Thursday, October 17, 2013

We Need New Names

I find myself enthusiastic about this novel.  Told almost as a series of short stories (but cohesive enough to be a novel in my mind), this is the story of 11 year old Darling, a resident of a Zimbabwean slum called "Paradise."  Darling's voice is fresh, playful, and wise - and although her life intersects with many "political" topics, both in Zimbabwe and then later as an American immigrant, those issues mainly take a back seat to Darling's personal experience.

The first half of the novel follows Darling through her exploits with her preteen friends in Zimbabwe.  Darling's life intersects many big picture issues in Zimbabwe, poverty, race, revolution, AIDS, evangelical Christianity, etc., but we only hear about them as a backdrop to the games and exploits of the gang of friends.  Darling is more focused on the practicalities of her life - the intricacies of the rules of the various games invented by her friends, where she will find more guavas to eat to stave off hunger, interactions with her family members and neighbors, and her daydreams of one day joining her Aunt in America.

One thing I loved about this book is the loved the rich vivid metaphor that laces NoViolet Bulawayo's storytelling:
Then MotherLove stands beside this giant poster of Jesus and starts singing.  At first there is this hush, as if people don't know what music is for, but then they start swaying.  Soon they are gyrating and twisting and writhing and shuffling and rocking.  MotherLove's head is tilted up like she's drinking the stuffy air, her eyes closed.  Her mouth is open just a little, you'd think she didn't even want to sing, but her voice is boiling out of her and steaming up the place.

I also appreciated the message of the story, especially as we follow Darling to America.  Darling has much to say about the ranks of "illegals," working in America and the heartbreaking reality of being without a country to call home.  I'm not surprised this one didn't ultimately win the Booker this year, but I'm very grateful to have read it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Testament of Mary

The term "novella" may be too big for this short story.  I think that was my first disappointment.  And the length of the piece is not mandated by the subject.  The story felt at times truncated and rushed,  at other times over packed and too dense.  Colm Toibin has an interesting starting point here, but I'm not a fan of how he delivered.

The Testament of Mary, we are supposed to understand, is the first hand account of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. (In case you were confused, and I'd argue that you would have an excuse to be, the Library of Congress has helpfully applied the Subject Heading "Mary, Blessed Virgin, Saint — Fiction.")  However, nowhere is the narrator identified as Mary explicitly, and nowhere does she refer to her son by his first name.  Instead, Toibin relies on his audience's assumed familiarity with the basic story of Jesus to put the pieces together.

It's Toibin's coyness on the whole subject matter that bothers me the most.  Rather than writing a compelling story, I think he wrote around a compelling story.  His gaps are supposed to be filled in by Biblical scripture.  He relies on his audience knowing the vague references he makes to characters from the gospels (without using their names, for the most part).  However, as I am not a biblical scholar, or even a sometimes reader, I found myself lost on many of his more obscure references.  Oh, I'm familiar enough with the tales of Lazarus and the wine-into-water miracle, and the circumstances of Jesus' death, but Toibin expected me to have a greater understanding of the details - otherwise his plot twist and foreshadowing fall somewhat flat, as they did for me.

However, it was clear even to me that the Mary narrating this story is not the sweet demure Mary of the illustrated Children's Bible we had growing up. This Mary is bitter, and dislikes people - particularly men:
I have made clear to her that her sons, if they ever should come here, cannot cross this threshold. I have made clear to her that I do not want their help for anything. I do not want them in this house. It takes weeks to eradicate the stench of men from these rooms so that I can breathe air again that is not fouled by them.
 Maybe Mary's dislike of men springs from the loss of her son, but it seems that Mary was a bitter woman prior to her son's murder.  Speaking of a time before his death, she states:
And so I decided to set out for Cana for the wedding of my cousin's daughter, having decided previously that I would not go. I disliked weddings. I dislike the amount of laughter and talk and the waste of food and the drink flowing over and the bride and groom more like a couple to be sacrificed, for the sake of money, or status, or inheritance, to be singled out and celebrated for something that was none of anyone's business and then to be set up with roars of jollity and drunkenness and unnecessary gatherings of people.
 Harsh words from Mary! Whatever it was in her past that has caused her to feel this way about people or marriage is simply not touched in this story.

Which gets me back to the very short length of this story.  Toibin could have developed the plot so much more.  Mary's experience of the circumstances of Jesus' conception, birth, and childhood remain a mystery.  Oblique references to minor characters could have been fleshed out more satisfactorily.  Mary's character could have undergone a palpable change into the acerbic misanthrope we hear narrating the story.  We could have find out a bit more about Joseph and her relationship with him.  Providing these details would have helped make this story more engaging and memorable for me.

