A woman enters a convent. Then there are over 500 pages of what her life is like there. I abandoned it at 15 %. Here’s my grumpy comment on Goodreads made at the point where I, figuratively speaking, threw my Kindle at the wall…
Yes, I knew it was about nuns so I really shouldn’t have been surprised by the endless details of what every bell is called, the way last rites are done, the titles and job descriptions of every single one of the many thousands of people in the community. (I may have exaggerated the number, but when ten different people are named in one paragraph, they become a blur – as one character mentions, they all seem like identical penguins.) If anyone wants to know what it’s like to be a woman who chooses to lock herself away with a hundred other women, and then they all spend their time bitching about each other, this is the book to read.
Abandoned at 15%.
This paragraph was where I realised I was yearning to be reading something, anything, else…
Dame Ursula was not kneeling in the Abbess’s room; as mistress of novices her first duty was to the novitiate; Dame Ursula was called Ursa, the Great Bear, or Teddy according to her moods, ‘though we’re not supposed to nickname,” Hilary warned Cecily. With the councillors knelt French Dame Colette Aubadon, mistress of church work : Dame Camilla, the learned old head librarian: Dame Edith of the printing room: Dame Mildred, gardener, while Dame Joan Howard, the infirmarian, stood on the other side of the bed from Mother Prioress.
Ok, eight names, not ten as I claimed in my rant, but still.
Book 15 of 80
And this is the paragraph that finished me off…
The nuns, as they gathered, had knelt, some sobbing, some white and quiet, round the room and down the corridor as Dom Gervase administered Extreme Unction, touching eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands and feet with holy oil in the sign of the cross, sealing the five senses away from the world: ‘By this holy anointing and of his most tender mercy, may the Lord forgive you whatever sins you have committed through your sight’ or ‘hearing’ or ‘sense of smell’ or ‘speech’ or ‘touch’. Dom Gervase’s voice had faltered as he began but it had grown firm and clear as he prayed. Then the nuns had heard the words…
There’s more, much more, of this but I couldn’t bear it. My atheism may make me more critical than a Catholic might be of this, but I honestly think it’s terrible writing – the ultimate in ‘tell’ and a total info dump, as interestingly written as a description of the last rites in wikipedia.
Book 3 of 12
Oh dear, I’m afraid this was not only one from my Classics Club list but was also the People’s Choice for March – the second one-star abandonment in a row! Sorry, People! Thankfully April’s choice is a Graham Greene so I’m 99% certain to at least make it to the end! 😉
In a small Appalachian town where natural beauty and the ugliness of the meths business clash, Sheriff Les Clary is preparing for retirement. He has bought himself some land and is having a cabin built on it, where he can leave the ugliness behind and spend his days painting the beauty. But before he leaves, he’ll have to deal with one last case. On the surface it’s not a particularly serious case – a matter of deliberate pollution of a river – but the motivations behind it will take him deep into the darkness that scars this community, and rake up some of the traumatic moments of his life, both professional and personal.
Les’ friend, Becky Shytle, is also a survivor of trauma (as, quite frankly, is everyone in the book). In Becky’s case, she was caught up in a school shooting as a young child, in which her beloved teacher died – an outcome for which she blames herself. After the shooting, she was mute for months, and eventually her parents sent her to stay with her grandparents in the Appalachians. Here she learned the healing power of nature and found her voice again, though that early trauma and a later one still haunt her.
The book alternates between Les and Becky as narrators, chapter about, more or less. Becky’s sections are written as if in her journal, where she writes in poetic language and often includes poems. We all have a different tolerance level for poetic style in prose – mine is low, and Becky’s chapters increasingly irritated me as the book went on. What starts out as wonderfully descriptive writing morphs eventually into a kind of contrived “creative” writing, where Becky/Rash invent new words because apparently the English language simply isn’t large enough as it stands. However, I’m quite sure that people who love poetic writing will love this.
Les’ chapters, on the other hand, are written in the sort of world-weary style of noir and I loved this, and enjoyed the thoughtful portrayal of his character as a good man driven down by the things he has witnessed in his job. He has his own morality, which is not always the morality demanded of a law officer. For example, he takes bribes to look the other way, so long as he feels the crime he is ignoring is one which the law treats too harshly. He is a mix of righteousness and weakness, whose absorption in his own emotional state makes him cold, blind, perhaps, to those of other people. His wife’s depression, for example, seems to have been an unwelcome annoyance to him, his sympathy going all to himself rather than to her. However, he is aware of mistakes he has made along the way, and beats himself up emotionally over them. I felt Rash wanted me to sympathise with him, but I found myself less forgiving than Rash seemed to be aiming for.
It’s a relatively short book at under 300 pages, but it’s a very slow burn. It takes nearly half the book before any kind of plot emerges, and even then it’s rather low-key. Most of the time is taken up with studies of the two main characters and rather shallower ones of a handful of secondary characters. In sum, they paint a picture of this rather dreadful society where drugs are distorting and destroying the social structures and blurring moral lines. Not everyone in town is a dealer or an addict, but all are affected in some way – by crime, by the addiction of a family member, by poverty. The contrast between that and the loveliness that nature abundantly provides is rather disorienting, and ultimately depressing: “Though every prospect pleases, And only man is vile.” The whole tone is bleak and although there is a resolution of sorts at the end for the characters, one feels that this society in a larger sense may be beyond hope of redemption.
I have mixed feelings about it, overall. I loved Rash’s writing when he was sticking to the plainer, bleaker style of Les’ voice, but the over-poeticism (as I saw it) of Becky’s chapters remained a running irritant throughout. I fear I found the depiction of this drug-saturated society both totally credible and totally depressing. And I found the sheer number of traumas that our various characters had lived through and carried as emotional baggage all felt too much – beyond likelihood, and therefore reminding me that Rash was manipulating the characters like the man behind the curtain, making his dolls dance to a dismal tune of his own composing. Yes, I know that’s what all authors do, but the success of a puppet show comes in making the audience forget the existence of the puppeteer.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate, via NetGalley. (In 2016! Oops!)
Nelson has spent his young life expecting to leave his South American home and emigrate to the US in the footsteps of his elder brother, on a chain migration visa. But, just as it finally seems this dream is about to become reality, Nelson’s father dies and he knows he can’t simply leave his mother alone. He has always wanted to be an actor/playwright, and is coming to the end of his studies at the Conservatory. He auditions for a role in a touring revival of a play, The Idiot President, which once gained notoriety for Diciembre, the company who originally performed it in towns and villages during the recent civil war. Henry Nuñez, who wrote the play, and Patalarga were original members of the three-man cast, and will again play the eponymous Idiot President and his servant, while Nelson is chosen to play Alejo, the President’s son. As they tour the provinces of the country, the three men will gradually learn about each other’s pasts and develop an intricate and intimate kind of friendship. But we know from our unnamed narrator that tragedy of some kind looms…
….“How are things out there?” the old police chief asked. “What’s happening over in the provinces?” ….The provinces – this was another thing Nelson had come to understand. No matter where you went, no matter how far you traveled into the far-flung countryside, the provinces were always further out. It was impossible to arrive there. Not here – never here – always just down the road.
This is going to be rather a frustrating review, for two reasons. The first is that the slow revelation of the story and the mysteries within it are what lead the reader to want to keep turning the pages, and so it would be entirely unfair to reveal any more of the plot than I already have. The South American country is probably Peru, although it’s never named. Alarcón himself is Peruvian by birth, although he has lived in America since early childhood. However, he seems to maintain strong links to his Peruvian heritage, and the style of the book feels to me far closer to the Latin American tradition than to mainstream US American fiction. The main action of the book, the revival tour, takes place in 2001 and the civil war seems to have ended a dozen or so years earlier, so Nelson lived through it, but as a very young child. Henry and Patalarga, however, were men at the time, and the political aspects of their play marked them as dissidents. So although the book doesn’t take us deeply into the reasons behind the war, its after-effects hover over the present day, so that we see the nation and its people damaged and scarred and still in the process of anxious healing.
They were mostly inured to the austere beauty of the landscape by then; it was right in front of them, so commonplace and overwhelming they could no longer see it. In Nelson’s journals his descriptions of the highland terrain are hampered by his own maddening ignorance, that of a lifelong city dweller who has no idea what he’s looking at: mountains are described with simplistic variations of “large”, “medium”, or “small”, as if he were ordering a soda from a fast food restaurant.
The second reason for the difficulty in reviewing is that I’d love to be able to tell you what the book is about, but frankly I’m not at all sure that I know! Other than the effects of civil war, the strongest theme seems to be of identity, and Alarcón plays with this brilliantly in different ways throughout the book. From Nelson’s longing to be American, through the obvious metaphor of plays and acting, to questions of family, friendship and love, Alarcón seems to be looking at the formation of identity at the personal level. It’s partly a coming-of-age novel, and we see how Nelson is influenced by experience and by the people he becomes close to in his formative years. But we also see the more political side of identity – how in changing political circumstances people are identified by their convictions or their allegiances. Yesterday’s dissident is today’s patriot, and vice versa. Fame is illusory and dependent on circumstance. The best, albeit unsatisfactory, way I can think to sum it up is that we see the formation of individual identity mirroring society’s fracturing and reformation as a result of war.
