The Unbearable Paleness of Being

August 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

This book is one of the worst I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent memory. (Yes, let me just get that out of the way from the outset.) The premise is fairly hopeful enough for a book described as a “gothic romance”: six young strangers have been called forth to come together and form a Guard to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead. Though it must be said that using the term “world of the living” may be stretching it, as all six are based in Victorian-era London, and probably don’t really give a shit about regular folks being eaten by demons in say, China. But perhaps I quibble too much. When these six people – adolescents – are initially summoned by the Goddess / “Divine Creature” they are told that a seventh would come later on; this seventh member will be the Prophecy. But they will not be able to recognise the seventh member immediately, and the Guard is told to, well, be on guard against fake Prophecies and those who come to trick the Guard and thus… bring doom upon the world, etc.


Cut to about twenty years later in Athens Academy in the heart of London, founded by Rebecca Thompson and Alexi Rychman, two of the six members of the Guard. In case this glides over your head, which is entirely likely as you contemplate the narrative events of this book, the former adolescents are now adults. Rebecca is the Headmistress; Alexi is a science professor. Into their midst comes tentative, timid, pale-as-a-ghost Percy Parker.  Considering that her name is in the title of the book, I’m not spoiling it for you by saying that yes, Percy is the seventh member, the Prophecy, although no one in the book knows it yet. But even if you’re using slightly less than the mythical 10% of your brain while reading this book, you’ll KNOW that Percy Parker is the seventh member of the Guard.

But apparently, the purpose of this book, its sole raison d’etre, is to allow the Guard to undergo melodramatic and time-consuming trials and tribulations before they recognise and accept Percy as the Prophecy. They’re all incredibly stupid and obtuse and ridiculous in their united refusal to consider Percy as the likely Prophecy. In Rebecca’s case, it seems understandable as her years of pent-up love for the noble Alexi is likely to reveal itself in jealousy for the snowy-white Percy Parker who has caught the noble Alexi’s rapt attention, and perhaps Michael finally had a chance to get his own back because he’d like to put an end to Alexi and his nobleness and can’t, because murder is illegal, so he’ll contend with standing in Alexi’s way and seeing his heart ripped apart. I mean, power to him, really.

But the rest of them? Stupid.

All this is well and good, except that Percy is a snivelly, whiny mess. She is tender, she is sensitive, she is meek. She cries when she meets with Professor Rychman because she is just… bad at science and she doesn’t want the awesome, noble, regal professor to hate her any more than he already does, which he certainly does, because she’s such a freaky-looking person, weep, weep. Did we mention that Professor Rychman is like, so, NOBLE? Percy is albino, and because it was an uncommon occurrence or knowledge in Victorian times, or perhaps because people back then were ruder than we are now (ha!), Percy is stared at all the time. Some think she’s an apparition, a ghost. Percy drapes herself in scarves and wears dark glasses so that no one can see her pale hair and her pale, pale eyes.

I understand that Percy’s trials – being marked out as “different” by her appearance – are exceedingly difficult to bear. Yet, her constant surprise at and revulsion of her own face seems artificial and inauthentic; Percy appears to constantly see her condition through the eyes of someone else. We all have those moments, but it would seem that anyone who has grown up past the age of 12 learns to live with his or her own physical irregularities or shortcomings in the much of the same way one would accept that rain falls from the clouds in the sky, or that trees grow upward. It just is. It does not permeate your thoughts for the 14 of the 16 hours you spend awake. If it does, perhaps one can be said to be rather feeble-minded.

Percy Parker needs more things to think about. But sadly, this does not happen. She is apparently learned in languages, and can speak several fluently – this is her gift, you see, and the clue that marks her out as the Prophecy since the other six can see spirits and ghosts but can’t speak to them or understand what they’re saying. Percy can – she communes with ghosts. Understandably, because she’s young and a student at the Academy, Rebecca and the remaining four who don’t work in the Academy don’t really think much about Percy.

But Professor Alexi Rychman – ah, he of the NOBLE, dark, and regal bearing and bone structure, he thinks about her. He tutors Percy in private because she sucks at science. She, enthralled by Alexi from the moment she first laid eyes on him, simpers and ducks her head to avoid letting him see the rose-pink blush that starts from her toes and spreads to god-knows-where on her pale, lovely, milky-white, alabaster, flawless skin. Because, you see, even if she is strange-looking because of her condition, she is also beautiful. Alexi, the strong, arrogant, proud, aloof, NOBLE, regal Alexi with his straight nose and chiselled jaws and shock of dark hair, he sees this beauty and is discomfited. But he cannot… get… this girl… Percy Parker… out of his mind.

In the midst of Alexi falling in love with Percy’s milky-white skin, and Percy going, “Oh, Professor!” and “I’m sorry, Professor!” and wondering every two seconds if her innate ugliness is going to turn him off, we learn of other things that I alluded to earlier – like Rebecca’s loud unrequited love for Alexi, and Michael’s quiet unrequited love for Rebecca. These are interesting factors and dynamics within the group, factors and dynamics that could strip away the dull, faded patina of vitality that Hieber has painted in limpid, timid strokes to give shape to these characters,  but Hieber doesn’t focus on this. Oh, no. Instead, we get Percy and Alexi, making eyes at each other and swooning desperately in their own respective beds over their newly-awakened lust and their searing passion and their obsession. As their love starts to blossom, they start saying ridiculous things to each other like, “Pardon me, sweet girl. I must go,” and “Oh, my dear professor! I’ve been helplessly yours from the very first.”

Give me a Panadol and be done with it.

Most of this book is spent fetishizing Percy’s whiteness. It’s translucent, it’s otherworldly, it’s magical, it’s pure, it’s beautiful, it’s everything that is good and right in the world. I understand if Hieber wanted to naturalise the state of albinism – to show that someone with albino could and should be considered as beautiful as anyone else – yet the celebration of whiteness and the OCD obsessing over Percy’s luminous skin tone by Alexi, and Percy herself, proves to be incredibly disturbing and plain freakish.

If all these aren’t reasons enough not to read the damned book, consider some examples of its fine prose:

Diaphanous material wrapped her perfect body, sweeping layers and transitioning hues like the rest. Her eyes were crystalline lamps, sparkling and magnetic. There was no other answer but that she was a divine creature.

Eyes blazing like stars, hair wild and raging, snowy arms outstretched and glistening with light as her thin white gown whipped in the wind of her own power, Percy Parker descended through the fire and entered the circle where Lucy stood staring, struck dumb and quizzical.

Does this book fail as a gothic romance? It’s a classic example of much fiction and genre novels of the present: consisting of all the right ingredients but none of the flavour. Let’s just chalk this one up to a failure of the most basic kind: artistry.


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