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City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

It’s plague season in Paris, and a woman’s entire family is dead except for her son. Then her son is kidnapped, so the woman goes on a merry adventure.

I feel like that’s a summary of City of Crows that sits around the same level of Chris Womersley’s writing.

Chris Womersley is the author of a small number of well-regarded and well-accoladed books. His second novel, Bereft, is perhaps the most popular of his pieces, but his first, The Low Road, earned him the Ned Kelly Crime Fiction Award for Best First Novel in 2008. City of Crows is his fourth novel to date.

The story follows Charlotte Picot, a mother and wife in a small village in 17th Century France. Having already lost a number of her children to the Plague, the story begins when her husband Michel succumbs to the very same disease. Widowed and with only one child remaining, Charlotte flees for the perceived safety of the city of Lyon. On the way, her son Nicolas is kidnapped and Charlotte is left for dead. In her journey to reunite with her son, Charlotte will venture to Paris and encounter things she would never have expected.

I would also have never expected those same things. I expected them to be more interesting.

The book begins with what may be the worst opening sentence I have ever read in published fiction. Allow me to share it with you:

‘Summer stole across the country, bringing its heat and its fevers to their side of the mountain, to the cluster of cottages known locally as Saint-Gilles, and some days Charlotte Picot thought all of them, one by one, would surely die from the plague.’

There are no typos in that sentence, it really is that long and really uses that many commas. In fact, all of Chris’ prose uses far too many commas. I almost wondered if it was some meta-metaphor for the Black Death given how plagued with commas his writing is. If so, it wasn’t even a good one. His sentences are meandering and bland, the prose completely fails to flow off the page and in among all that are the settings and characters embedded in the text that have about as much life as the trees that became the book’s pages. Having never previously read Chris Womersley’s work I was absolutely stunned at how unskilled a writer he appears to be. I learned in high school not to use that many commas. Maybe Chris was sick that day of school.

To put it plainly, the characters are flat, the prose is meandering and poorly-structured, the story is riddled with the amateur act of telling-not-showing and when all that was put together I was reading a low-level piece of fiction that could maybe pass as a first-time writer’s first draft of a first novel. The exciting blend of Historical Gothic Fiction with an undercurrent of Magical Realism is butchered, botched and incompetently mishandled to create an ultimately dull piece that is worse than any of those constituent parts on their own. It suffers from pacing issues, flat characters and a clunky, comma-riddled prose that numbs the mind.

This is a man who has been compared to Julian Barnes. Someone referred to Bereft as ‘Literary Fiction’. Chris’ books have won awards.

I have never read any other work by Chris Womersley, and to be honest after City of Crows I never will, but all of his other work has been award-winning or shortlisted for awards. From this I can only conclude that either Chris Womersley is a competent writer and somehow managed to write a book well below his own level of ability or that the level of Australian Crime Fiction was so low in 2008 that Chris’ first work The Low Road truly was the best novel that year.

Maybe Chris Womersley has written good books, but this isn’t one of them. Maybe take a gamble on Bereft, but don’t buy City of Crows.

REVIEWER: Roger E. Montrose

TITLE: City of Crows

AUTHOR(S): Chris Womersley

PUBLISHER: Macmillan

RRP: $34.99

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