Eating Air – Pauline Melville

Eating Air is a very unusual novel and I am still unsure as to whether I enjoyed it or not.

The book centres on a strange couple – Ella, a dancer with the Royal Ballet and Donny, a violent anarchist. It isn’t long before they become involved in illegal acts and start to form relationships with  terrorists. Spanning 30 years and several countries, this is an ambitious novel, which confused me as much as it shocked and entertained me.

The characters were evil and impossible to like. They swore continually and, although there wasn’t a great deal of violence, they discussed it and made light of horrific acts. The book did contain a lot of humor, but I  felt uneasy about some of the jokes. 

‘Personally, I always use violence to obtain my objectives. And that’s what will happen when I die. People will stand up and have one minute’s violence.’ He let out a cackle.

There were a large number of characters, which meant that I sometimes lost track of who each one was and it also took me a while to realise that the story had flipped back/forward in time, as there was nothing to indicate this at the start of each chapter.

The writing was beautiful though. I loved the vivid descriptions which were present throughout the book.

To his left on the English Channel a fluffy grey angora haze blotted out the horizon. The milky sea gave slow sluggish sucks at the shore.

The ending had a profound effect on me – I predicted it in advance, but when it finally occurred, it was much more powerful than I ever imagined. I think I will remember it for a long time.

Pauline Melville is clearly a talented writer and I think it was mainly the subject matter that caused me to struggle with this book. I am keen to read The Ventriloquist’s Tale, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, as I am sure I will enjoy it much more.

If you are interested in the lives of terrorists, then this book would be an interesting choice. The originality of this book should not be ignored and, as it contained a number of thought-provoking issues, this book would be a great choice for a tolerant book group.


Have you read any  Pauline Melville’s books?

Can you enjoy a book where all the characters are evil?

25 replies on “Eating Air – Pauline Melville”

This sounds really interesting. Though I do wonder how the couple with such varied lifes would have gotten together as they seem polar opposites. I also really, really like the cover. Sounds like a great debate could be had with this one… oh you could have chosen it for Book Group, sounds like a book group kinda book.

I think its interesting the book had such evil characters, I have really enjoyed some utterly nasty characters but dont think I could even try and like these ones though I may give the book a whirl.

Simon, Opposites do attract, but these two do seem a little far apart! I guess that some woman just like bad men! It would be great to discuss this book, but it is new in hardback, so doesn’t meet requirements!

I don’t mind some evil characters in a book, but I like to be able to understand why they became evil, or have some nice characters in the book that I can share the haterd with! This book is just nasty from beginning to end!

I would love to hear your thoughts on it though, so let me know if you decide to read it.

I don’t think that this is a book that would appeal to me if I saw it sitting on a shelf in the shop, but, I think if I was told bout this book by a pal or someone who had read it, then I may give it a go. It does sound like a great book that would create a discussion and would definitely be a good book for a book group, thanks for a great review.
Big Hugs, Bethxx

Beth, I would be attracted to this book in a shop – the cover is great and the blurb is very intriguing – that’s why I read it!!

Even though it wasn’t my favourite book, it does have a lot going for it, and as I say it is great for starting a discussion!

Like Simon, I love the cover, and the book does sound interesting.

Liking books where the characters are evil is a toughie, mostly because most of us can’t relate to the characters. However, if you take something like Fingersmith as an example, I wonder if things change. Both the girls are acting in an underhand way, but, we do sympathise with the characters at one point in time, or the other. Maybe that’s a weak example, but… it’s the first one that came to mind.

anothercookiecrumbles, I don’t think the characters in Fingersmith are ever really evil. They do a few underhand things, but their circumstances make their actions understandable, if not forgivable. In this book they are just evil – plotting crime and violence just for fun. I can’t connect with people like that and so my enjoyment of the book was lowered.

Though I love crime fiction, I very rarely read novels about terrorism. While crime fiction is usually about the puzzle and the solution, terrorism displays some kind of senseless, far too real evil that scares me.

Dorte, I love crime fiction too – especially where there is a mystery to solve, but this book had no mystery, only tragedy. It is scary that people like this actually exist.

I don’t usually like books where the characters are all evil and unlikeable – with the exception, sometimes, of an unreliable narrator who is evil or at least doing lots of evil things but you don’t realize it straight away. It’s disorienting of course but as a narrative device I think it’s fascinating.

Jenny, I love unreliable narrators too! I don’t mind people doing evil things if their motives are explained and justifyable, but this book just contained violence for the thrill of it – I just can’t understand that.

You are right, this novel does sound unusual. I’ve read a couple of books in recent years that left me wondering if I liked them or not in the end. I am interested in the lives of terrorists, as scary as they may be, if only to try and understand them better, make sense of why they do what they do. I will have to look for this one. Thank you for your great review, Jackie!

Literary Feline, I’m afraid that this book didn’t really give me an insight into what made them into terrorists (unlike the amazing Reluctant Fundamentalist) In Eating Air they just seem to be born with evil in their blood and I never really understood their motives. I’ll be interested to know your thoughts if you decide to give it a go.

I really don’t like characters that are evil and do terrible things to others just for the thrill of it or for the sake of violence. People like that in fiction and in real life disturb me greatly, so this one is not for me, Jackie.
Thanks for the review!

Kim, It is scary to know that these people are out there. I’m pleased that you found my review useful.

She, It isn’t a scary book to read – it is just a bit shocking in places. I think normal lighting works well for this one!!

Beth, That is the problem I had. I think this book would have been much improved if one of the characters had ben likeable – maybe if the girl had been good, but fallen in love with the man and then discovered he was evil and had to weigh up her love against his evil nature and had tried to change him.

Oh yes, this book is for me, I LOVE reading about people who let violence fill their lives, it’s always intriguing to know what drives them.

I DO NOT like the cover. It’s too bland imho 🙂

Hmmm. I have this on order from the library, but I have my doubts. I can take unlikeable, I can take evil, but only if I can understand where it comes from and waht makes the characters concerned behave as they do. We shall see!

I also have trouble reading fiction about people I can’t relate to at all, especially ones that repel me. It’s just about the only thing that can make me quit reading a book. If I don’t care about the characters, I won’t even wonder about the ending too much.

I can see the attraction, for an author, of trying to see the world from their point of view, but this result sounds like it might fall into the category I call “kleenex literature.” You write it, you feel better, you throw it away. Elizabeth George’s mystery novel What Came Before He Shot Her falls into this category.

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