….They ran through it again and again one afternoon, and even set up mirrors so Henry could see Nelson’s reaction. Three, four, five times, he kicked poor Patalarga, all the while locking eyes with Nelson. ….“Remember, I’m not kicking him, I’m kicking you!” Henry shouted. ….On the sixth run-through, he missed Patalarga’s hands, and nearly took off the servant’s head. Patalarga threw himself out of harm’s way just in time. Everyone stopped. The theatre was silent. Patalarga was splayed out on the stage, breathing hard. ….“Okay,” he said, “that’s enough.” ….Henry had gone pale. He apologised and helped Patalarga to his feet, almost falling down himself in the process. “I didn’t mean to, I…” ….“It’s all right,” Patalarga said. ….But Nelson couldn’t help thinking: if he’s kicking Alejo the whole time, why isn’t he apologising to me? ….For a moment the three of them stood, observing their reflections in the mirror, not quite sure what had just happened. Henry looked as if he might be sick; Patalarga, like a man who’d been kicked in the chest five times; Nelson, like a heartbroken child. ….“Are you all right?” Henry said toward the mirror. ….It was unclear whom he was asking.
However, although I found it thought-provoking, I must immediately dispel the idea that is a grim or difficult read. It is written lightly, beautifully indeed, and has humour and warmth all through. There is a love story at the heart of it, and not one you’d expect at all. And it is full of mystery – who is the narrator? Why is he telling Nelson’s story? What is the looming tragedy that is foreshadowed again and again as the narrator takes us close to the truth and then veers away again? It’s wonderfully done, and makes what could have been a heavy read into a page-turner, and when the ending came I found it surprising and satisfying, and it left me with my thoughts even more provoked. Is the message perhaps that our stories are an integral part of our identities, and that to tell another’s story is a form of theft? I don’t know. I don’t know. But I loved it, every single word. I do hope this frustrating review might have tempted you to read it. And if you already have, please tell me what you think it was about!
When Sheba Hart joins the staff of St George’s school, history teacher Barbara Covett finds herself fascinated by the younger woman – a fascination that borders on obsession. Sheba, we soon discover, is no stranger to obsession herself, only her obsession is more dangerous. She has developed a sexual passion for one of her pupils, 15-year-old Steven Connolly. Barbara tells us the story – her version of it, at least – so we learn right from the beginning that Sheba’s affair has been discovered…
This is an intensely readable book, short and taut, and with a wonderful narrator in Barbara who is really the star of the show even though it’s Sheba’s story she’s ostensibly telling. In the early stages she tells us about the life of an inner-city school in a not particularly salubrious area of London, and the picture she paints is insightful and feels authentic, and is full of humour. It’s a kind of battle-ground – teachers vs. pupils, and also teachers vs. management. Barbara is nearing the end of her career and any idealism she may once have had is long gone – by her own account she is competent, but cynical, with low expectations of what any teacher can hope to achieve beyond maintaining discipline and getting through the day.
Sheba is the opposite. Although approaching middle-age this is her first job as a pottery teacher and she still believes she will be able to mould young minds to share her passion for art. She receives a rude awakening when her teenage pupils scent the weakness that comes with inexperience and set out to torment her. This provides an opening for Barbara to insert herself into Sheba’s life as a kind of wise mentor. But it also leaves Sheba vulnerable to the one pupil who shows a mild interest in art, and a much stronger interest in Sheba herself – Steven Connolly. As Sheba becomes ever more embroiled in this inappropriate relationship, Barbara becomes her only confidante.
I enjoyed Barbara’s twisted character very much. A single woman living alone with her cat (hmm… who does that remind me of? 👵😼), she is lonely and we gradually learn that she seems to have great talent for alienating friends who then become enemies. Is she a closeted lesbian? Perhaps. But if she is, it’s not clear whether she’s aware of it. Her obsession with Sheba borders on the sexual, and she certainly seems jealous of both Sheba’s husband and her youthful lover. But her own account is that she is simply looking for a friend. Barbara’s idea of friendship is extreme, however – she resents all other claims on Sheba’s time, and we see her attempt to manipulate herself into a position where she is the one person Sheba depends on. If Barbara wasn’t such an awful person, it would be easy to feel sorry for her. But I didn’t!
Book 17 of 20
I have to admit I didn’t find the rest of the characters quite as believable. The main problem was that I simply couldn’t see what would possibly have attracted attractive Sheba to this rather uncouth teenager. He doesn’t sound like a physical hunk, and he’s certainly not a smooth-talking flatterer. Is it simply that he shows his interest in her? But if Sheba is as attractive as Barbara leads us to believe she must be used to male flattery, and if she wanted an affair she could surely have found someone with more going for him than poor Steven! (Yes, I know these things happen in real life, but this one didn’t convince me.) Putting my disbelief to one side, however, it’s a wonderful depiction of self-delusion as Sheba convinces herself and tries to convince Barbara that this is more than sex – it’s love. Barbara’s cynicism on that point is equal to my own!
Sheba’s family are rather stock characters – the unsuspecting husband with a not-unchequered past of his own; the surly teenage daughter going off the rails; the son with Downs Syndrome who needs a lot of love and attention; the disapproving mother who feels her daughter has under-achieved in life. They exist, mostly, simply for the reader to feel that Sheba is betraying them – somehow her sin wouldn’t have seemed quite so sinful had she been free of family ties.
And on the subject of sin, that’s the book’s other deliciously twisted strength. I wonder if anyone would have the courage now to write a book suggesting that the boy was as manipulative as the woman? Of course we only see Steven through Barbara’s unreliable eyes, but it does seem as if he merely wants a bit of sexual experience with a “hot” teacher – there’s little of the victim about him. He’s a disgusting little oik, to be honest – or is he? Do I think that because Barbara thinks it? Is he really a male Lolita, preyed on by a paedophile? The law would certainly say so. Heller uses Barbara cleverly to show us only one side of the story – Barbara’s. This makes it an ambiguous read. Why really did Sheba become obsessed? What impact did it all have on Steven? By not telling us, Heller avoids preachiness and leaves each reader to make her own moral judgements.
A rather lighter read than the subject matter suggests, I’m not sure there’s really much profundity here or much depth of insight into what brings these situations about. However, the wonderful characterisation of Barbara carries it, and while perhaps not quite as thought-provoking as it might have been, I certainly enjoyed listening to it, especially since the audiobook narrator, Jilly Bond, did an excellent job of bringing Barbara’s voice to life.
It’s 1940 and elderly John Howard is feeling useless because no one wants his service in the war effort. His son has been killed in the Battle of Heligoland Bight and his daughter now lives in the US with her husband. So feeling a little lost he decides to take a holiday in France (in the middle of a war, as you do). Once there, he learns that the German Blitzkrieg has begun and it looks like France will soon fall. He realises he has to head home while he still can. An English couple at his hotel can’t leave for England straight away and beg him to take their two young children with him. Howard is hesitant – he may have been a father but he’s never had to look after young children by himself. However, he agrees and they set off. But the German invasion is happening faster than he expected and soon the transport system of the country collapses. Howard must make his way as best he can, and as he goes he finds himself collecting other children of various nationalities to take to safety.
On the whole I quite enjoyed this gentle, heart-warming story, but not nearly as much as the other Shute novels I’ve read. Published in 1942, it must have been written during the early days of the war, when France had capitulated and Britain was standing alone against the mighty Nazi war machine; and is clearly directed at those people in Britain and America who were at home worrying, while Europe raged and British sons and grandsons were already in the Forces, fighting in several arenas and preparing for the day when they would be strong enough to liberate France and drive the Nazis back. It is designed to show the innate goodness, generosity and courage of the Brits, as opposed to the nasty Germans and the cowardly French, and our expectations that the Americans, if they would not fight with us, would at least provide sanctuary for refugees. It’s not quite propaganda, but it comes close, as much contemporaneous wartime fiction did.
Book 5 of 20
Some of the attitudes irritated me. That it was considered best to get English children back to England makes perfect sense, and yes, I could even see that some French parents might have wished to send their children to Britain or America if they could. But when Howard started randomly picking up children who had been separated from their families and deciding that they too should be sent to America rather than trying to find their relatives or leaving them with local authorities, it seemed high-handed in the extreme. I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to these little children after the war – would they ever be reunited with their families? And I imagined grandparents discovering their son or daughter was dead and their grandchildren had mysteriously vanished for ever without a word or sign. The children themselves, those who had been orphaned, seemed remarkably easily comforted by the idea that they’d be going to the utopian Land of the Free – what’s a dead parent or two in comparison with the chance to learn English and play baseball? I think it was when the Nazi wanted Howard (his enemy, remember) to take his child too that I felt Shute had pushed it too far.
