The mahogany balloon clock in the living room chimed the half-hour; always five minutes fast, just as the grandmother clock in the hall was five minutes slow and would strike with a soft double note, and the little silver moon with the dreamy face that Stephen had worked on for days would slide a quarter-inch higher on its rail. Tick tock tick tock tick tock. Like drops of water through the sieve of her bones.
Details, details, details. Imagery and vivid descriptions are used to such great effect in Andrew Miller's Oxygen, it could serve two ways - it could either be seen as a very compelling read, or in some cases, it could make the reader regard it as labour instead. I think I was caught between both.
The first few pages read like a clumsy yet personal homecoming of sorts. Sons Alec and Larry Valentine realise the uneasy revelation of their mother Alice's increasingly futile fight with cancer. Still, they are plagued with problems of their own as well - Alec is an expert interpreter of French who feels he is not doing enough for his ailing mother, yet wants to be able to live his own life; Larry is a former soap opera star (a la Dr. Drake Ramoray) returning from the US to attend to his mother, and along the way he has to resort to the world of porn flicks in order to improve his financial situation, save his marriage from hitting the rocks, and handle the eccentricity of his daughter Ella.
No doubt it will also be heartbreaking to read of Alice's battle with the disease that is slowly but surely eating away her life. Then there is the Hungarian playwright Lazslo Lazar, whose latest work called Oxygene (hmmm), Alec is translating. The former unwillingly gets involved in some sort of political intrigue that assails him with memories and dark reminscences from the past.
That is how readers are pulled along into a whirlwind tour across four countries - namely England, Hungary, France, and the US, each neatly presented with colourful descriptions of their own. And as the characters embark on their own personal journeys, so will the reader. Great writing style, but I could not fully grasp the effectiveness of the whole story. Perhaps it was meant to be so.
This is also a book that makes you think - a lot - mostly because the characters are all contemplating their fates as they deal with their respective problems. The ending sounded incomplete (wait, was that an oxymoron?) - I was slightly taken aback actually. It was not something I had expected, after all the mounting tension leading up to it. It slowly dawned on me that the story had really ended right there and then, despite leaving plenty of room for questions (I initially thought my book was missing a few pages). Rest assured, however - this book has not been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award for nothing.