their contenders. I think it might come down to Crowder’s choice to write in verse, which is a totally valid artistic decision (I just squeed my way through what really worked, afterall). Clara’s characterization is strong — so strong and vibrant. She watches so carefully, she works so tirelessly, she cares so much. But do the supporting cast live up to that? Clara’s coworkers are little more than names (which makes sense to a degree; she does move from factory to factory throughout the course of the novel). Her parents stand out, but her younger brothers blend together in the background. Joe jumps out a little (and beautifully supports Clara’s work; how often does the dude love interest support without overwhelming the story? Not often enough). But because the verse is first person, so stuck in Clara’s head and tied to her perspective, we lose out on really getting to know any of the people she worked with and allied with — the people who surrounded her.

The decision to go with verse also means that some of the dramatic tension leaves the story. No matter how the conflicts are condensed and the narrative is compressed for clarity and narrative flow, the focus here is on the details, on the language, and not as much on the plot. Tension never really gets a chance to build. Chapters have dramatic titles (“tinder,” “spark,” “blaze”) but we never get to an explosive point.

Like I said, it’s a totally valid artistic choice to go with gorgeous language, powerful imagery, so this may just be a matter of taste — I’ve never lied about my love for a lot of plotty plot in my plots, afterall. So maybe you want to convince me in the comments? (Which reminds me: hi! So nice to be back this year! Really looking forward to talking with you!!)


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