An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful by J. David Simons
J. David Simons’ new novel is primarily noteworthy for the ambition it shows in tackling difficult, often uncomfortable themes. Flitting between the youth and old-age of a celebrated writer, we gradually uncover the defining moments of his life and the influence of his times in Glasgow, London and Tokyo. His first visit to Japan is not long after WWII and leads to the writing of The Waterwheel; an exploration of the inhumanity in America's dropping of the second atom bomb on Nagasaki.
As well as the global, we have the universal in the relationships between the writer and his American and Japanese loves. The book offers a complex portrayal of the differing ways one can be with another person and the difficulties in balancing these with the inherently selfish enterprise of being an artist. Handled with an intricacy and care, these themes are bravely complicated by a sometimes deliberately unlikeable protagonist.
Although the book never feels like it is taking on too much, and the relatively simplistic structure of alternating past-present chapters complements the thematic content, it does have the tendency to wander. The way in which Simons' smallest moments are exemplary of larger, universal concerns gives the novel almost parabolic qualities and therefore when it loses focus the effect is jarring, leaving one wondering what the book could have achieved with a tighter, more economical discipline. [Ryan Rushton]