White Tears by Hari Kunzru

Singing the blues…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Seth and Carter meet at college, they discover a shared appreciation for music – not as musicians, but as listeners and producers. Seth has the technical skills and Carter’s family is rich, so they’re able to set up their own studio. Loving the distinctive sound of vinyl, Carter eventually works his way back in time till he has become a knowledgeable collector of old 78s, especially blues. Seth too had gone on a musical trip back in time, during a period in his teens after his mother died, when he isolated himself from the world in his room and escaped into the world of early records. But Seth had reached a point where he believed he could hear ghosts behind the music…

This is another of these books that is quite hard to review because it only slowly reveals where it’s heading, and the journey is probably better the less you know going in. It’s also very distinctly a book of two halves, and other reviews I’ve read suggest that people who love the first half are disappointed with the second, and vice versa. I’m lucky in that I vastly preferred the second half, so that my final opinion of the book was much higher than it had been at the halfway point. I’ll try to give you an idea of it without spoilers, so forgive me if this review is rather vague.

.Every sound wave has a physiological effect, every vibration. I once heard a field recording of a woman singing, sitting on a porch. You could hear her foot tapping, keeping time. You could hear the creak of her rocking chair, the crickets in the trees. You could tell it was evening because of the crickets. I felt I was slipping, that if I wasn’t careful I’d lose my grip on the present and find myself back there, seventy or eighty years in the past. The rough board floor, the overhang of the roof, her voice travelling through the moist heavy air to the diaphragm of the microphone, its sound converted into electrical energy, frozen, then the whole process reversed, electricity moving a speaker cone, sound spilling into my ears and connecting me to that long-ago time and place. I could feel it flow, that voice, inhabiting the cavities of my body, displacing the present like water filling a cistern.

The first half is taken up with the boys, later young men, meeting and becoming friends and then business partners. Seth is the narrator and he tells about how he records street sounds while he’s wandering about, often finding when he listens back to them that he can hear things he wasn’t aware of at the time. At first, this is normal stuff – the kind of sounds we all tune out as we pass through noisy places. But one day he discovers that he has recorded a man singing an old blues song – he remembers the man singing a line or two but not the whole song. This is the beginning of a train of ever stranger things that happen until eventually the narrative becomes fractured and disjointed, as the book moves further from reality into a kind of weird, hallucinatory stage in the second half.

The first half contains a lot of music jargon, production techniques, comparisons of analogue and digital, and so on; and I frankly found it dragged. But once it began talking about early blues musicians, I found my interest reviving a little, especially since it sent me off to youtube to listen to many of the recordings Kunzru mentions. Even so, for too long I found I didn’t really have a feel for where the book was heading.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the second half not only gives the book its ultimate meaning, but as Seth’s life, or perhaps mind, or perhaps both, spiral out of control, I loved what Kunzru does with the writing. It becomes almost like reading a vivid dream – short sentences giving us a glimpse of a thing or snatching at a sound, then moving wildly away to the next thing. Often just a few words create a picture in the mind. It becomes disorientating and strangely disturbing after a bit, and I found it totally compelling. The narrative shifts around in space and time, in reality and illusion (delusion?), and the story gradually gets darker and more violent. It’s only towards the end that the destination becomes clear, and only then that I was able to truly appreciate how each stage, each strand, had added to the depth beneath the surface words – not unlike listening to the analogue rather than the digital.

.Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
….– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
….– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
….Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
….I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

Hari Kunzru

And, in the end, it’s about race, and cultural appropriation, and race guilt. About how music, specifically recordings, can let us visit the past. How acquisition can become more important than art – ownership and control above appreciation. There are references to blackface and minstrelsy, and white tourism of black history. The last chapter becomes a little polemical for my taste, but until that point I felt the messages were handled with both surface subtlety and underlying power, and a great deal of originality. And it has stayed in my mind in the couple of weeks since I finished it, growing in stature the more it settles, so that, despite the fact that it took me a while to get into it, I now feel that the long first half was necessary to create the foundation for the weirdly wonderful second half. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books UK.

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The Accusation by Bandi translated by Deborah Smith

Hidden behind the curtain…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of seven short stories written between 1989 and 1995 under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea. The author’s identity remains secret, since he still lives in the country – his pseudonym means “firefly”. He is, or perhaps was, part of the official writers’ association, writing articles approved by the regime, but in his own time he began secretly to write these stories, showing a different version of daily life under this extreme form of totalitarianism. When his niece decided to defect to the West, he asked her to take the stories with her, but she wisely said she would instead send for them once she reached safety. She later enlisted the help of a human rights worker to have them smuggled out of the country.

The stories are strongly polemical, as would be expected under the circumstances, and highly critical of the dehumanisation under the regime, where every aspect of people’s lives and even thoughts are dictated and controlled through fear, and truth is manipulated in true Orwellian fashion.

The quality of the stories is distinctly variable, with some of them being too polemical to make for good fiction. They are often worthy but obvious, occasionally over-wrought, and not always very well-written. However, some of them, especially the middle ones, reach a higher level, full of power and emotion. But the interest of this collection is not so much the literary side of it, but the glimpse it gives us of what it’s like to live under this regime which seems, if anything, to be getting even more extreme with each passing year.

The current sad little nutter tyrant, Kim Jong-un, and a few of his toys…

Here’s a flavour of a couple of the ones that most impressed me:

Life of a Swift Steed – this tells the story of a man who believed in the revolution in its early days, and to celebrate the beginnings of this new world, planted an elm tree, around which he gradually created a fable that he passed on to the children in his area. As the tree grew to maturity, he believed, so would the socialist state. Everyone would eat meat and white rice, and wear silk. He clung to the fable even when reality turned out to be vastly different. But now he’s old and poor, the weather is freezing and there is no fuel. And the state wants to chop down the tree to make way for power lines. This one is very well written, and makes its point through emotion rather than overt polemics – I found it a moving read, reminding us that these regimes arise out of hopes and dreams, making their subsequent distortion into totalitarianism even more tragic.

So Near, Yet So Far – a man has received news that his mother is dying, but the state will not give him the travel permit he needs to visit her for one last time. Having spent his life obeying every dictate of the regime – doing his military service, then being told where he should live, what he should work at, etc. – he is finally provoked into breaking the rules, and tries to make the journey illicitly. As the rather trite title suggests, he gets heartbreakingly close to his mother’s village when he is caught. The punishment is harsh, but it’s the guilt and shame that cause him most pain. The feeling of utter helplessness of the individual caught up in an uncaring and faceless system is very well done, and again makes this story a deeply emotional and powerful one.

So there’s plenty here to make the book worth reading for its content as well as its origins. Like many collections, I found reading the stories one after the other meant that they gradually began to acquire a sameness which made the later ones lose power. Had I not been reading for review, I would have left longer gaps between reading each one, to avoid this effect. But they provide a unique insight into this regime from a personal level – so often we are only aware of the high level politics, and it’s easy to forget how each decision we make in dealing with dictators, in terms of sanctions or military action, impacts profoundly on those much further down the social order. An interesting little collection, the importance of which transcends the stories themselves.

Picture credit: Reuters
When the Great Leader says clap, you clap…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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Titian’s Boatman by Victoria Blake

The art of living…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

titians-boatmanIt is 1576, and Titian is living in plague-ridden Venice – an old man, refusing to flee from the city he loves. As he waits for death to find him, he thinks back to his young days, when his career was just beginning, recalling the time when he painted the portrait that became known as The Man with the Blue Sleeve. By the time his one surviving son, Pomponio, reaches Venice, Titian is dead; and, in the disorder of the time, his studio has been ransacked and many of his paintings stolen. As the plague eventually recedes from the city, we meet Tullia, one of the city’s courtesans, returning to find that she too has had her home looted. With her wealth gone, she realises she will have to start again, sending out signals to the rich men of Venice that she is available for their pleasure – at a price. In this city where the main mode of travel is by water, Sebastiano the boatman is an observer of the great people of the city, knowing their weaknesses and sometimes their secrets, their lives often touching on his.