It's my first of the 2013 Booker Shortlist novels, but its already not my pick for winner.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Dirt Music

Tim Winton fills Dirt Music with severely damaged characters - and I'm not sure I was able enough to like them enough for the novel to work for me.  Georgie Jutland is a natural carer who isn't caring for anyone, including herself, and is on a downard slope to alcoholism and self destruction.  The man in her life is Jim Buckridge, a blokey Western Australian who may never get over the death of his wife.  And, after a one night stand, the other man in her life is the much younger Luther Fox, who should be a soleful musician but who makes a living as an illegal fisherman because he is haunted by violence and loss.  Its not clear how any of these characters can be redeemed, and they certainly try to find redemption and healing through each other.  But plot twists take us into implausible waters and Winton ultimately did not hold my attention.

What did captivate me about this book was Winton's beautiful sense of place - the coasts and interiors of Western Australia.  Perhaps because I spent some time living and traveling in Western Australia, I felt his images were evocative.  I could really picture the light - the harsh mid-day glare, or the golden dusty sunsets permeated nearly all of his scenes. He captured perfectly the essence of small town Western Australian life without relying on stereotypes or characatures, which I really appreciate.  Still, I didn't enjoy it enough to recommend it to anyone I know.

Bel Canto

The premise of the captivating Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is relatively simple – during a dinner party filled with international dignitaries, a guerrilla gang invades and takes the party-goers hostage. Several dozen guests and captors, speaking a dozen different languages, live together in the house as the crisis stalemates.  But they are united by the spellbinding power of music, which slowly alters the dynamics between hostage and captor.
The story is alternatively narrated by several characters, but primarily by Gen Watanabe, a professional translator who is the only person in the house that can speak to every other person.  As a result, Gen is involved in almost every major conversation between the hostages and between hostages and captors.  Gen’s slow but steady alteration from indifferent professional translator to emotionally invested interlocutor is part of what made the story fascinating.  But there is also Roxanne Coss, an American soprano.  Throughout the novel, her singing voice seems to bestow upon her magical powers – she is immune from violence or threat of violence, and she has the power to elicit love and devotion from everyone in the house.
Bel Canto snuck up on me.  Perhaps because of the subtle magical realism elements, before I realized what was happening, I was as oblivious to the improbability of the story as the characters seemed to be.  As the hostages interacted with their captors, I too began to feel empathy, compassion, and even admiration for them.  As the hostages fell in love, both erotic and brotherly, I understood and applauded them.  Patchett demonstrated to me just how compelling and even easy what we call “Stockholm Syndrome” can be.
But the story had to end.  I was amazed at myself for daydreaming a happy ending to the hostage crisis along with the hostages and captors, even as the number of pages remaining dwindled.  Of course this story does not have a happy ending –rather a jarring one that snapped me back into the world.  But it was in Patchett’s ability to persuade me that there could be a fairy tale ending that her mastery was most apparent.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Never Let Me Go

Predictably, I'm entranced by yet another Kazuo Ishiguro novel.  Never Let Me Go caught and held my attention, surprised me (even in the way that it surprised me), and will have me reflecting on its themes for some time to come.

Kath, Ishiguro's main character, is another subtly unreliable narrator.  Her narrative style is deceptively simple - a bit of "dear diary" and lots of plain blunt language.  If you think her style is boring, I believe you are missing the marvellously rich subtext lying in the things Kath does not quite say.  The narrative push comes from her allusion to stories before a chapter break after which she tells the story. This style, combined with the touch of mystery, made this hard for me to put down.

It turns out that the mystery aspect, as well as the "science fiction" aspects of the story ended up being the least interesting things about this novel.  Instead, this is a story about the human condition, and the themes are distilled by filtering them through the lens of a dystopic alternate reality.  The most striking  idea for me was the idea of community - how we need to construct communities, how belonging to a community can distort a person's perception of fundamental aspects of life, and what it means to a person who is left out of community, or whose community has disappeared - and perhaps ultimately the tragic loneliness of the human condition.

At some point toward the end, I became frustrated that this was not actually a mystery novel, and that it did not tackle the 'political' aspects of the issues it raised.  But the characters' submission to their destinies moved the spotlight to the contemplation of what it means to have a full life -  can it be that art, love, friendship, belonging, duty, and sacrifice are enough? I'm still not sure.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 8, 2012


Darkmans by Nicola Barker is the most modern novel I have ever read.

