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Jan 01, 1393
Dec 02, 2014
Notes are private!
Jan 26, 2015
Jan 26, 2015
Jun 20, 2006
After the 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately After the 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately started rereading - something I have only previously done with children’s picture books.
It is, without question, my joint favourite book ever. (Titus Groan/Gormenghast is the other, in a very different way.) For that reason, I’ve really struggled with this review: it’s hard to explain its mesmerising power in a way that does it justice. In a departure from my usual technique, what follows is from the heart, with very little reference to my copious notes, though I intend to come back to them at some stage so that I can add quotes.
WHAT SORT OF STORY?
It opens with a page of downbeat, but carefully crafted spoilers, rather like an obituary, after which, the story is told straightforwardly and chronologically, from William Stoner’s last days at school and on his parents’ farm, to life as a university student, then university faculty member, marriage, parenthood, affair, and finally his death. His main joy is literature, and the university that enables him to share that love with others, reflected in simple but heartfelt words on his retirement, “Thank you all for letting me teach”.
It sounds dull, banal or both, but it's not. It's heartbreakingly beautiful, without being sentimental, and because Stoner is never without hope, I didn't find it a depressing.
CONTRASTS: ELOQUENCE and INARTICULACY, STRONG and WEAK, SUCCESS and FAILURE, GAIN and LOSS
It’s a book about language and literature, and yet inarticulacy is a recurring theme: it is the direct cause of most of the pain, but also the trigger for his main happiness: in a compulsory literature review, it is his inability to understand, or perhaps to explain his understanding of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 that triggers a life-long passion and career. This reticence or inability to talk about innermost thoughts is perhaps one reason why the causes of Edith's behaviour are only hinted at: anything more explicit would set the wrong tone (and might not have been appropriate when published).
Almost all Stoner’s dreams come true, but happiness is always elusive and ephemeral. The good things are lost or, worse still, taken away by someone he had hoped would be his love or friend (Edith and Lomax, respectively). Both antagonists are sensitive, damaged people (as is Stoner) and Lomax even shares his love of literature for similar reasons (escape).
One message of the book is “carpe diem” (seize the day, or in youth speak: YOLO), which is also reflected in Sonnet 73’s focus on decay, death, and enjoying what we have while we can.
Stoner can be brave, such as swapping from an agricultural degree course with its predictable future to an English literature degree, inspired by a sonnet he struggled to explain – and yet he doesn’t have the courage to tell his parents until after they’ve attended his graduation.
WHAT SORT OF MAN?
Some see Stoner as passive and weak. Certainly there are many times when I wanted him to act differently, or just to act at all - in particular, to stand up for his daughter and his lover.
Instead, he is quietly stoical, which is apt, given his areas of interest include classical Greek literature. His quiet stoicism, born of parental fortitude and nurtured by habit and habitat runs too deep for him to act as others would.
He loses everything he values (even the rapport with his students and the ability to enjoy his books) and in many respects, he is a failure as son, husband, father, lover, even scholar – but he keeps going, never bearing a grudge, trying his best. So sad, and yet curiously inspirational.
TIME AND PLACE
Unlike some readers, I find Stoner entirely believable, especially when you consider the much higher social cost of divorce back then.
Would the story be any happier if it were set today? It would certainly be different, but flawed people raise flawed people. Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and that would be just as true of one unhappy family transplanted from one period in history to another.
In a contemporary setting, even if he had married Edith (unlikely?), she would surely have got help (bi-polar abuse survivor?), though maybe too late to fend off divorce. Either way, matters would turn out better for Katherine and Grace, and Lomax and Walker would probably not have got away with as much as they did. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Williams set it more than a generation earlier than the time he was writing.
SPEAKING TO ME
Why did this book move me in such a direct and personal way? I'm not a man, not American, wasn't born at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries and have never been a farmer or a professor. But I do love books, I do need escape sometimes, and I did spend much of my childhood on a family farm, though there was never any expectation that I would be a farmer.
The farm is part of it though: in some ways, Stoner reminds me of my beloved grandfather, who died when I was 14. Although he had a happier life than Stoner, he had the same quiet but dogged resilience, and always tried to make the best of what life or wife threw at him.
The other aspect that poured from the pages, especially second time round, was the emotional damage caused by bad parenting (albeit sometimes with good intentions), caused or exacerbated by poor communication. I was repeatedly reminded of Larkin’s famous lines “They fuck you up your mum and dad… But they were fucked up in their turn” (see below). Although I had a largely happy childhood, there were odd, complex and problematic aspects that have left their mark on the sort of adult and parent I am, and although I’m the mother of a wonderful 20 year old, I’m very conscious of things my husband and I could, and perhaps should, have done differently. (I think we’re doing better than the Stoners, though.)
Soil. Stoner is a son of the soil and there are many allusions to its power to spread and bind, whether seeping through the floorboards or being ingrained in the skin or mind. Soil chemistry is the only agricultural course mentioned by name, and Stoner enjoyed it – until he discovered his greater love: literature. He is transplanted from the countryside to the university, where he puts down roots, and stays – no matter what.
The university is the setting for almost all of the novel and arguably a character in its own right. Early on, one of the characters muses whether it is a path to self-fulfillment, an instrument for social good, or just an asylum. The novel quietly demonstrates that it is all three.
“Lust and learning… that’s really all there is” says one character, but both of those need an outlet. The insularity of most of the main characters and their unwillingness or inability to discuss or even show their feelings means they are lonely outsiders who can’t relish life. That aloneness exerts a high price that manifests itself in different ways; the saddest outcome is for Grace, Stoner’s daughter. We need to reach out to each other, communicate, and seize the day.
At times, Stoner is like Don Quixote, with Gordon Finch as a brighter and more influential sidekick than Sancho. This friendship is the one enduring human relationship. Finch repeatedly takes risks to help his friend, and yet it is a very understated friendship, that is not especially close. An area to explore further on a reread?
There are three troubling aspects, but that conflict is part of what makes the book compelling:
• Two characters are self-described “cripples”. Times and vocabulary have changed, so that’s not the issue. What is harder is the fact that both characters are unpleasant and both use their disability to make false and malicious claims of prejudice to their own advantage.
• What are the issues around consent for sleep-sex, given that the other party won’t countenance it when fully conscious, but is, at some level, vaguely aware of it when nearly asleep?
• The emotional abuse and manipulation of children is ghastly – but sadly credible. Edith is a victim who inflicts even worse damage on her daughter, but I was shocked that Stoner felt so helpless to protect Grace, and there were a couple of passages where he seemed to care more about his lover than his daughter.
Another issue that may be controversial is whether some of Edith’s behaviour is indicative of her being bi-polar. Such a term is never used, and I’m no expert, but her regular alternation between extreme business and prolonged periods of being helpless and bedridden for no outwardly visible reason suggest something like that to me. Or maybe her problems are entirely due to her cold and repressive childhood. (After her father’s suicide, she destroys everything connected with him; is this just anger at his death, or something more sinister? I suspect the latter.) So it comes back to Larkin.
Apart from Larkin, aspects of this brought to mind:
• Ian McEwan’s honeymoon novella On Chesil Beach: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
• Any of the Richard Yates novels I’ve read: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list....
• The paintings of Edward Hopper such as Room in New York: http://www.artexpress.ws/painting-img....
To be added…
THIS BE THE VERSE, by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
(For the record, I endorse the truth of the first two verses, but do not advocate the third, which is a decision only you can make.)
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
Jan 06, 2015
Nov 17, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoile This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoiler”.
I have a briefer, spoiler-free, and very different, review here (different * rating, too): https://www.goodreads.com/review/show..., which is more about my feelings for the book. It also includes a selection of favourite quotes and links to interviews. The difference in star rating is deliberate: I couldn't decide.
LINKS AND THEMES
This book, perhaps more than any of his others, cannot be viewed in isolation. In particular, it is closely tied to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
I’ve read all Mitchell’s previous books (four of them twice): connectedness is the most overarching theme, within and between books.
All (except Black Swan Green?) muse on (im)mortality, specifically souls moving from one body to another, but not in a spooky paranormal way; it’s more matter-of-fact than that. The sometimes uneasy host/guest/invader relationship is mirrored in wider themes about power, exploitation and survival of the fittest. Music often features, as do islands, rescue vessels (literal and metaphorical), and survival despite societal collapse. Here, there is no sudden, total apocalypse and it happens without a glittering high-tech future in between.
Most famously, characters from one book make fleeting appearances in another. This is fun,
I like the idea that just as his novels (including this) are often built up of connected stories in different styles, those novels have a similar relationship to each other: stories within stories within stories, creating a whole world of connections: immortality by transferring from one vessel to another.
“Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. That makes it less surprising that his next five novels are “planned to some degree”. One will be the final volume of the Marinus trilogy.
The Thousand Autumns had seemed to be a fairly conventional historical novel with fewer connections than Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks changes that, exposing overlaps and hidden fantasy:
• Marinus, a significant character in The Thousand Autumns, is a major character in this.
• Marinus mentions Arie Grote from his life in Dejima in Thousand Autumns.
• The immortality-seeking baby-eating cult in Thousand Autumns is presumably an early grouping of Anchorites.
• We glimpse Prescience, precursors of the Prescients from Cloud Atlas.
• Hugo Lamb’s cousin is Jason Taylor, the main character in Black Swan Green (who was in turn, heavily based on Mitchell).
• Ed Brubeck writes for Spyglass magazine, as did Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas.
• Elijah D’Arnoq is a reincarnation or descendant of a D’Arnoq that Adam Ewing encounters in The Chatham Islands in Cloud Atlas.
• Dwight Silverwind from Ghostwritten makes a small but significant appearance.
• Mo Muntervary has small important roles here and in Ghostwritten.
• There is a mention of a battle in a sunken garden, the title of the opera Mitchell recently wrote the libretto for.
• Holly’s family get takeaways from The Thousand Autumns Restaurant (though it’s Chinese, not Japanese).
• Soleil Moore: she’s an Asian-American poet who is really important, then drops out of the narrative completely. I’m guessing she’ll feature prominently in a future book.
There are also characters apparently based on real characters: Lord Roger Brittan is a minor character, rather like Lord (Alan) Sugar; more obviously, Crispin Hershey is remarkably like Martin Amis (see below).
The book even references itself: Hershey bases one of his characters on Holly’s husband, and Soleil Moore accuses him of having written about Anchorites.
There is an enormous cast, and some characters live in multiple bodies and so go by different names. Those peripheral in one section are often significant in later one.
I don’t need to like the protagonists of a book, which is just as well. Holly isn’t unlikeable, but I found her voice annoying and trying too hard to sound teenage, yet not always believable. (In particular, endless abbreviations: “Ed Brubeck’ll be”, “Mam will’ve told Dad… ‘bout why”, and the apostrophe-esses that weren’t possessive were easy to stumble over).
Other characters are highly unpleasant, yet somehow lacking the glamour of a really good baddie.
Many have accents in their names, which was a little distracting: Zoe, Anais, Eilish, Oshima, Immaculee – but not Aoife.
Hershey, Amis, Mitchell?
Critics have seen close parallels between Martin Amis and former “Wild Child of British Letters”, Crispin Hershey: in terms of life events, writing style, personality, and book titles (Hershey’s successful Desiccated Embryos and another called Red Monkey compared with Amis’ Dead Babies and Yellow Dog). Martin's father, Kingsley, is even quoted, saying a bad review might spoil breakfast, but he wouldn’t let it spoil lunch.
Mitchell has repeatedly denied any conscious link. Instead, he claims Hershey is “not just my worst aspect, he’s my fears. He’s what I might turn into if I’m not careful” and he "is all the worst parts of me, amplified and smooshed together" and in this section "I got to have a lot of fun spoofing people like me". Hershey’s most successful novel has a symmetrical structure, like Cloud Atlas.
Most literary critics are sceptical. The Guardian wondered whether “buried deep within this scrupulously polite and unassuming writer, a revenge fantasist [is] just waiting to punish the reviewers who dismiss him” or if he’d “belatedly woken up to the fact that taking a pop at his literary elders is not necessarily the smartest career move”.
I’ve only read one Amis novel, and nothing else by him; I wonder if he has Crispin’s quirk of alternating between first and third person for himself – even in a single sentence!
META – MUSINGS ON WRITING
Mitchell sees each collection of related novellas as part of a greater work: echoes and foreshadowing abound, Hershey’s failed book has “Echo” in the title, and elsewhere, we’re told the mysterious “Script” “loves to foreshadow”.
In this, he explicitly muses on fiction, writing, and lit crit, and pre-empts some potential criticisms of this book. The bad review that kill Hershey's sales, includes, “Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower… The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretentions, I cannot bear to look… What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Later, “A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.”
After the second deus ex machina moment, Mitchell has one of the characters declare it as such, just so you know he knows.
In some ways, Hershey is very unlike Mitchell, observing that “in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre” – something Mitchell makes a speciality of. He also makes prescriptive judgements on writing that I doubt Mitchell subscribes to in blanket terms: “Double-negatives are truth smugglers” and “Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose”.
“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synaesthesia and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardise your relationships and distend your life.”
At one point, Hugo observes, “such narrative arcs make great movies, but shitty lives”; he neglects to say what sort of books they make.
This is deceptively straightforward for Mitchell: a chronological story of one woman’s life, told in six, first-person parts:
1984 “A Hot Spell”
Illustrated with a disintegrating clock, narrated by Holly, a fifteen-year old who heard voices as a child, and now runs away after bust ups with parents and boyfriend. It is not Orwellian.
(view spoiler)[From aged 7, Holly occasionally heard voices she called “The Radio People” – “not a ghost… but a visitor to your mind”. One night, one of them (Miss Constantin) appeared in her room, and afterwards, a bully Holly mentioned is hit by a van! Shortly after that, a psychiatrist (Dr Marinus) gets rid of the voices. Now, aged 15, after a row with her parents, she runs away to be with her boyfriend. Just before she goes, her brilliant but weird younger brother, Jacko, gives her a labyrinth he’s drawn and stresses the importance of her memorising it. She finds boyfriend Vinny in bed with best friend Stella, so heads off on her own. She meets a strange old woman who knows her name and says she may ask for asylum. She thinks she glimpses Jacko in an underpass, but it can’t possibly be him and then it turns into a more muddled multi-sensory hallucination. Later, she’s staying with a couple who are suddenly dead, apparently by the power (or maybe just poison) of a strange and sinister visitor who rambles about all sorts of stuff neither she nor the reader understand. There is a bizarre, rather filmic fight, but she escapes and has her memory of it wiped. How is she narrating what was wiped? And a few pages later, she muses, “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”. She heads for a fruit farm and dreams she is pregnant (we later discover she was, and had an abortion). Ed Brubeck turns up and tells her Jacko is missing. (hide spoiler)]
1991 “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume”
Illustrated with Holly’s labyrinth, told by Hugo Lamb, a conscience-free, money-loving Cambridge student, not quite as aristo as his equally obnoxious friends. Far more important than it first seems.
