BOOK REVIEW: A London house for writers in exile becomes a place of Kafkaesque rules and suspicions.
“Welcome to the House of Journalists,” says Mr. Stan, an exiled writer from a small island in the Indian Ocean and the house’s most revered member. Mr. Stan can’t “use a pen, or a knife, or a fork or a spoon” because the island’s dictator crushed his hands with a hammer.
Mr. Stan greets “all those who have used the power of the word to expose tyranny throughout the world” and he invites you to join them. All you need to do is share your story.
You are AA, the newest writer to join this fellowship of “wordsmiths,” but you may have an agenda, one which makes you a terrible worry to the house’s leader, Julian, who sees a conspiracy at work that could bring down this place of “great industry and endeavour.”
You observe that the house is a stylish 18th-century mansion on a secluded London street. You learn that the Committee oversees all that goes on in the house, and after a time they will decide whether or not your story carries significance and truth. If it does have weight, you will become a “fellow.” If not, well then you’ll be asked to leave.
During your stay, you observe odd rules and mysterious rituals governing the culture of the house. For example, there’s a Foreign Press Bar where no one drinks, a central courtyard with a “modernist fountain” where writers smoke, but nowhere in the house do the refugees gather to drink and smoke with each other. Although the inhabitants who need it are schooled in English and tutored in the ways of the West, you are essentially cut off from the world. Of course, you are free to leave anytime.
If all of this sounds a bit Kafkaesque, it is. Tim Finch’s “The House of Journalists” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $26) is a clever book filled with provocative philosophical rants disguised as inner monologues and witty epigrams couched as droll dialogue. Its primary themes are about the consequences of “cultural dislocation” and the dangers inherent in documenting (in any art) experiences that challenge power (of any kind).
But what “The House of Journalists” is not, unfortunately, is an engaging novel. The plot drags and the tone can be strident. The narrative shifts among the points of view of four main characters who are flat and unappealing. Despite their experiences of being exiled to gulags, tortured in “freezing interrogation huts,” starved, beaten and banished, they never come alive on the page.
Carole E. Barrowman is a Wisconsin writer, teacher and book critic. She’s at carolebarrowman.com.