In London in 2011, actor Terry Jardine is currently in rehearsal of A Winter’s Tale. Terry recently lost his beloved mother, and that, together with a break-up of a long-term relationship, has brought him to a kind of crisis in his life. When he breaks down during rehearsals, his director, Ludovico, comforts him, and so begins a love story between these two men. Meantime in New York, we meet Aurora, a Cuban-born maid working for Mr and Mrs Pereira, a couple who are being surreptitiously investigated by the police.

These four characters – Terry, Aurora, Sebastiano and Tullia – are all loosely linked through Titian and his art. The book jumps back and forwards between them, which could easily have made it feel disjointed. But the quality of the writing, together with some excellent characterisation, makes each section compelling, so that, rather than feeling irritated by the jumps, I found I was looking forward in each case to finding out a little more of the story of whichever character came to the fore. There is no over-arching plot as such, but the links to Titian’s paintings give the book a structure that stops it from feeling too fragmentary.

titian_-_man_with_the_blue_sleeve_-_wga22932

Blake has clearly done her research for the Venetian strands, and creates a marvellously authentic-feeling picture of the 16th century society of the city. As we learn more about Sebastiano, we see how his family was severely affected when his father became briefly caught up in the schemes of Titian’s son, Pomponio, and how different the rules of justice were for rich and poor. But in the Venice section, it’s Tullia’s story that stood out for me – the precarious life of the courtesan dependant entirely on youth and beauty, and the need to achieve wealth before these begin to fade. There is a recurring theme throughout the strands of children separated from their mothers, and in Tullia’s case this is both fascinating and moving, as we learn of younger or less pretty daughters of the wealthy farmed off to convents to avoid the need for families to find dowries to enable them to marry.

In the contemporary section, Aurora is fascinated by a Titian owned by her employers, of the death of Saint Sebastian. Blake writes with a lovely light touch, so its only gradually that we discover why this painting means so much to her, and how it is connected to her own childhood when her parents sent her to the US to escape from Castro’s Cuba.

Terry’s connection to Titian begins in the National Gallery as he is admiring The Man with the Blue Sleeve, when it suddenly seems to him that the painting is talking to him, prophesying his death. The growing love between Terry and Ludovico is beautifully done, giving the book its emotional heart. We see the importance of the theatre to Terry – he can’t imagine himself as anything other than an actor, and can’t imagine life continuing if he were ever to become unable to act. Ludovico was also separated from his mother as a baby and never knew her identity, but now she wishes to meet him and he doesn’t know how to feel about that. The two men give each other the emotional support each needs to get through these difficult moments in their lives.

I’ve been deliberately vague about each strand, because the joy of the book is in the slow revelations through which the characters are gradually built-up, layer on layer, so that we see what has made them who they are. In the end, all the strands come together, but as with the whole book it’s done gently – there’s no big dramatic denouement or stunning twist, just a somewhat understated unfolding of the connections through Titian’s art that link these people about whom we’ve come to care.

Victoria Blake
Victoria Blake

I know Victoria Blake somewhat through our blogs, but as always I’ve tried not to let that colour my review. In truth, I loved this book. The slowish start when all the various strands are introduced meant that it took a little while to grab me, but the quality of the prose carried me until the gradual deepening of the characterisation caused me to become completely absorbed by the stories of these people. Of course, it’s about art and the effect it can have in many different ways, but mostly it’s about people, told with a depth of understanding and sympathy for human frailties, and the various kinds of love that give us the strength to withstand life’s blows. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

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Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

A fine collection…

😀 😀 😀 😀

sandlandsThis is a collection of loosely linked short stories based in the Suffolk sandlings, an area the author clearly knows and loves well. Although each story stands by itself, locations reappear frequently, and occasionally characters at the centre of one story are referred to peripherally in another, which gives the collection a feeling of wholeness – the individual pieces gradually fitting together to create a complete picture of the landscape and community of this place. Many of the stories include the wildlife of the region, either actually or symbolically – foxes, deer, owls, et al.

There is a tone of nostalgia running through the collection. Although most of the stories are set in the present day, they are often looking back at events in the past, and there is a general theme of connections across the generations. This allows Thornton to look at how the region has changed, with the collapse of many of its traditional ways of life, such as fishing; and also to look forward with a kind of fear to an uncertain future, as sea rises due to climate change threaten this low-lying coastal land.

suffolk-fox

The writing is excellent, especially when she is writing about the natural world…

As he stood he closed his eyes and let his mind trace out the melody as it rose and fell. He knew no other bird which could combine within a single phrase that round, full-throated tone like a thrush or blackbird before soaring up as impossibly high as the trilling of a skylark. But his favourite of all was a low, bubbling warble, a note so pure and liquid clear you felt refreshed to hear it, as if you had actually drunk the spring water the sound resembled, welling fresh from the rock.

Several of the stories have an air of ghostliness about them, usually mild and not the main focus, though there is one that I feel counts as a ‘proper’ ghost story, and beautifully creepy it is too! (It may well appear on a future Tuesday Terror! post.) Lots of them also read almost like folk tales, or rely on superstition for their impact. But there’s also humour in the collection, which prevents the nostalgia from becoming overly melancholic.

Rosy Thornton
Rosy Thornton

These are stories with an ending, rather than the more fragmentary style so often employed in contemporary short story writing. Normally I prefer stories with endings, but to be honest sometimes the endings here feel a little contrived, almost amounting to the dreaded “twist” on occasion. But this is my one criticism of a collection which I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed and recommend, from an author I am now keen to investigate further. As with any collection, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – here are a few of the ones that stood out for me…

The White Doe – the first story in the collection, this tells of a woman grieving the death of her mother. The doe of the title refers both to an old folk tale and to an actual white doe, that Fran spots in the woods near her home. As the story unfolds, we learn that Fran has a personal history that in a strange way mirrors the folk tale. I found this story excellently written and frankly rather disturbing, and it set the tone of gentle unease that runs through much of the collection.

white-doe-2

The Interregnum – this is a delicious and wickedly funny tale of village life. The local parish priest is on maternity leave, so the parish brings in a ‘temp’ to cover – an unordained but highly qualified woman, Ivy. We see the story develop through the eyes of Dorothy, the elderly secretary of the parish council. Ivy, the stand-in, keeps telling the parishioners of the pagan rituals that pre-dated and were often absorbed into Christianity. Although some of her ideas seem a bit strange, the parishioners are a kind lot who go along with her ideas, until they gradually find themselves performing rites that feel, somehow, vaguely pagan. The ending of this one is also a twist, but in this case it works perfectly and left me laughing. Well-told, and a nice indicator of how Thornton can write in a variety of styles.

The Watcher of Souls is a beautiful story about Rebecca, an elderly lady in remission from cancer. During her regular walks in the woods, she becomes fascinated by a barn owl that roosts in an old, split oak tree. One day, she finds an old tin buried within the hollow of the tree, and within it are some old love letters…. The ending was one of those that felt a little too contrived for my taste, but otherwise this is a sad little story made lovely by the subtlety of the writing.

suffolk-barn-owl

Mackerel – the final story in the collection and one that in many ways sums up the themes of the book. An old woman is cooking mackerel for her favourite granddaughter, and as she does, she reminisces about the differences between her own life when she was young and her granddaughter’s life – both with entirely different aspirations and expectations, but both finding life fulfilling in their own ways. The story also talks of fishing, back when it was a way of life rather than an industry, and when mackerel was still plentiful before it was overfished almost into local extinction. A very nostalgic tale, this one, almost elegiac, as of a lifestyle lost forever. And a fine one to end on.