I was set up to be unimpressed.  Its a brick of a novel - at 838 pages my  paperback copy weighs in at more than 2.5 lbs.  In addition to its doorstop quality, the novel is published in a sans serif font and is littered with italics - two things that generally drive me nuts.  Furthermore, Barker's use of large spacing to denote inner thoughts of her main characters took me several hundred pages to get used to - and all that empty space contributed to the large size of the final product.

I thought it would be a chore to read, and I had already given myself permission not to finish if I couldn't make it through before my library check out expired.  But about 300 pages in, I began to have a hard time putting it down.  By the end I was actually disappointed that it wasn't even longer.

The novel follows seven main characters, all loosely connected and living in Ashford, England at one end of the new Channel Tunnel.  The book opens with Daniel Beede, a man who had originally petitioned for the location of the Channel Tunnel, but when the plans called for the destruction of a historic property his support turned to protest.  His failure to halt the construction haunts him daily.
There was an ugly scuffle.  But he saw it!  He stood and watched -- three men struggled to restrain him -- he stood and watched -- jaw slack, mouth wide, gasping -- as History was unceremoniously gutted and steam-rolled.  He saw History die -- 
You're killing History!
Kane, Beede's son is also haunted by history, as he flashes back to his mother's slow wasting death while he, a teenager, acted as her sole caretaker.  In their own ways, each of the other major characters carries the weight of their history on their shoulders, and each are also plagued by the kind of modernity symbolized by the Channel Tunnel.  There's Isidore, an apparently mentally ill security officer, his wife Elen, a chiropodist, and their autistic son Fleet; Kelly Broad, Kane's teenage ex girlfriend; and Gaffar, a Kurdish immigrant who acts as personal assistant to Kane in his dealing of prescription drugs.

Kane, Beede, Dory, Elen, Fleet, Kelly and Gaffar are all to varying degrees also haunted or inhabited by something more insidious - the Darkmans.  Is the Darkmans the spirit of John Scoggin, a jester to the court of Henry VIII? Is it perhaps the small angry bird Phlegein?

Or are these characters each falling prey to their own mental weaknesses and driven by History. Perhaps the Darkmans is just a manifestation of their various schizophrenia, autism, drug use, etc.  Or maybe Elen, who appears to be at the center of all of this, is actually causing these possessions or hallucinations.  I spent the better part of this novel wondering if something supernatural was actually occurring, and I'm not sure I have a conclusion.
The past keeps piling up.  Yes.  But that's only normal, surely?  Sometimes I wonder if I am the only one who sees it, if I am the only one who sees the same tree -- the same old book, the same wall, the same piece of road -- as thousands of eyes have seen it before, and who feels the weight, the terrible weight -- the actual weight -- of all this apprehension.  As if I am the only one who feels history, who sees the atom of pure emotion raging away behind everything.  The buzz and clash of the atom.  This awful friction.  This urge to truth.  This urge to destruction. This urge to vengeance.  Oh God!  Where does it flow from?  Why?  For what?!  And how much longer can I possibly be expected to hold it all back?
Her imagery is immediate and visceral;  the characters, eclectic and engaging; the plot, haunting.  Its a book I'll be thinking about for weeks to come.

As an afterthought, this is the third novel I have read that was nominated for the 2007 Booker prize - and each of these have been truly fantastic.  It must have been a very hard choice for the committee, and I'm torn about whether I would have picked this one, or Animal's People.  The Committee chose The Gathering, which was also excellent, but perhaps predictably resembles many other past winners in ways that neither Darkmans nor Animal's People did.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Story of Lucy Gault

Yet another Booker book with a fantastic set up that fails to deliver.  Lucy is mistakenly, through a series of unfortunately events, abandoned by her parents at the tender age of seven.  Under the impression that she has been downed, her parents abandon their home, flee Ireland, and in their grief do not look back for over 30 years.  But Lucy has not died - she remains in the home waiting hopefully for her parents' surely imminent return.  And the reader waits with Lucy.
But as time progresses, it becomes apparent to the reader well before it is understood by Lucy or the small community supporting her that the return of her parents can only be a disappointment.  Lucy is no longer a litter girl but a grown woman, whose choices have left her isolated and outside of the sphere of the living for entirely too long.  No reunion can achieve what either Lucy or her parents secretly wish for - for everything to be made whole. 
But because it is primarily a book about waiting, about life slipping by unlived, it is ultimately not a very engaging story.  Perhaps this was William Trevor being too good at achieving what he set out to do.  Sure, Trevor's prose is clear and descriptive, but it was not enough to keep me wanting more.  I was consumed by the isolation and hopelessness, and the sense of wasted life that were the themes of this novel, and no ending could have reinvigorated me enough to induce me to recommend this book very highly  to others.