The Good Mayor is the story of the mayor of a town called Dot (other towns of this unnamed northern European country include Dash and Umlaut, and the river is Ampersand; I will get to the determinedly quirky nature of this book later), and his love for his married secretary. Which is about it, plotwise, though with a cast of supporting characters to keep things rolling along.
It’s fantasy only in the sense that there’s a witch or two (stregas from a long line of stregas), ghosts who form a pivotal plot point, a strange twist involving a dog, and a 1200 year old martyred saint as narrator. It’s maybe an attempt at magic realism a la One Hundred Years of Solitude; either way it didn’t work for me.
In fact if I hadn’t been on holiday and short of reading material, this book would not have passed my 50-page rule for a couple of reasons, the first of which was the relation of how the narrating saint was martyred – by being gang-raped to death by invading Huns – but don’t worry, wink wink, she was so ugly that no man would touch her except those bestialty-loving Huns, and therefore she was so horny she loved every second of it, wink wink. Must be that famous feminist lack of sense of humour, but I have trouble enjoying entertainment based around a) gang rape and b) the physical/sexual attractiveness or otherwise of women…which is something I am going to return to in a moment too.
The other reason I would have given up after the first chapter or two is the unrelenting reach for quaintness, the town names being just one example, another being the number of times the major is titled Good Mayor Krovic – we got it from the title, and it’d be nice to be shown how he is so much better than other mayors rather than simply told – given one example of his mayorship is him manipulating his people and another is him losing his temper when he’s supposed to remain impartial.
Such ‘quirks’ in the writing came across as contrived to me, so it fell flat and into tweeness rather than genuine quirkiness, and also made it a frustrating read. Like following the point of view of a seagull for half a page before being told it can’t hear speech so no point wasting time following it and let’s cut to the cat…well, we already wasted time following it. Or following the progress of a letter through the mail system, only to be told later that this event was not “of great interest or adventure…” well, why is it in the book then, if not for trying to be clever? I hate this literary style with a passion.
The other major flaw for me was the love story – and since this is the thrust of the book, it’s a pretty big flaw. You’d think the mayor’s civil servant status and the secretary’s married status would be the big blocker, but it’s not. These two people are kept apart through their own stupidity. If the author has to spend a page or so justifying a character’s decision as due to human nature, it’s because the decision makes no damn sense and needs over-explanation (in the hands of a better writer, the decision would actually have come across as perfectly true to human nature). “Even” the much-derided romance genre can manage better than that.
Also, the sheer focus on the physical attributes of the secretary, Agathe, was exhausting. Kudos to the author for making her plump, but a slap on the wrist for giving me no reason to believe anyone was in love with for any other reason than her lovely face and body, or any reason to think the love is going to last past the second she loses her looks. More specifically, I have no idea why the mayor fell in love with Agathe aside from that she was pretty, nice and nearby.
The writing is decent, if in that literary style I find more pretty than functional (and again, see Michael Chabon for pretty AND functional AND events of great interest and adventure). But the dialogue is flat and dull and circular, and it kept distractingly slipping into UK slang, a little off for what felt like a Baltic town. And I’ve already said I did not find the character motivations convincing; like the quirkiness, it rang false.
It’s not all bad. I think this would be a great book club book because there’s so much to discuss: the fat lawyer’s cynical opinion of the townsfolk, for example, which is accepted as correct by the final events without them ever having a chance to prove him wrong; the narrator’s comment that Agathe is ‘incapable of being unkind’ when she is quite plainly unkind to many of the other characters (she may be incapable of the intention to be unkind but that’s debatable too); whether the mayor is actually good; and, good lord, whether the message of the book really is that the best way to love is like a dog (as long as you find the right person who won’t abuse that love).
I hate to be so harsh to a first-time author and attendee at the Perth Writers Festival, but I really was so disappointed by this book. I hope he does better with his next book.