Didactic, Overwritten & Overambitious.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 29 April 2018
This book aims high, aspiring to demonstrate great truths about the human condition where science & rationality vie with religious belief & spirituality. The atheist of the title is Dr Cullen Brodie, a highly respected nephrologist (kidney specialist), who however carries a burden of guilt for an undisclosed incident in the past. This has left him with a bitter hatred of religion, & a conviction that a benevolent God would not allow such things, & therefore cannot exist. Ennis, one of Dr Brodie’s patients, is a transvestite who undergoes a heart & kidney transplant successfully, but subsequently feels he has an affinity with the soul of the donor, Carla. She was a young woman killed in an accident, whose husband & father -in -law are also medical men, the latter being CEO of the hospital & nephrology unit. These are the basic elements from which the plot is developed.
Both male & female at once, the parrotfish of the title refers partly to Ennis, but also seems to represent for the author some kind of symbolic truth about God. ..”but a parrotfish, the Christian paradox of Ennis, both male & female, the most beautiful fish in the lagoon.” This has to do with the god-given duality of things & of God himself, as Barager sees it.
For me, it represents one of the major faults of the book, which is the fudging necessary to evoke a sheen of religiosity over the proceedings. One theme that recurs is the (supposed) way in which art - painting, poetry - can point to an ineffable truth, a truth beyond words or reason. Barager is trying to emulate that through his book, to write a parable of ignorance transformed to enlightenment in God. But such didacticism goes contrary to art, because the feelings inspired by art are nebulous in form, not tied to a particular goal.
Similarly, a great deal of sentimental suspension of disbelief is necessary to bring about the kind of ending the author wants, after the various trials & tribulations of the plot.
Also fudged is one of the central planks of the book, the question of Carla’s soul communing with Ennis. While any rational person would be sceptical of this belief, Ennis reveals certain facts that he could only have learnt from Carla, post-mortem . The important point here is that his revelations of this knowledge are necessary to move the plot along, yet later this is placed in brackets, so to speak : “Ennis’s eerie unmasking of MacGregor aside, Cullen did not believe that transplanted organs had the capacity to drag their donor’s souls into unsuspecting recipients.” Thus is an awkwardness in the plot brushed aside, because Barager cannot connive in such unchristian possibilities.
The prose is good, although in keeping with the book’s aspirations it has a tendency to be overwritten, even overwrought. There is a fondness for lingering or lavish descriptions of stylish interiors, for example, almost to the point of ‘life-style’ or product placement. Whether via a quick sketch or precise detailing, landscapes, people’s clothing, faces, emotions - no description is ever understated, but tends rather to the baroque. This is perhaps something more typical of American novels, which tend to aim for the ‘heroic’ style, whereas the English preference is for spare, pared down prose. In this case, the paradox is that the density of the prose tends to obscure, rather than illuminate the characters & events.
Barager is himself a nephrologist, which makes for authoritative & interesting details of medical conditions & treatments, if not always easy for the layperson to understand.
What this book says to me, above all, is that it is not a good idea to use a novel as a proselytising, let alone an evangelising medium.