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[143] The Short History of A Prince – Jane Hamilton

“He might just as well have said Mitch to mean the word love. It was girlish behavior, perhaps, to give up the rest of the language, to seize on his name. He didn’t care. He whispered ‘Mitch’ into his pillow; he opened his closet and said it louder; he sang it softly in the shower; he filled a few notebook pages with it in different scripts.” [122]

The Short History of a Prince captures the growing pains of a boy who strives to carve out a place for himself in life. Walter McCloud is aspired to be a first-rate ballet dancer but his mother has enough sense not to talk him out of it. For she has clung to the belief that his enthusiasm for dancing would shield him from the grief to which the McCloud family will be subjected. Indeed the painful realization (or awakening) that he lacks talent and that his gifted friends have surpassed him is overshadowed by his older brother’s illness. In summer of 1972, Daniel McCloud has developed a tumor on his nech which cannot be completely removed in surgery. Walter knows very little about his brother’s sickness, but it crosses his mind that in all of Daniel’s spare time he might be thinking the clang of death’s door and the path to heaven. His sickness also bespeaks fearful consequences that would transform the family.

“At school in January, one of the friends ventured to say, ‘He’s so sick he might die.’ The word die silenced the group walking down the hall. There was no echo in a sound like die. It was heavy, a real sinker.” [196]

At that time Walter begins to have a crush on his friend Mitch, with whom he engages in some brotherly intimacy. Over the years he has dated some men but has never forgotten Mitch, with whom he has lost contact. Walter has never discussed his preferences with his mother or anyone in the family because he feels it is so obviously understood between them. He sometimes thinks it is a conversation “that is beneath their dignity.” All his emotional baggage, the anxious vulnerability of adolescence have followed him well into his adulthood. His eccentric aunt has always been a walking reminder of his unfulfilled dreams (failures under the breath), for she has believed he’s the only gifted one in the family who demonstrates an artistic sensibility.

So this is how the novel goes: There are no shocking dramas or earth-shattering revelations, but a very crafted and lyrical journey of a man who slowly comes to terms with not only his identity, but reality. Walter has become an English teacher in high school, despite that he has been frightened by the nescient next generation’s ignorance and bad manners, not to mention that they are heedless of books and art.

“If I chose I could find beauty by living in the real world; I could probably find beauty by working day after day at meaningful drudge. I often had that anxious, desolate feeling that I was wasting my time, that I was wasting an afternoon, a weekend, a whole life, by not choosing to do the right thing—the work that would simultaneously wear me out and sustain me.” [99]

Written in very descriptive and languid sentences, the book creates a richly textured look at art and talent, family, friendship, and sexuality. It’s a slow-moving and meditative read, full of ordinary occurrences—a prank, an escapade, a family reunion, a conversation, death, and moments of intimacy. It reminds me of The Gathering by Anne Enright, but Jane Hamilton’s writing style is more down-to-earth that I’m not lost with what is being revealed and hinted at. It’s the exact opposite to Enright’s urgent and angry style to tell a story, and the writing is full of sentiment.

4 Responses

  1. That last quote moved me. I’m putting that one on my Goodreads list. 🙂

  2. Did you know ahead of time that the main character is gay? Just curious. It sounds like a very touching book about how one finds his own bearing in the world. I’ll put it on my list. A great review!

  3. This book sounds really good! I like novels about “ordinary occurrences” – that’s perfect.

  4. Angie:
    It’s a heart-warming family tale.

    John:
    Actually I didn’t know. I picked up the book at Forest Books on 16th/Valencia and read the first chapter. I was interested. It wasn’t until later when he talked about his crush did I know that he is gay.

    Iliana:
    I think you might like this one. 🙂

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