Two fathers, Abelard Bauer and Andreas Schifffer, are brought together through the tragic deaths of their eldest sons. Bauer, a brilliant toymaker, fashions glass Christmas ornaments and his latest creation is a minstrel with a secret molded into its features. When Schiffer sees Bauer’s minstrel ornament in the toy shop, he realizes that Bauer is struggling to keep his son’s memory alive through his craft. At first he tries to fault him for this, but then recognizes that he, too, is seeking solace and healing by reading his son’s diary, a journal that reveals, in both painful as well as beautiful detail, the true nature of his relationship with the artisan’s son.
Review by Aleksandr Voinov
To make it short, I didn’t like it, but I understand how people can like it, hence the 3 star rating. It took me a good week to work out what my issues with this book are. Because, to be honest, after my first read from Cheyenne/Bristlecone Pine Press, “Hidden Conflict” , I had high hopes. While the other book was a mixed bag (as anthologies are wont to be), I was prepared to really enjoy “The Glass Minstrel” as a short gay novel.
But the excitement turned to exasperation, then disbelief, and finally ennui mixed with a certain helping of resentment.
Let’s start with the things I liked. I think the cover is lovely. The editing is very good (apart from one thing I’ll talk about further down). It is, by all intents and purposes, a well-made book.
Plot-wise, not a lot happens on those slightly less than 200 pages. A toymaker, Abelard Bauer, sells toys. He is confronted by Andreas Schiffer, who resents him because Bauer’s son Stefan has eloped with Schiffer’s son Heinrich after both were expelled from school due to their indecent relationship. They went to Frankfurt and died in a house fire.
Now the widowed father, Bauer, is dealing with his loss and being the talk of the town, and Schiffer has to deal with the loss of his eldest son and the destruction of all the ambitions he’s had for him. He finds solace in the arms of an immoral woman (an artist), with whom he has an illicit affair (while his poor wife Henrietta is left with the numerous kids). During the book, Bauer has to find his way back into society, Schiffer has to find his way back to his family.
And there’s the third main character in the story, Jakob Diederich, who is another gay teenager. He has a crush on an Englishman who stays at the inn where Jakob works. When the crush turns to nothing, Jakob finds a father in the son-less Bauer, and Bauer finds a son in the father-less Jakob. Everybody’s happy.
I did like the premise and set-up. To categorize, this is a Young Adult historical novel. If anybody turns to this book for steamy sex, that will be a mistaken purchase. There’s one – kind of pointless and awkward – masturbation scene, and that’s it in terms of sex.
Instead, it’s a very Christmas-y tale of family ties, redemption and how humans need other humans to cope with life and themselves. Every one of the three main characters is isolated – through shame, grief, or sexual orientation. All find forgiveness and community at the end. It’s a feel-good ending and should make a good Christmas tale if you are so inclined. The only glimpses we get into the love story between Stefan and Heinrich is in the little snippets of Heinrich’s diary right at the beginning of each chapter.
And here is where things begin to fall apart for me. I do not believe that anybody – least of all a middle-class boy like Heinrich – talks that frankly about erections
“And my daydreams during Mass are embarrassing me. I’m just glad that no one’s bothered to look down at my trousers when we stand up.”
and anal sex
“He didn’t complain about being sore as we walked home, but he made me promise to take him in next time.”–
even as euphemistically as he puts it, not even in a diary. And I kind of disbelieve that sheltered teenage boys would come up with the idea to “put that thing there” on their own, to be somewhat delicate about it. We’re in around 1850 – there is mentioning of the revolution (of 1848) going on or having gone on.
With regards to the setting. It’s Germany, and the German bits and pieces make sense. The research has been clearly done – it rings true or is at least in the realm of possibility. I make a minor allowance for the fact that the book is set in around 1848-50, but Zirndorf, the village/town where this is set, only became the home of a sizeable toy industry in 1877 (informs me Wikipedia and the town’s website). But I’m happy to simply assume there were toymakers around before that date.
I definitely suspended my disbelief a bit at the family life of the Schiffers, where attitudes towards one’s own offspring seem really quite modern. Especially in a well-off family like the Schiffers, there is very little respect and the generations are very close and affectionate with each other, which isn’t quite what I remember from novels set and written during those times, but even that’s ok, all families are different, after all.
So, let’s get to the point why I barely managed to finish the book. I loathed the narrator voice. To recap Fiction 101, the narrator is the “voice” that tells us a story. The narrator is NOT the author. A nice, kind author can write a cynical, hard-bitten narrator. The narrator is the invisible main character of any book – who tells us the story. S/he’s the voice of the text. The vehicle through which the author tells their story. In this case, I hated the narrator.
Well, the narrator sounded wooden and inauthentic in my inner ear, like s/he was trying very very hard to be literary and clenched up so much in the process of trying to achieve that that the flow of the text stalled and froze.
Now, I’m a sucker for good narrators, and personally, I love authors that can write a real, gritty, authentic narrator (that skill is rarer than I’d like). This narrator is somebody who could just as easily tell you a fairy tale about the big bad wolf with many sharp teeth and the poor young boy with the dirty hands and torn clothes.
The characters and descriptions were often so clichéd and forced that I found myself groaning (my boss at work actually asked me if I was alright). Those who are evil are very evil. Those who are good are so pure and so utterly good that our hearts have to go out for them. Characters fall into one of two camps. They are either conceited and intolerant, or “gay allies”. And morality runs along those demarkation lines, too: Those that are tolerant are the “good” people, the others are ignorant and nasty and evil. I wish life were that easy. The only exception is Andreas Schiffer, who also changes the most. The problem with that character is, while he has the furthest to go and the biggest development as a person, he’s also a whining, terrible hypocrite and the least sympathetic.
