Subtitled A novel of history, dark intrigue, and cheese, Edward Trencom’s Nose certainly manages the first and last, but fails on the intrigue bit.
Milton is known more for his accessible non-fiction such as the bestselling Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and White Gold (though I will always have a soft spot for his forgotten first, The Riddle and the Knight: in Search of Sir John Mandeville). Edward is an attempt to spin his built-in audience and history research into success in fiction too, and to some extent it must have worked, because his second novel, According to Arnold is out soon.
Arnold is about a man obessed with mushroom who has been married for 12 years. Edward is about a man obsessed with cheese who has been married for 12 years. Why mess with a winning formula? Except it’s not very winning, at least not for me.
Edward opens with the happy ending. Edward awakes from a weeks’ long sleep, his sensitive and powerful nose a-quiver with the scent of a beloved variety of cheese and his loving wife awaiting him with open arms. He’s had a lucky escape after a trip overseas. Now, normally a prologue of this kind is a point around which the rest of the book revolves: we flash back and see the lead up to the prologue scene, and then the rest of the book is what happens after the prologue scene.
So I thought the prologue’s final words “It looks as if Mr Trencom is at long last on the mend” would turn out to be ironic as our hero plunges into even worse straits. I had to revise this assessment as we edge, slow by painfully slow inch towards the trip to Greece that put him into the palsied state the book opens with. After a time, it became obvious that the story really had opened with the ending, which sucked away the last little bit of interest.
And to the cheese. Now, I’m a big fan of stories that delve into areas of obsession outside the mainstream or showcase the intricacies of things we all take for granted. Perfume for example, tells us all about the sometimes unlovely art of perfume-making. That book springs to mind because Edward too deals with scents and a sensitive nose, this time in the service of cheesemongering. Unfortunately, the details of cheese are really left to naming the varieties – and yes, truly, there are astonishing varieties, but it’s all a bit superficial.
Milton instead puts his efforts into repeating, over and over, the very simple plot points of this novel. The basic story is that Edward discovers he is being followed and almost at the same time uncovers some family history which leads him to discover that the male members of his family for the last nine generations have died early and under mysterious circumstances, often in Constantinople or its environs. And it appears to have something to do with the famous Trencom nose.
It’s not enough for Edward to discover the death in his storyline; we get a flashback of the death of each man in their own chapters. This doesn’t stop Milton from repeating the details of the death as Edward discovers it. But at least he only tells us twice. A lot of other times, he tells the reader something a half-dozen times. Lord, I get it, would you move on, please?
He also feels the need to dwell lovingly on things like the flood in the cellar of the cheese-shop, the description of which, I kid you not, goes on for five pages. Five pages! I get it, move on! And whenever characters may be about to do something dangerous, like Edward’s wife going to confront the man who is following him, it steers off safely.
Not that there was any tension anyway, what with the happy ending being up front in the prologue and all. That, and the fact that the central mystery of the book is so easily guessible, makes the book utterly lack intrigue, and the characters don’t make up for it.
Meanwhile, the dialogue is incredibly dull, in that it is terribly realistic, the kind of banal things that people say every day. I’m not decrying real-life banal conversation – it’s not like I don’t participate – but it doesn’t belong in novels, which are supposed to be more interesting than day-to-day life. Though maybe fans of very gentle reality TV programs would like this touch.
I’ve spoken before about British humour. I suspect, given that this book was meant to be witty, that there’s more than one kind, and this kind is not my cup of tea.
Interested despite my review? Buy it from Fishpond.com.au, Australia’s biggest online bookstore. All their book prices are guaranteed better than Amazon and they do free delivery for orders over $50.