It’s rare that I don’t finish a book. I read quickly, and I read constantly, and if I don’t finish a book, then I have to find something else to read that much sooner. The obvious corollary to this is that I read a lot of reviews, and keep a list of books to watch out for when I go to the library or the bookstore. I’ve been in Victorian mood lately, at least as far as fiction goes, so when I saw reivews of The Sonambulist, it immediately went on the list: right period, it was about a stage magician (though very few novels about magicians match JB Priestley’s Lost Empires), got good reviews — what’s not to like?
In a word, milk.
The title character drinks milk the way private eyes in the pulps drink cheap whiskey, guzzling it by the gallon, chugging it before every action, carrying it with him when he can’t finish his tipple in the bar or at home. And I really hate milk. If I’m not very careful with it, it makes me sick; more than that, though, I don’t like the way it tastes. It’s always sour-ish, no matter how cold you get it; it’s a thin, nasty flavor except when it’s so rich it gags you. It leaves a gross film on the dishes, dries to disgusting flakes — in short, I find milk completely revolting. Every time the Sonambulist chugged down another pint of milk, I got a little more queasy, until finally, about two-third of the way through, I had to stop.
I had just settled down to supper (yes, I read at meals, and I feel a little frisson of satisfaction every time I do it, having been forbidden to read at the table most of my childhood) and opened the book — to yet another description of milk-drinking. This time, the Sonambulist had spilled some down his shirtfront, and it had dried, and I just couldn’t go on. I put that book down, picked up another, and had my supper in peace.
After supper, I stared at The Sonambulist for a while. It was an interesting story, and I did want to know what happened; however, I’d been skimming the milk-drinking episodes for quite a while, and I was still reading more of them than I wanted. It was time to give up. On the next morning’s walk, I dropped it into the library’s return box.
Next in my stack was a biography of John Dillinger: badly written (“providential” used in place of “provincial” — that kind of error), poorly attributed (too many “facts” come from mysterious papers collected by an ex-cop, and then lost in an attic for years), but still infinitely preferable to another glass of milk.