On Chesil Beach is more of a novella than a novel and tells the story of Florence and Edward on their wedding night in 1962. Despite being very much i...moreOn Chesil Beach is more of a novella than a novel and tells the story of Florence and Edward on their wedding night in 1962. Despite being very much in love, they have never broached the subject of sex and both are anxious for different reasons - Edward has performance anxiety and Florence is repulsed by the idea of sexual contact. As the night goes on, the effects of their lack of communication become clear.
I loved this little book. It was one of those books where not much happens and the characters are very ordinary, but McEwan has a real gift for observing emotions and human relations. Whilst reading I felt as though I was inside the heads of both Edward and Florence, but especially Florence. Weighed down by concern about how she 'should' act and behave, Florence can't help but make things worse for herself;
"She seized his hand and led him towards the bed. It was perverse of her, insane even, when she wanted to run from the room, across the gardens and down the lane, onto the beach to sit alone. But her sense of duty was painfully strong and she could not resist it. She could not bear to let Edward down." p33
"Sex with Edward could not be the summation of her joy, but was the price she must pay for it." p9
McEwan wrote simply, but somehow managed to pack more emotional impact into this short book than some authors manage in much longer works. I found myself rooting for Florence and Edward, and wanting to reach into the book and shake them when they were failing to communicate. It wasn't a happy book, and McEwan seemed to highlight how easily happiness can be dispersed and how emotions (especially pride) and events can get in the way. I could feel the awkwardness and emotions radiating from the characters. It was also nice to read a book in which sex was treated realistically, rather than over the top and always perfect.(less)
Okay, time for a bit of a history lesson. I knew nothing about Nigerian history before reading this wonderful novel, but here is what I learned: Niger...moreOkay, time for a bit of a history lesson. I knew nothing about Nigerian history before reading this wonderful novel, but here is what I learned: Nigeria was ruled by the British until the late 1960s. During this time of colonial rule the Igbo people were perceived as doing better than the other tribes. After the British left, there were mass uprisings/ethnic cleansing against the Igbo people, especially by the Hausa tribe. This led to them breaking away and forming their own state, Biafra. The flag of Biafra was half of a yellow sun. The Nigerian forces deliberately used starvation as a tactic against Biafra and eventually it fell. Both sides recruited child soldiers.
I learned all of this without realising I was learning it by reading Adichie's novel. It's narrated by three distinct people: Olanna, the daughter of an Igbo chief; Richard, an Englishman who has fallen in love with Nigeria and later Biafra; and Ugwu, a houseboy for an Igbo professor. All of their lives overlap and they are thrown together as the war descends.
I can't describe just how much I enjoyed reading this book. It was a real epic and dealt with some harrowing topics - rape, genocide and child soldiers - and the central characters were just so vivid that everything had more impact. What I thought was really powerful was how Adichie had them becoming less and less concerned with their previous problems as the war overtook them. Olanna hadn't spoken to her sister in years but when she witnesses war, all of that fades away. It seemed to me like a realistic portrayal of war, although thankfully I have never experienced it. The whole book had lots of emotional impact, to the point where certain scenes were hard to read.
The structure of the novel broke up the harrowing parts from the pre-war parts well, and it was all anchored by extracts from a book about the conflict that one of the characters was writing. Although Adichie is Nigerian, it never felt like she was trying to preach or convert, simply telling a story about what happened to millions of Biafrans during that time. The writing style was simple, but very powerful. The pace moved from slow in the sections about the time before the war, to almost frantic as events escalated.
A Suitable Boy is the inter-connected tale of four families in post-independence India. Although the central story is Mrs Rupa Mehra's quest to find a...moreA Suitable Boy is the inter-connected tale of four families in post-independence India. Although the central story is Mrs Rupa Mehra's quest to find a suitable husband for her daughter Lata, Seth's novel is more than that and is best described as a panoramic of Indian society. From racial tension to religious festivals to adultery, ambition and politics, A Suitable Boy is an epic in every sense of the word. The many individual stories are told alongside each other in nineteen parts and cover the human condition in all its forms. I enjoyed reading about Savita's journey into motherhood, Pran's struggle to become an academic, the Nawab Sahib's bewilderment as the world he knew disappeared and the eccentric Chatterji family, who were more liberal and liked to speak in couplets.
If you have the time to invest in it, A Suitable Boy is a very rewarding book. For me, it's up there with Gone with the Wind and Anna Karenina as a book that I will always remember. Lata and the cast of characters feel like members of my friends and family; two days after putting this book down for good, I'm missing them. Towards the end of the book when things start to happen and events get resolved, I was emotionally invested in the outcome each character would have. Seth made me connect with each one (even if I didn't like them all) and I have a clear visualisation of what each character is about, which is not easy to pull off. It felt almost like the book got into my soul.