This has been more critical than I initially intended. It is quite a sweet story, a bit slow and rather repetitive, but quite cosy, if such a thing can be said about a story set in a country occupied by the Nazis. But as I thought about it to write my review I realised I had real reservations about the underlying messages in it (confirming my general view that thinking is a Bad Thing and should be avoided at all costs). Understandable, of course, given the time of writing, since clearly the readership of the time would have wanted the British and Americans to be portrayed as the good guys (which in that particular war we largely were, at least in Europe), even to the point of suggesting some kind of innate superiority. But I have to say that reading it with modern eyes, I found it a little too sycophantic towards our American cousins and a little too self-congratulatory about our own perfections as a people. In terms of tension in the storytelling, the book begins with Howard relating the story to a man in his London club, so we know from the beginning that he and the children made it to England safely. Again, I can well see that at the time the readership probably did not want to be reading books that left them tense and scared over the fate of fictional children when their real lives were already full of fear for their own children, but it does mean that there’s never any real sense of dread, even when Howard and the children meet with dangerous situations along the way. A wartime comfort read for those waiting and worrying at home, and I’m sure it would have been better appreciated by its intended readership than by cynical old me.
I listened to the audio book narrated by David Rintoul, and he did a very good job.
It’s seven years since Rose Janko went missing, and finally, following his wife’s death, her father Leon Wood wants to find her. Rose was married to Ivo Janko in an arranged match, a traditional part of her Romany Gypsy heritage. But rumour has it she ran away with a gorjio (non-Romany) not long after the birth of a son, a little boy called Christo who had inherited the mysterious disease that seems to be the curse of Janko men, leaving them weak and underdeveloped and often dying before they reach adulthood. Knowing that Gypsies would not welcome a gorjio investigating their affairs, Leon hires Ray Lovell, himself half-Gypsy on his father’s side although he was brought up gorjio style – living in a house rather than travelling. Ray soon finds that the mystery of Rose’s disappearance is stranger and darker than it first appears, and finds himself deeply involved in the Janko family’s lives.
The book is told by two different narrators – Ray, the detective, and JJ, a 14-year-old boy who is one of the Jankos. Ray is somewhat in the tradition of noir gumshoe narrators – world-weary and with his own sorrows to bear. However, oddly I found Ray too well-developed to stay in that box – he is given more of a background than noir detectives usually are, and one feels his world-weariness is probably a temporary state brought on by his recent marital break-up. His position as the son of a Gypsy gives him the entrée to the Jankos’ world, but his gorjio upbringing puts him firmly on the margins – not fully accepted.
JJ is also on the margins for different reasons. Brought up in the world of travellers, he is nevertheless constrained by law to go to school, where he learns how different his lifestyle is to kids living in houses, but also knows that they’re more alike than otherwise – sharing tastes in music, food, films, etc., and feeling all the same pains of adolescence. Penney doesn’t make the point overtly, but it’s clear how compulsory education impacts the Traveller communities, partly by forcing them to remain static during school terms, and partly by introducing their children at an early age to the majority culture. JJ is a bright kid, probably destined for college if he chooses, after which he will have career options that may take him far from the traditional Gypsy life. Penney handles his voice excellently, with only a very occasional blip when he uses language that makes him sound too adult or too well educated.
As Ray begins to dig into the past to find out what happened to Rose, we learn about the Jankos’ way of life and the things that are important to them. Their story is one of tragedy, with the males of the family being afflicted by a disease that has gradually killed off the younger generations. Their hesitancy towards civic authorities makes them reluctant to seek medical help, while their traditions and superstitions mean they tend to think in terms of a curse rather than an illness. Ray, straddling the divide, wants to help Christo – the last of the Janko line, and becoming more frail by the day. But we see how getting involved in “the system” presents a threat to a culture of which the state disapproves, sometimes openly, sometimes tacitly. Penney published the book in 2011 but set it in the 1980s – I was left wondering if we’re better now at offering help to marginal communities without demanding they give up their traditions and become part of the mainstream. I expect not, and to be truthful, as part of that mainstream, I’m quite ambivalent about how far we should go to accommodate different sub-cultures, especially if their traditions impinge on the health or educational opportunities of their children. (To be clear, that’s my thought – Penney is not in any way taking a polemical stance for or against Gypsy culture.)
The actual mystery is rather secondary to the more interesting examination of modern Gypsy life. This is just as well, since I felt it was fairly obvious from about halfway through what had happened. I still felt the slow way that Penney revealed it to her characters was very well done, as was her depiction of their reactions when they learned the truth, and I found it understandable that it took them longer to see that truth than the reader. There are elements in it that give it an air of unease, especially in the middle. I’m finding it hard to put my finger on exactly why that happens – I think it’s a combination of the mysterious illness and of some rather hallucinatory scenes involving Ray, which I won’t go into further for fear of spoilers.
Overall, I found this completely absorbing. It’s a long read, and I found it slow but not in the sense of dragging – more that there’s a lot packed in alongside the central mystery. I’ve seen other reviewers expressing irritation with the pace and with the final reveal which seems to have crossed many people’s credulity line. I must say I found it quite believable, because of the excellence of the characterisation and the quality of so much of the story taking place in marginal spaces, where lines of behaviour and cultural norms are blurred. There are a couple of loose ends I’d have liked to see tied off more neatly, but on the whole I found the conclusion satisfying. And I appreciated the insight Penney provided into this community, now so often lumped in with other traveller groups but still clinging to their own distinct traditions and culture, even as many of them give up the travelling life and become house-dwellers.
In 1987, Alia Quraishi was a young girl when her dad went missing. A few weeks later his body was found, and Alia was told he had drowned. Now in 2003, Alia wants to know more. What was Khalid doing in Portsmouth, far from his usual London haunts, and why did he drown? Why didn’t he turn up the last time he was due to meet her in Edgware Road tube station? As a mixed-race child brought up entirely by her white mother after Khalid’s death, Alia also finds herself wanting to know more about her Pakistani heritage. Alia’s quest to learn more about the father she barely remembers will take her both to Pakistan and back into the past, to some of the murky dealings in the world of high finance in which Khalid seems to have become involved.
This starts out excellently. It is split between Alia’s story in 2003 and Khalid’s back in the 1980s, and Khan draws both characters beautifully. She shows Alia’s position, as a mixed-race person brought up with little contact with half of her heritage, very realistically and happily undramatically. Alia has had a good education and while her academic career isn’t on as solid a footing as she would like, she’s doing fine. By taking this British woman to Pakistan, Khan shows the differences in the two cultures and in the status of women within both societies – middle-class women, in both cases – and she doesn’t set out to criticise either culture or to show one as better than the other. Instead she shows that the women are inclined to favour the culture of their upbringing, not surprisingly. Alia would find it hard to give up her British liberal attitudes, but she can see that the seemingly more restricted lifestyle of her Pakistani cousins has advantages too.
Khalid’s story is also done very well in the early part of the book. He is a croupier in Hefner’s Playboy casino in London just at the time when women were beginning to object to the idea of waitresses being made to dress as semi-naked bunnies for the titillation of male customers. (FF says: Now, of course, mothers dress their daughters in Playboy-branded clothes, while young women dress up as Playboy bunnies voluntarily and call it owning their own sexuality. Go figure where feminism went wrong – beats me. But you can be sure men still enjoy the titillation…) Rumours are also swirling that the Playboy Club and its manager, Victor Lowndes, are in trouble over dodgy financial dealings, and the club is about to have its gaming licence revoked. Khalid is himself a gambler and this has led to the breakdown of his marriage to Alia’s mum. Now he gets involved with Adnan Khashoggi and through him gets sucked into the dodgy dealings of the BCCI just before the scandal that brought the bank down.
If Hefner, Lowndes, Khashoggi and BCCI are meaningless terms to you, then you may well be lost, not to mention bored, by this book. I lived through these various scandals but to be honest didn’t even find them all that interesting at the time. And it’s here that the book lost me. From being an interesting study of character and culture, it gets bogged down in ‘80s references, and Khan’s plot, regarding the death of Khalid, isn’t strong enough to fight its way through. The real problem, I felt, is that people who remember these scandals would, like me, feel that Khan added nothing to what came out in the interminable investigations that followed them; while for newcomers, I feel Khan doesn’t explain clearly enough, or interestingly enough, what they were all about or the impact that they had. She tells us that the bank’s failure would have affected investors, but doesn’t show us. Equally she tells us that feminists were making a stand about Playboy and the sexualisation of women in the workplace, but doesn’t show us. And I’m afraid the simple facts that rich men often get rich by illegal means, and that casinos and banks are great places for all kinds of dodgy stuff to go on, isn’t enough to surprise or thrill. The book needs a stronger plot with an added thriller element or, conversely, a simpler one, that concentrates on Alia’s journey of self-discovery rather than losing its way in some rather tedious ancient scandals.
I’m afraid I gave in around the 60% mark and started brutally skimming. I was interested enough to know what had happened to Khalid to stick with it, but it all seemed like a real anti-climax in the end. I enjoyed Khan’s writing style and characterisation a lot and would read something else by her, but I hope next time she’ll get a better balance between research, background and story-telling. This is a debut novel and shows real promise but, as I say so often, especially when it comes to debut authors, why wasn’t the editor giving her better guidance?
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Head of Zeus via NetGalley.