(view spoiler)[Hugo loves music (shades of Alex in Clockwork Orange, for more reasons than that: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), and in a crucial scene, he’s approached by beautiful Immacule Constantin, who asks him about power. He gives a pompous student answer. Her reply includes “Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed… Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul… Power’s comings and goings from host to host… are the plot of history… Power itself is amoral… Power is watching you.” She offers him “perpetual deferral of death”, but doesn’t explain, and next thing he knows, it’s an hour later and she’s gone. Reading to an old family friend with Alzheimer’s, exposes Hugo’s fears (“Whatever I do with my life… I, too, will end up like this vile old man… I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself”). A train ride prompts other musings, “’I am the system you have to beat’ clacks the carriage… Another train on a parallel track… glimpse the young City worker I’ll have turned into this time next year… but his train sways away down a different track.” Hugo is a nasty piece of work: apart from fleecing old Brigadier Philby of his valuable stamps, he sets up a friend(!) to lose heavily in a card game so that the friend will be forced to sell a vintage car that Hugo will take a cut of, and when the victim drives it over a cliff, Hugo’s only thought is “I could weep. All that money.” He’s never been in love and realises “Nothing throws the chasm between me and Normals into starker relief than grief and bereavement.” He meets Holly in a Swiss ski resort, where she’s a barmaid, and although she seems immune to his charms, they have a fling and he (maybe) falls in love. Elijah D’Arnoq, who tried to recruit him to a student shooting club called the Anchorites wants him to take a leap of faith to find out what it’s all about. Hugo realises he’s being offered a Faustian pact and that “tends not to have a happy ending”. (hide spoiler)]
2004 “The Wedding Bash”
Illustrated with a crystal ball showing the Middle East, told by Ed Brubeck. Two very contrasting aspects: the excitement of a family wedding and life (and constant risk of death) as a reporter in Iraq.
(view spoiler)[ Ed is back from reporting in Iraq for Holly’s sister’s wedding; he sees himself as “an archivist for the future”, which is one way of assuaging the guilt of being away so much: “Aoife’s childhood is a book. I’m flicking through instead of reading properly”. When he’s out with Aoife, Immacule turns up, saying she’s a friend of Holly’s and checks the six year old for an “invisible eye”. Aoife wants to go to the fortune teller (Dwight Silverwind), but Ed refuses. Great Aunt Eilish describes Jacko (who was never found) as a changeling: he was ordinary until he caught meningitis aged five. Eighteen months later, he was different and knew too much for his age, but “It wasn’t Jacko’s brain that changed… it was his soul.” He even told her he was “a well-intentioned visitor”. She had to tell Ed this because it’s in the Script, and he should “Believe her [Holly], even if you don’t believe in it”. Ed and Aoife have a nap and when he wakes, she’s gone. He assumes she’s gone to Dwight; she hasn’t, but he helps look for her, telling Ed “I’m scripted to stay with you until the end”. Holly faints, says “ten fifteen” and drops her labyrinth pendant; Dwight realises it means room 1015, which is where she is. It’s as if Holly was one of the Radio People. (hide spoiler)]
2015 “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”
Illustrated with a spider and web, told by Crispin, an amoral, formerly successful, novelist.
(view spoiler)[See notes about Amis, and Meta, above. Hershey was the “Wild Child of British Letters”, having had a very successful book (Desiccated Embryos) but a later one (Echo Must Die ) savagely reviewed by a uni friend of Hugo’s called Richard Cheeseman. Hershey blames Cheeseman for ruining his career. He takes revenge. The repercussions are far worse than expected, but he’s not overburdened with guilt, seeing Cheeseman as a thief, he “committed the action. I am the reaction.” Meanwhile, widowed Holly has written a bestselling memoir called “The Radio People”, and they keep running into each other at book festivals around the world. He hates all the psychobabble, but, they form a friendship. Although Holly no longer hears The Radio People, she does get occasional premonitions, “I’d be mugged by a bunch of facts that hadn’t happened yet” and she has a specific recurring vision related to him, of “a spider, a spiral and a one-eyed man”. All three feature, loosely, in his sudden death at the hands of Soleil Moore, who thinks that killing him is the only way to make the world read her poems (that he had not) and so learn about the Anchorites. (hide spoiler)]
2025 “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”
Illustrated with an apple, narrated by Marinus. It becomes full-on YA fantasy here. It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. If I’d read any Dan Brown, I might spot parallels there.
Plotwise, it could have ended at the end of this, but my rating would have been lower, as I found this section increasingly silly.
(view spoiler)[This is where the bulk of the strange vocab occurs (see below). There is much backstory of Marinus (in his 36th body), and especially the long-standing war between Horologists (good) and Anchorites (bad). Repeated lives, coupled with premonitions is almost like time travel (people sending messages to their future selves via complex routes, for instance), people swap body/sex//country/name, and there’s plenty of crossing and double-crossing. Anchorites are predators: they kill engifted children at regular intervals to maintain immortality and after that, they don’t age and can... teleport! “They are addicts and their drug is artificial longevity.” Horologists are “born” as such, and when one body dies, they pass harmlessly to another random body, sometimes sharing a body with another soul. The Horologists have a complicated plan to destroy the Anchorites (a previous one failed): multiple body swaps, life and death, fighting, transporting, borderline magic… exciting, or just silly? It was the latter for me: the incantations sounded like Harry Potter spells, someone is bludgeoned with a rolling pin, and the writing goes crazy, “hidden by a Deep Stream cloak… got to you with a quantum totem” and “a crack in the fabric of the Chapel of the Dusk” – bring me Lyra’s Subtle Knife and be done! Anchorites see things rather differently: “Horology is a club for immortals who prevent others from attaining their own privileges”, which conveniently overlooks all the killing. The end of this chapter was a foregone conclusion for me, albeit not in the details, with a deus ex machina. (hide spoiler)]
2048 “Sheep’s Head”
Illustrated with a running fox silhouetted against an ominously large moon, told by Holly, who is old, and struggling to raise two children, as a slow-burn apocalypse approaches. There is irony the fact this increasingly desperate situation is utterly plausible and grounded in current and possible events. The fantasy battles of the previous chapter seems irrelevant – especially as connectedness is the most fundamental thing to collapse (“the commodity we’re most in need of is news”).
(view spoiler)[Holly has survived cancer, but is old, living in rural Ireland, raising Aoife’s daughter and a young boy refugee. It is The Endarkment: global power shortages, barely any internet, rising sea levels, food (and everything else) is rationed, a nuclear power station is leaking, gangs roam, and the Chinese dominate the economy (mail order brides now go from Europe to the East) and have concession in Ireland. The prognosis is decline, “For most of my life, the world shrank and technology progressed” but she now realises that “’the natural order of things’ is entirely man-made.” She lives in an area protected by government forces, but is all too aware that as life gets harder, that may not be sustainable: “Civilization’s like the economy… if people stop believing it’s real, it dies”. Painfully real, basic survival is in sharp contrast to the preceding section. There’s another deus ex - and this time the characters themselves recognise it as such (another pre-emptive strike by Mitchell). In its defence, it does tie up with Cloud Atlas. (hide spoiler)]
The vocab list for anyone interested in horology became somewhat ludicrous. Here’s a sample:
Scansion, Incorporeals, Atemporals, Sojourners (go straight from one body to another, usually of the same sex), Returnee (“each resurrection is a lottery of longitudes, latitudes and demography”, usually alternating gender, with a 49 day gap), subtalk, the Script, Aperture, Shaded Way, psychovoltaic, “hiatus freezes [someone], suasion forces [them]”, oubliette, psychosoterica, carnivorous psycho-decanter, animacides, soul thieves, chakra-latent, dreamseed, metalife, transversing.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
Mitchell quotes mostly from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/p...), and http://www.theguardian.com/books/book.... Also interviews on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club, and Radio 4’s Front Row (that I can’t find online any more).
All my Mitchell reviews are here:
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 27, 2014
Aug 07, 2014
I read this because I enjoy Atwood's varied writing, I like reading dystopian and speculative fiction, and the the preceding two books in this tri Why?
I read this because I enjoy Atwood's varied writing, I like reading dystopian and speculative fiction, and the the preceding two books in this trilogy were excellent, in different ways.
#1 Oryx and Crake reviewed here 4*: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
#2 Year of the Flood reviewed here 4*: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
#3 MaddAddam only 2*.
I read each within a year or so of publication and didn't know it was planned as a trilogy until I finished the second. The first worked fine as a standalone; the second was a parallel story time-wise, but structured and narrated in a pleasingly different way, shedding new light on the first. And this one...? I can't see the point of it, and I wonder when she decided on a trilogy. It's not that it's badly written or boring, but it doesn't add anything pertinent: just a bit of backstory and a smattering of predictable follow up.
This novel continues the trilogy's recurring theme of unintended consequences of good intentions gone wrong. Maybe that applies to the book itself.
I made lots of notes, but very little happens, so I won't include them here: if you've read the other two, you'll know most of the plot and characters (though it's recapped at the start - and throughout, really), and if you haven't, there's little point reading this, which just fills in a few gaps and joins a few threads.
Contrived scenarios are created for characters to explain things to others (at such times, it feels more like an amateur news report, rather than a novel), and the language they use is often annoyingly banal. Atwood is better than this.
In addition to the now-familiar plot points of bio-terrorism, GM, evil corporations, pollution, child exploitation, sex industry, underclass, hacking and gaming, life-and-death escapes, attempted murder, actual murder, survival, new religion, love, birth and death, there's a rich, powerful and corrupt PetrOleum-based church.
As in O&C, this alternates between two timelines: surviving in the "present" post-Chaos world versus events leading up to the "waterless flood".
And as in Flood, this has conventional passages interspersed with short but regular quasi-religious ones. In this case, they're Toby telling creation-type stories to the Crakers, with shades of Joyce Grenfell (you don't read the Crakers' comments in these passages, but do read her slightly exasperated responses to their incessant, childlike questions).
There are some provocative ideas, but they were largely wasted:
The Crakers were designed as near-perfect humans: peaceful, trusting, optimistic, questioning, musical, beautiful, immune to many diseases. The most profound question is to what extent they are human: it's a philosophical question in the story (hammered home by people explicitly discussing it), but also a plot point. It's left somewhat open-ended.
"The world has been changed utterly... the familiar is long dead... everything he used to love has been swept away."
"Once there were too many people and not enough stuff; now it's the other way round." So, plenty of loo roll and linen; survival is more a matter of not getting killed by dangerous beasts or criminally violent painballers.
Obviously, survival pushes the boundaries of what one's prepared to eat: former vegetarians dabble in meat, but no one can face eating animal hybrids bred to have human hair that looks like something from a shampoo advert. Even the pigoons (pig-based animals with some human brain components) have complex rules about cannibalism.
However, survival isn't just about finding food right now: "It's hard to concentrate on the idea of a future. She's too immersed in the present... It's tempting to drift, as the Crakers seem to do... No long-term goals."
Our own pseudo-reality TV is bad enough; popular TV shows before the disaster are, worryingly, almost believable: "Mixed Martial Arts Felony Fights, Nitee-Nite live-streamed suicides or HottTotts kiddy porn or Hedsoff real-time executions." How low can we go?
Power of Stories
Belief in stories is at the core of the Crakers' optimistic existence. "What is 'belief' but a willingness to suspend the negatives?" That's why it's so important to them that Snowman-the-Jimmy keeps telling them creation myths about Crake who made them and Oryx who cares for the animals. When he can't do it, Toby has to take over.
Atwood knows the importance of stories too, and can be a powerful storyteller, but in this book, I found that power lacking, except when she was writing Toby's tales to the Crakers. And then, she is fully conscious of it; it becomes rather meta. As Toby says, "There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too."
Thus Toby weaves: initially to placate the Crakers, but she finds a sort of comfort in the ritual, as well as a little fun. When they overhear Snowman-the-Jimmy swear, she explains that Fuck is an invisible helper of Crake's who comes at times of need, when called. They subsequently call to him.
Writing and reading takes things to another level. Toby teaches a young Craker, but wonders if it was a good idea to do so - where it will lead. Reading her old journals is like "a whisper from the past... The voice your ghost would have".
There is humour here, which is just as well, and I suppose making that work in a dystopian setting, without turning into screwball comedy is quite an achievement.
Atwood even address the humour in such a dark situation directly: "Why is war so much like a practical joke?... hiding behind bushes, leaping out". Quite a sobering thought.
The slogans at HelthWyzer aren't bad:
"FOLLOW THE SAFETY RULES AND KEEP YOUR HEAD! AND ITS CONTENTS!"
"YOUR MEMORY IS OUR IP, SO WE'LL PROTECT IT FOR YOU!"
And having "oleaginous" as a password provided quite a challenge to use it in a plausible sentence.
* "It gives her a look of addled reproach."
* "City types with disposable emotions who liked to think they were saving things." (of those who participated in an eco-scam.)
* He "continued to work on [eating] his conundrum of [an artificial] sausage."
* "Laminated eyes. Hard and shiny."
* "Slippery with longing, every pore avid, every capillary suffused, and thrashed around like newts in a puddle."
* "Blood is thinner than money."
* Cheap soap smells "like wading through a sea of dying lilies or a clutch of elderly churchwomen."
* A bloke's first girlfriend was "beginning to emerge from the sex-induced coma created by him through the magic of his first-contact-with-aliens puppy-on-speed gonadal enthusiasm."!
* "Does she want bad news about what she fears or good news she won't believe?
* Plants reclaim the man-made world: "They'll have a building cracked like a nut in a few years, they'll reduce it to rubble in a decade. Then the earth swallows the pieces. Everything digests, and is digested."
* Taking a mild hallucinogen, "She doesn't want all-out brain fractals, just... a crinkling of the window glass that separates the visible world from whatever lies behind it."
* An unhappy couple: "There was a pot of boiling rage on a private stove behind their closed curtains."
* The internet is "full of holes, all the better to trap you with". You have been warned.
* To go unnoticed in the pleeblands, it's "best to seem up to no good, in non-specific ways."
* "The smell of a pleasure factory in the off hours, so sad... that meant you got loved only if you paid."
Official trailer for this book:
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2014
Oct 15, 2014
Jul 20, 2013
Sep 02, 2014
I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do two: this is the short, spoiler-free, initial thoughts one. The much longer, and very different, one is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... (its spoilers are hidden).
Two reviews allows two ratings, but by the time I'd finished this, I realised even with its faults, it's not 2*, so it will be 3* and 4* from me.
Narrative Structure and Plot
It's a relatively straightforward narrative for Michell: a chronological story of one life. However, like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, it is also a collection of related stories, in different styles and genres (like CA, it's in six parts). In this case, the first and last sections are narrated by the central character (Holly), and the other four, by those playing a key role during that episode of her life.