As the scope of Suitable Boy is so broad, there's guaranteed to be something in it for each reader. I'm a fan of multiple perspective books anyway and the rapid shifting between points of view stopped this long book from becoming tedious to read. I'm in utter awe at the way Seth managed to wind all of his characters and events together without losing the impact of the story. There are some plot points not resolved by the end and everything doesn't tie up nicely, but then it's not the kind of book where everything would. A Suitable Boy does require an investment of time and effort but most definitely repays anything you put into it.(less)
The Cellist of Sarajevo is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people caught up in a war they did not want and have no control over. The siege of Sa...moreThe Cellist of Sarajevo is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people caught up in a war they did not want and have no control over. The siege of Sarajevo is the longest running siege in modern history, lasting from April 1992 to February 1996 and killing around ten thousand people. An average of 329 shells hit the city every day and snipers in the surrounding hills targeted civilians, making everyday tasks like a game of Russian Roulette. When the difference between life and death becomes totally random and out of your control and the person walking next to you can be shot down whilst you survive, life becomes unimaginable.
The Cellist of Sarajevo follows three characters. Dragan has managed to get his wife and son to safety but was unable to leave the city he loves himself. Kenan must make several dangerous journeys to find fresh water for his family. And Arrow has joined forces with the counter-snipers, trying to defend her city. All of them are struggling to come to terms with what happens when civilisation as you know it melts away.
Despite all of this, it is not a novel of despair. There are moments of humanity and hope amidst all of the destruction, such as people coming under sniper attacks themselves in order to save strangers. All three of the main characters struggle with how much humanity and civilisation they are going to allow the snipers to take away from them, and for one of them the simple act of walking with your head held high and greeting passers-by becomes an act of defiance;
"He will behave now as he hopes everyone will someday behave. Because civilisation isn't a thing that you build and then there it is, you have it forever. It needs to be built constantly, recreated daily. It vanishes far more quickly than he ever would have thought possible." p216
The most powerful part of the book for me was how random death had become for the inhabitants of Sarajevo. At one point Dragan is waiting to cross an intersection and he witnesses some people cross without incident whilst others are gunned down and tries to figure out why some are targeted. But there is no answer and I can't imagine having to come to terms with that.
I was very impressed with Galloway's writing. Considering it is quite a slim book, he didn't need many words to create a powerful impact. The ending was extremely powerful and it's a book that I've carried on thinking about long after I put it down.(less)
My journey into Russian literature continues with Anna Karenina. I have owned this book for a long time but have always been put off reading it becaus...moreMy journey into Russian literature continues with Anna Karenina. I have owned this book for a long time but have always been put off reading it because of its size and the fact that it's Russian and therefore to me, intimidating. After reading it, I really wish I had gotten around to it much sooner.
The only word that can truly describe this book is epic. In some ways it reminded me a lot of Gone with the Wind in this sense - it was epic but not at all stodgy and quite fast paced. The story centres around two sets of characters and their quest for happy family lives. Anna leaves a passionless marriage for a romance with Count Vronsky, losing her social status and access to her son. But her sacrifice soon starts to put pressure on her new relationship. Levin, a romantic idealist wants an idyllic life in the country with new wife Kitty. In fact, the opening statement sums up what the story is about well: "All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion."
What I absolutely loved about this book was how perceptive Tolstoy was about life in general. His observations about character feelings and society were very profound in places and I found myself underlining a lot of key passages in the book. I especially liked the way he wrote the stream of consciousness' of the main characters when they were going through a crisis as it made it easy to relate to them; for example when Levin was suffering with low self-esteem after being rejected:
"No, you're not going to be different. You're going to be the same as you have always been - with your doubts, your perpetual dissatisfaction with yourself and vain attempts to amend, your failures and everlasting expectation of a happiness you won't get and which isn't possible for you."
The characters in general were so vivid and complex and real that they just jumped off the page. Over the course of the book I felt like I had really got to know Anna, Vronsky, Levin, Kitty, Dolly and Oblonsky so when it got near the end and dramatic events started to happen I was glued to each page. I was definitely emotionally involved, even if I didn't quite understand why Anna would ever go for Vronsky as he seemed like such a shallow player at the beginning.
The only slight criticism I could make is that there were too many minor characters for me - I didn't really care about Levin's brother (the writer one, not the drug addict one) or the self-sacrificing Varenka enough to read whole chapters about them. But it is a minor criticism, I really enjoyed reading this one. (less)