NB This book was kindly provided for review by the author.

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Colour me white…

😀 😀 😀 😀

passingWhen Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…

Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen

The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.

The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.

I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.

I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!

Book 2 of 90
Book 2 of 90

This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.

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Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…

😦

dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate.

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Tuesday Tale: Blink by Sabrina Hicks

Windows of the soul…

Usually I fill this Tuesday slot with ‘genre’ stories – horror, sci-fi, detective fiction. But there are also many great short stories that don’t fall into one of these genres, so today I’m adding a new category, simply called Tales.

One of the real joys of blogging for me is meeting some of the hugely talented people who inhabit the blogosphere. Today I’m delighted to be featuring Sabrina Hicks, whom many of you will know better under her blog nom-de-plume – desertdweller. Her short story, Blink, has won the Grand Prize in the 85th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, so it seems a perfect choice to be the inaugural…

tuesday-tale

Blink
by Sabrina Hicks

Sabrina Hicks
Sabrina Hicks

When the rain came that morning and didn’t stop until final period, I knew it would be a long bus ride home. It hadn’t rained that hard since our last monsoon.

The tale is told to us by June, one of a group of eighth graders who are on their way home from school. Most of them have known each other for years, but there’s a new boy who’s just moved into the area, sitting at the back of the bus with his headphones on. Their grouchy bus driver isn’t happy about the weather conditions…

“For Christsake!” Mr. Kelly roared, as we pulled on to the ten-mile stretch of dirt road, now thoroughly soaked and slick with mud. He flashed his squinty eyes in the rearview mirror, making no effort to hide his contempt for the rural kids living forty minutes out of town. Not a mile off blacktop he began swerving and overcompensating on turns.

school-bus

Soon he manages to drive the bus into a ditch and they know they’re now going to have a long wait for help to arrive. To help fill in the time, the narrator’s friend Maggie revives a game they used to play when they were younger – a staring contest.

Her eyes bulged at me.

“Really? Don’t you think we’re a little old for that?” I said, watching them swell like spikes of golden-brown wheat in the late sun. That’s how I remembered her eyes in fourth grade when I was crowned The Staring Champion, and it had been an accurate description. I remembered the eye color of most of the kids in my class at Kirkland Middle School, especially since there were only 47 eighth graders.

Once Maggie has been comprehensively defeated, Mr Kelly tells the new boy, Koaty, to move further up the bus away from the emergency door. The other students make room for him, but Maggie tells him half in jest that first he must beat the Staring Champion. At first June demurs, but soon finds herself gazing into Koaty’s dark eyes…

Koaty’s eyes were like the abandoned, endless well I sat by as a child, wondering how deep I had to go before I’d find the world I was sure laid beyond. I remember wanting to see the water, some reflection of sky, but it was too deep and dark, swallowing stone after stone, and when I called into it, my voice dissolved into an echo.

* * * * * * *

arizona-cattle

This is a lovely story with a huge amount of depth and feeling packed into a small space. It’s described by the Writer’s Digest as a young adult/children’s story, but in my opinion it works equally well for adults. There is an element of boy/girl attraction, but it goes much deeper than that, touching lightly on questions of race, on grief and loneliness, on empathy and connection. The characterisation is done subtly, with very little telling, and yet the reader gets a clear picture of the students, especially June, the narrator. We also learn a little about her life and get a real feeling of this rural, cattle-ranching country she lives in and what it means to her. Anyone who has read any of DD’s poetry on her blog will know that she uses language beautifully, and this extends into her prose…

His lashes trembled slightly, and I thought he would blink, instead his lips parted, curling to one side as he drew breath, and I wondered if he was reading my thoughts. I found dark eyes the hardest to read, but as I stared at him, I saw the cold stain of his mother dying and his father leaving, hardening his eyes, defiant and layered in anger. His mother, however, had gifted him with softness, seen in his lips and the delicate slope of his nose.

Great stuff! I hope sometime I’ll get the opportunity to review DD’s first novel (even if it means I have to get used to thinking of her as Sabrina Hicks!).

If you’d like to read the whole thing (about 2000 words), here’s a link…

scheherazade

Scheherazade Rating:  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

conclaveCardinal Lomeli fears the worst when he gets an urgent summons to the bedside of the elderly Pope. By the time he gets there, the Pope has died. Even as the various cardinals kneel by his bedside to pray, one thought is in all of their minds – a new Pope will have to be chosen, and soon. Some are ambitious and would welcome the challenge, some even have informal teams in place to canvas for them, others fear the enormity of the role and include in their prayers a plea to God that He will not choose them. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli will have the task of running the Conclave – the meeting of all the cardinal electors to whom will fall the task of selecting the new Pope.

This is an absolutely fascinating and absorbing look at the process of how a new Pope is chosen. In the first few pages, we are introduced to so many people that I feared I’d never get a handle on who they all were, but quite quickly Harris develops the main players well enough for them to start to emerge as individuals, and, as the book goes on, we, like the cardinals, spend so much time sequestered in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conclave that we become aware of their weakness and strengths. The Conclave works as a series of ballots, and by about the second ballot, I found I was totally engrossed in picking the man I thought would make the best Pope just as much as the characters in the book were.

Of course, this is a novel, not a factual book, so Harris makes sure there are plenty of scandals and secrets to come out, each one subtly changing the balance of power amongst the cardinals. But I found it refreshing that he chose not to try to denigrate the process by making it look like an entirely political battle for control of this enormously powerful organisation, nor by going for the easy target of the recent child abuse scandals. While many of the characters are flawed and ambitious, they are on the whole shown as true Christians, struggling through prayer and conscience to decide what’s best for their Church and their religion. We see the desire of the majority of these men to open their hearts to God, believing that He will guide them in their decision. I don’t know, of course, whether it’s really like that in a Conclave, but I rather hope it is.

On Lomeli went. Bellini… Benitez… Brandão D’Cruz… Brotkus… Cárdenas… Contreras… Courtemarche… He knew them all so much better now, their foibles and their weaknesses. A line of Kant’s came into his mind: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made…” The Church was built of crooked timber – how could it not be? But by the grace of God it fitted together. It had endured two thousand years; if necessary it would last another two weeks without a Pope. He felt suffused by a deep and mysterious love for his colleagues and their frailties.

Crucifixion of St Peter by Michelangelo in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast...
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast…

Harris shows the divisions in the Church between the traditionalists and the modernisers, suggesting almost that the Church could be facing schism if the new Pope fails to find a way to bridge the gulf. The Italian cardinals still think of it as their Church and hope for a return to an Italian papacy; the African cardinals feel liberalisation has gone too far, particularly over questions like homosexuality, and have a keen desire to see the first black Pope; the Americans and Europeans would like to see that liberalisation taken still further, with even some dangerous talk of women being given more prominent positions in the higher echelons of the Curia. And the plot also touches on the question of the religious fundamentalism sweeping the world, bringing war and terror in its wake, and how the various factions feel the Church should respond to that.

Amidst all this, Cardinal Lomeli must deal with the secrets that come to light, battling with his conscience as to how much he should allow himself to interfere with the process. Sequestered from the world for the duration, still scraps of information make their way in that could influence the minds of the electors. Should he tell, or should he remain silent? Will his interference look like a shabby attempt to sway the vote in his own preferred direction? Lomeli is a wonderful character, fully developed and entirely believable, a man who finds more strength than he ever thought he had, and who spends much of his time searching his own heart in a bid to ensure that he is truly open to God’s will.

