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the Complete Review
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Female Ruins

Geoff Nicholson

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To purchase Female Ruins

Title: Female Ruins
Author: Geoff Nicholson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 221 pages
Availability: Female Ruins - US
Female Ruins - UK
Female Ruins - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly well done and entertaining story that doesn't go quite as far as it might

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 24/4/1999 Jonathan Glancey
The Independent . 27/2/1999 E.Jane Dickson
The Independent A 5/2/2000 E. Hagestadt/C. Hirst
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 23/7/2000 Matthew Klam
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/7/2000 Christopher Hawthorne
Sunday Telegraph . 1/5/1999 Christopher Hart
The Times B+ 13/2/1999 Dominic Bradbury
TLS B 19/3/1999 Emma Tristram

  Review Consensus:

  Enjoyable, clever, and a good read.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Geoff Nicholson's knowledge of the subject is sure, his understanding of the design and theories of the past 30 years, assured and enjoyably related. None of this, however, should or does get in the way of his very human storytelling: it is there as point and counterpoint to the underlying thrust of Female Ruins." - Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian

  • "Nicholson's philosophy is dense but not all dark. In a world where all will come to dust, there are still some small redemptions. Female Ruins shows us how to wrest them from the wreckage." - E.Jane Dickson, The Independent

  • "A strong story-teller, Nicholson's unusual scenario -- which takes Kelly to the West Coast and back -- is enriched by intriguing architectural asides and enjoyably prickly characters." - Emma Hagestadt and Christopher Hirst, The Independent

  • "The heart of this cathartic book expertly depicts the struggle to make sense of one's father's genuine worth." - Matthew Klam, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Speaking of getting the job done, Nicholson has produced a dozen novels in 14 years, which wouldn't be worth mentioning except that their prose sometimes betrays that mechanical pace. (...) Female Ruins has much of the old stale factory air about it." - Christopher Hawthorne, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Nicholsonís novels are distinguished by their quirky, daring imagination, but in Female Ruins he also shows a profound tenderness towards his characters (...). Ruins, whether human or architectural, Nicholson suggests, are far more realistic than perfection." - Christopher Hart, Sunday Telegraph

  • "With its well-drawn characters, bleak comedy and flowing pace mixing Kelly and Dexter's adventures with excerpts from Howell's eccentric essays, Nicholson has created a pleasure. Despite touches of ironic Nabokovian trickery, he has also created a disappointment because, like Kelly, Nicholson's reader is desperate for a deeper truth, some sense of purpose to emerge from her father's life. Kelly's final acceptance of his fallibility may be fearsomely realistic, but it is also shot through with sadness and -- ultimately -- futility." - Dominic Bradbury, The Times

  • "This is a clever, postmodern story, well told, in which the ideas have soaked up most of the energy, and there is not enough left over to fill out the characters who carry those ideas." - Emma Tristram, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Christopher Howell does not actually appear in Female Ruins, but his presence is felt throughout the book. A minor architect, Howell "was a cult figure of sorts" who has been called "the greatest modern English architect never to have built a building". Echoes from him reverberate throughout the book. It is a quote from Howell's writing that serves as one of the epigraphs to the book, and several brief essays by him are interspersed in the narrative -- and a letter by him is presented near the book's end as well.
       The central character is, however, Howell's daughter, Kelly. Howell at least achieved some renown, while "it was left to Kelly to be the true failure of the family". So the harsh judgement at the beginning of the book. Kelly is not entirely a female ruin, but she hasn't quite found her place. And her father "loved ruins", so the incentive for wholeness and perfection isn't quite that great either. Not yet thirty Kelly has settled into a job as a taxi driver in Suffolk, England. It seems to suit her fine, though it means not quite living up to her potential.
       The arrival of an American, Jack Dexter, in the sleepy town changes things. Hobbled by some leg injury he can't get around well and hires Kelly to drive him around and show him the sights -- a tall (and unlikely) order in this area. Kelly takes the job "because in some peculiar way Dexter reminded her of her late father". She just can't get away from dear old dead dad.
       Dexter and Kelly don't hit it off perfectly, but they make do. The emotions and reactions in what becomes a roller-coaster relationship seem a bit exaggerated, or at least unfold too quickly, but Nicholson presents it quite entertainingly. Nicholson also does the descriptions of the quiet English countryside and the sights well, as well as the clash of culture between American and English, both coming together particularly nicely in a visit to the Church of St. Margaret of Dunstan.
       Architecture figures prominently in the book -- from the places Kelly and Dexter visit (churches, nuclear power plants, a fantasy garden) to Howell's meditations to Kelly's own preoccupations. Kelly lives in a converted chapel, and like most of the buildings in the book it is a failure, incomplete and inadequate for its former (or present) purposes.
       Kelly's father still haunts her -- especially his failures as an architect and a father. As it turns out, Dexter is not entirely who he originally presented himself as being, and he offers Kelly an opportunity to find out more about her father than she had thought possible. For one thing, it seems Howell actually did get to realize his architectural ambition and complete a building. It's in America, of course, and Kelly accepts Dexter's invitation to come see it.
       Events continue to unfold faster than they should, including one climax that seems quite horrifying (though it is finally presented as less so). There's some clever stuff here about success and failure, ambition and dreams and their realization, a somewhat dark (if not quite despairing) view of the world that Nicholson conveys well. Naturally, there are also typically Nicholsonian characters who try to get a grasp of the world, such as Dexter's father, who collects small replicas of structures and souvenirs with pictures of them (ashtrays, paperweights, and the like) from all over the globe.
       Howell died tragically, crushed by a piece of sculpture for an exhibit he was curating. The subject was ruins; the exhibit naturally was shelved with his death. It was a cast of the hand of Constantine that came down upon him, the hand as taken from the Fuseli etching, Artist moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Rome. Art'll kill you every time, apparently.
       The book revels in its ruins, human and otherwise. Tinged with melancholy, there is also an acceptance that ruins are more real than the perfection one might aspire to. Nicholson and his characters acknowledge and then accept human weakness and imperfection.
       Nicholson writes well. There are some fun scenes here, and the bits about architecture are interesting and not in the least daunting -- Nicholson knows his architecture but neither takes it too seriously nor tries to do too much with it. Occasionally the books seems a bit gloomy. Sympathetic to his main character, Nicholson nevertheless presents her with a huge chip on her shoulder and an unappealing impatience. There's a bit too much violence, and the pacing seems a bit off, but it is still a fine, fast, fun and thoughtful read.

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Female Ruins: Reviews: Geoff Nicholson: Other books by Geoff Nicholson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Geoff Nicholson, born in Sheffield in 1953, has written a flurry of novels. He lives in London and New York.

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