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom was once a local hero for his prowess in college basketball. Now he demonstrates kitchen gadgets in five and dime stores, and fights with Janice, his wife. After trapping him into marriage at 23, Janice has now had the temerity to get pregnant for a second time. I’m not sure Harry realises that sex and pregnancy are linked – he’s not very bright. But he loves sex. He’s not too bothered about who with or even whether the other party is willing, because after all he realises that women exist simply to service men’s sexual needs. It’s rather annoying of Janice, therefore, to actually have needs of her own, and being heavily pregnant is surely no excuse for her asserting her unreasonable demands like which show she’d like to watch on TV. So Harry leaves her, driving off (in her car) to escape his humdrum existence and taking up with another woman, leaving Janice pregnant, with a toddler, no money and no transport. He’s a charmer, all right, our Harry!
I hated Harry, but not as much as I grew to hate Updike. I nearly abandoned the book at 44%, even going so far as to write my “review”. But then I decided in a fit of masochism that I must finish it. Sadly it continued to disgust me all the way through, and I found nothing to change my opinion. So rather than waste more of my time on it by writing another review, here’s my 44% rant…
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Book 84 of 90
Going at it like rabbits…
Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom thinks about sex. That’s it – that’s the blurb. Indeed, it could also be the review, but I’d find that deeply unsatisfying (and, oh dear, there is nothing worse in this life, according to the white, male, middle-aged, mid-twentieth-century American writer than feeling unsatisfied) because this book deserves so much more. So much more trashing, that is.
Dear Lord, do these men think they invented sex? How do they think they arrived in this world? Did their mothers teach them to be potty-mouthed from birth? Or is it that they know the very best way to win a Pulitzer is to endlessly describe various sexual acts and fantasies? It’s like reading the secret diary of a 14-year-old child whose parents forgot to turn on the parental controls on the TV…
Boy, there wasn’t any fancy business then, you didn’t even need to take off your clothes, just a little rubbing through the cloth, your mouths tasting of the onion on the hamburgers you’d just had at the diner and the car heater ticking as it cooled, through all the cloth, everything, off they’d go. They couldn’t have felt much it must have been just the idea of you. All their ideas. Sometimes just French kissing not that she ever really got with that, sloppy tongues and nobody can breathe, but all of a sudden you knew from the way their lips went hard and opened and then eased shut and away that it was over.
(The grammatical horrors are Updike’s – not mine. The women all think in this unstructured, childish, stream-of-consciousness style. The men all think in well-formed sentences. Go figure.)
In this world of male sex fantasies, women are either whores or frigid, fat or skinny, mean or cheap, and they’re all “dumb”. They all want money from their men and are willing to sell sex to get it, they all get pregnant, they all turn to drink. Mind you, in a world where all the men are Rabbits who can blame them? They love to be mastered – there’s no such thing as sexual assault, or even rape, in this world because secretly the women are, to coin a phrase, gagging for it. Let’s take the example of Rabbit’s rough wooing of Ruth, the other woman. She would like to wear a diaphragm but Rabbit doesn’t like that so he refuses to let her. She goes to the loo, and he insists on watching her to ensure she doesn’t sneakily protect herself from pregnancy. Naturally, he refuses to wear a condom. He objects to Ruth’s make-up, so he gets a facecloth…
When he puts the rough cloth to her face, it goes tense and writhes with a resistance like Nelson’s [Rabbit’s abandoned two-year-old son], and he counters it with a father’s practised method. He sweeps her fore-head, pinches her nostrils, abrades her cheeks and, finally, while her whole body is squirming in protest, scrubs her lips, her words shattered and smothered.
Now, the problem with this is not that Updike describes this episode of male physical domination/assault – had he left it at that one could have condemned Rabbit, sympathised with Ruth, and moved on. After all, Updike is not trying to make Rabbit likeable – quite the reverse. No, the problem is that Ruth then has the best climax of her life and falls in love with Rabbit. That, dear white, male, middle-aged, mid-twentieth-century American writers, is why modern women call you vile misogynists and chuck your vile misogynistic books at the wall.
According to wikipedia there are other themes in the book, namely, religion, identity, vision of America and transience. I beg to disagree. It’s about sex. And not even sexy sex. Abandoned at 44% – I prefer my fantasies to Updike’s.
PS I should perhaps also mention it’s extraordinarily dull and not very well written, with endless, pointless, unevocative descriptions of everything.
* * * * *
So there you have it – an early example of the whiny, me-me-me, self-obsessed, sex-obsessed, narcissistic bilge that too often passes for literature in these end times for Western culture. With added misogyny…
A psychopathic teenager walks into his school and kills seven of his fellow students. His mother responds by making it all about her. She then decides to bore her absent husband to death (assuming he isn’t already dead – I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps he’d killed himself and she was communing with his memory) by writing him endless letters, moaning on for 2000 pages (judged by feeling, rather than counting) about how she never really liked kids anyway, especially not her own. I don’t know if her husband, dead or alive, continued to read all the letters but if I’d been him I’d have moved and not left a forwarding address. Happily I had the easier option of abandoning the book at the 35% mark and deleting it in a marked manner from my Kindle.
I have no idea if one is supposed to sympathise with Eva, the mother, but I didn’t. I didn’t sympathise with Kevin either. Or with Franklin, the dad. In the nurture v nature debate, I tend to think that sometimes it’s nurture and sometimes it’s nature, and the worst cases are usually where it’s both. In the what’s gone wrong with American society that makes young men behave like Kevin debate, it seems blindingly obvious that the answer is that young men can get hold of automatic assault weapons and, therefore, that school shootings would be easily preventable by the simple measure of banning guns. (Yes, I know that for some reason Shriver made him use a bow and arrow, and I can only assume this is because she too knows the answer to the real-life problem is blindingly obvious, so wanted to try to avoid people making that point. Too bad.) In the should we/shouldn’t we have a child debate, I have no sympathy whatsoever for any adult, educated woman living in a society where contraception is readily available, who knows she doesn’t like children but decides to have one anyway. Eva is supposedly an intelligent, educated feminist living in late 20th century America – so what’s her problem? Why would she decide to have a baby when what she really wanted was frequent flyer miles? I didn’t believe in her – she failed at the first hurdle, which was to convince me of her motivation.
So, having made this stupid decision, does she decide to make the best of it? Of course not. She whines and whines in the modern, narcissistic, me-me-me way, about how awful her privileged little middle-class life (complete with nannies for the unspeakable child) is and how her son is some kind of alien parasite, feeding on her, body and soul. Pah! I wondered why, when fictional Kevin had the fictional weapon in his hand, he didn’t decide to do the world a favour and rid us of fictional Eva before she became an avid letter-writer. Had I been the author, Eva would have been the first and only victim, and I would then have had the jury acquit Kevin on the grounds of justifiable homicide. It would have been a shorter book but, I feel, a more satisfying one.
Oh, yes, before I finish, don’t let me forget to mention that it’s wildly verbose, torturously overlong and unforgivably, soul-crushingly dull.
Book 12 of 12
This was The People’s Choice for December and I truly expected to love it, so you are not in any way responsible for my allergic reaction, People! Thank you for getting this one off my TBR. 😉
This is the tale of star-crossed lovers in Cyprus at the time of the short but brutal civil war in 1974, which left the island partitioned under the supervision of UN peacekeepers. Defne is Turkish, Kostas is Greek. When the book begins, sometime in the late 2010s in London, we learn that they came to London, married and had a daughter, Ada, who is now sixteen. Defne is recently dead and Kostas and Ada are trying to come to terms with their loss. Meantime (I kid you not) the fig tree in their garden tells us the story of Kostas’ and Defne’s youthful love affair and how it led to this point, along with lots of Cypriot history and tales of the birds and insects that inhabit the island. The tree also treats us to some deep philosophical thinking and recounts conversations it has had with various creatures that have visited it over the years.
* * * * *
A butterfly is telling a tree what it read on a gravestone. The tree muses…
“… in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces”
FF muses: in real life, butterflies don’t read or talk to trees, and trees don’t think big philosophical thoughts and then write them in a book. When you’re trying to persuade your reader to believe in talking butterflies, best to leave real life out of the picture.
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I loved Shafak’s last book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, and so was highly anticipating this one. Unfortunately I found it hard to believe this was written by the same person. The lightness of touch and beauty of language is all gone – in its place is a potted history of the Cypriot civil war and the atrocities carried out by both sides, told in such a banal fashion that it is about as emotional as reading the entry on the war in wikipedia. The device of having talking trees, birds and insects adds nothing – there’s no sense of magic or mysticism about it. Shafak merely uses them to dump information on the reader, mostly with the clear intent of inducing tears. If the atrocities aren’t enough to do it, throw in some cruelty to songbirds, sad stories about dead children, homophobic persecution, maybe an abortion, or how about a suicide. It’s all so obviously manipulative it entirely failed to produce the intended effect on this hard-hearted reader.
* * * * *
As my earlier quote, I think, shows clearly, Shafak is unaware of her own irony. As well as juxtaposing real life with talking trees, she has one of her characters actually say, after chapter upon chapter of trying to make the reader sob…
If you weep for all the sorrows in this world, in the end you will have no eyes.