In Mitchell’s own words (jotted down almost verbatim) in an interview on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club:
A murderous feud between two circles of pseudo immortals: one benign and one decidedly predatory. It erupts every ten years or so. Holly moves from pawn to decisive weapon, as she develops from being primarily a daughter, through lover, to mother, improbable and reluctant bestselling writer, (he missed out the fifth one, but I’d say confused combatant), and finally, battle-scarred grandmother. It’s about mortality, and several characters are offered a Faustian pact: keep your youth in return for having your conscience amputated. (Mind you, there’s at least one character who rather lacking in the conscience department, even without such a pact.)
But although it's ostensibly about a woman, it's always in relation to the men she encounters, and most of them are pretty unpleasant. So really, it's about men. There's no reason why it shouldn't be, but I think it's only fair to point out a potential wrong expectation.
It could easily and satisfactorily have ended after the fifth section, but didn’t, which I’m glad about, despite the sharp contrast.
I’ve described the key features of each section in my detailed review.
As with all Mitchell's books, this one features characters from and references to his other works. Most have a peripheral role here (there's no need to be familiar with their other appearances), but one major character was significant in The Thousand Autumns (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), making that book seem much less of a straightforward historical novel than it appeared at the time.
In Mitchell’s own words, “Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. It started out as fun, but "I’m building a coherent, megalomaniac's, large-scale world of an uber-novel".
Very recently, he said:
“I think I have recently discovered I am basically not a novelist, I am a novella writer. If you put novella A next to novella B then they – interact isn’t right – smack off each other, they glint at each other. They possibly echo or reflect each other, and make a third thing.”
Mitchell's favoured themes of power, predacity, exploitation, contrasted with sacrifice, mortality, islands, lifeboats (in a loose sense) and refuge are strong. Migrating souls are central, and there are other touchpoints, such as music, and life approaching or after societal collapse.
There's a comprehensive list my other review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Mixed Genres and Age Groups
The early sections have a few incidents that might be paranormal or just psychological, but it's all broadly realistic. Only later does it turn overtly fantastical (at which point you begin to realise some of the foreshadowing in earlier sections) and it's more like something by Philip Pullman (or perhaps Dan Brown, who I haven't read).
Swapping genres is a trick Mitchell has pulled off well before, but this feels like switching age groups, which may be why it feels more jarring. The contrast between the very realistic (I assume) sections set in the Iraq war and the more YA fantastical war in the later parts is a powerful disconnect. Is that a strength or a weakness? I'm not sure.
What Price Immortality?
This question is never explicitly asked, but it screams from the pages. Would I want to live forever, even if such an ability was benignly acquired? Probably not (what about friends and family?), and yet, there’s always one more enticing experience. Mitchell himself says he chose the motivation for the evil protagonists based on what would tempt him: not money or sex, but "never having to stop... never having to end... not having to say "goodbye" to this world".
Even one who has lived through many lives fears “Will I die without ever reading Ulysses to the end?”. I haven’t even started that! Then again, as one mortal says, “We sort of live on, as long as there are people to live on in”, meaning grandchildren, whether biological or just a younger generation one has influenced.
Wouldn’t it be nice to erase bad memories, as could be done by some in this book? If you’ve seen “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”, you may be less sure. But without the bad, the good would seem less good, and our lives would lack colour and contrast. Also, what if you knew something had been erased? “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?” And “If you can’t trust your mind any more, you’re mentally homeless.” I think for most of us, we’re probably better off keeping most of our memories.
Quite a few, I’m afraid:
Some of the narrators were annoying: teenage Holly didn’t ring true (and used odd abbreviations) and Crispin Hershey alternates between first and third person for himself.
One of the irritations is how knowing this book is: Mitchell pre-empts some of the more obvious criticisms by applying them to a book that (like this) jumps oddly into fantasy, and having a character acknowledging a deus ex machina by that label. There’s a lot more about these aspects in my lengthier review.
Conversely, lack of knowing is an issue: on at least two occasions a narrator has a memory wiped – and yet they’re able to describe before, during and after.
Spotting cross-overs with his other books can be fun, and it creates a broader canvas for an uber-book or universe, but occasionally it feels like gratuitous showing-off. However, one can never be certain there isn't a good reason, yet to be revealed, so I end up forgiving him.
The sections describing reporting from a war zone are very well done, but there was just too much of it for my taste –and most of it wasn’t very relevant for this book (but who knows about future ones?).
A trivial but (for me) distracting feature was the excessive use of names with all manner of accents, even for English characters. Just because computer typesetting makes it easy, doesn't make it desirable.
He even throws in the most famous line from Game of Thrones (it must be famous, as I've neither read nor watched it) - or maybe that was just co-incidence.
Strength – So Much
And yet... and yet... even though I didn't care enough about any of the characters until the very end (which is not the same as liking them, which is not something I need to enjoy a book) I was keen to keep reading at every opportunity, and am glad I did. And now that I've finished, I find I have SO much to mull over, I realise what a powerful book it is.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
• A bone clock “whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.”
• “There’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff.”
• “What if heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason… Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches.”
• “Whatever’s slowing down isn’t inside me… it’s time slowing up or gravity pulling harder, or air changing to water.”
• “a low-tide sort of face” (of a man in his sixties).
• “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”
• “King’s College choir’s sixteen bat-eared choristers, bereft of hair styles.”
• Music “chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists… [it] binds your quivery soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity.”
• “I let Piccadilly Circus tube station suck me down into its vortex of body odour and bad breath… commuters sway likes sides of beef, and slump like corpses.”
• “Persuasion is not about force: it’s about showing a person a door, and making him or her desperate to open it.”
• “A wealthy upbringing compounds stupidity while a hard-scrabble childhood dilutes it… This is why the elite need a prophylactic barrier of shitty state schools.”
• “Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object.
• “The morning cold is a plunging cold; but the blue sky’s blue as Earth from space, and the warmth from the sun’s a lover’s breath; and icicles drip drops of bright in steep-sloped streets from story books whose passers-by have mountain souls.”
• “The impossible is negotiable. What is possible is malleable.”
• “Like all belongers, the Sykeses and Webbers don’t notice how easily they slip into groups.”
• “Clouds curdled pink in the narrow sky above the blast barriers lining the highway into Baghdad.”
• “The stranger absorbs Hershey’s withering stare like a man in his prime with nothing to fear, notwithstanding the damage that Time the Vandal has done to his face.”
• The US president has “orthodontically majestic sons”.
• “Modesty is vanity’s craftier step-brother.”
• The soul is “a spiritual memory-stick in search of a corporeal hard-drive; and as a placebo we generate to cure our dread of mortality.”
• “Esther enfolded my soul in hers so I could spirit walk much further and faster than I was otherwise able. When she scansioned me I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to Shakespeare. When I scansioned her I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea”.
• “The sun’s sunk behind the [mountain], so the greens are stewing to greys and browns. Leaves and twigs are losing their three-dimensionality… The glass of dusk is filling.”
• “She walks as if distrustful of floors, and sits down as if she’s had some bad experiences with chairs too.”
• “’What lives one day must die’ can, in rare circumstances, be renegotiated… Atemporality, with terms and conditions applied.”
• “There are days when New York strikes me as a conjuring trick. All great cities do and must revert to jungle… Today, however, New York’s here-ness is incontestible, as if time is subject to it, not it subject to time…. Welded girders, inhabited sidewalks and more bricks than there are stars. Who could ever have predicted these vertical upthrusts and squally canyons?”
• Paraphrasing Arthur C Clarke, “Some magic is normality you’re not yet used to.”
• “If you could reason with religious people, there wouldn’t be any religious people.” (It’s rather missing the point of faith, but is true nevertheless.)
• “The sound of waves dies and gives birth to the sound of waves, for ever and ever.”
* A presentation to librarians, in which Mitchell talks initially in general terms and then, from 11:45, The Bone Clocks specifically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxq-F...
* Q&A with HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09...
* Interview that includes a chart of cross-over characters: http://www.vulture.com/2014/08/david-...
* Barnes and Noble interview, including much about Marinus in both this and Thousand Autumns, as well as the importance of music: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/...
* LA Review of Books, general lit crit of Mitchell's uber-novel, but mainly in relation to The Bone Clocks: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/ad...
All my Mitchell reviews are here:
Notes are private!
Sep 03, 2014
Sep 23, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Jul 01, 2008
A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observe A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observer and writer of the small-scale aspects that make life real and characters spring to life. He's also pretty good at writing female characters. In fact, by far the weakest character is male: the faultless Henry Mynors.
In many ways, my life is utterly different from Anna's, but in some key ways, I can identify with her more than I might wish to.
This book is rather like a factory Anna visits: "No stage of the manufacture was incredible by itself, but the result was incredible."
This isn't one of his lightly humorous books (The Grand Babylon Hotel and The Card).
Instead, it features a profoundly nasty man, who never lays a finger on anyone or commits any crime.
Setting and Plot
It's as simple as it says on the back of the book: it's set in the English potteries district, in the early 20th century. Anna Tellwright is about to come of age, and lives with her wealthy, miserly, twice-widowed father (Ephraim) and young half sister (Agnes) in a Methodist-dominated town. Ephraim "existed within himself, unrevealed" even to Anna.
Anna is dutiful, naive, lonely: "the peculiarity of her position... awe and pity were equally mingled" and unfamiliarity with social situations mean she is not "a facile talker".
She inherits money, is taken under the wing of the Suttons, is courted by up-and-coming Henry Mynors, still cares about the fate of the less fortunate (Titus Price and his adult son, Willie), and is very unsure of herself. When invited to a sewing party, she is baffled by the etiquette: "Should she arrive early, in which case she would have to talk more, or late, in which case there would be the ordeal of entering a crowded room?" Who of us has not felt a similar dilemma, even with more experience?
However, she is not mistress of her own destiny, and that is where the tension springs from.
What is love?
Anna's stirrings of love, her excitement and uncertainty ring very true: "the main whose arm she could have touched... She had felt happy and perturbed in being so near him... already she knew his face by heart."
She is afraid and excited, and everything looks different, "She saw how miserably narrow, tepid and trickling the stream of her life had been.. Now it gushed forth warm, impetuous and full." She is even tempted to neglect her duty to her family (only in trivial ways).
Henry calms many of her fears: he's wonderful with Agnes, and even with her father - teasing the former, and braving the latter (even daring to ask for more beef).
However, just when she should be happiest, she feels "no ineffable rapture, not ecstatic bliss." Despite her yearnings, Anna lacks passion, whether for a man or for God (see the Revival section, below). She tries to live as if she has it for both, hoping it will become true.
I also questioned Henry's love for Anna: he seems too perfect and, given his strong religious faith, oddly unperturbed by her lack of conviction (though her dedication is admirable).
Anna's love of her sister is unquestioned and unquestioning, but her feelings about her manipulative father are more complex: "The worst tyrannies of her father never dulled the sense of her duty to him."
Ephraim Tellwright is a former Methodist preacher, but he's a very un-Christian emotional bully. The love of money is perhaps the root of his evil. He is a canny investor, a harsh landlord, and spends almost nothing, so his wealth has accumulated, and he's very proud of how well he's managed Anna's inheritance before she came of age.
He is shrewd and crafty. He simultaneously minimises his donation to the Sunday school and entraps his indebted tenant by promising to match the tenant's donation. He will also "promise repairs [only] in change for payment of arrears which he knew would never be paid". When he hands Anna's inheritance over, he really does no such thing. He makes her pay cheques in, forces her to write letters against her will, and ensures she daren't ask for a penny for herself. When she wants her cheque book, so she can buy a few clothes to go on holiday with the Suttons, he refuses.
Anna's own attitude to money is very different: she makes all her own clothes, has no servant or carriage, and uses nothing on her hair. "The arrival of money out of space, unearned, unasked, was a disturbing experience." "She wanted to test the actuality of this apparent dream by handling a coin and causing it to vanish over counters." The trouble is, she's now too rich to ask her father for any of his money, but she can't use her own, as he's tied her into a business agreement with someone. On holiday with the Suttons, she is startled by their "amazing habit of always buying the best of everything."
It's not only money that makes him mean. Anna and Agnes live in fear of his temper. His "terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart." The mindset behing his bullying misogyny are chillingly exposed: "The women of the household were the natural victims of their master" who had "certain rights over the self-respect, the happiness, the peace of the defenceless souls set under him." When she is engaged, he claims her suitor is only after her money.
Anna has been raised a Methodist and teaches in Sunday School, but feels like an outsider as she's never had a conversion experience. Guilt is not just a prerogative of Roman Catholics.
There is excitement at the prospect of a campaign, featuring a famous preacher with an "ineffably wicked" past: "the faint rumour of that dead wickedness clung to his name like a piquant odour".
In preparation, Anna visits the families of Sunday School children and "found joy in the uncongenial and ill-performed task", both as a penance and because Henry asked her to do it.
In the service, he "had two audiences: God and the congregation". The mesmerising techniques, Biblical exhortations, emotional pressure, guilt, and concern are carefully described: I didn't quite believe (in) him, but wasn't certain that he was a charlatan either: "he had an extraordinary histrionic gift and he used it with imagination".
Poor Anna "was in despair at her own predicament and the sense of sin was not more strong than the sense of being confused and publicly shamed... She heaped up all the wickedness of a lifetime... and found horrid pleasure in the exaggeration... She had never doubted... Jesus died on the cross to save her soul... What then was lacking?" She is tormented by whether to go forward as a penitent, and more, by the knowledge she can't.
When she most needs faith, it fails her. She can't turn to Henry, because he is too pure
I have been Anna. I know all those services, techniques and
feelings. I am now free (despite a painful glimpse back, via this book), and I wanted her to be too.
The key part of the plot is a factory, now owned by Anna, that is rented by Titus Price, a feckless man, deep in debt, with a sweet but ineffectual son, Willie.
Ephraim is keen for Anna to keep squeezing them for the rent arrears - a task Anna is not comfortable with. Worse still, (view spoiler)[Ephraim adds further pressure and threats behind her back. When Titus commits suicide, Anna blames her father and herself - even though the inquest finds other factors, such as embezzling church money. (hide spoiler)] From this, everything in Anna's life is jeopardised.
Gasp! I didn't expect or want a clichéd happy ending or a shockingly tragic one, but I wasn't expecting this, and I'm not sure how I'd describe it (a bit of both?), so I won't!
Anna believes "A woman's life is always a renunciation" (not necessarily of what the reader expects). I don't think Arnold Bennett believes it should be, though. He was a man ahead of his time.
The men (some shirtless) working alongside women in the pottery works was a surprise. More surprising still, was good Christians deliberately providing opportunity for a couple (not even engaged) to spend time alone together. Mind you, she did wear a "skirt which showed three inches of ankle"!
