Review by Tom
A Death in the Family (1958), written by American writer James Agee, is the story of, and I’ll let the suspense build here a little, a death in the family. The death in question is Agee’s father, who died when the author was a young boy. The loss of his father obviously had a lasting effect on Agee.
The novel explores the way each family member grieves the death of the father, mainly through descriptions of the characters interior thought process. The novel contains sparse dialogue and no real plot to speak of. Essentially the father dies, and towards the end of the novel a funeral is held.
A Death in the Family was published posthumously. The manuscript wasn’t quite finished when Agee died, and there are sections written by Agee that weren’t in the final manuscript before Agee died, that have been included (annoyingly in italics in the version I read) by the editor. Due to the lack of a strong plot in the novel, the fact that the novel wasn’t completely finished doesn’t cause any disconcerting jumps for the reader.
From the small amount I have read about this book on the ‘net, it is often a proscribed text for high school students in the United States. It is easy to understand why this is the case, the novel is not overly long, is excellently written, and explores important themes such as religion and religious doubt, family and death.
In a way this book was also a proscribed text for me, as it is on Time magazine’s Top 100 All Time Novels list which I am reading in an attempt to make up for an, at times, fairly poor English literature education at school.
Unfortunately I also often felt like a school student who has been forced to read some weighty and culturally important text. While I appreciated why this book had been placed on Time’s list, it was excellently written, the characters are nuanced, real and empathetic and the subject matter being explored is important, I found it boring and difficult to read.
I’m not sure exactly how long this text is (I read it on the Amazon Kindle app for the iPhone – I’ll be writing more on my experiences reading on the iPhone in another post), but I guesstimate its length at less than 200 pages in a paper back. Despite its short length it took nearly 4 months for me to read this book.
The problem with reading off a list of important intellectual novels, is that occasionally you run into ones that you struggle to finish (don’t get me started on Virginia Woolf). I think that a Death in the Family is a good book, it just didn’t hold my interest. Blame in on the Gen-Y-Grew-Up-On-The-Internet-No-Attention-Span if you like, but this book isn’t going on my Top 10 list any time soon.
I encourage you to read this book if you like short succinct prose, well developed characters, early-20th-century America and you aren’t intimidated by pages of descriptive writing without a quotation mark in sight. Otherwise, I’d suggest you use your literary time and dollar else where.