I read this book over two days and any time I had to stop, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. You may be wondering then why it hasn’t got the full five stars from me. And annoyingly, I can’t tell you because it would take the review deep into spoiler territory. So all I can say is that the book crossed the credibility line twice for me – once forgivably in terms of taking some fictional licence, but the other leaving me feeling that the amazingly authentic impression given by the bulk of the book had been somewhat spoiled. So I’m afraid it only gets four and a half stars in the end, despite having been one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year. But I still highly recommend it, especially since your credibility line may well be drawn in a different place from mine. And I hope you’ll all read it very quickly because, if I don’t have someone to discuss it with soon, I may well spontaneously combust!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of Kabul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the kite runner2Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Both boys are motherless: Amir’s mother died in childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away not long after he was born, leaving her husband to bring Hassan up alone. Amir is being educated, Hassan is illiterate and likely to remain that way. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

The first half of the book, which tells of the boys’ childhood and the event that changed their lives, is beautifully written, full of emotional truth. It is written in the first person from Amir’s point of view and he is a harsh judge of his younger self. He shows himself as weak and cowardly, traitorous even, while Hassan is all that is good and loyal and brave. Amir feels his father blames him for his mother’s death, and is jealous that Baba often seems to show as much fondness for Hassan as for himself.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

While Hassan is a little too good to be true, it feels as if this is deliberate – that Amir’s guilt over his own actions has led him into idealising his childhood friend. And the reverse of that is that Amir’s depiction of himself also has to be seen as being affected by the same guilt, so that while sometimes it’s hard to like him, it’s still easy to empathise – to remember that he was a child and to look at how both boys had the prejudices of their society instilled into them from birth. We also see how Amir is affected by the struggle to gain his father’s affection despite feeling that he could never be the kind of boy his father wants his son to be.

For me, the second half of the book didn’t completely match up to the excellent standards of the first. Amir and his father flee the wars and end up in America. There is a lengthy section about their experiences there, and perhaps I’m just a little tired of the “immigrant experience” storyline now; it seems to have been done too often over the last couple of decades, and I didn’t feel this one added much to either that subject or this story. It feels like something of a hiatus, and a little contrived – a device almost, to allow Amir to return later to Kabul, looking at it through fresh, adult eyes. And when he does go back to Kabul, to show the horrors of life under the Taliban, it begins to verge on the polemical.

     In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. “Am I close?”
     “Why are you saying these things?” I said.
     “Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini

This is a minor criticism though of what is, overall, a great book. I was thinking as I read the second half that it may well have affected me differently thirteen years ago when it was first published – I would have known far less about Afghanistan and almost nothing about the Taliban, and I suspect I would have found the book more shocking and gut-wrenching as a result. Now, if anything, the picture he paints seems a little muted – how easily we become conditioned to horror. Now the first half seems beautifully novelistic, but the second half feels almost journalistic, and the ending didn’t convince me nearly as much as the story of Amir and Hassan as children. I’m glad to have read it, though, and highly recommend it. I suspect it’s a book that will find its full impact again if and when we ever reach a point where this never-ending conflict is past and fading into history.

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Chapel Springs Survival by Ane Mulligan

A visit with down-home folks…

😀 😀 😀 😀

chapel springs survivalThe little Southern town of Chapel Springs is overrun by tourists because of the sudden success of Claire and Patsy’s gallery, The Painted Loon. Claire has been elected to the town council and wants to find a way to keep the visitors coming without disrupting the normal life of the town. Meantime, her family life is suddenly thrown into disarray when her youngest son announces he has married a girl he met online – a girl from Brazil who speaks no English. And her best friend’s husband is threatening to move to New York. But Claire has help to deal with her problems, in a strong group of women friends and her staunch faith in God.

OK, so this is billed on Amazon as Religious and Inspirational Women’s Fiction – not this old atheistic, kinda half-hearted feminist’s usual fare. Not by a long way! But it was edited by my blog buddy Susan P. so I couldn’t resist. And I actually quite enjoyed it, and not only because the grammar is perfect! 😉

It’s a gentle, well-written story – more of a soap opera than anything else. The second book in the series, it took me a little bit of time to catch up with the backstory and work out how all the characters related to each other, but once past that stage the story flows along, nice and easy. The people are cosily nice – friends who are never annoying and are always there to support each other, husbands and wives who work through any little problems together, lots of home-spun wisdom, and cake, and hugs. Ah, if only life were so, how lovely it would be… if just a little dull, perhaps. (Oh, come on, allow me a little cynicism or my head might explode!) It’s kinda like just havin’ a leisurely visit with down-home folks. And if a little problem should arise, say, for instance, worry over whether one’s cake will rise, well, a quick prayer to God will soon sort that out! (And there was me thinking the answer was an oven thermometer…)

And it’s so good to know the Stepford Wives are alive and well! These women are happily inferior, thrilled to have caught a man, anxious to cook for him and clean up after him, and grateful for any little attention he might bestow on her. It’s so sweet! I love how Claire’s husband ‘does all the cooking’. Claire shops for the food, hauls it home, gets up at dawn to prepare all the vegetables, defrosts the meat, cleans the kitchen, gets out all the utensils and ingredients, heats up the stove, and then watches in grateful awe as he pops in for a couple of minutes, throws everything into a pan, then leaves her to stir it and serve it… then clean up afterwards. What a man!

Ane Mulligan
Ane Mulligan

But then Claire is lucky to have a man at all. As newly married Graham tells his loving new wife Lydia “Every available single man is overrun with women after a meal ticket”. She doesn’t divorce him. Nor does Patsy divorce Nathan when he suddenly, without consulting her or caring that her life and business are in Chapel Springs, decides he’s going to sell their house and move them both to New York. American women sure are different from Glaswegians.

I’m being tongue-in-cheek and totally unfair! In fact, I found this a lot of fun – a bit of escapism into a world I can’t really believe in but rather wish I could, with a bunch of women whose company I enjoyed. There are several plot-lines, all fairly light, and Mulligan keeps the story ticking along nicely. If it’s more your kind of thing than mine, I certainly recommend it as a well-written and relaxing comfort read.

(P.S. And just so you know I’m not totally mean, I gave Susan the choice as to whether I should post this or not and, like the good sport she is, she said ‘Go ahead!’)

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LaRose by Louise Erdrich

An unemotional study of grieving…

🙂 🙂 😐

laroseAs he does every year, Landreaux is hunting deer on his land. In the evening light, he raises his gun, fires and misses the deer. But in a tragic accident, his bullet hits Dusty, the young son of his neighbour, who is sitting in a nearby tree, killing him. In an agony of remorse, Landreaux and his wife participate in a Native American ceremony, which leads them to decide that the only way to make restitution is to give their own young son, LaRose, to the grieving family. At first, Dusty’s mother Nola agrees to this arrangement only out of bitterness, to cause Landreaux and Emmeline to feel some of the grief and loss she herself is going through, but soon Nola comes to dote on LaRose, clinging to him as she struggles to get over the death of her son. LaRose is a name that has been passed down the generations, and as well as the present day story, the reader is taken back in time to learn of the earlier LaRoses and, through them, of some of the history of the Native American culture over the last few centuries.

Sounds great, and this was one of my most anticipated books of the summer, having heard so many good things about Louise Erdrich’s writing. Unfortunately, I found the writing of this one cold, lacking any emotional depth despite the subject matter, an exercise in telling rather than showing. There is an attempt to build a level of suspense by leaving it a little unclear as to how culpable Landreaux was for the death of Dusty. Was it simply an unfortunate accident, or had Landreaux, a recovering alcoholic, perhaps been high on medication he had stolen from some of the elderly clients he cared for? But I’m afraid this isn’t enough to lift the basic story. In reality, it’s simply a lengthy, monotone account of the grief process of all the people involved in the event – parents, siblings and the wider community.

