Reading a new book by an author whose work you have never encountered before is, in many ways, like meeting someone for the first time. We can certainly think of an author’s work as an extension of themselves where their thoughts, ideas, values and points of view are displayed. Just like many things in life, first impressions are therefore of utmost importance and can often make or break one’s opinion of an author and their writing. Karen Fielding’s American Sycamore introduces itself with much charm and humour, giving the impression that what lies ahead is a memorable tale of adventure and wonder.
In the Fielding’s novel, the bizarre life of young Billy Sycamore is narrated by his younger sister Alice. Through her, the character of Billy, a passionate fly-fisher, is established from the beginning as somewhat eccentric. The lives of these two siblings and their community are well situated within the landscape of the Susquehanna River. Initially, the reader warms to American Sycamore as it develops; however, the tale takes a surprisingly dark turn when Billy’s encounter with an unfamiliar man along the river leaves him deeply disturbed and mentally scarred. This is the beginning of a gradual decline in his mannerisms and behaviour. The rest of the novel tells us of Billy’s unstable mental state, his various visits to psychiatric hospitals, through the eyes of Alice.
Fielding’s characters, despite being numerous and memorable, are perhaps not as well developed as one might expect; the numerous characters seem to drop in and out of Alice and Billy’s lives without much impact or significance, just like the Susquehanna River might carry and deposit stones or driftwood. As central characters, Billy and Alice are, unfortunately, also not explored with enough depth. For example, there is little exploration as to how Billy’s life, behaviour and the situations he finds himself in affects Alice; this might detract from the reader’s engagement with or empathy for her. It would also have been much more interesting to know Alice’s thoughts and feelings as she tells the story.
Although the humour and slight absurdity of the novel is maintained steadily, the events which take place aren’t much more than events at various points in the Alice’s timeline and should perhaps be woven together more tightly. In a similarly disconcerting fashion, the tenses in Alice’s narration seem to suddenly switch from the past to the future with no apparent consequence or significance. What starts off as a warming and engaging read later becomes a mere description of a series of fleeting events that do not appear to be much developed. Some of the aspects of American Sycamore which seem at first integral to the main character, such as fly-fishing, are not revisited later in the narrative, making them feel less significant upon reflection. One of the most disappointing aspects in this novel’s structure occurs at the very end where the pace changes radically with the plot reaching its resolution too quickly and easily.
In essence, the beginning of American Sycamore stages all the pleasure, excitement and anticipation that we all love of fiction. However these feelings begin to fizzle out the further you get into the novel. Yet, despite such inconsistencies, what does remain consistent throughout American Sycamore is Fielding’s language and her use of images to capture the readers’ imagination; they bring the scenes and location of this tale to life.
Hamzah M. Hussain