Book review: The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Nobodies Album
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Hodder & Stoughton (Sceptre), 2010.

The Nobodies Album is a beautifully observed novel, full of layers and originality. Its main theme is about endings: Octavia Frost, the narrator, is a writer who has suffered a tragedy in her personal life 20 years ago. In some ways, this event was an end for her; but in others, it enabled a new beginning. The event itself is not a mystery, but as the author chooses not to reveal the details until near the end of the book, I won’t give anything away here.

Octavia’s books have been successful and shortlisted for awards, until her most recently published novel which did not do so well. She is finishing her new book, and is uncharacteristically nervous about her publisher’s reaction, mainly because the book is very different from anything she’s done before (or possibly anyone). The (fictional) book consists of new endings to the seven novels Octavia has previously published, and one of the most fascinating aspects of The Nobodies Album (also the title of Octavia’s new novel) are the interspersed original and new endings to these books, which I found imaginative both in concept and in execution. All these endings, it transpires, are interpretations of the tragedy Octavia herself has suffered; we are invited to read the old and the new endings in terms of the emotional journey Octavia has travelled during this time.

The story of the (fictional) book and its contents provides the framework for the plot of The Nobodies Album. About to deliver the manuscript to her publisher in New York, Octavia discovers that her son Milo, a rock musician, has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend. Octavia is estranged from Milo, but upon hearing the news she immediately travels to San Francisco, where he lives, in an attempt to see him to see if she can help. As part of this process, she meets some of Milo’s circle and, rather self-consciously, decides to find out for herself whether her son did commit, or could have committed, the crime. Another layer concerns Octavia’s reflections on Milo’s childhood and the cause of the breach between them, which raises issues of the nature of fiction – are fictional characters “fiction” or are they elements of characters from real life – and if so, how much, and are their actions those which the author wishes had happened in real life, and if those characters recognise themselves, how do they react? (Octavia herself experiences this conundrum from both perspectives.)

These themes, while pretty serious, are never handled heavily by the very talented author. She writes extremely well, drawing in the reader both to the current mystery, during which Octavia learns about her son as an adult and finds out things she didn’t know about him and about herself in the process, and to the gradually revealed story of Octavia’s family’s past. Occasionally, we read passages from the new book, usually in the form of a cover synopsis of the original publication, the original ending, and Octavia’s new ending. The particular extract occurs at a time when that book is relevant to the narrative; this is subtly done but very cleverly casts a double perspective on the events that Milo, Octavia and the small group of Milo’s associates are experiencing, with an eventual fusion of the story of the past, the murder case resolution, and what happens about Octavia’s book.

There is so much to like about this book; it is one I really do urge you to read. It is well-written, intelligent yet accessible, original and distinctive. It is a crime novel in one sense but the crime plot is more of a background to the themes of relationships between parents and children, and of dealing with loss in the literal sense or in the sense of estrangment — and whether or how it is possible to change the “endings”, or way in which events of the past control those of the present, and start afresh. It’s quite the best book I’ve read for some time, and is the first entry of my list of favourite books reviewed in 2012. I discovered it because of a recommendation by Jackie of Farm Lane Books blog, who made it one of her favourite books of 2011, and I am so glad I did. (I had some years ago read the author’s intriguing debut, Lorelei’s Secret (US title: The Dogs of Babel), but had lost track of her since then.)

Jackie’s review of the novel is at Farm Lane Books (contains links to some other blog reviews). Other reviews can be read at: The New York Times and Mostly Fiction.

If I haven’t convinced you to read the book, here’s a short extract from Liesl Schillinger’s NYT review:

In “The Nobodies Album,” with a light but sure hand, Carolyn Parkhurst joins together four disparate literary forms: the family drama, the short story, the philosophical essay on language and, yes, the whodunit. Her weave is smooth, a vigorous hybrid of the old-fashioned, the modern and the postmodern. She reminds us what an act of will and imagination it has always taken for a writer to convert nobodies into somebodies in any genre, whether at the desk or in the world.

This is the second of two books I bought as a Christmas present to myself.

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22 thoughts on “Book review: The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

    • Yes it’s a bit outside my usual comfort zone, Kerrie. You might prefer her debut, Lorelei’s Secret (aka the Dogs of Babel) as that is much more of a mystery, and as good in its own way as The Nobodies Album.

  1. Why don’t I just give you my credit card number and you can just buy me the books I should read? I didn’t recognise the author’s name but did read The Dogs of Babel and remember it being good. So I shall do as ordered and read this :)

    • Sorry, Bernadette (evil cackle!) But – tit for tat – I have just received my ordered copy of The Brotherhood so we can call it quits this time ;-)

  2. It sounds a lovely book, a bit like Jennifer Egan. Like Kerrie, I’m not quite sure it is for me. Maybe I will take a peek at the first chapter on my kindle.

    • Yes, it isn’t the usual kind of crime novel, though very well written – worth checking out if you can see a free sample.

  3. Maxine – It certainly does sound an unusual kind of book. I wouldn’t ordinarily look for it but you’ve convinced me. I’m always intrigued when an author tries an innovative approach like this…

    • Margot, for some reason I think that you’d like this one – not sure why but I just do. Not just because its setting is relatively local to you, though that may be a part of it. Maybe it is because of the insight into the writer’s mind and how she thinks about fact v fiction.

  4. Terrific review! I read this book last year and loved it. I thought Octavia was so compelling, and I loved the way Parkhurst interspersed the narrative with the endings new and old. I hope to read The Dogs of Babel this year.

  5. Thanks, Maxine – lovely review and sounds like just my kind of read. Shall seek it out shortly. I particularly like the idea of the alternate endings (reminds me also of one of Margot’s recent posts :))

  6. Excellent! So glad you started off the new year with a bang! I’ll put this book and the first by Parkhurst on my TBR list, and hope the library has both. Somehow during this year, when I need a change of pace in my reading, I’ll pick this up and her first one.
    Yes, and I agree on the credit card. I’m having to be very tough here with this as the temptations are too great.

  7. I just looked up The Dogs of Babel and realize that I read it years ago, and liked it. So I’ll definitely read this book. I’m sure the library will have it.

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