The story of the original LaRose is more interesting, casting some light on the culture clash in the early days of European settlement of America. There is a good deal of Native American mysticism in these passages, which somehow works fine in the context of the earlier time period, but feels totally out of place when it’s carried forward into the modern day. I do realise that my own rational prejudices are getting in the way, but being asked to accept that the current LaRose has some kind of supernatural gift, inherited from his ancestors, of leaving his body to commune with the dead was too much for me to swallow, I fear.

Putting that aside, the insights into Native American culture past and present are the most interesting parts of the book. Erdrich doesn’t romanticise it – she gives us a picture of relative poverty, not just in economic terms but in aspiration; a society where alcoholism and drug-taking are a kind of escape. She shows how some customs have survived but others have been forgotten, or revived after a period of suppression. She touches on intermarriage and how that has affected the culture; on the boarding schools where Native American children were sent to be assimilated into the European American culture; on how differently Native Americans have been treated through the generations in terms of rights – education, healthcare, etc. She avoids polemics, thankfully, and draws no conclusions – she simply paints the picture and leaves the reader to consider it.

Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich

In the present day, however, which is the bulk of the book, we merely flick from person to person, seeing snapshots of their grief at different stages. The sections about the children are more interesting, too young at the time of the incident to feel Dusty’s loss in quite the same way as the adults, and coping more with the impact of it on their parents than on themselves. But the sections about the parents felt oddly bland, never inspiring in me any kind of real emotional reaction to what they were going through. There’s no real momentum, nothing we’re aiming towards except perhaps an end to grief and, in the end, it’s all tied up very neatly – too neatly. I often complain about books sagging in the middle – just for a change, I’m complaining that, though the middle third of this one was quite interesting, both the beginning and end sagged, and never inspired me to care about the characters. In truth, while it’s technically well written, my major response to it was a feeling of boredom and a desire to reach the end. And, when I did, I wasn’t convinced the journey had been worthwhile.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group UK.

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Book 10
Book 10

Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Angst-ridden middle-class thirty-somethings…

🙂 🙂 😐

truly madly guiltyClementine and Erika have had an uneasy friendship most of their lives. They are closer than many sisters, but there are tensions bubbling beneath the surface. One day, they and their husbands, Sam and Oliver, are invited to a barbecue at the home of neighbours, Vid and Tiffany. Something happens that changes all their relationships and throws them into emotional turmoil…

…unfortunately, Moriarty decides not to tell the reader what that something is for roughly half the book. Talk about annoying! When every character in the book knows what happened and refers to it constantly, without mentioning what it actually was, it leads to contrived dialogue, silly hints, a desperate attempt to build tension using the clumsiest of devices. But with the effect it has on them all, you know it has to be something utterly traumatic and devastating, or else it’s going to be a huge anti-climax when the reveal finally comes. Oh dear! Well, it would have been traumatic and upsetting, yes, but not to anything like the extent foreshadowed. Not unless people really have lost the ability to deal with anything at all without going into major howling angst mode – which from all these domestic thrillers I’m actually beginning to believe.

But this isn’t really a domestic thriller, though it’s being marketed that way and the failed attempt to build tension suggests it’s going to be. It’s actually more of a thirty-somethings relationship book, with six extremely tedious and tiresomely middle-class people all getting themselves into a major tizz over what happened that day at the barbecue. Just to keep adding the annoyance on, Moriarty holds back all kinds of other bits of information for ages too. For example, we know Erika’s mother has some kind of problem, but we’re not told what till the book is long underway, so we get all kinds of oblique conversations skirting round the subject. I paraphrase, but not by much: “You ought to go see your mother!” “Oh, is it bad, then?” “Yes, worse than usual.” “Oh, but I told her I wouldn’t be going for another six weeks.” “But I think you must. It’s happening again!” Just tell us, for heaven’s sake!

Meantime, Vid’s daughter is upset about something she did that day, but we don’t know what. Erika is sure there’s something she’s forgotten about that day, so naturally we don’t know what. Sam blames Clementine for what happened that day… Ugh!

Liane Moriarty
Liane Moriarty

Enough! I loved Little Lies, but I’m afraid this one isn’t in the same league. It’s not actually bad – Moriarty’s readable writing style and occasional humour prevent that, and the characters ring true in their bland unremarkableness. But truthfully I couldn’t find anything much to recommend it. I spent most of the time thinking about giving up and flicking forward to find out what happened that day, and when I finally made it to the end I rather wished I had. Had we been told what happened that day and then been shown the lead-up and consequences, it would have been a perfectly acceptable, if tediously middle-class, bit of “women’s fiction” with all the usual angsting over children and parenting that comes with that. But a blurb calling it “electrifying” and the attempt to turn it into a suspense novel leave it in a kind of limbo where it doesn’t really succeed as either.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin UK.

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Zero K by Don DeLillo

When the time comes…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

zero kAs the book begins, the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, is travelling to an isolated region of the world, somewhere in or near Kazakhstan, where there is a secret facility, largely financed by his billionaire father, Ross. The facility specialises in cryogenics, freezing people at the point of death so that, at some time in the future when medical science has found the way to cure their ills, they can be brought back to life. Ross has asked Jeff to come now to say goodbye to his step-mother Artis, who is about to undergo the procedure. But, as Jeff is to discover, the facility offers more than a simple medical treatment – it has a whole staff of scientists, philosophers and others working on what this second life, which they call the Convergence, will be like.

This is a strange book that takes one of the clichés of science fiction and turns it into something that is either incomprehensible or profoundly thought-provoking, depending on how willing the reader is to play along. For a good proportion of the beginning of the book, my cynical sneer was getting a great workout. The writing is excellent, with moments of brilliance, but the dialogue is entirely unnatural – these people speak in constant profundities. However, behind the cliché, a distinctly unsettling atmosphere of unease soon begins to seep out of the pages, as Jeff wanders alone through the silence of the facility, down long corridors full of doors with nothing to indicate what is behind them. At the end of some of the corridors are viewscreens, showing increasingly horrific images of disaster, destruction and death. And soon my cynicism turned into a fascinated absorption in the imagery and in trying to work out the meanings behind it.

“What was it beyond a concentrated exercise in bewilderment?”

The thing is, I reckon there are a few things the book is definitely ‘about’, but many others that individual readers will create for themselves in the spaces DeLillo leaves deliberately unfilled. It is primarily a reflection on the importance of death in shaping the way we live our lives. Is death not essential if we are to define life? Would we still race to achieve if we were eternal? Is it the aloneness of dying that makes us fear it? And, if so, is there something almost comforting in the thought of dying with hundreds or thousands of others in some catastrophic event?

“They sit in lotus position or run through the streets. A burning man running through the streets. If I saw such a thing, firsthand, I would run with him. And if he ran screaming, I would scream with him. And when he collapsed, I would collapse.”

It’s an exploration of identity – is there a distinct, immutable ‘I’ within us or are we purely a construct of our experiences and those things we adopt or have pushed on us – our names, our nationalities, being born into wealth or poverty, even our bodies? If all these things are taken away from us, what is left? If we find our way to immortality through becoming some kind of cyberhumans, will that fundamentally change the ‘I’ that we were as fully human mortals? If we are alone, unheard and unseen by any other, do we exist at all, or do we need the reflection of ourselves that comes back to us from other people to really be?