Maybe my history is at fault, though; this was published in 1902, so it just sneaks into the Edwardian, rather than Victorian category.
Quotes - Scenery and Atmosphere
Most of Bennett's books are set in the area he knew well. He portrays small town politics, industry, rivalries, and even makes factories seem beautiful.
"Burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence... unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime... enchanted air... a romantic scene"!
The towns are "forbidding of aspect - sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys had soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country" to a "gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms". This then segues into something rather different: "embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre... this disfigurement is merely an episode in the unending warfare of man and nature and calls for no contrition... Nature is repaid for some of her notorious cruelties."
Factories can be cruel, though. The women paintresses, a few "die of lead poisoning - a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm. One paints nothing but circles, the "summit of monotony... stupendous phenomenon of absolute sameness."
Of those visiting a new park, "people going up to criticize and enjoy this latest outcome of municipal enterprise... housewives whose pale faces, as of prisoners free only for a while, showed a naive and timorous pleasure in this unusual diversion; young women made glorious by richly coloured stuffs and carrying themselves with the defiant independence of good wages... a small well-dressed group whose studious repudiation of the crowd betrayed a conscious eminence of rank."
* Leaving Sunday School, the teachers "gradually dropping the pedagogic pose, and happy in the virtual sensation of a duty accomplished."
* An ageing and charitable woman's "bodily frame long ago proved inadequate to the ceaseless demands of a spirit of indefatigably altruistic, and her continuance in activity was notable illustration of the dominion of mind over matter."
* A young woman of 20 "had the lenient curves of absolute maturity."
* A man of 30 had "the elasticity of youth with the firm wisdom of age."
* A spinster "was lovable, but had never been loved... found compensation for the rigour of destiny in gossip, as innocent as indiscreet."
* "It seemed a face for the cloister... resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment."
* "unconsciously-acquired arrogance of one who had always been accustomed to deference."
* "the quiet enchantment of reverie. Her mind... ranged voluptuously free."
* An old dresser: "Seventy years of continuous polishing by a dynasty of priestesses of cleanliness" looked "as though it had never been new."
* "The double happiness of present and anticipated pleasure."
* Bad news spreads: "All knew of the calamity, and had received from it a new interest in life."
Old fashioned spellings:
Notes are private!
Aug 18, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Aug 18, 2014
Aug 01, 2009
An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes ir An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes irrevocably.
Flux, Transition, Contrast, Stagnation
"Reality seemed to have lost its accustomed hold, just as the day wavered uncertainly between night and morning."
Everyone lives between land and water, but each is also caught in some other dichotomy: childhood or adulthood; togetherness or separation; comfort or poverty; in or out of love; life or death; artistry or manual labour; dreams or cold reality.
"Decision is torment for anyone with imagination" because "you multiply the things you might have done and now never can". But that can lead to paralysis.
Parallels in my Life
I don't relate to the specific circumstances, but the paralysis of indecision, when torn between two thoughts or situations is something I often struggle with. Sometimes it leads to an impulsive decision (which I may or may not regret), other times I try to pass the decision to someone else, or just avoid making it altogether. I feel I should be able to learn from this beautiful book, but it suggests diagnosis (which I'd already worked out), but no prescription. And that's fine.
Setting and Atmosphere
It is set in "the Reach", a small community of barge-dwellers in London, around 1962. The houseboats are permanently moored; their movement is limited to bobbing up and down on the tide.
The residents are very much a community, and yet they have almost nothing in common, other than the fact they are all adrift (even the cat), living in a never-world between land and water - literally, and in a more profound, psychological sense.
"The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water would have liked to be more respectable than they were... but a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up."
It vividly conjures the vicissitudes of the sights and sounds of the water and weather, aided by a splattering of boaty jargon. "The river's most elusive hours, when darkness lifts off darkness, and from one minute to another the shadows declare themselves as houses or craft at anchor."
All the characters are Characters. As are the five boats. In fact, tradition dictates that owners are addressed by the name of their boat, though that doesn't happen all the time, and one owner thwarts it by changing the name of his boat to match his own name.
The main characters are Nenna (only 32, but with daughters Martha, 12, and Tilda, 6); Maurice, a young gay man making ends meet as a prostitute; Willis, an old marine painter, whose boat is in need of sprucing up; boat-proud Woodrow (Woodie); and Richard, a natural leader, ex-navy, now working in insurance, with the biggest, smartest boat.
All have troubles of some sort, though Nenna's are most evident. She's depressed and probably has other mental health issues: when she's alone, her thoughts "took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrates' hearing", perpetually having to defend her action and inaction regarding her marriage. Meanwhile, she is over-reliant on her daughters, who no longer attend school. Her "character was faulty, but she had an instinct to see what made other people unhappy".
"Was there not, on the whole of Battersea Reach, a couple, married or unmarried, living together in the ordinary way?"
Tilda is perhaps the least convincing character, which is a shame, as it could be fixed by making her 10, rather than 6. Growing up in the Reach, she is understandably fascinated by and knowledgeable about the river; she "had the air of something aquatic, a demon from the depths", and "respected the water and knew that one could die within sight of the Embankment". But her language and insight don't always sound right: "Do you think Ma's mind is weakening?" "It's not the kind who inherit the earth... They get kicked in the teeth".
In contrast, Martha is "armed at all points against the possible disappointments of her life, conscious of the responsibilities of protecting her mother and sister, worried a the gaps in her education... she had forgotten for some time the necessity for personal happiness."
(view spoiler)[Nenna often chats long into the night with Maurice, but there is a frisson between her and Richard. Willis' barge (Dreadnaught) sinks, though he escapes, and is put up by Woodie. Eventually, Nenna plucks up courage to visit her husband, Edward. He's a wastrel, recently returned from a failed attempt to make money in South America, and won't come to the boat. (Meanwhile, Martha gets friendly with a 16-year old German, Heinrich, staying for 24 hours, as a friend of a friend of Nenna's sister.) She hoped to spend the night and win him back, but things don't go well, and she walks home, where Richard is waiting (his wife, Laura, has recently left him properly) and takes her out in a dinghy, before returning to the Reach. We later discover they did go into a cabin together. Meanwhile, Laura's wealthy sister is over from Canada, and wants to take her and the girls to start a new life there. But Richard is attacked by Harry, an acquaintance of Maurice (who uses Maurice's boat to store stolen goods) and is severely injured. His wife comes back to take care of him. Meanwhile, Edward comes looking for Nenna, but ends up drinking with Maurice, before trying to board Nenna's barge (she's not in, because of the storm) and possibly falling into the cold and turbulent waters.
Then it ends! I like untidy, open endings, but this was SO open, I was aghast. Do Edward and Maurice survive? Does Richard stay with Laura? Do Nenna and the girls go to Canada, and if not, do she and Richard have a chance, or even she and Edward? Will Harry be caught, and if so, what are the implications for Maurice (if he lived)? What about the homeless and penniless Willis - he surely can't go on living with Woodie? (hide spoiler)]
* "That crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are."
* The advantages of youth, "Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness." Also, "Her heart didn't rule her memory... she was spared that inconvenience."
* A petty criminal "had no expression, as though expressions were surplus to requirements."
* "Tenderly responsive to the self-deception of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own."
* "Martha bruised so easily. A princess, unknown to all about her, she awaited the moment when these bruises would reveal her heritage."
* "Many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other."
* A man, propositioning a woman on a street, "smelled of loneliness".
* "The kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning."
* "She would go with him to the end of the world if his outboard motor was always going to start like that." ;)
* A young German (ex) aristocrat had "an upbringing designed to carry him through changes of regime and frontier, possible loss of every worldly possession... had made him totally self-contained and able with the sunny smile and formal handshake of the gymnast to set almost anybody at their ease."
* "The ship's cat was in every way appropriate for the Reach. She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl... Through years of attempting to lick herself clean, for she had never quite lost her self-respect, Stripey had become as thickly coated with mud inside as out. She was in a perpetual process of readjustment... to tides and seasons... The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Aug 08, 2014
Aug 17, 2014
Aug 08, 2014
Aug 27, 1996
I hadn't read any Updike for years, the premise of this one was appealing (a promiscuous priest, sent away to consider the conflict between his sexual I hadn't read any Updike for years, the premise of this one was appealing (a promiscuous priest, sent away to consider the conflict between his sexual shenanigans and his faith), it was only £2.99 on a charity stall, and I don't have to like the protagonist to like a book, but this... I didn't enjoy it (2*). It was well-written in many ways (3*), but Tom was just too unpleasant. I tried make allowances for different mores, but whereas his misogyny and homophobia would be understandable in a Victorian, this is set within my lifetime (published 1975).
Plot and Structure
Tom is sent away for a month to a place in the desert for errant priests. There doesn't seem to be any therapy or counselling or anything really: just time away to reflect, and encouragement to play golf and poker ("the Bible above all is banned"). He is asked to write his thoughts each day (maybe the others are, but we don't know) so the book has one chapter for each day, with the four that fall on Sundays being like sermons. He muses on how he came to be there, with smatterings about what he's been up to that day. On the final day, it stops, with a final episode that may or may not be true. He occasionally addresses the centre manager, Ms Prynne, who he hopes is reading it, and whom he fancies. It's wry, irreverent, shameless, and, by his own admission, of dubious accuracy.
The way he analyses his own story as he seeks to justify his actions (twisting the Bible to do so), in part by blaming others, brought Humbert Humbert to mind. There is also an echo of Lolita's famous opening lines, "Oh Alicia, my mistress, my colleague, my adviser, my betrayer." He surmises that "I equate noise with [sexual] vitality" and he's "infatuated with completion", but these are not fully developed insights. Occasionally, he detaches, and slips into the third person, and sometimes likens people in his life to "dolls I can play with".
Tom is very well-read and drops lots of literary names in the first half, especially John Barth (who he sees as the epitome of masculinity). Mention of John Dickinson-Carr's idea of many locked rooms is very pertinent to the way Tom tries to compartmentalise his life, but gets only a passing mention. Later, it's his wife Jane who wants "symmetry and enclosure" by having a door to separate the foyer and living room.
(view spoiler)[He starts an affair with Alicia, his organist, and tries to pair up his wife (Jane) and curate (Ned). This doesn't work ("I thought they might at least fornicate out of conversational boredom"), and Alicia ends up having an affair with Ned, which makes Tom very jealous. He turns to Frankie, but her strong faith makes him impotent, so he has numerous affairs with other parishioners and those who come for counselling. Alicia tells Jane, but somehow Jane takes the upper hand in that discussion and with Tom; briefly, their sex life is wakened. When he sacks Alicia, with Ned's support, she tells one of the church elders. (hide spoiler)]All except Ned have children, yet they barely feature, even from a logistical angle. Tom's own teenage sons are an unpleasant nuisance, "Society... sets a term to childhood; of parenthood there is no riddance."
I was raised an Anglican, but have no faith in any higher power now. Nevertheless, the way Tom twists the Bible to show "adultery is our inherent condition" and "not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced" made me oddly uncomfortable. He goes further, saying people find themselves in adultery (which is fair enough), "stripped of all the false uniforms society has assigned them... The sacrament of marriage... exists but as a precondition for the sacrament of adultery". "Free love is not a scandal but a tautology."
He is uncomfortable with the word "love" but thinks it "the spiritual twin of gravity". At home (view spoiler)[after the novelty of the revelation of his affair (hide spoiler)], "weightlessness prevailed".
His persistent impotence with the only lover with any real Christian faith provides suggests he hasn't totally lost longing for his own, "I would greet my impotence as the survivor within me of faith, a piece of purity amid all this relativistic concupiscence."
Misogyny, Sexualising & Homophobia
After years as a conventional priest, husband and father, Tom strays once, and after that, he becomes insatiable. He's largely untroubled by guilt, but he's shocked at women who are similarly free of it. His casual demeaning thoughts about women infuse the book:
* "His wife, dear sainted sloven."
* His mother "was insignificant, timid, mousily miscontented."
* "There is this to be said for cold women: they stick. So beneath our raptures I heard the tearing silk of infidelity" (even though he's the one who is committing adultery).
* "I resent feedback... as a middle-aged woman resents the mirror."
* "The typewriter that like a dull wife has grown grudgingly responsive to my touch."
* "Babies and guilt, women are built for lugging."
He rather relishes exposure of his first affair, because it makes the logistics so much easier.
As sex, rather than God, becomes his world; he sees it everywhere:
* The "flirtatious brushing" of a "naked" branch.
* Typing sounds like "ejaculations of clatter".
* "Newsletters... that pour through a minister's slot like urine from a cow's vulva"!
In footnotes, he draws attention to his numerous Freudian typos.
Better, and more subtle, was the aside that he first saw his wife when she was standing "beneath a blooming fruit tree, a small apple or crabapple."
Outwardly, Tom is uncomfortable around men he suspects are gay ("the sidling fear that any unannounced homosexual puts into me") and assumes they're all feminine with pederast tendencies. He even intuits sexual orientation from how men approach putts and holes in golf. However, there are several suggestions that he feels some attraction to Ned, though is partly a manifestation of jealousy. There is a really weird (trans?) passage where he says one of the reasons he avoids pyjama bottoms (other than ease of masturbatory access) is "to send an encouraging signal to the mini-skirted female who, having bitten a poisoned apple at the moment of my father's progenitive orgasm, lies suspended within me". He also says "Though I like myself in drag, the church is no costume ball", though this comes across as a joke.
To reinforce his general bigotry, there's a casual reference to the "tribal chauvinism of the Jews".
Furniture (and the rooms it is in) is explicitly important to Tom, and is often described in delicate detail; he sees more of God in man made objects than the natural world. As a child, the family moved many times, and the furniture was a reassuring constant. "My father's carpentry opened the furniture of my childhood to me and made it religious" and "I had no choice but to follow my father into the ministry; the furniture made me do it."
* "The room still nudges me with its many corners of strangeness."
* He's always been happy in cars, "The first piece of furniture I could drive."
In particular, he always sees stripes on the stairs, suggesting "the great brown back of a slave" and "my own captivity". More poetically, "The oaken staircase flayed with moonbeams."
Furniture is significant in his breakups as well: when one lover leaves, he likens it to removing furniture from the church and with another, he's more concerned that she might lose her rich husband's beautiful furniture than anything else.
* "Knives of light fall upon the grapefruit and glass with an almost audible splintering of brightness."
* "The faint rubbed spot on the surface of silence that indicates where voices have been erased."
* "We played in each other like children in puddles."
* "How the world sparkled now that my faith was decisively lost."
* "Morning sunlight streaming, shade-tinted, dust-enlivened, from windows east and south. Snowcrusts from last week's storm visible through them."
* "From the first Thanksgiving, ours is the piety of the full belly. We pray with our stomachs, while our hands do mischief, and our heads indict the universe."
* "I like her fondness for the subject. We are circumscribed by tangents."