* * * * *
What can I say about the central story? Well, I suppose I can say that we’ve all read the star-crossed lovers story so often that an author would have to do it exceptionally well to make it feel anything other than trite and stale. Sadly Shafak brings nothing new to the table – again, the hackneyed story is merely a vehicle for her to talk about the war. I’m not in any way trying to minimise the horror of civil war in general or the Cypriot experience in particular. But if one wants to write a history book then one should write a history book. If, however, one wants to write fiction set in a war, then something more is needed than an overused trope for a plot and a bunch of talking insects. There is a ton of stuff too about the natural world – mosquitoes and malaria, bird migrations, and endless tree lore, or maybe folklore would be a more accurate word – which all seemed utterly extraneous. I began to skip all the parts narrated by the tree about halfway through and missed nothing relevant to the plot. And then in the end Shafak gives us a pseudo-mystical conclusion right up there in the Harold Fry class of saccharin sickliness.
I’m trying hard to think of any positives to put against all these negatives, but I’m failing, I’m afraid. The best I can say is that plenty of people seem to be loving this – however, I’m not one of them. One of the most disappointing reads of the year for me.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking via NetGalley.
Since Anne Marie’s husband Cal walked out on her a couple of years ago, she’s been living a kind of aimless existence, working in a bar, sharing an apartment with a group of women she doesn’t really think of as friends, having one night stands just for a brief feeling of connection. So when Cal turns up at her door out of the blue, it throws her into a state of confusion, and before she has a chance to think, they both get involved in an incident that ends up with them on the run together, heading off down the highway in a beat-up old car with no particular destination in mind. Now that her old life is over, Anne Marie will have to decide what her future will be, and whether Cal should have any role in it…
This is well written and the picture of two drifting people coming together again, perhaps briefly, perhaps to renew their old relationship, is very well painted. However, that’s all there is to it, and for me it felt too slight a story to hang a novel around, even although it is very short. The being on the run aspect feels extraneous since there’s no real sense of pursuit or danger. Basically they drive for days on end, while Anne Marie as our narrator gradually reveals snippets of her past to the reader so that we come to understand her ambivalence about Cal and about love in general. Along the way, they meet an array of characters, each for the briefest of moments during which what we learn each time is that they’re all alone and all lonely.
It feels more like a very good character sketch of Anne Marie than a novel. I found her believable and well drawn, but I kept waiting for something more and it never arrived. It seemed to me to be drawing from two classic strands of American culture – the road trip as metaphor for self discovery novel, such as Rabbit, Run or On the Road, and the more noirish tradition of people on the run, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Postman Always Rings Twice, even Thelma and Louise. In other words, it has been done before and frankly doesn’t bring enough new to the table to justify doing it again. Its brevity also means that we remain inside Anne Marie’s head entirely, so that I felt it missed the opportunity to reflect on the America through which they drive. It seemed odd in a road-trip novel that the author chose to give her places fictional names – I couldn’t help my cynicism from wondering if this was merely so that she wouldn’t have to research actual places, though perhaps she wanted to keep the reader’s focus totally on Anne Marie’s dilemma without distractions.
It’s a debut novel and I feel shows that McFarlane has a lot of potential in terms of creation of atmosphere and building complex and credible characters. However, in order to be fulfilled, that potential requires a stronger story with more depth. I look forward to seeing how she develops in her future career.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.
Meggie has come to live in London from her home in South Africa, largely to get away from her hypercritical mother. She has an office job which she finds dull, and a boyfriend, Graham, whom she loves, but she’s reluctant to settle for a long-term relationship – she feels as if she wants something more from life than marriage and children, but she isn’t sure what. Then one day Sabine comes to work in the office and Meggie finds herself immediately fascinated by this beautiful, enigmatic young woman. They form a tentative friendship, or so it seems to Meggie, and when Sabine decides to move to the nightshift, Meggie follows. Years later, she is looking back at this period of her life in the dying days of the last millennium, and telling the story of her obsession with Sabine…
Not much more than novella length, this short novel is a wonderfully believable depiction of a young woman who’s not yet sure who she is, nor of how to go about finding out. Meggie is undoubtedly obsessed with Sabine, but in a sense Sabine is merely the catalyst who forces Meggie to realise her dissatisfaction with her boringly normal life. Meggie can’t decide whether she wants to be Sabine’s lover – she’s never thought of herself as lesbian before, but she finds Sabine exciting. Or perhaps it’s that she wants to be Sabine – to be the woman whom other people see as exotic, mysterious and slightly dangerous. As she struggles to make sense of her own feelings and desires, Meggie experiments more and more with drink, drugs and casual sex, and finds herself taking risks that the old Meggie wouldn’t have considered.
This is Ladner’s début novel, and she has real talent. Her depiction is spot-on of club-going, hard-drinking, drug-fuelled youth from around the globe congregating in London in the late ’90s, forming friendships that have an immediate intimacy but no bedrock – young people who come to party, and party hard, far from the families who might provide a brake on the extremes of their behaviour, and find themselves in a city where everything is possible, or maybe nothing. Meggie’s quest to work out her sexuality, to make herself into someone new with her own place and identity in this shifting, impermanent community is beautifully done – an extreme example, admittedly, but recognisable as a part of life we all go through to a degree as we move into adulthood. In Meggie’s case, the whole thing is given a kind of hallucinatory edge, not only because of the drink and drugs, but because of the nocturnal life she is leading and the insomnia this brings on.
The writing is great and, apart from a brief dip about a third of the way through when it gets a little bogged down in repetition, the pace flows well. It becomes very dark towards the end, both harrowing and sad, but again both aspects are handled well and sensitively – Ladner avoids the sensationalism that could easily have made this feel too unpleasantly voyeuristic. Although it’s billed as being about obsession and desire, and certainly both those things are present, it’s really more of a dark coming-of-age tale, and an in-depth character study of Meggie written in her own words, with all the possible unreliability that entails. The ending shows Ladner’s skill at its best – it seems as if all the questions are answered and yet the feeling I am left with is of an enigma unsolved.
Dark and disturbing, it is nonetheless full of humanity and sympathy for human frailty. An excellent début – I recommend it highly and am keen to see where Ladner takes us next.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Picador via NetGalley.
Our unnamed narrator, a writer of academic literary criticism, is going through a mid-life crisis. He is seemingly happily married and with a little child, but he’s finding it hard to write. So when he is offered a residency at the Deuter Institute in Berlin, he jumps at the chance to spend a few months working in luxurious surroundings, even though his wife is not thrilled at him leaving her to cope alone. But when he gets to the Institute, he discovers that they have odd and strict rules on how their visitors should work and associate, and he finds himself even less able to write than before. And so begins his existential crisis, tied in with the work he is, or isn’t, doing on the ‘lyric I’ as exemplified in the work of Heinrich von Kleist, a poet of the German Romantic school…
My reviews are entirely subjective and are rarely meant to be a quality judgement. The quality of this book may be wonderful if you happen to know anything, and care, about the philosophies underpinning German Romanticism. I don’t, and I don’t. As a result, I found some of this incomprehensible, and most of it tedious.
Kunzru uses his narrator’s philosophical musings and descent into madness to consider the current rise of the alt-right and to make comparisons to the totalitarian regimes of both left and right in the mid-twentieth century. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this would have been more interesting if the book had come out in the pre-Trump era, as a warning – not unlike Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, which met with harrumphs of disbelief from some quarters on its publication in 2013, particularly from Americans who then believed their democracy and fundamental freedoms were so strong they could not be overturned. The timing of this one, as the Trump era ends, or at least pauses, felt to me as if it had rather missed the bus. Most of us have been angsting for years over the question of whether America would pull back from the brink of fascism before it was too late, and so the questions raised in the book felt somewhat stale, as if looking ahead to a future that is already receding into the past (hopefully).
So, unfortunately, the combination of lots of self-indulgent lit-crit which didn’t interest me, combined with political questions which I feel have been done and done again in recent years, meant that I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much as I have enjoyed Kunzru’s previous books. I hesitate to use the word pretentious, because perhaps it only feels pretentious to me because it’s so heavily immersed in a subject about which I am profoundly (and yet happily) ignorant. I’m sure people who are interested in German Romantic poetry and philosophy will have a different reaction. My opinion is, therefore, even more subjective than usual – the book didn’t work for me, but may work for you.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
Serenata has always been a fitness freak, no day complete without its allocated hours of exercises and running. So much so that, now she has reached sixty, her knees have given up the unequal struggle and forced her to learn to take things easy. Still trying to come to terms with this, she finds it rather cruel and insensitive when her husband Remington decides that, after a lifetime of sedentary laziness, he will run a marathon. Besides, she hates the new culture of fitness sweeping the country – when she started her punishing regime all those years ago, she was unusual, and that was a large part of the charm. Now when she’s out cycling it seems half the world is there alongside her, and for her running was always something you did on your own to get fit, not in crowds for pleasure. Plus, is there just a little jealousy in there? Serenata has never run a marathon… not that she wanted to, of course, but still. She is honest enough to admit to herself that she thoroughly resents Remington’s new-found enthusiasm…
This is my first Shriver so I don’t know how it compares to her other books. This one is written with a great deal of humour from the perspective of a grumpy older woman struggling to take modern attitudes seriously and derisive of the hubristic belief of the young that they have somehow invented anti-racism and feminism and know all the answers. Anyone who reads my tweets or reviews may not be too surprised to learn that this resonated strongly with me! Shriver mercilessly mocks the worst of political correctness and the ridiculous extremes of identity politics which have made us wary even of referring to ourselves as men or women for fear that that will offend someone somewhere somehow, or of inadvertently using a term that was considered not just acceptable but progressive five years ago but is now apparently an indication of some hideously unforgivable Neanderthal attitude. Poor Serenata gets very tired of people assuming that because she’s white, middle-class, middle-aged and straight, that that automatically must mean she’s racist, homophobic and downright stupid. Oh, Serenata, I feel your pain!
