Review: Nightingale Point

Another day, another Women’s Prize longlist review! If I can stick to my schedule there should have another coming tomorrow, too. Today I bring you my take on Nightingale Point by by Luan Goldie. Another disappointment for me, sadly.

nightingalepointIn the novel, a devastating tragedy rocks the London-based Nightingale Point apartment building, leaving some dead and more injured, and upending the lives of everyone else who lived there. The book follows five main characters whose lives intersect around this event, all of them affected in different ways by the disaster.

(I won’t name the disaster, as it seems some effort was put into keeping that aspect out of the book’s info. But the nature of this disaster was actually what drew me to this story in the first place, and it’s such a large part of the premise that I personally don’t think the surprise is necessary; it is easy to track this info down on Goodreads and in other reviews, if you want to know before reading.)

” ‘There’s always so much to deal with. It never ends. Getting out of the building should have been the hardest thing we had to do.’ He shakes his head. ‘But sometimes it feels like that was only the start.’ “

The novel opens on the morning of the disaster, with a prologue that flits quickly between points of view and establishes the setting. In the chapters that follow, divided in focus between each of the five main perspectives, the reader sees the lead-up on the day of the tragedy, the event itself, the immediate aftermath, and effects of the disaster up to five years later. It’s an exploration of community and individual response to a large-scale traumatic event.

But oh, I had so many problems with this book. Mainly, the simple, stereotypical characterization combined with the book’s failure to follow up on any of the meaningful commentary it hints at. This book could have been so complex and interesting, and I found myself so incredibly frustrated by how close it brushed to so many worthwhile topics without ever delving beneath the surface.

There’s the teen girl whose father locks her in their apartment “for her own good,” a horrifying circumstance that should have been used as more than a plot point. She apparently had the choice of living with this father or her newly remarried mother, and the reasoning behind her preference for the abusive father is not even touched on, leaving this girl to act as a prop in the other characters’ lives.

Then there’s the boy who severely mistreats a man with a mental disability in spite of (and partially because of) this disability; sure he feels bad about it eventually, but only when he’s given a big reason to, and even then the whole encounter is quickly brushed off and replaced by close friendship with a simple “I’ll try to make it up to you” and no deeper look at why the boy behaved this way in the first place or how it affected the disabled man.

Assumptions can be made, of course, but the novel misses opportunity after opportunity by failing to make any statements about such problematic incidents, treating them instead as an “ordinary” part of life in this apartment block. (Even their ordinariness could have made a statement, and yet doesn’t.) Goldie mentions in her author’s note that this novel was inspired by real events, and that part of the problem with seeing appropriate community and governmental response to such a devastating event was the fact that the affected apartments housed relatively poor families- people simply didn’t care enough about what would become of them; this would have been another very worthwhile facet for Nightingale Point to explore, and yet while Goldie makes it clear that these are not affluent characters, she leaves it at that.

I could go on, but too many specifics make a review read like a book report, which is boring for everyone. I’ll say instead that I found the character arcs predictable and anti-climactic (all of them but one ending essentially where I thought they would have if this tragedy had not occurred), the focus on only five connected individuals too narrow for a proper glimpse at the community as a whole, and every major thematic point of interest abruptly dropped or overlooked entirely. I found it difficult to care about any of the characters, mainly as a result of the way they’re presented rather than because they’re bad people- I tend to enjoy unlikable characters when their unlikability seems intentional, whereas here I think the desired goal was complexity that just vastly missed the mark for me. I found them completely unsurprising.

The story might have been saved at least somewhat by a compelling writing style, but Nightingale Point lacked that for me as well. I actually didn’t tab any lines I liked in the entire book, which is extremely rare for me; I had to go back through at the end to find a couple of quotes to include in this review.

A few potential saving graces of note are the descriptions of the event itself, which I found morbidly fascinating, as well as the emphasis on long-term mental, physical, and social effects of a large-scale disaster. And the quickness of the read! Despite my mounting frustration at finding this very much not the story I wanted based on its premise, I did manage to finish the book in just over 24 hours, which is a feat for me- I’m a slow reader.

Unfortunately, none of these pluses were quite enough to make this a positive reading experience for me. In the end, it felt more like a basic tragic love story and/or tale of brotherhood than a meaningful examination of how people “rebuilt their lives after losing everything”- the author’s stated purpose. Unfortunately, it seemed to me like a lot of the rebuilding was happening off the page, in the gaps of time where the story jumps ahead hours or months or even years. The narration is written in third person, which keeps the characters’ mental processing of this disaster at arm’s reach from the reader. Absolutely nothing about this story challenged my perspective on the effects of a disaster of this magnitude. Maybe the fact that I’ve been through several museums honoring the victims of large public tragedies, the most recent of which I visited just under a month ago, heightened my expectations for this story beyond what the average reader would experience. But for whatever reason, despite the fast read and the absolute miles of possibility in this novel, it completely failed to come together in a satisfying way, leaving me emotionally cold and baffled at the book’s apparent success.

” ‘You keep acting like you’re all right to give up everything you worked for, ’cause things have gotten off-track.’

