The Qualities of Wood by Mary Vensel White is the first book to be published under the new digital imprint announced last October by Harper Collins, purveyors of much fine publishing and the much vaunted ‘conquer the slushpile’ Authonomy site. As an erstwhile authonomite, I felt that this was a significant step. Up to now, HC have never guaranteed more than a professional review (by a single reviewer) for those who made the coveted ‘editor’s desk’. Providing a publishing patform for selected books looks like they are putting their money where their mouth is. Ok, it will be e-publishing only in the first instance, but surely the weight of a commercial publisher will ensure any such book does well.
I bought a copy of QOW soon after it was published in January, intrigued to know more about their first choice (which I had somehow missed in its rise on Authonomy) and how this development was taking shape. As regards the book, there was a bit of a hiatus. After the first chapter or so I was undecided. I didn’t dislike anything (although the names of the main characters had me flummoxed for a while – were Vivian and Nowell typical 20 somethings?) but nor was I hooked. I actually put the book aside in favour of a different read. But I came back to it and I’m very pleased I did. In chapter 3 a new character arrives, and for me the whole thing took off. There was nothing dramatic about neighbour Katherine Wilton’s appearance but she brought the outside world into the couple’s solitary existence and I just knew that the core relationship of Vivian and Nowell was going to be tested in some way.
The book is certainly a slow burn, but burn it does. We are treated to plenty of Vivian’s backstory, but it does not feel intrusive. And all of it turns out to be relevant to the events that gradually unfold. Family secrets and jealousies simmer under the surface, so that when the meltdown takes place, we are both shocked by the intensity and also struck by its inevitability. The book mirrors the deceptive stillness of small town life. There is a mysterious death but this isn’t a thriller. The mystery involves the impact it has on the characters and how they relate to each other. The writing is striking. I haven’t read Faulkner since my school days but something about this reminded me of him. I would definitely recommend this as an absorbing and satisfying novel, a literary rather than commercial choice. In view of the shoals of genre writing on the Authonomy site, I was impressed. So what would come next?
Here’s the next mystery. A trawl of the HC website revealed nothing about QOW or the digital imprint. A quick visit to the authonomy blog forums was also fruitless. Although it was suggested a book would be chosen for publication every month, no announcements have been forthcoming. And why was there so little fuss over the publication of QOW? I recall seeing little that would have been obvious to anyone outside the world of Authonomy.
Has this whole thing gone cold? If so it’s a great pity for this particular book (which IMO surely deserves a print run), the digital imprint and the many authors hoping success on Authonomy might convert into a commercial publishing contract.