* "The demand for babies isn't what it was, though evolutional inertia maintains the orgasm as bribe."
* "The electric sloshing of television's swill."
* "The man knew how to wear authority's spacesuit"!
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Feb 07, 2002
I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat, #4", but it works as a standalone story, albeit an intriguingly odd one. In conjures exciting unease and bafflement. It is a book of paradoxes and uncertainty, leaving me satisfied with being left, in some ways, unsatisfied.
What sort of story?
Genre labels can be useful, but can also be an irrelevant distraction. However, with this book, I found myself repeatedly wondering what type of story it was. By the end, I was still unsure, but glad of the tension caused by doubt.
At various times, this was magical-realism, murder mystery, sci-fi, political thriller, romance (not too much, thankfully!), Kafkaesque, premature mid-life crisis story, surrealist, spiritual allegory, horror/ghost story, hints of Lolita, and the narrator likens a high-tech hotel to something out of Star Wars... It might have been easier to consider what it was not.
Quirk of the '80s
It's a strange time to read a book like this: it was published, and apparently set, in 1988, which is recent enough that it feels more or less contemporary. However, that was just before Google, laptops, mobile phones etc, which means the protagonists do not have the opportunities one now takes for granted.
Set it now, and the plot would need tweaking, but in 50 years, it will be historical enough for no one to notice. Reading it now, gave it an intriguing edge that added to the general sense of shifting reality.
Connectedness and (un)reality
Connectedness is the clearest theme of the book (and one that links it to David Mitchell, a known fan of Murakami, especially Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas).
There is perhaps unintended (or prescient?) irony in the fact that a novel that is all about connectness was written and set just before the world became dramatically more connected.
Ambiguity about what is real is the other thread: we assume the narrator is reliable (he's a journalist), but there are visions of various kinds, films, vague memories, a bit of mind reading. What is real, and what is not? As things get really weird, the narrator asks, "was the sickness in here or out there?"
Plot and Meaning
The unnamed narrator is a divorced man in his mid-30s; a freelance journalist, mostly writing restaurant reviews - a job he describes as "Shovelling snow. You know, cultural snow."
It opens with him talking about The Dolphin Hotel, and how he often dreams of it after a previous girlfriend, Kiki, took him there, then disappeared. It was a strange place: "The Dolphin Hotel was conceptually sorry... Normalness it lacked... Its corners caked with unfulfilled dreams." Four years on, he feels as if she's calling him to return, so he does. In its place, he finds the swish new Hotel Dauphin.
Dabbling in his past brings him into contact with Gotunda, a high school class mate, who is now a successful (but unfulfilled, divorced and working to pay debts and alimony) actor. They become close friends, which they hadn't been at school. Other key characters are Yumiyoshi, a pretty hotel receptionist, and Yuki, a bright thirteen year old rich drop-out, largely ignored by her divorced parents.
Characters, plot lines and reality twist and tangle, aided by dream-like visions, a portal to another dimension of reality, and a character with mild psychic abilities.
The title relates to an instruction given to the narrator quite early and that seems as if it will be the key to everything, or at least something, but nothing really comes of it (more details in spoiler).
All the way through, and especially towards the end, the narrator is musing on fate and destiny, and looking for meaning in all this - as is the reader. It never really comes, but I think that's rather the point. Had Murakami tied it all together with some ghastly homily, I think it would have ruined the book. After all, a recurring line is " What was that all about?", uttered by Kiki in a much-watched film.
In more detail: (view spoiler)[
Yumi and then the narrator accidentally (and separately) find themselves in a parallel world, in the Old Dolphin Hotel, where they meet the old owner, who the narrator nicknames Sheep Man because of all the pictures and books about sheep. He resisted selling up, and only gave in on condition the new hotel retained the name. He tells the narrator "Thisisyourplace. It'sthenkot. It'stiedtoeverything. Thisisyourworld" and that he (Sheep Man) works hard "Tokeepthings - fromfalllingapart. Tokeepyoufromforgetting." He stresses, "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays." It is not the place of the dead, and it is real, "Butit'snottheonlyreality."
As well as being drawn to Kiki and wondering what happened to her, he fancies Yumi. He also discovers that Kiki had a bit part in a film of Gotunda's ("Unrequited Love", that the narrator watches obsessively) because Gotunda was a client and Kiki was one of the call girls at a secretive and very high-end agency.
Through Yumi, the narrator gets to know Yuki, whose flighty photographer mother had left behind at the hotel to travel abroad! He took back to her home in Tokyo and keeps a (mostly) paternal eye on her. Their relationship ought to be creepy, especially when he comments how pretty she is, but it's actually rather sweet and innocent. Even her parents think so, as they each (separately) get him to take more charge of her.
Yuki has also seen Sheep Man, though by some sort of mental connection to the narrator, rather than going through the portal.
Gotunda calls the agency to get a couple of girls for him and the narrator. The latter has Mei, who he quizzes about the missing Kiki, but she knows nothing useful. A few days later, he is arrested for her murder and interrogated in a most unorthodox way, slightly reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial, which he had been reading the night before. He denies ever having met her, not wanting to tarnish Gotunda's reputation.
Yuki's rich father (Makimura) pulls strings to get the narrator released from interrogation and suggests he takes Yuki to visit her mother (Amé), currently in Hawaii with her new partner (Dick).
In one dip to the other world, Kiki shows the narrator a room with six skeletons, one of which has a single arm. Later, when a one-armed man he knows dies, he realises they represent people close to him who have died, and fears for the lives of Gotunda, Yuki and Yumi. Another death seems to confirm his theory, though we never know who the sixth is (maybe the narrator himself).
While in Hawaii, another prostitute turns up (June), sent from the same agency, but by Makimura. However, when Gotunda later enquires about her, he's told she'd disappeared three months earlier.
Yuki gets spookily sick when they borrow Gotunda's Maserati, and when she sees him and Kiki in the film, is so unwell, she has to leave the cinema. (view spoiler)[She says that the actor (Gotunda) killed the actress (Kiki) in real life and that she "saw" it. Later, when the narrator asks Gotunda if he killed Kiki or Mei, Gotunda is unsure about Kiki (he's not certain which reality it might have been in), but says he did kill Mei because she asked him to) - yet the narrator overlooks this and plans a trip together! (hide spoiler)].
More visions, more possible deaths, more crossings over and shadows, finally get round to visiting Yumi again, and reality more blurred than ever. The end!
Surprisingly few, for me:
* "Financial dealings have practically become a religious activity."
* "You can now enjoy hybrid styles of morality."
* "You leave things to an interior designer and it ends up looking like this. Something you want to photograph, not live in."
* "Reality receded until you can't tell who's sane and who' not."
* "Amé didn't give anything. She only took. She consumed those around her to sustain herself... Her talent was manifested in a powerful gravitational pull."
* "The passage of time wasn't a practical component in her life."
* "Her ears had special power. They were like some great whirlpool of fate sucking me in."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Sep 26, 2013
Jun 05, 2014
This is explicitly based on Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives's Tale (my review), with a contemporary British Asian twist. There's no need to be fa This is explicitly based on Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives's Tale (my review), with a contemporary British Asian twist. There's no need to be familiar with OWT - in fact, I suggest you read that rather than this!
It's had pretty good reviews in the broadsheet press, and in terms of plot, it certainly does what it claims, but it lacks the warmth and writing skill of Bennett, it attempts more humour, and demonstrates every Asian and shop-owning stereotype you can think of. The end result is like the novelisation of the BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.
There is some character development (only a bit), but exposition is clunky, and the plot is borrowed, so Sanghera is not an author I'll look out for in future.
Note to non-Brits: In the UK, "Asian" is not derogatory and refers to those whose families hail from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is not used for those from SE Asia, China, Japan etc.
It's a story of three generations of a Sikh family who run a corner shop (convenience store) in Wolverhampton, narrated by Arjan, the thirty-something grandson of the original owners, Mr and Mrs Bains.
The chapters alternate between the modern day and his mother's childhood and young adulthood, both strands being triggered by a death, leaving a woman at the helm. The first couple of times, the switching wasn't very clear, but in the end, it more or less worked.
The final two chapters tie up the story with an unconvincing and overly dramatic surprise and then what would be a predictable finish were it not for what just happened in the previous chapter. All very rushed and unconvincing.
CASTE, CLASS and RACE
This book (unlike OWT) is primarily about fitting in, and not fitting in: the eternal immigrant story, compounded by issues of race, Indian caste, and, towards the end, British class. Integration versus identity, and to what extent compromise can be hypocritical. Sadly, it doesn't really have any great or original insights on these tricky but important issues.
Similarly, racism is experienced in many ways, by Asians and, to a lesser extent, from Asians. No surprise, but the characters' reactions to it were neither inured nor intimidated and somehow just didn't feel likely (but what do I know?).
"The need to serve customers means you rarely sit down together [to eat], and consequently have little sense of yourselves as a social unit." Given that they live above (and in!) the shop, and all help out there, even as children, this is the opposite of what one might assume. It could be the key to so much. But it didn't seem to be.
ASIAN CULTURE - and WOMEN
Several characters resist aspects of their culture and religion, and some embrace it more at stressful times. Some of the superstitions Mrs Bains (and later, her elder daughter, Kamaljit) fall back on are easy to mock, even though they gain comfort from them.
Parallels were drawn between Punjabi culture and Jewish and royal life, and at times, the exposition was annoying and unnaturally unsubtle and yet I don't feel I've learned much.
What should have been the most interesting strand concerns the role and relationships of women (Bennett managed it a century earlier). All the female characters struggle with this to some extent: who to marry and how, how much education girls should have, how much to defer to one's husband, attitudes of dress, tensions of sisterhood, but most especially, the two determined widows who run the shop at different times (which tallies with Sikh teaching of gender equality).
Similarly, the loving but prickly relationship between sisters Kamaljit and Surinder has so much potential for interest, but never rings quite true. And as for Freya... again, so much potential as a character, but not believably fleshed out.
Maybe Bennett was just better at understanding women.
OTHER COMPARISONS WITH OWT
The author admires Bennett, and he has Surinder class him as one of the great writers, but he doesn't do him justice: I gave OWT 4* and this only 2*.
The structure is very different (not a criticism): OWT is in four sections: childhood, one for each sister's adult life, and a final one when they come together again, whereas this alternates past and present. We learn less about the aunt/sister who goes away and far more about what happens to the grandson of the original owners.
There is also more mention of politics. I seem to remember some things about the local council and mayor in OWT, but nothing significant enough for me to mention in my review. This story though, is framed by Enoch Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech about immigration, a strike by bus drivers who wanted to be allowed to wear turbans, and riots in London in 2011. These mentions felt deliberate, rather than being a natural part of the story.
Plot-wise, it's write-by-numbers, with every significant thing that happens in OWT happening here:
(view spoiler)[* The shop and family name is Bains (which doesn't sound very Indian, and on page 102, Mrs Bains says it's NOT the family's name over the door).
* The original owner is bedridden and the shop is run by his wife and teenage daughters.
* The older daughter is plain; the younger is pretty, clever, shrewd, and fights to continue her education.
* One assistant leaves to open a draper's shop and ends up as a rival, and more successful business.
* The younger daughter flirts with a travelling salesman, so doesn't check on her father. He dies, and she is racked with guilt.
* The elder daughter marries the loyal (but lowly) assistant, to the disapproval of the mother.
* The younger daughter elopes with the salesman, who turns out to be a feckless drunk.
* The older daughter and her husband run the shop and eventually have a single, spoilt son.
* The younger daughter works hard, saves wisely, and ends up rich, in part from the hospitality trade.
* When the older daughter is in poor health, the younger one is traced and comes back to help rescue/run it. (hide spoiler)]
Much of it felt awkward, based too much on negative stereotypes, but a few incidents were mildly amusing:
* Trying to erase "TALEBAN PEEDO" graffiti, he erased the O first, which didn't improve matters, so then put an S in the space between words, so it looked "like it had started flogging a range of Islamic amphetamines."
* Pizza Express is a good place to end a relationship: it's cheap and has "quick, attentive service, useful for when the shit hits the fan. A certain guaranteed level of busyness, which lowers the risk of a scene. The name - 'Ex-press' - acting as a subconscious primer for the task at hand. Also, there is always at least one diner who is already eating alone and crying."
* As an Asian shopkeeper, "You are anyone. Or no one."
* "There are certain places that bristle with sexual tension: libraries, Tube carriages on hot days. But your Asian corner shop... is not one of them."
* "Full-time shopkeeping might not have been so arduous if Bains Stores enjoyed either less or more custom than it did" - either time to do other things, or too busy to notice or care.
* "She wondered whether her main mistake in life had been confusing desire for romance with desire for solitude."
* "I had never met anyone who could combine such warmth with such awkwardness."
Notes are private!
Jun 14, 2014
Jun 21, 2014
Jun 08, 2014
Sep 02, 1987
This is Vonnegut, so it’s quirky, knowing, silly, intelligent, funny, mysterious (what IS in the potato barn?) and anti-war – amongst many other thing This is Vonnegut, so it’s quirky, knowing, silly, intelligent, funny, mysterious (what IS in the potato barn?) and anti-war – amongst many other things. It's conversational, and broken into very short chunks, but don't be deceived into thinking it's lightweight.
It claims to be the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an Armenian-American WW2 veteran who became a major figure in Abstract Expressionism, after an apprenticeship with realist illustrator, Dan Gregory. It reads more as a memoir, interspersed with “Bulletin from the present” sections which cover the eventful months he wrote it. The backstory is relatively straight; the present day, more comical. (All the main characters are fictitious, but a few real names are dropped, such as Jackson Pollock.)
It’s the 1980s, Rabo is in his 70s, and is living alone in a huge house in the Hamptons. He no longer paints, but is wealthy from his art collection and from property he inherited on the death of his second wife, Edith. He’s not actually alone, as his cook lives in, with her daughter, and his writer friend, Paul Slazenger, practically lives there. But he wants to be alone, or thinks he does – until it looks as if it’s going to happen (his mother thought “the most pervasive American disease was loneliness”). Then the widow Circe Berman turns up, and everything changes.
THE MEANING AND VALUE OF ART
“How can you tell a good painting from a bad one? All you have to do… is look at a million paintings, and they you can never be mistaken.”
Should paintings – and their titles – communicate? (If not, what’s the point?) This is a recurring question, with a variety of answers. Old, lonely, and guarding his Abstract Expressionist paintings, Rabo says that they “are about absolutely nothing but themselves”, and lack of passion and message in his works was why he was rejected by art school. When Circe first sees his abstract works, she declares “you hate facts like poison”. And yet Rabo CAN draw – very well; the fact he doesn’t is “because it’s just too fucking easy.”
In contrast, Dan Gregory’s works are hyper-realistic, and Rabo describes them as “truthful about material things, but they lied about time” because Dan was “a taxidermist… [of] great moments”. One of the first things he taught Rabo was the importance of the phrase “The Emperor has no clothes”. It’s for the reader to decide which art that applies to.
