Author: Chaim Potok
Details: (c) Chaim Potok 1992 (?); Pub Fawcett Crest 1993; ISBN 0-449-22138-5
Verdict: I am the clay is well written but rather downbeat.
Reasons for reading it: I'd just finished an absolutely amazing book, and needed to follow it with good writing, because I really couldn't cope with anything mediocre.
How it came into my hands: The bargain table in the Strand when I was in New York last summer.
I am the clay is an account of some months in the lives of refugees in the Korean war. As such, it is very much centred on death and suffering, but it just manages to stay away from being so depressing that it's unreadable.
The most striking thing about the book is the very unusual way it handles viewpoint. The central characters are never named, but referred to as the old man, the old woman (the boy does get a name mentioned once, but for the rest of the book he is just the boy). And the narrative jumps about between the internal monologues of the three combined with just enough omniscient to make the story make sense. The old couple are very much peasants; everything to them is immediate and personal, with occasional bits of superstition. They don't deal at all in abstractions or analysis. And the boy is, well, a child, and a frightened, starving child at that, so his internal monologue isn't very sophisticated either.
This makes them very much not the sort of people who are normally the subjects of books, and I think it's an effective technique for making the horrors of war. There's a real sense that these people have no idea what's going on, but they know they are in danger and pain. And the strange narrative technique does convey a sense of character, even though the three are not like the kind of people who read novels. I did very much sympathize with them, perhaps even more so because they seem like people rather than characters.
The final section worked perhaps less well. Partly I think because it moves more towards a conventional shape. And partly because I happen to know that the random Jewish guy who shows up at the end is in fact an authorial insert, and Potok has already worked that theme (rather better) in The book of lights. But certainly worth reading if you can deal with rather a large dose of misery.