Monday, August 31, 2009

Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann, translated by Anthea Bell

As I've mentioned in a few places, I had not planned to finish this book so quickly. It didn't seem to be going that fast. And I had other things to do that day, like dishes, and gathering garbage, and general tidying, and running errands, and... ... and very little of it got done, because this book did.

The reason this surprises me so much is that I hadn't really thought of Three Bags Full as being a gripping read. I didn't feel like I was barreling through it. But perhaps my clue should have been that nagging restlessness I felt when doing dishes (I did get some things done), wondering what would become of the sheep, and worrying that one of them would find himself too close to the butcher for comfort, or under the not-so-loving care of a villain...

Three Bags Full is what I would call a pleasant read, but it's not something to just breeze through. What pushes it past a breezy read is that every once in a while a sheep will look at something a certain way, or say something in a sheepy way, or something will happen and be interpreted by the sheep in a completely odd way, and the reader will feel that maybe humans aren't as smart as we like to think we are, because darn it, that sheep is right. And it's a little embarrassing to be brought up short by a fictional sheep.

The basic plot, upon which these sheep-driven epiphanies hang, is that one morning the flock finds their shepherd, George Glenn, lying on his back with a spade driven clean through him. And since he was their shepherd, and most other humans seem to be somewhat useless, the flock decides that the solving of the mystery is up to them. They're lead by the intrepid Miss Maple, the smartest sheep in Glennkill and possibly the smartest sheep in the entire world, who gets help when she needs it particularly from three others in the flock: Othello, the only black sheep in the flock and a former circus performer; Zora, who thinks deep thoughts and quite likes heights; and Mopple the Whale, the memory sheep -- Mopple can remember anything.

As I write this down, I feel quite fondly towards each of them. I was trying to pick a favourite character, and I couldn't; every sheep in the flock (and outside, too) is an important character, and they all have their endearing qualities. Swann's gift here has been creating characters that would possibly be stock characters in any other context, but as sheep they're charming and well-realized. I enjoyed, too, that the whole flock was integral to the plot -- each member had something to bring to the table, and not always in a contrived way.

And this book really is a mystery, a mystery that does slowly get unravelled, revealed to us through the flock's collective memory and observations, through conversations overheard by the sheep and actions observed by the sheep -- conversations and observations the sheep don't always interpret in the same way a human observer (the reader, for example) might be tempted to interpret them. But often their interpretations fit just as well. In the end, the solution was somewhat unexpected, but fit, and I was left feeling quite satisfied if a little melancholy. George Glenn, seen through the sheep's memories, was someone who deserved an awful lot better than he got. This is one of the strange things: because of the way this story was told, the reader ends up identifying with and feeling for George far more than one often does for the victims in other crime novels.

To understand what I mean about the difference of perspective between Swann's sheep and a human, here's night from the perspective of a sheep:

Melmoth was trembling, but only with exhaustion. He heard everything, everything. The whining of the dogs and their slobbering heartbeats, the clink of moonlight on the cold ground, a night bird's wings beating, even the velvety sound of the night itself slowly moving on.

The last note I want to make is of the translation. Not able to read this in the original German, I still want to compliment Anthea Bell on her translation. It's seamless and lyrical, and I presume quite close to the original, unique voice that Leonie Swann writes with. As always, I struggle with how close a translation can possibly be to an original text, but this one just feels right.

Pick this one up if you're in the mood for something a little different, something that will make you think just a little, something to savour. Enjoy the odd feeling of looking at the human world through the eyes of a fictional sheep, and listen to what those sheep say. Because they just might be right.


Marg said...

I got a fair way through this book, but then I had to return it to the library. I always intended to reborrow it again. Must try to pick it up next time.

Unknown said...

I can see this being one to return unread, if it was necessary. Some books just have to go overdue for me, but I think I could pick this one up after a hiatus and still enjoy it. Although I would fuss about the sheep until I did finish it.