The Antelope Wife
by Louise Erdrich
1999 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel
I've read a few of slice-of-life, magical realism novels as I've worked my way through the World Fantasy Awards. It seems like a simple formula for authors: you tell some anecdotes, apply a bit of magic, and let the book just wind down at some point. Boy's Life and Godmother Night did this well enough and managed to give the reader a thread to follow. The Antelope Wife, on the other hand, fails completely.
In The Antelope Wife there's some... a... uh... a family maybe (depending on how you define family, I guess) and they... maybe... who have things happen to them... and then the book ends.
There are events but no thread of theme, structure, character, or plot for the reader to follow. It never comes together and events seem arbitrary since the book jumps around so much. Why are these characters acting different in this chapter than how they were two chapters before which was set some ambiguous time before it? Don't look to the text for any answers since by focusing on a few moments arcs don't develop. It reads like a pile of family rememberences which might make sense when you're talking with people who have common experiences with those stories. From the perspective of the outside reader it just doesn't make sense.
Which isn't to say that the individual stories don't make sense. They're simple enough anecdotes that are just clumsily told. It's not hard to understand the ten pages where a story is told as a self-contained unit; it's in the context of the whole where I'm constantly saying, "Wait, wasn't he the rapist who sold things at a flea market?" or "Weren't they angry at each other over this a few chapters ago and never had it resolved?"
I think the story was supposed to mysteriously tie together with events from the past given how name dropping and references to events are dropped into the novel. That didn't work for me because the connections were arbitrary; it didn't matter that their ancestors had known each other or did some horrible thing because it happened a hundred years before.
One of the true unpardonable sins in The Antelope Wife is that none of the characters are interesting. It's populated by people who are effectively inert whether by being "mysterious" or are just do nothings. The few characters who do take actions visible to the reader are bores at best and vile monsters who brutalize people with no compelling elements to them.
One reason for the problems with the characters is that the novel's voice is weak at best. Most portions are recounted as a legend from the distant past and the prose is structured like that. This can work for broad sweeps of legends and for human stories such as Erdrich is trying to tell the near complete lack of dialog and the remote voice harm the characterization. The reader is constantly told what characters say in generalities rather than in dialog, conversations simply don't exist.
Which makes The Antelope Wife a novel of fluff about characters that I couldn't care about told in such a way to make it as uninteresting as possible. It's flawed on every fundamental level and improving any single element still would not have saved the book. Avoid this one, there's better options out there.