I’m not sure why A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter ended up on the top of my reading stack. My book group read Tranter’s first book, The Legacy, and whilst they were enthusiastic about it, I was less so. I found The Legacy all a little too obvious, a bit strained, characters lacking true feeling. But in the spirit of giving authors a decent go, especially Australian authors, I picked up A Common Loss.
First off, I should mention that I read the book on my Kindle, some months after a I had actually downloaded it. When I started reading, I had forgotten what the story was about (you don’t have easy access to a jacket blurb on a Kindle – this can be a good or a bad thing!). It’s essentially the story of five college friends, who reunite every year in Las Vegas. However one year they are only four – charismatic Dylan, the mediator, the man each one turned to in a time of crisis is tragically killed. The four remaining friends, sharing their ‘common loss’, meet in Vegas and question who their friend Dylan really was.
I note not revisiting the story blurb before I started the book because I was at least a chapter or two in before I realised that the narrator is a male character, Elliot. Up until that point I assumed the narrator was a female (probably because of the opening scene where an account of moving a dead deer off a road is described with many observations about physical appearances and lack of strength). Whether the narrator is male or female doesn’t really matter but when I realised my error, I had flashbacks to The Legacy, with its unconvincing characters. Were we headed down the same path?
I really didn’t like A Common Loss for a number of reasons. Significantly, I’m not a fan of Tranter’s writing style. She injects details that don’t add to the scene. Instead, the details are a distraction – unnecessary, fussy and overdone.
“I pushed my plate away. A sad quarter of a sandwich and a wilting slice of tomato and a parsley garnish were left.”
Granted, that may not sound so bad in isolation but every single sentence comes with a ‘parsley garnish’, so to speak.
All the backward-looking scene-setting and character building was tedious, boring and so extensive that it gave the text an amateurish feel. I think good writing leaves room for the imagination to work. Don’t tell your reader every single detail – let them fill in the blanks. Perhaps I was more highly attuned to this having just read Hartnett and Tiffany, two authors who employ an economy of words.
A good example of the extensive detail in A Common Loss is the pages devoted to the description of Elliot’s term paper on Tennyson. Tranter goes on and on about why Elliot was taking a Victorian literature class, why it was a bad choice, which books could be chosen for the term paper, why he couldn’t write his paper on The Wings of the Dove or Hamlet, how he was forced to do use Tennyson, how he borrowed all sorts of books from the library about Tennyson, how he applied for an extension… Boring? Well I’ve just summarised pages for you.
There are far too many coincidences and improbable situations throughout the story. For example, two of the characters, Brian and Cameron, haven’t been talking to each other for some years – some disagreement that they had at a bar one night that has festered away. When Brian’s secret is revealed (that he was accused of date rape), the others are concerned about telling Cameron because Cameron’s sister was molested by an uncle. Cameron discovered this while at college and has firm beliefs about rape. How convenient. Which brings me back to the improbable – as an adult, you don’t holiday in Vegas every year with people you don’t like. Why would you? Time is too precious.
“I told myself I didn’t like any of them much any more. Their shortcomings and irritating habits were much more present in my mind than any positive feeling. I suppose I liked the idea of having friends from college more than I really liked the friends themselves.”
The only thing I liked about this book was the Las Vegas setting – partly because I visited Vegas for the first time last year (and it’s always nice to reminisce about holidays) but the use of Vegas as a metaphor was clever – the glitzy facade and the seedy back blocks mirrored the friendship between the men.
“There was something arresting, almost shocking, about the sudden falling away of glitz and substance in that small distance between the front of the massive hotels, the face they showed on the Strip, and the back. We weren’t miles or even blocks away, we were simply behind the buildings, and yet the drop from prosperity to desperation and emptiness was dizzying.”
“People queued patiently at the salad bar in front of the enormous dishes of peeled shrimp, loading up plates with pink mountains of the things, faces set with the same joyless dedication you saw at the slot machines.”
Be like a frat boy and read A Common Loss with beer and chips.
1/5 If you want a close-knit-group-at-college-suspense-story, go to the original, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.