REVIEW: Stoner by John Williams

In this day and age, I admit that this title could be misinterpreted. For about ten seconds, I thought that the novel would be about drug abuse – hence why I was a little bit confused at the cover choice. (Yet another real-life example of ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’) To set the record straight, the title comes from the name of the protagonist, who is incidentally called William Stoner. STONER. A rugged name, but most certainly not a rugged novel.

Stoner is passionate, tender, beautiful – and not what I expected. Simply put, it documents the life (and death) of William Stoner, who in the space of one Literature lesson, is transformed from a son of the soil to a creature embroiled in the masterpiece that is the English language. And what’s truly remarkable about this novel is that there are no big cliffhangers or heart-stopping plot twists; no zombie apocalypse or alien attacks. The storyline is deceptively simple – just one man’s life – but the way in which the challenges of life are handled means that, like Stoner himself, is moulded from something supposedly straightforward into a work of beauty and strength.

The fact is, the entire novel was so eloquent that I wanted to cry just at Williams’ choice of vocabulary. The task of choosing a word that perfectly conveys a character’s thoughts, or actions, or responses, or a hundred more infinitesimal things, is a nigh-on impossible task, yet one which Williams has achieved. He handles the ups and downs of Stoner’s life as if he were experiencing them himself (which he is, in a way), and then transfers this overwhelming feel of involvement onto the reader. We’re not in the story, watching Stoner from afar – we are the story. We are Stoner, living his life, thinking his thoughts, and quite honestly it’s the most disconcerting thing that I’ve ever experienced.

He turned on the bare, treeless little plot that held his mother and father and looked across the flat land in the direction
of the farm where he had been born, where his mother and father had spent their years… Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labour, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them. p 110

I’ve read hundreds of books where I feel like I’m in the story, but none where I feel that I am the story. Dear Lord, and what makes it worse is that Stoner’s not even written in the first person. That’s how sublime John Williams’ writing is. The Sunday Times said that it’s ‘the greatest novel you’ve never read’. And I agree. It deserves to be displayed on a footstool underneath a spotlight – is that going too far? – or at the very least take pride of place on your bookshelf. You can boast to the rest of the world Look! I have read this magnificent tome! Have you? And other similar, showy-offy comments.

I think that we can compare Stoner’s life to almost any aspect of our own; be that a love of literature, a tumultuous affair, a cold relationship or a failed marriage – all can be translated and transferred in a thousand different ways. I’m not sure as to what the message of this novel is (if it even has one), but one thing that I learned is to notice the little things. Live. Remember and live. Oh, and the fact that reading is a great thing. But I knew that one already.

FINAL VERDICT: five out of five stars. A stellar novel, whose descriptive passages are heart-renderingly sensitive and absolutely perfect.

*aside* I have mocks to revise for, so unfortunately I won’t be updating as much :(. BUT yesterday I got two kittens, and I really want to call them something literary-ish… Any suggestions? I was thinking Winston and Julia, Cathy and Heathcliff, or Hamlet and Ophelia, and I’d love your input… Just comment below! x x


2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Stoner by John Williams

  1. I have just this morning finished this book, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages. Such a good lesson in appreciating what happiness does come a person’s, way if their life is otherwise bleak. It’s wonderful how Williams makes a sad story warm enough to be beautiful, and not too bleak.


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