There is a visceral thrill: “I discovered something as powerful and irresponsible as shooting up with heroin: if I start laying on just one colour of paint to a huge canvas, I could make the whole world drop away”. But it doesn’t work like that for everyone: of one artist, “I would look into his eyes and there wasn’t anybody home any more”, and he says similar about someone else.
Inflated art prices (and exploitative venture capitalists and investment bankers) are lampooned, especially by the fact that “My paintings, thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions… all destroyed themselves”, including ones that sold for $20,000. Sateen Dura-Luxe proved to be anything but durable. In contrast, his teenage works were made with the best possible materials, given to him from the stores of a successful artist.
Writing is another art form central to the narrative: Rabo is now writing; his friends Circe Berman and Paul Slazenger are also writers, of varying success, and the letters of Dan Gregory’s PA, Marilee, are crucial to the story. The secret is “to write for just one person”. How you decide who that is, is unclear.
The widow Berman is a wonderful comic creation; I’d love to meet her, though hate to share a home with her. Her opening line on meeting Rabo is “Tell me how your parents died”, because “hello” means “don’t talk about anything important”. It’s also symptomatic of her pathological inquisitiveness (“the most ferocious enemy of privacy I ever knew”). His father died alone in a cinema, and she immediately asks “What was the movie?” – shades of Graham Greene’s short story, A Shocking Incident.
Her chutzpah is breath-taking – the way she storms into Rabo’s life and takes control of him, his house, his time and those around him. He is staggered, outraged… and compliant: “’Who is she to reward and punish me, and what the hell is this: a nursery school or a prison camp?’ I don’t asker that, because she might take away all my privileges.”
BLUEBEARD and WHAT’S IN THE POTATO BARN
I read this book because I wanted to read another Vonnegut, and I was intrigued to see to what extent the title reflected the traditional story of Bluebeard (see synopsis/review ), or even its echoes in Jane Eyre .
It’s a gentle nod, but it helps if you’re aware of the original: In the grounds, Rabo has a potato barn that used to be his studio. It is now locked up, and its contents secret: “I am Bluebeard, and my studio is my forbidden chamber”, but “there are no bodies in my barn”.
Much of the book is an elaborate tease as to what’s in there, why, and whether the reader will ever find out. In contrast to his allegedly message-less paintings, Rabo says that the barn contains “the emptiest and yet the fullest of human messages”.
There are other forbidden places: Dan Gregory’s is the Museum Of Modern Art, Paul Slazenger’s is his Theory of Revolution, currently in his head, and Circe Berman must have something, but I don’t know what or where.
WAR, DEATH and RESURRECTION
The main character is an injured veteran who came to the US as a child refugee from another war. It’s not a ranting pacifist book, and Rabo himself has fond memories of the army, but Vonnegut’s anti-war opinions shine through, especially at the end. Sometimes this is poignant: Rabo is utterly repulsed by the scarring around his missing eye, and always wears a patch. Sometimes it is more satirical: WW2 was promoted to Americans on promises of “a final war between good and evil, so that nothing would do but that it be followed by miracles, Instant coffee was one. DDT was another. It was going to kill all the bugs, and almost did. Nuclear energy was going to make electricity so cheap that it might not even be metered… Antibiotics would defeat all diseases. Lazarus would never die: How was that for a scheme to make the Son of God obsolete?”
In fact, it’s Rabo who is Lazarus. Circe explicitly says so when he complains about her intrusion into and control of him, “I brought you back to life… You’re my Lazarus”, and his beloved second wife, Edith, had had a similar effect.
As a youth, Rabo assumed society had evolved so that people would no longer be fooled by the apparent romance of war, but as an old man, he observes “you can buy a machine gun with a plastic bayonet for your little kid”.
THE INIMITABLE DAN GREGORY (REFRAIN)
The central third of the book feels as much like a biography of Dan Gregory as of Rabo.
Where Slaughterhouse Five has the recurring phrase “so it goes”, in this, it’s a series of superlatives about Dan Gregory: “Nobody could [do x] like Dan Gregory”. His achievements include: “draw cheap, mail-order clothes”, “paint grime”, “counterfeit rust and rust-stained oak”, “counterfeit plant diseases”, “counterfeit more accents from stage, screen and radio”, “counterfeit images in dusty mirrors”, “paint black people”, “put more of the excitement of a single moment into the eyes of stuffed animals”.
• “Never trust a survivor… until you find out what he did to stay alive.”
• “Perfectly beautiful cowboy boots… dazzling jewelry for manly feet.”
• “She had life. I had accumulated anecdotes.”
• Old canvases “Purged of every trace of Sateen Dura-Luxe, and restretched and reprimed… dazzling white in their restored virginity.”
• “They are a negation of art! They aren’t just neutral. They are black holes from which no intelligence or skill can ever escape. Worse than that, they suck up the dignity, the self-respect, of anybody unfortunate enough to have to look at them.” (What Rabo thinks of Circe’s choice of pictures.)
Suggested by Rand (as being in a similar vein to Vonnegut's excellent Galapagos).
Notes are private!
May 27, 2014
May 31, 2014
Sep 23, 2013
Jan 01, 2011
A funny little book - and it is very little (64 pages, each about half the size of a normal paperback page). It's not bad, but far, far better, is her A funny little book - and it is very little (64 pages, each about half the size of a normal paperback page). It's not bad, but far, far better, is her feast of bloodier, darker tales, The Bloody Chamber, reviewed here
Angela Carter retells seven of Charles Perrault's classic fairytales - though two I'd never heard of. In fact, the telling is mostly traditional, but with an explicit moral or two appended, some of which have a more modern slant. I'm not really sure of its purpose or intended audience, as it's slightly too knowing (and unillustrated) for small children, but not really subversive enough for real adult enjoyment. Some of the "morals" are dubious, and surprising coming from a female author, yet they're not witty enough to be taken as jokes. Or maybe I've missed the point.
My reason for reading it was to get a version of Bluebeard, because it relates to Jane Eyre, as mentioned in my Jane Eyre review. I will now read Vonnegut's weirder take on the story.
Bluebeard is worse than Rochester, and his beard is literally blue. He marries, despite the fact he "had been married several times before and nobody knew what became of his wives", and a short while after, goes away on business. He gives his wife all the keys and tells her to have the run of the house and its riches, invite her friends and do whatever makes her happy. His only stipulation is that she must not use the tiniest key, and that the consequences will be dire if she does. Just as with the apple in Eden, what is forbidden proves irresistible, despite the lusher alternatives. In this case, the room contains the bloodied bodies of murdered former wives. However, the real problem is that, like Lady Macbeth's hands, the blood won't wash off the key, so she is found out.
Morals: "Curiosity is a charming passion but may only be satisfied at the price of a thousand regrets... [it] is the most fleeting of pleasures... and it always proves very, very expensive." The other moral is an odd observation that modern husbands wouldn't try to restrict a wife's curiosity because women rule.
Compare and contrast with a rather different novel of the same name: Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard.
Little Red Riding Hood
A completely traditional telling.
Morals: Don't talk to strangers (fine) but if you do, don't be surprised if it ends badly (sounds like victim blaming). It then warns of real-life men who sweet-talk young girls, but are really "the most dangerous beasts of all".
Puss in Boots
A completely traditional telling.
Morals are quirkier: Hard work and ingenuity trump inherited wealth. Also "clothes, bearing and youth speedily inspire affection; and the means to achieve them are not always entirely commendable."
This is a traditional telling until the marriage, after which, the prince leaves Beauty behind in her castle, and keeps her (and their subsequent children) secret for two years because his mother is half ogre and he fears she may still have "ogrish tastes" and eat his children! A few twists and turns follow (all new to me), but of course, it all ends happily and justly.
Morals: It's good to wait for the right man, but 100 years is too long, and "long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days [written in 1977!] want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral."
Another traditional telling.
Morals - these are odd: Charm trumps beauty - except that doesn't fit the story, despite Carter's claim that "When her godmother dressed Cinderella up and told her how to behave at the ball, she instructed her in charm." Even odder, "It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible... But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or godmother to put them to work for you"!
Ricky with the Tuft
I've never heard of this, so had no idea if Carter has changed it at all, though Petra's excellent review implies not. The question is, which is better: beauty or brains? (I have a relative who hoped her girls would be pretty rather than clever - as if they're mutually exclusive.) Anyway, Ricky is an extraordinarily ugly baby prince, but blessed with wit and brains. In a nearby kingdom, twin princesses are born: one beautiful but stupid, and the other, clever but ugly. The fairytale twist is that whoever Ricky falls in love with will attain his level of intelligence, and whoever the pretty princess falls in love with will attain (or appear to her to attain) her level of attractiveness. The other sister is rather irrelevant, so the worrying message seems to be that beauty matters more than brains.
Moral: Ying and yang and love is blind - or at least, armed with rose-tinted specs.
The Foolish Wishes
People being granted wishes and using them stupidly is a fairytale staple, but I'd not heard this version before. It's just a short and slightly amusing example of how people waste opportunities.
Moral: People are stupid. Or, as Carter prefers to put it, "Greedy, short-sighted, careless, thoughtless, changeable people don't really know how to make sensible decisions; and few of us are capable of using well the gifts God gave us, anyway."
Here's a more radical approach to retelling fairytales:
Notes are private!
May 27, 2014
May 28, 2014
May 13, 2014
Aug 01, 2000
This is a fascinating insight (heavily autobiographical) into the flighty and insecure world of a chorus girl in London, around the time of the first This is a fascinating insight (heavily autobiographical) into the flighty and insecure world of a chorus girl in London, around the time of the first world war (though war is never mentioned).
Many other books set in this period feature chorus girls, but usually in a peripheral way that makes their lives seem exotic and exciting, until they settle down to conventional respectability, quietly disappear, or, less often, meet a tragic end. The storyline here is more nuanced and complex - and still relevant today.
The story is told by Anna. She is 18, recently arrived in London from a small island in the West Indies, touring England in shows. There is no suggestion she has a particular talent or passion for the stage. She is more-or-less on her own in the world: she has a step-mother in Yorkshire, but her parents have died, and she has no inheritance to fall back on.
In some ways, it's a very moral tale (the superficial glamour is not presented as something to aspire to), but it feels honest, rather than preachy, and the ending is left open.
NOTE re "the n word"
It is used several times, in a way that reflects normal usage at the time and place it's set. Anna is white (with a creole mother), but "I always wanted to be black... Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad". Her use of the n word is not particularly derogatory, despite the offence it may cause some readers nowadays.
MEN and WOMEN - EXPLOITATION or SYMBIOSIS?
There are profound questions here about responsibilities, equality and exploitation in relationships: how gifts and money affect the nature of a relationship, and at what point, if any, it becomes "professional".
Anna is very free-thinking for the time: non-religious ("I believe there's something horrible about any sort of praying"!), amoral and independent, albeit more through necessity than choice. Had the book been published in the nineteen-tens (rather than 1934), it might have been very controversial. As it is, its modernity means it's still pertinent today.
Anna performs on stage, lives on her own, has relationships with men - and yet she is also very naive: she needs the support (partly, but not not only, financial) of others, but some of those people take advantage of her (women as well as men).
In some ways, she is exploitative, but really, she's more of a victim - unlike some of her friends, such as the one who advises, "The thing with men is to get everything you can out of them and not care a damn", after all, "People don't give you what you're worth... They give you what they think you're used to". Mind you, the men know the rules, too, fully aware that "a girls's clothes cost more than the girl inside them".
Early on, Anna seems to have a very negative impression of (all) men: one eyed her up "in that way they have" and "he didn't look at my breasts or my legs as they usually do", but the story progresses, her thoughts on men are replaced by introspection and memories of home. When she is a kept woman, she muses "I am hopeless, resigned, utterly happy. Is that me? I am bad, not good any longer, bad".
The life can be racy, but there is underlying pain, such as when failing to nod off or waking in the night "that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling" because she knows "the man's bound to get tired". "But in the daytime it was all right. And when you'd had a drink you know it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen." That sounds like hollow happiness to me.
FEMININITY, FASHION and MONEY
There is plenty of hypocritical hand-wringing in contemporary media about societal pressures for women and girls to look beautiful at all times, but that's not entirely new. Anna agonises over the fact that "everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell", and sees people looking at the latest fashions, "Their eyes were fixed on the future, 'If I could buy this, then of course I'd be quite different.'"
She realises that once you have a taste for such things, you have a taste for such things - and it changes your outlook, behaviour, and even your voice. In a curious mix of self-awareness and naivety, she says "Money ought to be everybody's. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly."
There is pain in basing one's self-worth in the opinion of someone else: "I was so nervous about how I looked that three quarters of me was in prison... If he had said that I looked all right or that I was pretty, it would have set me free." But would it?
SENSES and SENSUALITY
Many passages are a riot for the senses, invoking the colours, smells, sights, shapes and sounds of the West Indies ("The light is gold and when you shut your eyes you see fire-colour"), and comparing them with the dull uniformity of London, where "The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people's faces". Back home, "How sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of a cold places... And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately... And that hibiscus once - it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it... And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof."
In contrast, scenes which could actually be sensual, are generally described in cold, detached terms - even when there is some warmth in the relationship concerned.
There are two main styles of narration; there is nothing wrong with that, but I didn't really enjoy (or quite believe) this manifestation of it, which is why I've given 3*, rather than 4*.
Most of the time, Anna describes events in such short, sparse sentences that it's almost like an early reading primer. I know she's naive and not very educated, but her voice annoyed me: "I pulled my hand away. I thought, 'No, I don't like you.' We stopped at Germaine's flat." Tum-te tum-te tum-te-tum.
More interesting and enticing were the lyrical, stream-of-consciousness passages. For example, her first impression of London is barely punctuated: "hundreds of thousands of white people white people [sic] rushing along and all the dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together - the streets like smooth shut-in ravines and the dark houses frowning down - oh I'm not going to like this place."
The dreamier sections, especially towards the end, and coupled with a few mentions of ghosts, border on the hallucinogenic, and made me think of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea aka Bertha in Jane Eyre
* "In my heart I was always sad, with the same sort of hurt that the cold gave me in the chest."
* "The sort of music that you always know what's going to come next, that you can listen to ahead."
* "When I remember living whit her it was like looking at an old photograph of myself and thinking 'What on earth's that got to do with me?'."
* A rich man's house was "dark and quiet and not friendly to me. Sneering faintly, sneering discreetly, as a servant would."
* "What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud... It was a ritual."
* "The shadows of the leaves on the wall were moving quickly, like the patterns the sun makes on water."
* At a funeral, "The candles crying way tears... The people there were like upholstered ghosts."
* "The cinema smelt of poor people, and on the screen ladies and gentlemen in evening dress walked about with strained smiles."