Only, of course, that any narrator who tells me what to think of the characters I’m reading about creates an inner resistance to the not-so-subtle “suggestion” what to think and feel about the characters. It’s OK to be pushed and controlled like that when you’re reading fairy tales (of course the princess is the most beautiful girl that has ever lived! Of course the wolf is the scariest thing alive! We’d be disappointed if they weren’t), but in a prose novel, targeted towards readers that are adults or young adults, that seems awfully simplistic. I’d have liked more shades of grey, more well-rounded characters, rather than the narrator re-iterating the same few characteristics in every scene. (That’s when this reader wants to shout: “I get it! He’s poor! He’s the poorest, most down-trodden, hardest-working teenager that ever lived! He’d make Cinderella look like a spoiled brat!”)
I’d also have wanted a more nuanced and more interesting style, because if there’s very little else going on, I read more slowly and want to savour the words… only that I found very little in the style that I could have loved. Many dialogues have a stilted, contrived quality about it that had me constantly questioning if the characters would really talk about that here and this way.
As an example of the style, here’s a paragraph in the last third:
Jakob nodded. He’d heard of the Christkindlmarkt, mostly from visitors to the inn, from whom he’d learned bits and pieces about Dresden’s and Nuremburg’s Christmas markets, with the brilliant stalls and the wonderful crafts and food they offered eager shoppers. Their little town, with its snow and its nearly depressed economy dependent on the manufacture of toys, couldn’t afford such extravagant displays, and who in their right minds would even consider such a place for a visit? Travelers stayed for less than a week, and even those were very rare. No, all they had were their tiny shops and local skilled labor, from whom everyone within the town’s borders relied on for their daily maintenance. Very little came in, and hardly anything went out.
Expressions like “depressed economy” and “local skilled labor” kick me out of a historical novel extremely fast. The novel is largely told in a somewhat labored style that attempts to serve as a vehicle back into the time. Instead, I found it clunky and inauthentic and remote.
Finally, there’s one thing that drives me insane in all books, but it’s getting worse and worse. I know that creative writing books (and many editors) have huge hang-ups over the use of past perfect and present perfect. To reiterate, the present perfect of the verb “to go” is “has/have gone” and the past perfect is “had gone”. Both tenses are used when something has happened in the past. More importantly, they are legitimate, grammatically-correct tenses and serve a purpose. Now, some editors, laboring under the rule that “has” and “had” are “weak” words, require their authors to kill every instance of “has” and “had”. Well, last time I checked my style guides, they were legitimate. What’s more, using them is necessary and grammatically correct.
I don’t care, cry some editors, take’em out. Kill’em with fire.
And we end up with sentences where I have no idea what happened in what order or that sound incredibly weird. Let’s look at a couple instances in “The Glass Minstrel”. Spot the grammar mistake here:
He watched them for another moment, baffled and partly jealous of the careless joy that was so evident in them. How could they be so indifferent? How could they not see that things weren’t the same as they were, and that things would never be the same again? How could they laugh and play and ignore the empty space left by their oldest brother—the one who’d looked after them, helped raise them? How could they be so selfish? So thoughtless?
You found it. The sentence is “things weren’t the same as they were” – errr, no. the second “were” (past tense) should have been a “had been” (past perfect). THEN it makes sense. Clearly, the second part of the sentence has to refer back to a past further back than the past the narrator is currently in.
And another one:
Schiffer took a deep breath and sat down at the pianoforte to play a few notes. The sounds he coaxed from the instrument’s depths were familiar and lovely, but like everything else that surrounded him, they didn’t reach inside him as deeply as they used to. His spirit wasn’t touched the way it was before, and he didn’t know whether or not he should mourn that loss.
Yes, it’s “wasn’t touched the way it was before” – the second was needs to be “had been” (past perfect).
His other hand seemed to burn from the roughness of Jakob’s old coat, his palm pressing against the contrasting smoothness of a patch that had been sewn to cover a tear in the cloth—or perhaps a hole. He would, if he could, protect this boy from the world, the way he wanted to protect Stefan so long ago.
Yes, the mistake is right there at the end: “the way he wanted to protect Stefan so long ago”. There’s a “had” missing that would put the “wanted” (currently in past tense) into the correct past perfect and hence into a past further back than the past in which the story is set.
Yes, it’s a pet peeve. No, a dozen instances of wrong grammar don’t ruin a book. Personally, I get kicked out of a text by wrong tenses just as badly as if there’s been a starship landing in 1850’s Bavaria and Boney M emerges in silver suits, dancing to “Daddy Cool”.
Authors, editors, publishers, please leave the past and present perfect tenses alive. English is such a beautifully precise language, don’t treat it that way. Please keep the past tenses in the right order.
To sum up: The Glass Minstrel is a Christmas-themed young adult novel set in 1850’s Bavaria dealing with themes of isolation, community and redemption that will appeal to gay historical readers whose main considerations in choosing a book are not style and voice and can ignore a certain sentimental quality in the prose. This is not a romance, and the seasonal spirit of forgiveness covers whatever rifts the gay characters and their allies experience all too easily. It’s a bit heavy-going for a feel-good book, but the ending finally delivers.
Buy from Cheyenne Publishing (Print)
Buy from Bristlecone Press (Ebook)