‘Off-track? You call what happened to us going off-track? Are you fucking kidding me?’ […]

‘I want you to be your old self and get back to the original plan: university, internship, career.’ [He] uses a finger to mark off each stage. ‘I don’t get why you’re giving up.’ “

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. As much as I genuinely hope other Women’s Prize longlist readers will have a better time with this book than I did, I do hope it won’t make the shortlist. I have no interest in reading further from Goldie at this point, though I remain interested in seeing this subject successfully fictionalized. This just wasn’t where it was at, for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

21 thoughts on “Review: Nightingale Point”

  1. Great review! Interestingly, I agree with a lot of your criticisms (especially the failure to capitalise on a lot of thematic potential), and yet I was somehow able to gel a lot better with this one! I think perhaps because my expectations were so low, I was able to take everything at face value, which helped me get a lot more invested.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I must have been reading your review at the same time as you found mine, ha. I do think we ended up agreeing on a lot in spite of the rating difference! I was just so much more bothered by the flaws, which is frustrating. I’m glad the lowered expectations helped you out! Someone deserved to have a better time with this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good timing, haha 😆 I can totally see why this wouldn’t work for a lot of people. And to be fair, I can recognise that my rating is somewhat generous. I’ve just been so underwhelmed by the list as a whole that I was grateful to have felt genuinely engaged from a narrative perspective. Outside of the list, it would probably have been a solid 3 for me.

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  2. I once read about an author who was celebrated in her small town because they felt like her writing and publishing was a victory for them all. She had a really cool way of getting feedback on her novels in progress: pretty much anyone in town who was willing was able to receive a copy of the manuscript and give some feedback. I know authors like to work solo and have a couple of beta readers, but if you think about who authors hang out with — other authors, not so much readers — then the way this author uses her town as support makes a lot of sense. I *think* the author was Michele Feltman Strider, but now I’m doubting myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh, that’s heart-warming! It is so nice to see a community come together, especially around the arts. I think this author is UK-based, and I’ve seen lots of positive reviews from UK readers, so maybe location does play a role here as well. This book is partially inspired by the Grenfell Tower fire for example, which I’d barely even heard of before picking up this book; for those who’ve lived closer to it I think this book is having more success. I usually like books that focus on a whole community, so I was very disappointed not to find that success this time!

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      1. I think having a literal community giving feedback on a novel also reiterates that all readers are important, not just ones who already feel like they’re really good at writing (like other writers). Readers come from all over the place, so it made sense that her beta readers were from all walks of life.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, that is true! All readers ARE important, and honestly having more casual readers as beta readers probably is more representative of what general/popular opinion will be; I think the writing and even reviewing community is deceptively small and not entirely representative of the full spectrum of readers out there.

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  3. I completely agree with everything you say. I was left cold by all of the characters (except poor Pamela, but only because of how shockingly she’s treated by the narrative!) and they felt so flat and stereotypical. I don’t understand how this was longlisted.

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    1. Thanks! Though, sorry you also suffered! I thought Pamela’s situation was so interesting and really wished the author had dug into that more. It’s all sort of dismissed like it’s a thing that just happens every now and then, which… IS IT?! That could’ve been an avenue for worthwhile commentary in itself, and I was so frustrated that it was all skipped over like it wasn’t one of the most horrifying details of the book.

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      1. Without getting into spoilers in case anyone else is reading this, I was really angry at how Pamela’s story was handled throughout the book, especially in the final scene between Malachi and her dad.

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      2. Yes! That bothered me so much also. Having her dad held accountable, even if only in his own conscience, would have gone some small distance toward fixing the way she was handled in the book, but accepting grief-after-the-fact as an excuse/punishment enough for something that was horribly abusive, if not in fact a crime, was just the wrong way to go. This was a big part of why Pamela felt to me like a prop in someone else’s story rather than a character in her own right- she does get a few perspective chapters but essentially she seems to be there for Malachi to react to rather than to present her own thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to see a woman writing out a female character that way.

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      3. I completely agree. I thought that was such an odd choice, especially after limiting the rest of the novel to five perspectives rather than taking a broader community overview throughout the book.

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  4. Great review! I’ve been seeing mixed reviews for this one so I’m not sure what to expect, but based on your review it does sound disappointing that it didn’t capitalize on its potential. I’m puzzled also that the rebuilding happened in the gaps of the story, if that was the intention of the author. I guess I’ll see when I get to this one…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I hope you’ll have a better time with this one- I’ve seen mostly positive reviews for it, actually.
      It seemed to me that since the narration followed these few characters so closely that the rebuilding it meant to show was the “coming to grips with” and “moving on” emotional/mental response, and I really did not see enough of that in the book to feel like it achieved that aim. It seemed like decisions would be relayed after characters made them rather than showing how they worked through them, etc. Rather too much telling rather than showing overall, unfortunately. I think that can come down to preference though, so it could just be that my tastes and expectations got in the way of just appreciating the book for what it was, since it does seem that others are having better luck. I’ll be interested to see what you think of this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not sure who else reviewed this (my memory is so bad), but I remember the only positive one I saw so far was Callum’s. I give a lot of weight to both your opinion and his, so I’ll definitely keep my mind open about this one! 🙂

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