Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman


I took on this 600+ page book because of the 5 stars Reading Matters gave it.  And she is right, it deserves at least 5 stars.

Seven narrators tell the story of their involvement in, and the consequences for them, of a single event.  Simon, the central figure, briefly kidnapped the child of a former girlfriend from 10 years before.  The child was returned to his parents unharmed a few hours later.  The seven were connected by coincidences that require you to suspend disbelief.  The narrators are Klima, Simon's psychotherapist who became his friend and advocate; Joe, father of the kidnapped child; Angelique, a prostitute who both saw Joe every week and considered herself Simon's girlfriend; Dennis, colleague of Joe, client of Angela, and patient of Klima (how can this be?); Simon, beloved by almost everyone; Anna, mother of the kidnapped child; and finally, Rachael, daughter of Klima, who years later tells her story including her college romance with the now-grown kidnapped child. 

Each of the narrators tells his or her complete story and they are a rich and varied lot, I must say.  Joe tells of his success and stunning downfall as a stockbroker.  Dennis, a stock analyst who feeds information to Joe the salesman, is also a casino gambler and recounts in detail his method for counting cards in a black jack game that uses 8 decks of cards.  Angela's life as a prostitute and her devotion to Simon is a wrenching story.

The book is set in Melbourne, Australia and makes references to specific places.  That was important and very appealing to Reading Matters, but to me place seemed largely incidental.  But then there was the gambling which seems to come up often in Australian literature.

The title is the same as the best-known work by William Empson, an English literary critic who died in 1984.  Empson, I learned, focused on the use of language, especially its ambiguity which leaves so much open to a variety of interpretations.   Perlman gives us seven takes on a single event with each narrator filling in their own interpretation of this ambiguous act.  And over and over the ambiguities of everything said in the normal course of events is pointed out.  Here's a pronouncement of Simon:

"When people say 'We were students then,' I'm never sure whether they're attempting to excuse the way they were then or they way they are now.  Perhaps they mean 'We were students then; it was easier to care about doing the right thing'?"

For me the best aspect of the book is the richness of each narrator's story.  I will miss hearing their voices.  Or wait, maybe my favorite thing is that the story never let me down — so often when you realize where a novel is going, it feels as though the air is suddenly let out of a tire.  I was never disappointed by this story; somehow, it felt right to the very end.

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