All questions that have been asked before, of course, but DeLillo gives them fresh urgency by tying them in with some of our most worrying contemporary concerns. The images on the screens are sometimes of environmental disasters, sometimes of terror, and sometimes of war at its most brutal. The time is now or the very near future, but somehow the world in the book seems to have shifted a few degrees closer to catastrophe. He hints at religious fundamentalism, at the evils of globalisation with its huge disparities between rich and poor, at the wilful continuance of environmental destruction. We see child soldiers, and we see them die.

“Here you are, collected, convened. Isn’t this what you’ve been waiting for? A way to claim the myth for yourselves. Life everlasting belongs to those of breathtaking wealth.”

There is also a mystical element to the new life being designed at the facility. It seems almost as if they are trying to find a way to create a new religion – an atheistic religion, with its own rituals and code; their attempt to produce physical immortality some kind of compensation for their lack of belief in a spiritual afterlife. But there are chilling aspects to this – will their attempts to reprogram the people with a new language and ethical code before they are reborn leave anything of the original ‘I’? Or will they in fact be forming a kind of extreme totalitarianism where cyberhumans are literally ‘made’ to obey?

Instead I wondered if I was looking at the controlled future, men and women being subordinated, willingly or not, to some form of centralized command. Mannequined lives. Was this a facile idea? I thought about local matters, the disk on my wristband that tells them, in theory, where I am at all times. I thought about my room, small and tight but embodying an odd totalness. Other things here, the halls, the veers, the fabricated garden, the food units, the unidentifiable food, or when does utilitarian become totalitarian.

DeLillo raises all these questions, and more, subtly, so that they arise out of Jeff’s attempts to make sense of what he’s seeing, rather than the reader feeling bludgeoned. Jeff is fascinated by trying to define the meanings of words and as the book goes on the words he focuses on become progressively harder to define, like the ideas behind them. The facility is also home to some weird and unsettling art with lifelike mannequins appearing in increasingly disturbing tableaux. The idea of a new language being created reminded me of the real case of Turkey changing its alphabet from Arabic to Latin just after WW1, with the result that later generations have apparently largely lost touch with writings from before then, and therefore with their literary history; and I wondered if in the new world of the Convergence, all that would be left of art would be these chilling visual images.

Don DeLillo Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Don DeLillo
Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

I’m guessing you realise by now that I found this book fascinating and deeply thought-provoking, though in truth I found it frustratingly obscure too. Surprisingly for such a nebulous read, it has an ending that I found both beautiful and satisfying, not providing answers exactly but perhaps suggesting that in the end the answers exist within us. I suspect this is a book that will be hated by some and loved by others, and indeed early reviews seem to be all over the place. From a shaky beginning, I grew to love it, for the writing, the imagery and the intelligence of it, and am greatly looking forward to reading some of DeLillo’s earlier books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner.

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Book 9
Book 9

The Visitor by Maeve Brennan

Home is…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the visitorAnastasia King left her father’s home when she was 16 to live with her mother in Paris. Now, when she is 22, both her parents are dead and she has returned to Dublin expecting to live in her old home with her paternal grandmother. But old Mrs King is quite content to live alone with her memories of her beloved son and has never forgiven her daughter-in-law for bringing shame on the family by leaving him. And she’s no more willing to forgive Anastasia for choosing her mother over her father.

This novella is an early unpublished work of Maeve Brennan’s, discovered after her death in a University archive. The editor tells us that he has done some minor tidying up of the text, but that it is substantially as she wrote it. This begs the question why she never sought to, or perhaps failed to, have it published in her lifetime. It is a wonderful study of loneliness, self-absorption and selfishness, of thwarted love, both romantic and familial, and of a longing for that nebulous thing we call ‘home’.

She kissed her grandmother hastily, avoiding her eyes. The grandmother did not move from the door of the sitting room. She stood in the doorway, having just got up from the fireside and her reading, and contemplated Anastasia and Anastasia’s luggage crowding the hall. She was still the same, with her delicate and ruminative and ladylike face, and her hands clasped formally in front of her. Anastasia thought, she is waiting for me to make some mistake.

The writing is excellent – the story mournful and entirely absorbing. There’s a claustrophobic feel to it, with these two brilliantly created characters inhabiting the same space but never sharing it. Mrs King is cold and selfish even in her love for her son, perhaps having been the cause of the flight of his wife. She sees Anastasia as her mother’s daughter and shows no grandmotherly love for her, and no sympathy for her recent bereavement.

Where it would have been easy, and perhaps facile, for Brennan to show Anastasia solely as a victim of Mrs King’s cruelty, in fact she does something much more subtle and effective. As the story unfolds, we begin to see that this coldness and emotional detachment may be a family trait, that perhaps the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. While Mrs King makes no effort to ease Anastasia’s return to Dublin, Anastasia equally shows no concern over how her return may disrupt the settled patterns of this elderly lady’s life. Each selfish action is reflected back from the opposite angle, often reversing the reader’s initial perceptions. When Mrs King refuses to allow Anastasia to have her mother’s body brought home and buried with her father, is it Mrs King who is being selfish in refusing a reasonable request, or is it Anastasia failing to understand the shame her mother brought on her father when she ran away? Why, anyway, would Anastasia assume her mother would want to be buried with the man she left? Both characters see the world through narrow viewpoints, their own wishes always at the forefront.

As the story continues, both characters commit some acts that are chilling in their level of selfishness, made more so by the quiet, almost matter-of-fact way in which Brennan relates them. There is a third character, Miss Kilbride, an old friend of Mrs King’s, who serves as a contrast and catalyst. Having been dominated by her invalid mother, another selfish monster, Miss Kilbride still lives in her mother’s house, psychologically unable to think of it as her own and leaving everything as it was while her mother was alive. Unlike the two main characters, Miss Kilbride knows what it means to love someone unselfishly, making her the most sympathetic and likeable character in the book, whose story injects some much needed emotional warmth. The request she makes of Anastasia provides the climax of the story – a disturbing, shocking climax that forces the reader to reassess all that has gone before.

She walked out along the shallow path. At the gate she turned to look up at Miss Kilbride’s window. It was blind and closed, like a person sleeping. Like Miss Kilbride, lying on her back in difficult slumber. And later, waking to dream of a doubtful deathly union with her long-lost hero, with whom she had once struggled in valiant, well-dressed immodesty on a small settee, for love’s sake.

Maeve Brennan
Maeve Brennan

I was quite blown away by this novella. The amount of insight and depth of characterisation that Brennan packs into such a small space is amazing, and I became so engrossed in it that I read it in one sitting. Along the way, it made me gasp more than once, and I admit to a little sob too at one point. All three of these women became real to me in a way that many characters in much longer books have failed to do, and I doubt I’ll forget their story. I shall promptly be seeking out more of Brennan’s work – if she thought this one wasn’t good enough for publication, then I can’t wait to read the stuff she thought was good. Highly recommended!

I won this in Cathy at 746 Books’ Reading Ireland 2016 giveaway. Thank you again, Cathy – great stuff!

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Book 6
Book 6

GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

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Book 3
Book 3

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene

‘Tis better to travel hopefully…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Travels with my AuntWhen middle-aged Henry Pulling attends the cremation of his mother, he meets his mother’s sister, Aunt Augusta, a woman he knows only from old family photographs. It seems Aunt Augusta was something of the black sheep of the family, her distinctly racy and unconventional lifestyle making her unwelcome. But Henry finds himself drawn towards her, her frank stories of a life full of incident providing a contrast to his own rather dull and lonely existence as a retired bank manager in the respectable little community of Southwood. And soon Augusta entices Henry to join her on some of her journeys, first on the Orient Express to Istanbul and later to South America.

