The Ballad of the Sad Café – Carson McCullers

I am ashamed to admit that I approached reading Carson McCullers’s 1951 novella The Ballad of the Sad Café with no small hint of scepticism. I have long struggled to enjoy books set in the American South; most simply because I cannot in any way relate to the settings or characters. Having tried other of McCullers’s works before with little avail, I turned to this text with renewed optimism. And I was not disappointed, generally speaking.

To begin with, it is a very easy going read. The plot and the characters are simply to understand and follow, and the writing style is not overly sophisticated so reading the book is quite relaxing. But despite its simplicity, it is not boring. The characters, although all grotesque in different ways, are fascinating. I cannot say whether I would call them realistic or not, but they are certainly unpredictable and the narrative takes many unusual turns. The narrative in itself is immensely simple, following the main character Amelia Evans, as her cousin Lymon comes into town and they build a life and a business together. However, I find the plot is largely beside the point. It is the process of how the story plays out that is the most interesting element of the work. For example, McCullers makes great use of exposition at several points during the text. Although what the narrator tells us is predictable and kills any small glimmer of hope there was for suspense in the tale, the moments where the narrator steps outside the text, the flashes between past and present, and the addresses to the narrator were key to my enjoyment of the book. For example, the narrator’s discussion of love near the middle of the novel was my favourite part of the text. It is filled with stunning use of literary techniques, such as the exquisite use of alliteration in the phrase ‘the lonesome look of the lover’, and beautiful sentiment. I particularly sympathised with her descriptions of how you can become a much better individual with the right person in your life and your heart. The realism and frankness of that section was a true joy to read.

The flaws that I found while reading unfortunately all came at the end of the book. Although the narrative had been rambling and disorganised from the start, towards the end I found there to be too many random sections of text that had no relevance to the narrative and no meaning. For example, the assertion that nobody knew how old Cousin Lymon is. Despite being congruent with the tone of the narrative up until that point, it would have fitted much better earlier on in the text. By the time this section arrives, Lymon is not the main focus of the narrative and so interest in his supposed age is minimal. Moreover, the ending itself is disappointing and anticlimactic. Regardless of whether I knew what was coming or not, I still expected to be entertained and for events to unfold in an exciting, gripping manner. But they did not. I liked the fact that the ending returns to what occurs at the beginning of the novel, but then I was dissatisfied anew as I came to the ‘second ending’. For me, this end section was what really let the final pages down. I did not know how to receive it, why it was written or what its purpose was. I believe it detracted heavily from the quality of the ending, rather than adding to it.

In summary, Carson McCullers has a smooth and flowing narrative voice, which carries the reader easily through the story, aided by the distinct lack of chapters or section breaks. The structure and characterisation are well planned and are executed nicely, and her imagery is beautiful in places. If you are looking for a quick read that doesn’t require too much effort, then this is the perfect story to try.

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