Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review: "The Queen's Gambit" by Walter Tevis

A fan had told me some time ago that I should check out this book - but I never did. Now, I intend to. In fact, tonight on the way home from the office, I stopped at a downtown used book store and checked their stock, but they didn't have it. So, I'll probably order it from Alibris.com. I came across this review today at inthenews.co.uk. I had no idea the book was written in the 1980s! The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis Thursday, 03, Sep 2009 11:25 Reissued by Penguin Books, paperback, 243 pages, £9.99. In a nutshell... Life is a game of chess What's it all about? Ever since she was a little girl, emotionally neglected under an authoritarian regime in an orphanage, chess has been a form of spiritual rapture for Beth, a form of escapism from the realities of her life and her addiction to tranquilisers (and later her alcoholism). The book follows her progress from prodigy to adulthood, her career and emotional development. Who's it by? Walter Tevis (1928-1984), the American writer perhaps most famous for his novels The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, both of which have been adapted for film. The Queen's Gambit was originally released in 1983. This Penguin edition includes an introduction by Lionel Shriver, the acclaimed journalist and novelist, who won the Orange prize in 2005 for We Need to Talk About Kevin. As an example... "She did not open her eyes even to see the time remaining on her clock or to look across the table at Borgov or to see the enormous crowd who had come to the auditorium to watch her play. She let all that go from her mind and allowed herself only the chessboard of her imagination with its intricate deadlock. It did not really matter who was playing the black pieces or whether the material board sat in Moscow or New York or in the basement of an orphanage; this eidetic image was her proper domain." - page 240 Likelihood of becoming a Hollywood blockbuster The problem of representing the highly cerebral chess scenes aside, most of the text is the internal reflections and feelings of the protagonist Beth, which would be hard to recreate for the screen. We doubt whether Hollywood has the subtlety or finesse for either. What the others say "The author's most consummate and heartbreaking work." - Jonathan Lethem So is it any good? Beth Harmon is not initially a warm, charismatic character: she is emotionally detached, at times amoral, and compulsive. However, there is something very rewarding about watching how she grows and develops, and the reader cannot help being in awe of her intelligence and genius. The novel has an immense cast of characters, and though some are not as fleshed-out as they may be, all add colour to the tapestry of the plot. The story itself is anti-sentimental and bleak, and an understanding of cold war tensions is necessary to fully appreciate the book's context and the importance of Beth's competition in the Soviet Union. Tevis' style is terse but evocative, with many throwaway comments that succinctly express an incredible amount of information, and he never condescends his reader. However, not everything can be taken as truth. Some readers may find the non-erotic and passionless sex scenes uncomfortable to read, and sometimes the chess scenes carry on for too long. Nonetheless the book is beautifully written, and full of tension and suspense. Two minor niggles: firstly, the introduction by Shriver, though an interesting read and accurate analysis, gives away too much of the plot and should instead be included as an afterword; secondly, the almost fetishistic photograph of a glamorous and beautiful woman on the cover of the edition is unnecessary and irritating, especially as the physical attractiveness of Beth is not an issue in the text. 8/10 (9/10 if you can follow the chess scenes) Louise Champion

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