Candleo by Georgia Blain

This is another book I studied last year for English. And it’s a book I vehemently disliked, as did my classmates, and the year before’s. It is an Australian novel which is relatively unknown (there’s not even a Wikipedia page on it! Much to the annoyance of some students who wanted to ‘research’ online – perhaps that was the intention of our teacher), but is on the list of prescribed texts for us to study, so, study we did. We actually paired this text with a film, Lantana, which is also Australian. It was a good pairing because they had quite similar themes and ideas, and the different mediums made a comparison more interesting. The book itself follows the story of Ursula, who really is living a non-life. She broke up with her boyfriend despite having a reasonable relationship, she cheated on him with their neighbour, she can’t communicate with her brother even though he’s frequently around, she is “lurching from disaster to disaster”. Which all ultimately stems from her time as a child on a family holiday to Candelo (which is a real country town).

The book is structured in a non-linear fashion, as we regularly change at each chapter to either the present (well technically it’s a more recent past – until the last chapter or so when we are actually in the present – note the change in tense) or their time in Candelo or some other past moment. There’s no helpful symbol saying yep we’re in the past, you have to figure that out, and sometimes it takes a while. But all this is supposed to be representative of Ursula’s own journey through her jumbled memories, as one thing reminds her of something else, and it shows her confusion with it all, and you as a reader experience this confusion.

The real climax of the story is when the truth about the accident at Candelo is revealed, and it’s not that shocking (spoiler: it was the brother driving), but the twist really isn’t the point of the story. It’s more about dealing with the past, and dealing with secrets. Neither of these things Ursula does very well, until the very end where she learns to let things go (there’s symbolism in the final passage if you’re looking for some).

This is a book that I really detested. It was so boring, the characters all were quite awful, Ursula herself was completely annoying and dry, the plot was quite non-existent and largely confusing. There were passages of the most mundane descriptions, which remind me a little of some of the classics which just drag on about nothing. Even the themes couldn’t redeem the book, they weren’t that interesting or powerful.  I get that it is a literature ‘book’, and isn’t supposed to be exciting, it’s not about the plot, it’s about the story and the character development, and the themes and your emotional journey with it, but it wasn’t that good at all. And hey literature still needs to have some sort of engaging plot, otherwise there isn’t actually a story. The characters hardly developed at all, and it wasn’t emotional, and it wasn’t that well written (if you want this read The Book Thief!). The only good thing was that it only went on for 300 pages! There will be some people who like this sort of novel, but I’m not one of them. (And I can say that I have a pretty good understanding of the text and the themes and techniques used by Blain, but it still doesn’t change my opinion – and it’s not a case of having studied it in school it was ruined, I would have detested this either way.)

Have you had any experiences of a terribly boring book forced on you by school? How did you cope? What was wrong with the book? And did your teacher or classmates somehow love it?

8 thoughts on “Candleo by Georgia Blain

  1. I find it very funny that when I googled “candleo georgia blain,” this post is the first and second page that came up.
    Most books don’t have Wikipedia pages, though, honestly – The Cuckoo’s Calling had nothing until Robert Galbraith’s true identity was revealed.

    1. Wow Google has moved quick with my post.

      Actually that’s a very good point! The only counter I have was for a book that’s supposedly a great Australian novel, enough so to be on a senior year syllabus you would have thought perhaps there’d be something…

  2. And yes, I had an absolute travesty of a book forced upon me in school: The Swiss Family Robinson, which was written by a random pastor in the 1700s to teach his sons about life, and they just decided to give it to a publishing company once they grew up.
    I coped with it by just reading it, trying to enjoy how laughably terrible it was, and counting down the chapters till it was done. And I got to read Anne of Green Gables afterwards, which made up for it.
    Little was right about the book. There was no plot, just random day-to-day life on the island. They don’t have to work hard to stay alive, everything they need just randomly appears on the island and the father knows how to use it because he seems to know everything and to have spent his life preparing to be trapped on an island. In fact, I think this is not even a joke, considering the fact that he comes up with all those convoluted ideas for life on the island, but never not once in more than 40 chapters does he or anyone else suggest taking the most rudimentary measures to try to get off the island or escape from it. None of them ever seem to be upset about being marooned on a deserted island with no other human beings around.
    The island is filled with every animal known to mankind from every continent. And as soon as they meet a new one they take it as their mission to kill it simply for the sake of itself even though they have everything they need to survive already. They at one point kill an entire sperm whale, then sit around thinking about what to do with it. The father admits it would taste terrible, so he just uses its innards to have fun teaching his children the art of candle-making. They brutally slaughter a band of monkeys on two separate occasions (beating them to death, planting glue-smeared coconuts on their heads, and setting their dogs on them) for no reason other than an act of revenge for making a mess of an out-of-the-way cabin they barely used at all.
    And no one talks right. The father (who narrates the story) speaks and talks like the most pompous, arrogant, windbag Harvard professor imaginable, seeming to construct all his sentences around sounding intelligent and replacing every small word with a big one. His wife and children talk exactly the same way (or “converse in precisely the same manner”), even the 9-year-old boy. This last fault is probably due to the 1889 translation I was reading, but still the book has few redeeming qualities.
    It actually just goes so bad the author eventually wrote “Having given a detailed account of several years’ residence in New Switzerland, as we liked to call our dominion, it is needless for me to continue what would exhaust the patience of the most long-suffering, by repeating monotonous narratives of exploring parties and hunting expeditions, wearisome descriptions of awkward inventions and clumsy machines, with an endless record of discoveries, more fit for the pages of an encyclopedia than a book of family history.” I’m not kidding. That is word-for-word from the book.
    None of us liked the book. Even the teacher, who discussed every tedious chapter at length, seemed to want to like it more than anything else.

    1. That quote comes after 37 long, tedious chapters of exactly that, also. If I hadn’t been reading it for school I would never have made it that far.

  3. Apparently. He spells it out here:
    “And my great wish is that young people who read this record of our lives and adventures should learn from it how admirably suited is the peaceful, industrious, and pious life of a cheerful, united family to the formation of strong, pure, and manly character.

    None takes a better place in the great national family, none is happier or more beloved than he who goes forth from such a home to fulfill new duties, and to gather fresh interests around him.”

  4. Oh my god, I totally agree with you, this book sucks! we are also studying it for English this year and paired it with Lantana. Right now, I am studying up on it for my exam tomorrow and I just want to bang my head against the wall. I don’t feel sympathy for any of the characters as most of their anguish was brought upon by themselves and none of them make much of an attempt to improve their miserable lives.

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