* "It was one of those days when you see the ghosts of all the other lovely days... From behind a glass."
* "His voice was kind, but the look in his eyes was like a high, smooth, unclimbable wall. No communication was possible."
Notes are private!
May 24, 2014
May 27, 2014
May 24, 2014
Why have so few of my GR friends reviewed this brilliant book by such a well-known author? Note: The first two pages have a rather brutal scene (thoug Why have so few of my GR friends reviewed this brilliant book by such a well-known author? Note: The first two pages have a rather brutal scene (though the details are vague), but there's nothing else like that in the rest of the book, and everything that follows, arises from this incident.
This is Proulx's first novel, published a year before the excellent The Shipping News. It's equally good, but has a very different structure, and the language is not as distinctively clipped or telegraphic.
It tells the stories of the diverging lives of the Blood family (impoverished farmers in Vermont), from the mid '40s until the '70s or '80s, along with the stories of others involved in their lives. The environment is harsh, the people tough, but the landscapes often beautiful - and Proulx's writing switches effortlessly to reflect these contrasts.
Most of the chapters start with a postcard to or from one of the protagonists. Sometimes it explains what's going to happen in the chapter, but at other times it's just a side story. You only ever see the written side; never the picture. You could almost treat the book as a collection of short stories, or even read just the postcards and try to cobble it all together, though I wouldn't recommend the latter unless you've already read the book.
The Blood family consists of Mink and Jewell (father and mother), sons in their 20s (at the start), Loyal and Dub (Marvin), and teenage daughter, Mernelle. Loyal is a devoted, intuitive and knowledgeable farmer; Dub has always been slow, aimless and reckless, and Mernelle is dreamy.
On the first page, Loyal's girlfriend, Billy, dies. He blames himself, and is even more sure everyone else will blame him, so he hides the body, and leaves family and farm. "It wasn't the idea that he could go anywhere, but the idea that he had to go somewhere." It remains ambiguous as to how justified his haunted guilt at her death is, but it never leaves him. And somehow, well before the end of the book, it's hard to hate Loyal for what he did.
Loyal spends his life travelling the USA, doing a variety of mostly outdoor jobs (trapping, mining, prospecting, farming), meeting intriguing characters along the way. He sends the occasional postcard home, and always hankers after a farm and family of his own, though his inability to get intimate with women makes the latter impossible. He realises "The price for getting away. No wife, no family, no children, no human comfort in the quotidian unfolding of his life". Meanwhile, his absence, and lack of return address, changes the lives of all those he leaves behind.
There is a striking description on the second page, "her nails glowed with the luminous hardness that marks the newly dead", and this lodged in my mind, priming me to notice the many, many references to nails (finger, toe, claw, and metal) that followed: at least 20 in the first 125 pages, then none that I noticed for over 100 pages, and just a smattering from there to the end.
Nails are key for Loyal, too: when he first met Billy, "her nails gleamed", and years later, he still remembers "the flash of her nails" and how pointed they were.
Neatly, the final two mentions of nails that I spotted also relate to the dead or dying.
There's a whole thesis in these nails, and a far more interesting one than the meaning of postcards (Mernelle has a friend who collects them) or bears (hunted, toy ones collected by Mernelle, as well as being on a job lot of postcards).
LANGUAGE - and NAMES
Most of the chapters are a chunk of narrative about one or more characters, but at regular intervals, there's a short one called "What I See". These are in the present tense, and much more stream-of-consciousness, often featuring lush descriptions of an arid landscape, or something rather abstract.
It's a feature of all the chapters that it's not always immediately obvious who it's about, which keeps you turning the pages (and isn't drawn out to an irritating degree).
As in all the Proulx I've read, many of the characters have unusual names. Often they are pertinent, or oxymoronic, or maybe both (e.g. Loyal Blood), but others are just bizarre: a man called Toot Nipples, for example! But there are limits: even Loyal thinks it odd that a man named his mule after his daughter.
This is a great strength of the book: so many characters over so many decades, and they change a great deal, but it feels like a plausible reaction to circumstances (except for Dub), and I really felt I knew and understood them. When Mernelle grows up "there was a sureness in her that estranged her from the old child's life".
OPTIMISM, PESSIMISM, FATE
Early on, we're told the Bloods have a "knack for doing the wrong thing", and that largely proves true. Later, Ben the amateur astronomer says to Loyal "I see the way you throw yourself at trouble. Punish yourself with work. How you don't get anywhere except a different place."
There are a couple of recurring themes that ought to be depressing, and yet the characters are always hopeful of things getting better (and some things do), so overall, it isn't a depressing book.
* Thwarted longing for children (and of those who do have them, most are painfully estranged)
* Valuable things, long saved-up for or treasured, are lost, destroyed or stolen
Although Proulx isn't crass enough to spell it out, they're all striving for The American Dream, but most never quite reach it, and Loyal in particular, wants to do "something of value".
FREEDOM OR BURDEN OF TRAVEL?
Loyal doesn't feel he has much of a choice about travelling, and is resigned to it. In contrast, the liberation his mother finds when she learns to drive in her fifties, is joyous: "continuity broke: when she drove, her stifled youth unfurled like a ribbon" and "the pleasure of choosing which turns and roads to take" is a literal and metaphorical description of her empowerment. Driving also gives her a new appreciation of landscape: "When you'd been driving with your eyes on the road for hours, you wanted to let them stretch out to the boundaries of the earth." And yet, in keeping with the theme of valuable things being lost, even this has a sting in its tale.
Initially, the Bloods are atavistically tied to their land, but as the stories diverge, they (and others) become outsiders.
* Incomers "moved into farm houses hoping to fit their lives into the rooms, to fit their shoes to the stair treads".
* An incomer was "urban in habitat but haunted from childhood by fantasies of wilderness".
"This family has a habit of disappearing. Everyone... is gone except me. And I'm the end of it."
IS THERE ONLY ONE WAY TO LOVE; CAN ONE CHANGE?
(view spoiler)[The first is is a question Loyal asks himself, and it's a slightly troubling one. Because of the ongoing trauma of how Billy died, if he becomes aroused by a woman, he has a panic attack and passes out. So he has occasional relationships with men (though this is never explicit). Assuming he was straight in the first place, it's odd he doesn't seem to struggle with this more. Or maybe he never was straight, and perhaps the fact his girlfriend had a masculine name is indicative? (hide spoiler)]
QUOTES ABOUT LANDSCAPE
* "The October afternoon collapsed into evening."
* "Evening haze... blurred a sky discolored like a stained silk skirt."
* "The overclouded sky was as dull as old wire."
* "Heat ricocheted off the colorless rocks. Nothing moved. The sky leaned on them, the earth pressed upward."
* "The work of his hands had changed the land... The smooth fields were echoes of himself in the landscape."
* "The atavistic yearning that swept him when he stood beneath the trees... he was in an ancient time that lured him but which he could not understand in any way... The kernel of life , tiny, heavy, deep red in color, was secreted in these gabbling woods."
* Florida swamp: "Dub feels the canoe slip through the tea-colored water, sees the water ruptured by iridescent gas bubbles, patterned by the checkerboard backs and wood-knot eyes of alligators, clouds of egrets slanting out of the choked trees... The plangent call of rain crown under the long layers of clouds like pressed black linen."
* "Water charged with leaves raced in the gutters, wet boots flashed like flints. The window of his house shone in the darkness like squares of melting butter."#
* "The teeth of autumn gnawed at the light."
* "His peculiar voice that was both sweet and grainy, like the meat of a pear."
* "The barn stank of ammonia, sour milk, cloying hay and wet iron."
* A husband "had crushed her into a corner of life". Widowhood isn't always bad.
* Half brothers who only recently met bond over land, "The property was like an ear-trumpet through which they could understand each other."
* "The electric feeling of quick money was everywhere" amongst those prospecting with Geiger counters.
* "The dulled eyes in their heavy hammocks of flesh were as incurious as those of a street musician."
* "The woman's shape was as formless as poured sugar."
* "He'd trained himself by now to need and want little... The unsecured scaffolding of his life rested on forgetting."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
May 14, 2014
May 23, 2014
May 14, 2014
Apr 22, 1997
A lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multi A lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multiple and major consequences, meaning that everything can change in a single day. "Anything can happen to anyone. It's best to be prepared." - and these fears trigger tragedy.
It is set in Kerala (southern India) in 1969 (when twins Rahel (girl) and Estha (boy) are aged 7) and 23 years later, when the twins return to the family home. As the narrative switches periods, hints become clearer and eventually become facts: you know bad things will happen, but it's not initially clear who will be the perpetrators. There is beauty, but always brooding menace of nastiness to come, or echoes of trauma long ago.
Caste, communism, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", "The Sound of Music", whom to love (and how), and insects (especially moths) are common threads.
They are affluent, educated, Anglophile, Syrian Christians. The grandfather (Pappachi) was the Imperial Entomologist and in later years his wife (Mammachi) and their son (Chacko) started a pickle factory. Their daughter, Ammu, is the divorced mother of the twins, and has "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber". The twins' great aunt (Baby Kochamma) lives there as well. She is a bitter woman, who loved, but never had, Father Mulligan, so retreats into false piety. She seeks and relishes opportunities to gloat at the misdemeanours and misfortunes of others: on hearing of scandal, "She set sail at once. A ship of goodness ploughing through a sea of sin".
The big event is when Chacko's English ex wife (Margaret) is widowed and she brings Chacko's 9 year old daughter (Sophie Mol) to visit.
The other key character is Velutha (son of Vellya Paapen), a clever untouchable, a couple of years younger than Ammu. The family pay for his education and he becomes indispensable at the factory for maintaining the machines, though carpentry is his true skill. There is also Kochu Maria, a house servant, who becomes more like Baby Kochamma's companion in later years.
The powerful bond of "two-egg" twins is essential to the story: "In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun... Estha and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us... a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities."
However, they spend the years between the two time periods living apart, and that, inevitably, changes things. When returning as an adult, "now she thinks of Estha and Rahel as Them... Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Links have appeared." They are now "A pair of actors... stumbling through their parts, nursing someone else's sorrow", and realising, too late, "You're not the Sinners. You're the Sinned Against."
The family is founded on preservation: first of insects, then of Paradise Pickles and Preserves, and always of reputation. However, ghosts are everywhere, mainly in the memories of the dead and the ramifications of their deaths, but also in other forms of loss: opportunities, love, names (the twins are without a surname when their parents split) and even the power of speech. "Silence hung in the air like a secret loss."
Sophie Mol's death is mentioned on page 4, and although its significance is constantly referred to, the details are only revealed very near the end. Her death "stepped softly around the house... like a quiet thing in socks" and "sometimes the memory of death lives... much longer than the life it purloined". Eventually "Sophie Mol became a Memory, while The Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. Like a fruit in season. Every season."
Those left behind experience "Not death. Just the end of living."
The family home descends into dilapidation. Baby Kochamma, once an skilled gardener, lets her plants wither or go wild, while she devotes her life to vicariously living the lives of ghosts she sees on satellite TV.
There is also an abandoned house across the river that the twins nickname The History House. There are many explicit comparisons with The Heart of Darkness: it was the home of Kari Saipu, and Englishman who "went native" and "captured dreams and redreamed them". Eventually, he shot himself when his young lover was taken away.
BETRAYAL AND THE DEATH OF LOVE
There are violent relationships, broken relationships (not necessarily the same) and unrequited love, but it is, of course, the children who suffer most.
The twins are raised by their loving but strict mother, but they are haunted by a fear that she will cease to love them. Their "willingness to love people who didn't really love them... was as though the window through which their father disappeared had been kept open for anyone." After Sophie Mol's death, when everything changes, (view spoiler)[Ammu is sent away, Estha is sent to his father, and Rahel is left behind to be raised by her uncle and grandparents, who "provided the care (food, clothes, fees) but withdrew the concern". (hide spoiler)]
There are other forms and instances of betrayal and lies, sometimes to keep up appearances, and sometimes for selfish ends.
CROSSING BOUNDARIES - OF LOVE AND OTHER THINGS
Taboos are many in a society ruled by caste (as well as class and religion), but the family's problems with classification are first highlighted in relation to jams and jellies, and the fact that banana jam was illegal as if fitted neither category. "They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much." And by whom.
Gradually, "Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws." "History used the back verandah to negotiate its terms and collect its dues. Estha would keep the receipt for the dues that Velutha paid." When pressed by an adult to lie about something significant, "Childhood tiptoed out. Silence slid in like a bolt. Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared."
There is also confusion and hypocrisy around some of the power relationships, e.g. a wealthy communist landlord and factory owner with "a Marxist mind and feudal libido", and of course, the different levels of sexual freedom permitted for men and women.
SMALL THINGS: MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES
The whole story is really a demonstration of The Butterfly Effect, although it's moths that are mentioned explicitly (Pappachi discovered a new variety of moth, but wasn't recognised for it).
"It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while in clear view."
There are many other Small Things:
* "The God of Loss. The God of Small Things."
* Ammu telling Rahel "When you hurt people they begin to love you less", a throwaway line that grows, festers and twists within until it changes the lives of everyone.
* Ammu is "Someone Small who has been bullied all their lives by Someone Big".
* At big moments "only the Small Things are ever said".
* A couple who know they have no future, so "instinctively they stick to the Small Things"
* Filth and decay, of which there is much 23 years later, is an accumulation of small things.
A distinctive feature of the writing is the large number of portmanteau coinages. Most are pairs of adjectives or adjective plus noun: sourmetal, oldfood, fishswimming, chinskin, deadlypurposed, longago, suddenshutter, sharksmile, orangedrinks, steelshrill, suddenshutter, stickysweet. However, things like cuff-links are written with a hyphen. Cuff-links also hint at an explanation: when the young twins are told they are "'to link cuffs together'... they were thrilled by this morsel of logic... and gave them an inordinate (if exaggerated) satisfaction, and a real affection for the English language."
* "Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, flatly baffled in the sun."
* "The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation" and in monsoon season "short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with."
* "Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background... [he] occupied very little space in the world."
* "Once the quietness arrived, it... enfolded him in its swampy arms... It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles... hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left them pared and naked."
* "Gulf-money houses build by [people] who worked hard but unhappily in faraway places... the resentful older houses tinged green with envy, cowering in their private driveways."
* "drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge."
* "Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses."
* He walked away "like a high-stepping camel with an appointment to keep."
* "Rahel tried to say something. It came out jagged. Like a piece of tin."
* "twinkled was a word with crinkled, happy edges."
* The weight of obligation "widened his smile and bent his back".
* The things that can't be forgotten "sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds, with baleful sideways starting eyes".
* "Silverfish tunnelled through the pages, burrowing arbitrarily from species to species, turning organised information into yellow lace."
* "The ants made a faint crunchy sound as life left them. Like an elf eating toast."
* An adult playing with children "Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction".