This is a gentle little comedy without any of the profundity of Greene’s major works but still with a certain amount of charm. Published in 1969, at a time when Greene was in his mid-60s, it does rather read like a tolerant older man’s view of the ‘permissive’ society of the ’60s, with its focus on ‘free love’ and incessant pot-smoking. However, through Aunt Augusta’s stories, we are also taken on a light trip back through the century, though her storytelling technique makes it hard to pin down the truth of any event she is describing. From running a church for dogs in Brighton to her rather seedy career in France, from possibly having something to do with the Resistance to consorting with Nazi war criminals, Augusta’s exuberant zest for life manages somehow to overcome Henry’s normal repugnance for anything not quite respectable. The lesson he must learn from Augusta is the simple one that there is a difference between the tedium of merely existing and the joy of experiencing life.

I went restlessly out and crossed the little garden where an American couple (from the St James or the Albany) were having tea. One of them was raising a little bag, like a drowned animal, from his cup at the end of a cord. At that distressing sight I felt very far away from England, and it was with a pang that I realized how much I was likely to miss Southwood and the dahlias in the company of Aunt Augusta.

The writing is, of course, excellent, especially the stories of their travels and the various places they pass through. It’s not a travelogue, so there are no tourist brochure style descriptions – instead, it’s a vague, impressionistic picture of the process of travelling and the places passed by as seen through Henry’s untutored, and often uninterested, eye. The reader is more likely to be told about the availability of ham sandwiches than the great architecture of a given town. This changes a little when they head off to South America – in this section, we begin to get a much clearer picture both of the natural world and the strange and rather corrupt society Henry finds himself sucked into.

orient express poster

When a train pulls into a great city I am reminded of the closing moments of an overture. All the rural and urban themes of our long journey were picked up again: a factory was followed by a meadow, a patch of autostrada by a country road, a gas-works by a modern church: the houses began to tread on each other’s heels, advertisements for Fiat cars swarmed closer together, the conductor who had brought breakfast passed, working intensely down the corridor to rouse some important passenger, the last fields were squeezed out and at last there were only houses, houses, houses, and Milano, flashed the signs, Milano.

The humour runs at a consistently gentle level throughout, never becoming riotously funny, but never getting lost either. Unfortunately a good deal of the humour is centred on Aunt Augusta’s younger lover, Wordsworth, a man from Sierra Leone, and to modern eyes his portrayal feels horribly stereotyped at best and somewhat racist at worst. In fact, given Greene’s age and the time of writing, Wordsworth is actually rather affectionately portrayed – indeed, he’s about the only likeable character, the only one with a true, warm and generous heart. But still, I found some of the dialect and his rather childish naivety made for pretty uncomfortable reading in places. Otherwise, however, the contrast between Henry’s buttoned-up mentality and Augusta’s free-wheeling acceptance of all life has to offer gives plenty of opportunity for Greene to quietly mock the society of the time.

The vicar was saying clearly, while the congregation buzzed ambiguously to disguise the fact that they had forgotten the words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, have committed…” I noticed that the detective-sergeant, perhaps from professional prudence, did not join in this plea of guilty. “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings…” I had never before noticed how the prayer sounded like the words of an old lag addressing the Bench with a plea for mercy. The presence of Detective Sergeant Sparrow seemed to alter the whole tone of the service.

Graham Greene
Graham Greene

This would not be the book I would recommend to people wanting to sample Greene for the first time. Much better to try one of his more serious novels where the depth of the subject matter tends to withstand dating a little better. In truth, I think profundity suits his style better than humour. But, overall, I found this a pleasurable if rather light read – one where the journey is more enjoyable perhaps than the destination.

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(Ticking off the “Orient Express” category for the Around the World in 80 Books challenge.)

A Heart So White by Javier Marías

Substance submerged by style…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

a heart so whiteA few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan’s mother. So Teresa would have been Juan’s aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn’t have been…

There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth’s reaction on being told of Duncan’s murder, illustrating a major theme – the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn’t. An interesting thought.

In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías’ prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it’s up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.

Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader’s interest, I fear.

To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)

As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa’s door and drop her off and then, once I’ve done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we’re married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I’ve chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don’t deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there’s no doubt that we’re going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn’t want to.

This is an example of both what I liked and didn’t about the book. It’s an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan’s uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it’s one of the least waffly passages in the book.

Javier Marìas
Javier Marìas

In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías’ themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa’s death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader’s head so often, that I couldn’t imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.

I’m sighing with frustration because there’s a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it’s overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I’d read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don’t.

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The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The sins of the mother…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

the easter paradeSarah and Emily Grimes have a disrupted childhood, moving from place to place as their feckless, alcoholic mother struggles to settle anywhere. Their father, who loves them, is mainly absent from their lives and they give him a kind of mythic quality, believing him to be a more important man than the reality suggests. The girls come to adulthood around the time of WW2, and their lives diverge. Sarah follows the conventional route of marriage and motherhood, while Emily has a succession of sexual relationships of varying depth and intensity, but never lasting long. In a sense, there’s a sibling rivalry going on, with each of the women somewhat envying the lifestyle of the other. But as the first line, quoted above, makes clear, both are destined to miserable existences.

I loved Revolutionary Road, declaring it almost the equal of Gatsby for what it had to say about the American Dream. That book was certainly not a happy one, but Yates’ insight into his characters and their society, combined with his starkly beautiful prose, made it a profoundly emotional and intelligent read. I came to this one, then, with high hopes and expectations.

To be honest, I’m not sure what Yates is trying to say in this one at all. Simplistically, the message seems to be that children from broken homes are doomed to misery, doomed to repeat the failures of their parents. He seems to be doing a compare and contrast exercise, conventional versus unconventional lifestyle, and concluding that whatever choices the sisters made, the end result would be the same – to die unhappy and unloved.

The writing is fine, plain and with no stylistic flourishes, but somehow I felt it lacked the penetrating beauty of the prose in Revolutionary Road. When reading a paper copy for review, I stick little post-it notes at passages I may want to quote, usually because I think they’re either beautiful or profound or, with luck, both. To my own surprise, when I finished this book, I found I hadn’t marked a single passage. The problem is not that it’s in any way badly written, it’s just rather unremarkable.

I also struggled to accept the characterisation. The main viewpoint is Emily’s, the unconventional sister. We follow her as she fails at one relationship after another, always because she seems to pair off with damaged men – the failed poet, the man who still loves his ex-wife, the man who has issues with his own sexual performance, etc. But I found that rather annoying and, dare I say it, a little misogynistic. Emily is intelligent, educated and successful in her career, but Yates makes it clear that this isn’t what a woman needs. She needs a successful relationship with a man, otherwise she will go to drink and the devil, probably ending up mad. Emily is doomed, however, never to find a decent man, though why this should be so is entirely unclear.

Richard Yates
Richard Yates

But meantime Sarah, who has gone the conventional route by marrying, has a husband who beats her – so she spirals into drink and despair, ending up in a psychiatric home. The same home as their mother – abandoned by her man – ended up in when she spiralled into drink and despair. (One wonders if they got a discount for quantity.) I’m pretty sure that Yates didn’t mean to imply that the only hope for women to escape the clutches of insanity is to marry well, but that leaves me wondering just exactly what he was trying to say.

I suspect the book may have been written at the height of the great ‘it’s all the parents’ fault’ craze, which people used as a method of absolving themselves of responsibility for their own actions; and, of course, at the height of the great psychiatry phase, when going to a ‘shrink’ was seen as the fashionable norm, rather than the exception, for the richer portion of society (a particularly American craze, that one – never took off to quite the same degree over here). In that sense, perhaps it does say something insightful about the time of writing, but it never felt wholly authentic to me.