Remington, meantime, is going through a mid-life crisis, complete with an infatuation with another woman, his fitness coach. Serenata realises that her open mockery of his marathon ambition is driving a wedge into their long and happy marriage, so tries her best to show him support. Shriver is very funny about the whole fitness industry, where one marathon is no longer enough – people have to run at least four, consecutively, in a desert, if they want respect these days. To her horror, Remington is not satisfied by his marathon. Instead he now decides he wants to do the Mettleman Triathlon – a gruelling all-day race involving cycling, swimming and running. Serenata feels this may literally kill him, but her earlier ridicule means Remington puts her warnings down to mere petulance. Will he survive? Even if he does, will their marriage survive? Does Serenata even want it to?
I don’t know how young people will react to this – it may be making too much fun of subjects they erroneously think they own. But as someone roughly the same age as Serenata, I found it sharp and perceptive, and hilarious. I’m sure when I was young I was just as convinced my elders were all idiots, but now that I’m old I can see that the young have their fair share of idiocy too, and I look forward gleefully to the day when the youth of today are old (as they will be, sooner than they think) and are being told by their grandchildren’s generation that they failed in everything and know nothing about anything. Serenata is an unlikely heroine, but I’m sure she speaks for many of us who have spent a lifetime fighting all the ’isms only to find ourselves derided, dismissed, patronised or ignored by those who benefit every day from our achievements – even for many who would never admit it for fear of not seeming groovy/cool/woke/insert-latest-self-congratulatory-buzzword-here.
So, highly recommended for grumpy older women everywhere, and please feel free to call me Serenata from now on… *smiles sweetly*
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins, via NetGalley.
Following his father’s death, Patrick Munchen finds a bundle of letters among his papers, from a girl he knew in Lyme Regis while he was stationed there in advance of the Normandy landings. His curiosity aroused, Patrick sets out to find if the woman is still alive – a journey that will take him from his home in California first to England and then to Ireland, and will lead him to reassess his own life as he discovers more about his father’s.
My usual disclaimer – Matt Geyer has been an online friend of mine for some years now, but as always I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with him bias my opinion or this review. Fortunately I loved the book, so it wasn’t too difficult!
Geyer writes beautifully and from the heart. There is a distinctively American style to his prose – what I think of as West Coast writing, though I’m no expert. It’s a kind of specific vocabulary that in itself creates a sense, not perhaps so much of place, but of a culture and, dare I say it, a class – educated, liberal, moderate, introspective, male (though that may simply be that my limited reading of American fiction hasn’t covered women writing from the same cultural perspective). While I often find this language style more “foreign” to my British ears than many other American regional variations, I find the attitudes far more in tune with the overarching culture of western Europe and that always makes it easier for me to empathise with the characters.
The book is heavily character-focused, but the plot is strong enough to carry it. On arriving in Lyme Regis, Patrick finds that the letter-writer, Molly Bowditch, no longer lives there but he discovers a few people old enough to remember war-time and the American troops who mingled with the locals while they waited for the order to invade Europe. Later, he follows Molly’s trail to Ireland – to a small island off the Ring of Kerry looking out over the vast Atlantic towards America. As he becomes more involved with piecing together his father’s past, his own present is in flux. His beloved daughter grown and off at college, his career as a journalist in freefall as technology changes the face of the profession, his marriage, once solid, now seems hollow, purposeless. He’s not consciously searching for a new meaning to his life, but perhaps understanding his father will help him to understand himself.
Geyer’s depictions of modern and wartime Lyme Regis are excellent – it’s easy to see the amount of research that has gone into the book, but he uses it lightly to convey an impression that I found believable and authentic in both time periods. Equally so with the troops stationed there, socialising within the community and gradually building connections that both sides knew would be temporary. He shows us these men, knowing that they were about to be thrown into the hell of war, living through this hiatus with a mixture of courage, comradeship and fear. And I found the relationship that grew up between Patrick’s father and Molly just as believable – a kind of reaching for human contact at a time when the future was uncertain and fragile.
When the story moves to Ireland, the setting is just as authentic. Geyer avoids the pitfalls of “Oirishness” – a trap too many American (and other) authors fall into of making Ireland seem quaint and twee and a little fey, populated by characters so eccentric one has to wonder if they’re half-leprechaun. Geyer’s Ireland is the real modern country of his time setting of 2005: revolutionised economically as the Celtic Tiger, advanced technologically and culturally, highly educated. This really shouldn’t be refreshing, but it is – hugely! He catches the distinctive Irish speech patterns and rhythms well but subtly, never over-playing his hand. And his descriptive writing gives a real sense of the lovely ruggedness of the landscape, together with a feel for the harder, poorer past from which Ireland had so recently emerged.
In essence, this is a quiet, reflective book concentrating on one man’s journey, physically across the world, and emotionally from his past towards his future. But we also come to know and care about the people he knows and cares about. There are no villains here, nor heroes – just flawed humans doing their best to understand themselves and each other and make connections as they navigate their lives. Excellent characterisation, three distinct and well-drawn settings, lovely writing and an interesting story – great stuff!
One morning, Jia Jia finds her husband dead in the bathtub in an odd position that leaves it unclear as to whether his death was accidental or suicide. Beside him is a piece of paper on which he has drawn a strange picture of a fish with a man’s head. As she tries to come to terms with the sudden change to her life and her expected future, Jia Jia finds herself thinking more and more about this fish-man, and decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to find out its significance. Gradually she finds herself drifting into a place where the lines between reality and dreams become blurred…
This is an oddly compelling novel, beautifully written in a rather understated way. Jia Jia’s dream water world, where the fish-man exists, takes us into magical realist territory – never my favourite place – but again this is somewhat underplayed so that it never begins to feel too much like fantasy. While the “magical” aspects of it are presented as real, they can also be easily read as a metaphor for depression or despair, and the question is whether Jia Jia will become lost in this other world or find her way back to seeing a possible future for herself in this one. The water world is intriguingly ambiguous as a place that is both frightening and yet oddly comforting, where the deeper one goes the less there is, until nothingness becomes the main feature.
I’m not sure I fully got all the nuances of the water world metaphor – my mind is too resolutely rational to easily sink into fantastical symbolism. I wondered whether it arises from Chinese or Tibetan superstition or is wholly a creation of the author, and don’t know the answer to that. But it’s a tribute to how well and subtly it’s done that I was able to go along with it, and even to feel that it added to rather than detracting from the “real” story.
Jia Jia’s marriage was a rather cold one. She had never felt her husband had a passionate love for her – younger than him and beautiful, she was something of a trophy bride and suitable to be a mother for his children. On her side, he, as a settled, wealthy man, represented security, but there are signs also that she felt restricted in the marriage. She is an artist but although her husband was willing for her to continue to paint as a hobby, he did not feel it was appropriate for his wife to try to sell her work. There is a suggestion that he was emotionally controlling and that Jia Jia had reached a point where she was second guessing her own actions with a view to ensuring she met his expectations rather than her own. So his death, shocking as it is, plunges her into a state of uncertainty rather than deep grief – her secure future gone, the children she had anticipated having with him gone too. However, this new loss has taken her back to another, much greater grief – the death of her mother when she was a young girl. As she tries to discover the meaning of the fish-man, she will also learn more about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s life and death.
This is a short book, and every word counts. It has an easy flow that makes it very readable – I read it in a couple of sessions and was fully absorbed all the way through. The magical aspects are introduced so gradually that they don’t become fully apparent until around halfway through, and seem to arise very naturally from what we have come to understand of Jia Jia’s state of mind. The rather muted imagery of the water world makes it easier to accept and yet the images linger once the last page is turned. Along the way we get some insight into the position of educated women in contemporary urban China, at a kind of halfway point where they have gained some social freedom but are still often judged within the conventions of more restrictive traditional codes of behaviour. Jia Jia is beautifully complex, with the minor flaws we all have, and her emotional journey is entirely credible. I found myself fully invested in hoping she could find a new path, perhaps even a more fulfilling one.
An excellent début that has left me eager to see how An Yu develops as an author in what I expect to be a glittering future.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harville Secker.
