Review of Bettina by Thomas Childs
A version of this article originally appeared in Prairie Fire magazine (1999), and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.
Stories told by unlikely narrators have a lengthy tradition. By my reckoning, there have been novels narrated by household pets, thieves watching from the woods, literal flies on the wall, and even by unborn fetuses. Thomas Childs Bettina may be the first English-language book-length story told by a bus. By that innovation alone, Childs first novel is assured of accolades for originality. But its uniqueness only begins with voice, and evolves to describe unremarkable though compelling events that are afforded further freshness by the joyful sensitivity and perspective with which the simple tale is told.
Bettina is the name of a long-distance bus whose story begins on the 1960’s Paris-to-Lyon run in France. She falls in love with one of her regular passengers, her scholar, through whom she learns the narrative of Guillaumes 13th century novel, Le Roman de la Rose. Bettina deliberately breaks down on the highway so that her scholar can complete the tales recitation. Her sacrifice for romantic love dedicates the remainder of her life to maternal love, and she finds herself piloted in 1990’s America by Spencer and Phoebe, a couple whose relationship is in serious distress. The slim and tightly-written book is about Spencer and Phoebes attempt to find a way to stay together, despite the delusional forces of modernity that threaten to invalidate their love.
Bettinas power is in its refusal to deviate from a voice and mood that hearken to an older era of classical romance literature. Its extraction of theme from Guillaumes masterpiece, that of the paradoxical unattainability of earthly love without destruction of that love, assures that this contemporary tale of a couples voyage to mutual acceptance would be anchored to greatness.
But Bettina itself, while reflecting and referencing greatness, is itself no masterpiece. Childs fails in a few respects. In the crafting of dialogue, he seems unable to create separate nuances for separate characters. Everyone, including the bus, speaks with the lush and erudite poetic sweetness of a part-time literary scholar. The characters themselves, with the exception of the unsympathetic love couple, are unnecessarily freakish and culturally fringed; for Childs to make them breathe would require them to display degrees of introspection; simply belonging to various sub-cultures is insufficient.
A further complaint is with the sometimes obtrusive and pretentious shades of narrative, character and events. Despite being about a bus trip through modern North America, everyone drinks Chardonnay and reads poetry –no one drinks Coke and watches professional wrestling. Childs assumption that the reader would be somewhat familiar with a very obscure medieval French novel is the thread of tiring pretension that makes the regular imbibition of Chardonnay unsurprising.
Such snobbery is forgivable, however, for the courageous brevity of the book, and for Childs undeniable skill for exploring certain depths of romantic love. Truly a unique novel, Bettina is the product of a writer gifted with powers of intellectual exploration and wordsmithy, but who must yet learn to create human characters that can rival the realism of a bus.