Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thawed narrator too stiff to be engaging

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Sometimes it seems as if a novel contains more thematic baggage than its narrative can reasonably handle.

In the case of The Curiosity, a debut by American journalist Stephen P. Kiernan, such ideas include the value of life, the nature of morality and the meaning of beauty.

For a romantic thriller whose fanciful premise is the revival of a 19th-century man who has been trapped inside a glacier for more than 100 years, the heavyweight themes seem a bit much.

Jeremiah Rice, a young judge born in 1868, has been missing since falling overboard a ship in the Arctic Ocean during a trip inspired by the voyage of Charles Darwin.

Jeremiah is discovered in his frozen state by Kate Philo, an attractive scientist employed by the Lazarus Project, an organization dedicated to discovering the secrets of immortality.

Kate, in the literary tradition of women who are drawn to mysterious men, becomes infatuated with Jeremiah -- feelings that are eventually and predictably reciprocated.

While Kiernan makes some effort to develop the novel's main characters, any growth that does occur appears contrived rather than organic. Conveniently, they all just happen to hail from Boston, where the Lazarus Project is situated -- one of many shortcuts and unlikely coincidences in The Curiosity.

Kiernan's use of familiar character types and well-worn plot elements is understandable. Readers will need help to find their way into a 400-plus-page story that becomes increasingly elaborate and improbable.

The book's most noticeable weakness lies with the portrayal of Jeremiah, who comes across as a one-dimensional paragon of propriety. In a modern romantic plot, one would expect him not to be a mere clich© of the Victorian gentleman, but instead the sort of person a smart and educated 21st-century woman could be interested in.

Kiernan's attempt to shape his hero into a fully rounded individual is something he, despite his best intentions, never pulls off. Jeremiah's narration is generally flat and lifeless, as he appears to serve as a sort of mouthpiece for the author's own idealistic opinions.

A smaller but no less irksome flaw lies with the puzzling motif of a button from Jeremiah's jacket, an image that appears at the start of each chapter. As with many of Kiernan's choices, the symbolism of the button seems either too oblique or precious to resonate with the reader.

The book's strength is its accurate and uncompromising portrayal of the invasive and omnipresent nature of contemporary tabloid media. Kiernan's journalistic expertise gives him an insider's view of the world of predatory paparazzi and the unscrupulous blog culture of the Internet.

Cast against a background of the spectacular landscapes of the Arctic Ocean and the bustle of Boston, most of the novel's scenes have been written with a strong sense of cinematic potential. Indeed, movie rights have already been sold.

The issues touched upon in The Curiosity are interesting and important in themselves. The problem is that Kiernan is not skilled enough to make them resonate within a narrative setting.

Paul R. McCulloch is an arts and culture blogger at paulswinnipeg.blogspot.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 G8

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