It’s 1956, and Townrow has returned to Port Said, a place he first visited when serving in the army in WW2. This time he’s there at the request of Ethel Khoury, the English widow of an Egyptian man who had befriended Townrow on his earlier visit. Mrs Khoury believes Elie, her husband, was murdered and wants Townrow to… well, actually I have no idea what she wanted Townrow to do, so, moving swiftly on…! Anyway, Townrow is a bit of a small-time crook and his plan is to con Mrs Khoury out of the possessions the wealthy Elie left her. But on his first night in Port Said, Townrow is attacked and is left with a head injury which makes his memories confused, and then Nasser, the President of Egypt, announces he is nationalising the Suez Canal – one of the last outposts of the dying British Empire. When the British and French decide they must retaliate to keep the Canal under Western control, the situation in Port Said will soon be as confused as the thoughts in Townrow’s head, though not quite as confused as this poor reader.
At the halfway point I would happily have thrown this in the bin except for the fact that I needed to fill the Suez Canal spot on my Around the World challenge and I couldn’t find any other books for it! It redeemed itself a little in the last quarter when finally Townrow begins to live in the present rather than in his jumbled thoughts and memories. It won the first ever Booker Prize in 1969, beating Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark amongst others. I imagine that lots of people decide to read the Booker Prize winners in order, get halfway through this one, and decide not to bother…
Sifting through the general incomprehensibility of it, Newby is satirising the British imperial mindset, and examining the effect of the Suez crisis on the British psyche, I think. It’s clearly aiming at humour some of the time, and even veers towards farce occasionally, but not very successfully – it’s too messy. Although not terribly moral himself, Townrow has a profound belief in the decency of the British in their dealings with their citizens, allies and colonial dependencies. The first sign of a crack in this belief is when he is accosted at the airport by a Jew from Hungary who insists that in 1942 the British deliberately failed to warn Hungarian Jews not to board the trains that would take them to the Nazi death camps. Townrow denies this could possibly have happened (did it? I don’t know), but the question remains in his fractured mind. Then when the British bomb Cairo after the annexation of the Canal, he is shocked to the core. This is not the way the Britain in which he believes would act, apparently. (I find that strange, because of all the things we did in the Empire era, was that really the worst? Perhaps it’s a time dilation thing – to Newby it was pretty much current affairs; to me it’s part of a long history.)
The underlying suggestion, I think, is that it was the Suez Crisis that changed the British attitude from hubristic imperialist pride to the kind of breast-beating shame that followed in the second half of the twentieth century. Again he may well be right, although I’d have thought the loss of India was a bigger milestone on that journey. To me what Suez represents is the British realisation that it no longer dominated the world, politically or militarily, and that America had become the new superpower. So shame, yes, but of our weakness in the present rather than of our actions in the past. But, and I freely admit I didn’t have a clue what Newby was trying to say most of the time, that wasn’t what I felt he was suggesting. However, I’m pretty sure Townrow’s head injury, confusion and loss of faith in British decency is symbolic of what Newby saw as the effects on the national psyche of the sudden collapse of the Empire after the war.
So all very interesting and just my kind of thing. Unfortunately, the rambling confusion of Townrow’s thoughts, the complete unreliability of his memory, the constant shifting back and forwards in time, all left me grinding my teeth in frustration. It should never be quite this hard to work out what an author is trying to say. But more than that, the way Townrow’s memories keep shifting means that there’s no plot to grab onto and no characterisation to give the book any form of emotional depth. Who are these people? Every time Townrow tells us about Mrs Khoury, for example, she is different than she was the last time. His mistress, Leah, shifts about from everything between being the tragic wife of a mentally ill husband to being some kind of sadistic dominatrix, and all points in-between. I didn’t have a clue who she really was even as I turned the last page, but I’m almost positive she was symbolic of… something. Townrow himself is rather better drawn, but unfortunately is entirely unlikeable – even his partial redemption rings false. And either Townrow or Newby, perhaps both, have an unhealthy habit of referring to women as bitches or sluts, and clearly one of them at least finds the most important aspect of any woman to be her breasts. Well, it was the ‘60s, I suppose.
Overall I found this far too vague and frustrating to be enjoyable. It does become clearer at the end, which raised it slightly from the 1-star rating it was heading towards, and made me regret that Newby hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a more straightforward way throughout. He clearly had interesting things to say, but the execution doesn’t match the ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this one.
Chief Bromden has been on the mental ward for years, one of the Chronics who are never expected to recover. Everyone believes he is deaf and dumb, but his silence is a choice – a result of years of feeling that no one heard him when he spoke. His supposed deafness makes him invisible to the staff, which means that he can listen in to conversations patients aren’t meant to hear. He knows that Nurse Ratched, in charge of the ward, is part of the Combine – the all-powerful authorities who control men through psychiatry, medication and technology. Chief Bromden may be insane – or perhaps he’s too sane. As he puts it himself…
…you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.
Into the ward one day comes a new patient, Randle P McMurphy: loud, brash, crude, funny. Maybe he’s insane, or maybe he’s faking it to get away from the work farm he was in for “fighting and fucking too much”. McMurphy is soon the “bull goose loony” in the ward, a gambling man challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, and geeing the Acutes up to rebel. The Acutes are men who are being treated with a view to them one day being able to leave and resume a normal life outside. But then McMurphy discovers that most of the Acutes are there voluntarily and could leave whenever they like, whereas he has been committed, and Nurse Ratched has complete power to decide his fate. Chief Bromden watches, hoping that somehow McMurphy is big enough to beat the Combine…
First published in 1962, the book is of its time in that there’s a lot that reads like racism and misogyny today. But if you can look past this, it also has a good deal to say about the concerns of the time, many of which remain unresolved today – the treatment of mental illness, the tendency of society to suppress individuality, the emasculation felt by some men in a society that no longer values physical strength and aggression as it once did, the closeting of homosexuality, the destruction of Native American lands and traditions by the forces of capitalism (also part of Chief’s Combine). (It struck me as odd, in fact, that Kesey was so sympathetic to Native American culture while being rather blatantly racist about African Americans.)
The writing is wonderfully versatile, ranging from the profanity and sexual crudeness and humour of the men’s language, to profound insights into this small microcosm of the insane world we all live in, to the frightening imagery of the Combine delusions inside Chief’s head, to moments of beauty as Chief begins to appreciate the possibilities of life again under McMurphy’s domineering tutelage. Here describing a young dog he sees from the window of the ward at night…
Galloping from one particularly interesting hole to the next, he became so took with what was coming off – the moon up there, the night, the breeze full of smells so wild makes a young dog drunk – that he had to lie down on his back and roll. He twisted and thrashed around like a fish, back bowed and belly up, and when he got to his feet and shook himself a spray came off him in the moon like silver scales.
Book 53 of 90
The ambiguity over Chief’s sanity means that the reader has to decide whether to interpret things as he does, or to consider whether his bias is making Nurse Ratched seem crueller and McMurphy saner than they might look from a different perspective. In the film, McMurphy is very much the hero, even if a flawed one. In the book, it’s not so clear cut, and I felt Chief Bromden himself was the central character – whether Ratched or McMurphy are in the right becomes somewhat secondary to how Chief’s interpretation of their actions and motives gradually affects his own mental state. I found I was cheering on McMurphy and the patients, but a small voice in my head kept suggesting that maybe Ratched was right that McMurphy’s incitement to rebellion was damaging them as badly as McMurphy felt Ratched and the system were. For Chief, McMurphy takes on an almost Christ-like role: a man willing to sacrifice himself to free others of their sins – in this case, the sin of not fitting in to society’s expectations. I suspect that may have been what Kesey wanted the reader to feel too – he’s certainly critiquing his society ferociously. But by using the setting of a mental hospital and giving us a Chronic for our guide, he leaves open the possibility that everything we are seeing is an insane view of the world. Intentional or not – I couldn’t decide – it makes the book wonderfully thought-provoking.
I read this once before long ago when I was enthralled by the film, and found the book disappointingly different. This time round I appreciated those slight differences in emphasis – the actions and events are almost identical, but seeing them through Chief’s eyes rather than directly through our own adds a layer of ambiguity that perhaps the film lacks. A great book and a great film, but perhaps best not read and watched too closely together.
Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
Yes, there is no doubt that psychiatry was an obsession in American culture at this period, and Kesey uses it effectively to look at many aspects of his contemporary society.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
This one is always tricky. Yes, we’ve had insane narrators since Poe’s time, but this feels different – Chief’s insanity is a response to the world he lives in, and the suggestion that our society is stripping us of the ability to be individuals hence driving us mad feels urgently original.
Must be superbly written.
I felt Kesey maintained Chief’s voice and perspective brilliantly – an intelligent, sensitive man but not well-educated. The sheer variety in tones throughout the book impressed me hugely, as did its feeling of emotional truth. So, achieved.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
I’m very tempted, I must admit. While at that time all America was not mad (I say nothing about today’s America… 😉 ), here Kesey is suggesting that it is the “American experience” that is at the root of the madness of his characters – its obsessions, its inequality, its drive towards conformity at the expense of individuality and masculinity. But in the end, I don’t think it ranges quite broadly enough to claim this flag. With regret, not achieved.