I did find it very readable – the quality and flow of Yates’ writing ensured that. But when I got to the end, I felt I had simply spent time watching two sad and failed lives spelled out in great detail for no particular purpose, and without that sense of truth and insight that raised Revolutionary Road from commonplace misery to devastating tragedy.

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Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier

The joys of ageing…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

moon in a dead eyeWhen their city neighbourhood begins to change and all their elderly friends gradually retire to quieter places, or die, Odette and Martial decide it’s time to buy a little retirement home in a gated community. Odette is keen to move, Martial less so. The community is newly built and Odette and Martial are the first couple to move in. Early impressions are hampered by the constant rain while, until more people move in, the swimming pool and clubhouse remain closed. But there is a caretaker, though given his creepiness that’s a bit of a mixed blessing. However, things perk up a bit when another couple and then a single woman move in, and the clubhouse is finally opened complete with a social secretary to provide a bit of fun. Thrown together in this isolated place, all the residents quickly become friends. But then the gypsies arrive…

I’ve had a bit of a mixed journey with Pascal Garnier so far. I enjoyed Boxes, loved The A26, and sadly wasn’t very taken with this one at all. It follows the same kind of format as the others – set up the characters, put them in a slightly odd, isolated situation, then make some terrible things happen to them. The writing is as good as ever, the quirky characterisation is great and there’s the same vein of humour, growing increasingly blacker as the novella progresses. Perhaps I’ve just read them too closely together, but I felt this one was rather like painting by numbers.

The first bit of the book is great. The description of this couple trying to settle into their new lives rings very true. Martial in particular misses the busyness of his old home, where he knew everybody and only had to walk down the street to meet acquaintances. Now he finds it hard to find anything to fill his days. The story of their trip to the beach is a glorious piece of blackly comic writing – the wind at their back as they walk giving them a sensation of energy and vitality, till they have to turn and come back against the same wind whipping away their breath and leaving them shattered and exhausted. It’s a great picture of people trying to come to terms with the fact that ageing is taking its toll on what they’re physically able to do, and nicely satirical about all those pictures of happy, energetic retirees in the sunshine that populate brochures for these kinds of communities.

Unfortunately, when the horrors begin, they simply didn’t ring true for me. The actual events didn’t justify the paranoia and, avoiding spoilers, the character change of the person who does the deed was too sudden and not well enough supported. The whole thing also turned on a plot device that I couldn’t believe in – namely, that if the electricity got cut off the electric gates to the community couldn’t be opened manually. There is also a piece of totally unnecessary and gruesome animal cruelty, which never works for me. And finally, the ending depends on such a hugely unlikely coincidental event that it lost any remaining credibility.

Pascal Garnier
Pascal Garnier

I know many people have loved this as one of Garnier’s best, so I’m certainly willing to assume that the problems I encountered with it are a result of too recent comparison with the others I’ve read. Certainly his writing, aided by an excellent translation by Emily Boyce, is as good as ever and I did enjoy the early part of the novella a good deal. But the plot didn’t work for me this time round, I’m afraid. I have two other novellas of his on my Kindle, but I think I’ll leave a good long gap this time to try to avoid that feeling of sameness that I found with this one. Tricky, when I’m being rather negative, but I do still recommend this – I suspect with these novellas everyone will find they have different favourites, but all the ones I’ve read so far have been well worth the reading, especially if you’re more skilled at suspending disbelief than I am.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Gallic Books.

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I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

Paranoia doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you…

😀 😀 😀 😀

i am no oneJeremy O’Keefe has returned to New York after spending a decade teaching at Oxford University. He’s glad to be back, especially since it means he’s able to spend time with his daughter, now grown and married. But a series of odd events begin to make him feel he’s under some kind of surveillance, though he doesn’t know by whom or why. Unless he’s imagining it all…

Flanery has chosen a very different voice for the first-person narrator of this book, and he sustains it beautifully. Almost stream of consciousness at times, Jeremy uses long run-on sentences, full of digressions and asides, but so skilfully constructed they always make it back to where they began without losing the reader along the way. Jeremy is unreliable, not so much – or perhaps not only – because he is trying to mislead the reader, but because he doesn’t really want to face up to his own weaknesses. But as he rambles on, frequently repeating himself and going over the same bits of his life again and again, each time the story he tells contains subtle changes, so that we gradually get to understand him better and, despite him, begin to be able to see between the gaps and put the true story together ourselves.

A feeling of unease develops from the beginning, when Jeremy waits for a student with whom he has arranged a meeting. She doesn’t turn up, and Jeremy later finds an e-mail exchange he apparently had with her postponing the meeting – an exchange of which he has no memory. When he recounts this incident to his daughter, he is surprised at how ready she is to consider that the problem lies in Jeremy’s own mental state. But paranoia does seem to be a feature of Jeremy’s personality, as does fear. His academic focus is on post-war surveillance methods, particularly in East Germany, and he also runs courses on how surveillance and voyeurism are portrayed in films. Perhaps all this is feeding into how he’s interpreting events. Certainly some of his suspicions about people seem little more than paranoia, but some of the odd things that happen (if we can trust his account of them) suggest there’s more to it than that. The uncertainty is brilliantly done and creates an atmosphere of growing tension as the story slowly unfolds.

Patrick Flanery zoomed onto my must-read list with his first novel Absolution and consolidated his position as one of my favourites with Fallen Land, a book that I presumptuously declared should be a contender for the title of Great American Novel for the 2000s. So my expectations for this one were high – probably too high. And in truth it didn’t quite meet those expectations. However, having given myself some time to mull it over before writing this review, I’ve concluded that it’s primarily the comparison with his previous books that has left me a little disappointed with this one.

Patrick Flanery (source:patrickflanery.com)
Patrick Flanery
(source:patrickflanery.com)

It’s difficult to explain without spoilers why I felt a little let down by how the story played out, so I’ll have to be pretty oblique here – sorry! There are two main questions in the book – is Jeremy under surveillance, and if so, why? When the answers become clear, it also becomes obvious that Jeremy must have known certain things all along, which makes a bit of a nonsense of all the passages where the reader watched him puzzle over them. As an intelligent man, whether paranoid or mentally stable or not, he could not have known what he knew and yet not have understood the implications. So when all became clear, I found that credibility nosedived. However…

… as I thought about it more, I realised that Flanery had done something that I think in retrospect is rather clever, though I’m not entirely sure whether it was intentional. (And, clever or not, intentional or not, it doesn’t remove the basic credibility problem.) The whole book reads as if it’s heading in the direction of criticism of our surveillance society – of those hard-won freedoms we have cheerfully and perhaps short-sightedly given up in the aftermath of the horrific terrorist episodes of the last couple of decades. This preconception of the ‘message’ of the book meant that, when it ended, my initial reaction was to say Flanery had failed to make his point. But when I thought more about it, I realised that he could have done that facile thing – given us the cliché of the blameless individual hounded by an over-powerful state – and we could all have tut-tutted merrily along in our liberal disapproval. But Flanery didn’t – instead he gave us something that left the moral stance much less clear; something that made me realise how far my own opinions have shifted in response to the repeated horrors of recent years. That yes, I do want to shelter behind state security services and, yes, I am willing to give up things I would once have considered sacrosanct in return for security. And that left me ruminating…

So, in the end, the depiction of Jeremy’s descent into paranoia and fear make it a tense read, and Flanery’s excellent use of language and voice make it an enjoyable one. And, although I don’t think this book works quite as well as his previous ones, it is still thought-provoking, raising important questions about security, surveillance and freedom in this new world we inhabit.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Atlantic Books.

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