* * * * * * * * *
So not The Great American Novel but, with 5 stars and 4 GAN flags, I’m delighted to declare this…
After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends, a gay couple who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first – to her, commercial surrogacy is an exploitation of poor women in countries where their rights are already limited. But she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to put her principles aside and use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.
In Thailand, Mod feels the weight of family responsibilities bearing down on her. Her mother, younger siblings and most of all her little son, Puy, all depend on the little money she can make as a street-vendor, selling chicken. Then she learns that a friend is acting as a surrogate and being paid what seems like a small fortune. For Mod, the money is an important factor, but so is her religious belief that helping others will allow her to earn merit – a kind of spiritual savings account to provide an easier passage to reincarnation. Through the story of these three women, Meg, Anna, and Mod, the reader is shown the quiet tragedy of infertility and the complex morality around the question of paid surrogacy.
I shall start by saying that I’ve known the author via the blogosphere for a long time now, and know that this book has been a real labour of love for her over the last few years. Angela has previously written three crime novels, also based in Thailand, but this is her first venture into literary fiction. As always, I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with her bias my review.
Most of the story is based in Thailand, a place Savage clearly knows extremely well. We see it from different angles, through the eyes of each of the three main characters. Savage shows it as a place of contrasts – rapidly modernising both physically and socially, but still with many people living in real poverty and holding to the old traditions. I loved the way she managed to be observational without being judgemental, and the insights she gave into the traditional culture and beliefs of the Thai people.
She brings this same balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. The reader is then left with the task of using her own judgement on the matter.
It would have been so easy, and so lazy, to portray Mod as simply the poor third-world victim of first-world greed, but Mod is drawn with far more complexity than that, as is Meg. Mod is indeed treated as a commodity by the surrogacy agency, but her decisions are her own at every step of the way, and she sees this as a way to help others while also improving life for her own family. Savage does however show that in some cases the surrogates may have been pushed into it, by husbands or family, which obviously opens up an entirely different moral equation.
The embryo in this case is not biologically related to Mod or Meg; the eggs are from another woman, although the sperm is Nate’s own. This raises all kinds of questions regarding what makes a “mother” – is it the woman who donates the egg, the woman whose womb carries the child to term, or the woman who proposes to raise and nurture the child throughout its life? Savage handles these questions beautifully, raising them, exploring them, and leaving them gently unanswered. She also looks at the impact on the surrogate of giving up a child she has carried and birthed, and happily Savage doesn’t over-emotionalise this. She looks too at the fear of the adoptive mother of not feeling the same bond as she would to a biological child, and questions whether a child born in this way ought to be taught about the culture of her biological mother or her surrogate mother.
Many of the questions around surrogacy seemed to me to mirror the old debates around adoption, and we know that in most cases adoption works well for all involved. It is of course the question of money that raises the issue of exploitation, but is earning money this way better or worse than sex work, or sending young children out to work, or some of the other ways people in conditions of poverty have to sell themselves or their labour in order to survive? I must say I started out ready to be angry on behalf of the surrogates, but I came out of it much less sure of my stance.
This is also a deeply emotional read as we all wait with the three women, all of whom I had come to care about, to see if the procedure is a success. Even I, who haven’t a maternal bone in my body, was on tenterhooks throughout, hoping all would go well and dreading that it wouldn’t. Did it? You’ll have to read it if you want to know the answer to that. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed. Highly recommended (and that’s not because I’m biased, but because it deserves it).
NB Angela kindly sent me a copy of the book all the way from Australia. Thanks, Angela, and congratulations! You even made me cry…
Jean Louise Finch is returning from New York to her childhood home in the small town of Maycomb in Alabama, to pay a visit to her family. She is met from the train by Henry – Hank – her childhood friend, then sweetheart. He’s hoping that this time she’ll finally agree to marry him and settle down back in Maycomb. Jean Louise isn’t sure what she wants – she loves Hank and feels a great sense of homecoming as the train pulls through her own country, but she’s also grown to love her life in New York. Seeing her hometown and the people she’s known all her life through the fresh eyes of different experiences makes her re-assess all the certainties that are the foundation of what she believes about herself…
I tried to listen to this when it first came out, but was hampered by my feeling that Lee may have been unfairly manipulated at the end of her life to allow it to be published. I also struggled with Reese Witherspoon’s Southern accent. Which proves that one’s subconscious has more impact than one sometimes thinks – this time around, some years on and now keen to read the book, I found Witherspoon’s narration a first-rate performance, bringing the character of Jean Louise as a young woman and of her younger self as the child Scout completely to life. And suddenly my difficulties with the accent disappeared!
There were two factors that changed my reluctance to read the book into eagerness. Firstly, when the book came out early reviews expressed shock at the portrayal of Atticus as a racist. I had never felt quite as hero-worshipping of Atticus as many people, but this did seem like an odd departure from the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since then, however, I have re-read Mockingbird for the first time in many years, and I realised I didn’t feel it really does have the strong anti-racist message it is held to have. Instead, I thought that Atticus was a man defending the rule of law – the fact that in this case he was also defending a black man seemed somewhat incidental. The message was not so much that black people were equal than that all people, however unequal within society, were entitled under the Constitution to equal treatment within the justice system. It’s a subtle difference, but important.
The second factor was my recent read of the excellent Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), in which she tells the tale of the true crime about which Lee tried and failed to write a book. In her book, Cep goes into some depth on Lee’s writing career, and the difficulties she had in writing another book after the wild success of Mockingbird. Although Cep doesn’t express an opinion on Go Set a Watchman as a literary work, she explains that it was in fact the book Lee wanted to write, and that it was her editor and publisher who persuaded her to write instead about the child Scout and the Maycomb of twenty years earlier. Given the success of Mockingbird, it can clearly be argued that was good advice. However, I found I really wanted to know what it was that Lee had wanted to say.
Gosh, that was a long preamble! In short, now that I was in the right frame of mind for it, I discovered this is a very good book in its own right, and not so far from the characters portrayed in Mockingbird after all.
The time is just after the Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of schools in the South, when the NAACP were fighting for equality for blacks and the whites were resisting. Jean Louise is shocked to discover that her father, Atticus, and lover, Hank, are part of that white resistance. As a child, watching her father defend black people and his unfailing courtesy to all people of whatever colour, young Scout unthinkingly assumed he believed in equality. Now with her experience in the North, Jean Louise feels seriously out of step with the attitudes and beliefs of her family and friends, and she finds herself becoming unmoored, feeling that she can no longer admire and love the people who have been the rock on which her life has been built. It’s partly a coming-of-age story, as Jean Louise begins to learn the difference between the ease of loving a golden hero and the difficulty of continuing to love when the gilt peels off, showing the tarnished imperfection beneath.
But it also gives a brutal insight into the attitudes of many white Southerners at this turning point in history. Jean Louise herself is hardly what we would think of today as an enlightened champion of civil rights, and Atticus, though he explains himself eloquently, holds attitudes which are pretty shocking. That’s what literature is all about though – what a refreshing change from the facile liberal virtue-signalling of contemporary literature about race, gender, etc. These characters are true and believable – they are of their time and made from their own history. Lee doesn’t demand that we like them or agree with them (though one suspects she herself agreed with Jean Louise), but she lays out their arguments so that at least we understand them, and she shows them as fundamentally good and well-meaning people, so that it’s impossible to write them off casually as “racist”, “white supremacist”, “Nazi”, and all the other terms we bandy around today whenever anyone says anything we don’t like. Lee shows the resonating impact of the Civil War, still only a couple of generations ago for the older people; the ongoing resentment of the South to being told how to live their lives by those in the distant corridors of federal power; the fear of the white people of the destruction of their way of life. Agree or not, understanding these things is a first essential if we are ever to really move past them.
As a literary work, the book isn’t perfect. There’s a little too much polemical stuff disguised as dialogue, and sometimes Jean Louise’s reactions seem overly dramatic. It’s told in the third person but sometimes drifts into Jean Louise’s thoughts which are then given in first person. This works fine on the page but not quite so well on audio, when it’s difficult to distinguish between when she’s thinking and when she’s speaking. And Lee assumes that her audience will know things like what the Supreme Court decision was about and what the Tenth Amendment says. Google is a boon!
But there’s real excellence here too – the parts where Jean Louise reminisces about her childhood are wonderful, with all the warmth and humour of Mockingbird. Maycomb again becomes a character in its own right, though a more modern and somewhat faster, more anxious place than it used to be. The characterisation shows all the same insight and brilliance – despite their often shocking views, I grew to care about them all.
I must admit I got progressively angrier at the editors who chose to drive the young début novelist in a different direction rather than helping her to polish this into the literary perfection it deserves. I can’t help wondering, if Lee had been given more encouragement to write about the things she thought important rather than those that her publisher thought (rightly) would sell, would she have had so much difficulty producing other books? Would she have become a major voice helping us to understand the troubled psyche of the South? We’ll never know, but if I could go back in time, I’d whisper to her – have faith in yourself, Nelle, and write what you think the world needs to read…
Despite its flaws, then, highly recommended. Leave your hero-worship of Atticus behind and accept him as an imperfect man from a different era – I bet you’ll still find something in him to admire…