* "Insanity hovered close at hand, like an eager waiter at an expensive restaurant."
* "resting under the skin of her dreams"
* The "transparent" kiss of a child "unclouded by passion or desire... that demanded no kiss-back. Not a cloudy kiss full of questions."
* "The great stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably."
* "She was too young to realise that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous acceptance of herself."
I should add that I am really grateful to Steve whose excellent review, and comments beneath, persuaded me to pick up this book asap, rather than let it languish on my shelves any longer. His review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
May 10, 2014
May 01, 2014
Jan 01, 0200
Mar 04, 1986
Having enjoyed The Return of the Soldier, I picked this up in a charity shop, without realising it was the second of a trilogy until after I started r Having enjoyed The Return of the Soldier, I picked this up in a charity shop, without realising it was the second of a trilogy until after I started reading it. Fortunately, it still works as a standalone book.
This is a coming of age novel, set in in the run up to WW1: "I wanted to make friends... to be part of the general web, to be linked with boys and girls and men and women who were not yet what they would be in the end."
Clare Aubrey, a retired concert pianist, has been abandoned by her gambling husband and is raising their teenage children: Cordelia (the oldest and least warm), twins Rose (the narrator) and Mary (both destined to follow in their mother's musical footsteps), and Richard Quinn (charming, bright, wise and still at school). Cousin Rosamund and her mother, Constance, live with them, too. They are upper-middle class, and by selling some paintings, on the advice of Mr Morpurgo, family finances are now reasonably secure.
As the family rebuild their lives, they relish small victories such as being able to afford flowers to plant in the garden, "We were able to do the things that other people could do". But as they progress, the shadow of war looms, and "we saw a fungoid bloom of ruin slowly creep across the familiar objects among which we had been reared".
At times, it's a little florid, mannered and self-consciously erudite - like a diluted version of Ivy Compton-Burnett. There is not much plot (though there is a murder), but there is some sharp wit, especially at the expense of the dreadful Mrs Morpurgo.
The Aubreys are a little adrift: they have the background, tastes and education of the elite, but not quite the income. The mother has become (or maybe always was) oblivious to many social cues, and their friendships cross boundaries in a way that may have shocked some: Mr Morpurgo is a wealthy and generous Jewish art dealer, but they also regularly stay in a pub on the Thames, where they're related by marriage to the landlord.
This can cause awkwardness: "Like all people brought up in households destitute of manservants, we regarded them as implacable enemies... who could implement their ill-will by means of supernatural powers which enabled them to see through a guest's pretensions."
Appropriate clothing is a potential pitfall, but also a source of wry observation. For a prison visit, a man wore "clothes which suggested he had not made up his mind whether he was going to a funeral or to Ascot."
RADICAL FOR HER TIME
West was a member of the Bloomsbury set, that also included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E M Forster. They were known for their progressive attitudes to women and relationships amongst other things, and although this is not a radical novel, there are glimpses of this aspect of West's thinking.
She portrays strong, independent women, and although she doesn't suggest all men are feckless or dangerous, the twins do have such fears, which is one reason why they are determined not to marry.
But there are admirable men in the story, with Richard Quin held up as the ideal man - even before he's a man. (view spoiler)[The fact he dies in the war demonstrates teh futile waste of war. (hide spoiler)] Cousin Rosamund says of Richard Quin "I love him... but it's a shame he has to be a man... what will happen to him in a world where men are so awful?"
Uncle Len is also a reliable chap: a lower middle class a publican who is a quirky and admirable auto-didact, something the Aubreys encourage. It sometimes has amusing consequences, such as when he assumes Darwinism is a new and controversial topic for the doctor and the rector: "he was not making the mistakes of a stupid man, he was guessing like an explorer". For all his good qualities, he's still a bit old-school, wanting to keep the women away from any trouble, though Rose asserts "There was no difference in courage between men and women, if what happened wasn't fit for me it wasn't fit for men to see either".
There is also a lengthy and educational look at perceptions of gypsies.
A child is not a different species, as Victorians sometimes thought, but "an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness".
The mixed feelings of adolescence are probably not as anti-feminist as they first seem, but rather reflect typical mix of fear and excitement, coupled with the limitations women of the time faced. For example, on becoming aware of the attention of men, "We liked this, and did not like it. We wished we were growing up into something other than women."
On the other hand, Clare's advice to a shy, pretty daughter is a little off: "people like young girls who are pretty... when you go to any new place and you feel nervous, just stand there and let people look at you"!
It's not just in class terms and in the travails of reaching adulthood that characters have identity issues.
Is Clare, married, abandoned, or widowed?
When they leave music college, one of the twins has to change her surname to avoid confusion.
Loss of identity is one of Rose's reasons for fearing marriage.
Uncle Len tries to hide his gypsy background.
One can't help wondering if Mr Morpurgo's collecting of Christian art is, at least in part, a turning aside from his Jewish heritage.
Music is integral to the lives of the main characters, and there is no shying away from the hardships of training: "That was why I had had not childhood and why I had seen so much sunlight through windowpanes". There's always a higher target, but perfection is always just out of reach. They are torn between the desire to succeed and the difficulty of doing so.
When Cordelia gives up professional musicianship, the twins feel they "had so little in common with her that she seemed almost abstract: an inorganic burden like a knapsack."
* "One cannot live slowly as one can play music slowly."
* "Kate wore her wooden look of consequence."
* A butler "spoke with gloating discretion" about an extra guest.
* "Mrs Morpurgo had no secrets, She controlled her words well enough... but as she spoke the truth was blared aloud by the intonation of her commanding voice, the expressions which passed over her face, legible as the words on a poster, and her vigorous movements."
* "She had meant to be nearly, but not quite, intolerable."
* "She had not been abandoned to grief... she had been recovering her faculty for insolent surprise."
* "Her hands clasped before her dark flowing skirts, and a thread in every line of pent up emotion about to burst its dam."
* "There was a faint, sharp sweetness about her, like the taste of raspberries. She wore fussy and frilly clothes and jingling bracelets whit an air of surprised distaste, as if she had been put to sleep by a witch and had awoken to find herself in these trappings."
* "It had been furnished by Maples in the Japanese style, not that the family had any oriental connection, but simply because the backwash of the aesthetic movement had by then reached the suburbs."
* "A Victorian mansion... and within its walls Asia had taken its revenge against colonialism... the drawing room, which really did not look so bad now they had taken out the enormous ivory model of the Taj Mahal."
* Two sisters (not Aubreys) who had been "barmaids, not at the height of their profession. They had wandered in a defeated continent of the vulgar world, where vulgarity had lost its power and its pride... Listening to Aunt Lily's conversation was like having emptied at one's feet a dustbin full of comic songs and jokes from pantomimes."
* "The river, the grey-green mystery, the mirror which reflects solid objects so steadily but is not solid, the fugitive which remains."
* A mob in a pub: "Their faces were clay-coloured and featureless, yet not stupid; they might have been shrewd turnips."
* "Constance was like a statue, not a very good statue, imperfectly Pygmalionised."
* "The plane trees were casting their last crumpled maroon and silver leaves on the pewter pavements, the lights of the passing traffic paid out yellow ribbons of reflection on the shining roadway."
* "She looked as if she were about to burst into tears, but she was wonderful at catching the ball of her own mood in mid-air."
* "I was overcome by an abstract sense of grief, something like the moan of shingle dragging back to sea between breakers."
* "Waltzes and one-steps and tangoes were exhaled from the porticoes wearing striped awnings like masks, and in the gardens dancers walked on the moon-frosted lawns, the moonlight shining with phantom coldness from the young women's bare shoulders."
* "The silence that had been silting up in the rooms... now filled it as an invisible solid. (view spoiler)[Now Richard Quin was nowhere but he was everywhere. (hide spoiler)]"
Notes are private!
Apr 17, 2014
Apr 17, 2014
Apr 24, 2001
A fairly typical Murdoch (which is a good thing, imo), charting the tangled lives and reconfigured and unrequited relationships of family and friends, A fairly typical Murdoch (which is a good thing, imo), charting the tangled lives and reconfigured and unrequited relationships of family and friends, featuring a Svengali-like figure, and focusing on just a year or two. Most of the characters are somewhat lonely and broken, with a tendency to introspection, no one is very happy for long, and few of the characters are very likeable (though all are intriguing).
One way in which it differs from some of Murdoch's other novels is that all but one of the women are strong and take the initiative (one is the master puppeteer, but others have their own schemes) and most of the men just watch or react, somewhat haphazardly.
Hugh has just been widowed. Years ago, he had a fling with his wife's childhood friend, Emma Sands, who now lives with her beautiful younger companion (possibly more), Lindsay Rimmer. Hugh and Fanny's daughter, Sally/Sarah lives in Australia with her husband and four children (and another on the way). The oldest is Penn (boy of 15) who comes to stay with his uncle Randall. Randall's wife is the rather wet and pious Ann. They have a mysterious daughter, Miranda, aged 13, and recently lost their son, Steve (who was roughly Penn's age). They have a large house and run a successful rose-growing business; their marriage is less successful.
Mildred and Humphrey Finch are friends, primarily of Hugh's. They have a happy but chaste marriage, and Mildred yearns for Hugh. Her brother, Felix, is interested in Lindsay and Ann, and the vicar has a bit of a crush on Ann. There is a frisson between Penn and Miranda, and there are fears that the gay Humphrey may have designs on Penn.
Clearly, no good can come of any of this, and as new relationships are tentatively formed, matters become more complex.
Penn is the obvious outsider, but each character is an outsider in some way, even to themselves. Hugh just bumbles along, largely oblivious to everything unless it's spelt out to him.
You could almost make a case for Hugh's Tintoretto as a character, "a pearl whose watery whiteness both reflected and resisted the soft surrounding honey-coloured shades".
Like most Murdoch books, this features someone (more than one) pulling strings in the lives of others, primarily for their twisted personal enjoyment. Consequences don't seem to feature in their calculations: "There was in [X's] apprehension of things... nothing grossly predatory. They were like servants who run ahead of their master, symbols of a presence, almost sacraments." One man is attracted by the "moral otherness" of one such schemer.
At times, the manipulation borders on the magical: "fear, attraction, puzzlement and hostility, which had once together compose a sort of enchantment" and "she has drawn me here, witch-like".
This theme is also reflected in the way Miranda still plays with dolls. Her grandfather ponders how she "managed to combine her Peter Pannish demeanour with a knowingness which made Hugh sometimes conjecture that it was all a sort of masquerade". Even Randall still treasures his cuddly toys.
This gives a somewhat theatrical feel to the whole book. "positively enjoying the atmosphere of relaxed drama which surrounded Emma. It was as if Emma made her [Ann] exist more... she had an agreeable sense almost of being seduced."
SEX VERSUS CHASTITY
There is sex, but largely off-stage. What's more interesting is the relationships that endure but are apparently chaste, all for different reasons. Divorce was less common in 1962, and some of the characters are sincerely trying to live Christian lives.
"He made of his quiet love... a sort of home... He waited."
"Their relationship was was intimate yet abstract, a frictionless machine which generated little warmth, but which functioned excellently.
"All sorts of catastrophes can happen inside a marriage without destroying it... Thank God marriages don't depend on love."
"Perhaps in their days of happiness, their personalities had been too hazy for the question [of whether they 'fitted'] to arise. Now the haze had cleared and they had hardened into incompatible shapes."
The daisy-chain of relationships seems never-ending; the relationships that seem to end, never really do, perhaps resurfacing as "a dark new passion" that "was like a mutual haunting".
Apart from less divorce and more Christianity in 1962 than in 2014, there are a couple of ideas that strike a wrong note now: the tacit assumption that homosexuality and pederasty are the same, and a jocular rape threat issued to a woman who is being a bit of a tease ("I shall probably beat you and certainly rape you" if you don't change your mind).
All the characters are mourning people, opportunities and experiences. Ann feels "perpetually haunted and mocked by a music of happiness which came from some inaccessible elsewhere."
Hugh is mourning Fanny, "his grief... came to him with a kind of healing intensity. He burned himself with that pure pain. But he knew too that he had been touched by... some leper touch, which would work out its own relentless chemistry." He is also juggling that loss with the guilt of not being a better husband (his long-ago affair) and wistfulness at lost opportunities.
In the aftermath of Fanny's death, Hugh goes to stay with Randall's family, who are also still mourning Steve, but it affects them all very differently. High finds it oppressive, "The big indifferent house, upon which the unhappiness of him and his had made so little impression, and where the phantoms of his sadness were without a resting place."
The opening is oddly reminiscent of the famous opening lines of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but I'm not sure whether to read further significance into it:
"Fanny Peronett was dead. That much her husband Hugh Peronett was certain of as he stood in the rain beside the grave."
The suggestion is that the best chance of happiness is from forgetting and reinventing.
* "He could pass as a distinguished man, just as he could pass as a good husband... But the terror and the glory of life had passed him by."
* Unlike the living characters, "Poor Fanny had no secrets. She had been a woman without mystery. There had been no dark in her."
* "Miranda was as pale as her mother, but her face had the transparency of marble, where Ann's had the dullness of wax."
* "The sun was shining, but in a feeble unconvinced sort of way."
* "His expression of rapturous doubt joined with apprehension of a higher and inconceivably beneficent yet also dangerous world... Her tender, intent, ironical gaze gently toasted one side of his face."
* "Mildred... set her feet apart in a patient yet stubborn pose which indicated with brutal clarity that she was waiting for Swann to go."
* "Remembering an infatuation, she "seemed in his memory to drip with colours almost too vivid to bear".
* "A niche reserved for men of independent means and limited ambition."
* "The silence that followed began to coil and accumulate into a great white shell of eloquence and understanding".
* Mother and daughter share "a tension, an excessive mutual consciousness, a hostile magnetism."
Notes are private!
Mar 02, 2014
Apr 12, 2014
Mar 02, 2014
Jan 16, 1992
This is a gloriously ribald carnivalesque adventure, with deeper themes.
It is the life story of identical twin musical hall performers, Dora and (Leo This is a gloriously ribald carnivalesque adventure, with deeper themes.
It is the life story of identical twin musical hall performers, Dora and (Leo)Nora and their complex family, as remembered by Dora on their 75th birthday. Dora is a wonderful raconteur, though hardly a reliable narrator. She's more of a chatty old biddy, rambling away, enthusiastically, and suddenly remembering little asides. She would be great fun to meet, and I really felt I did.
There are many twins in the story: contrasts, duality, uniqueness, and mistaken identity are the most obvious themes, all in a theatrical setting, with many Shakespearean references.
As well as duality/twins (and related themes) and the theatre, uncertain parentage, absent fathers, decline and fall, comedy and tragedy, all feature strongly, and in fact most of them come back to duality and contrast. The performers range from the most revered Shakespearean thespians down to presenters on the trashiest sort of TV game show.
Twinship sometimes reduces a pair to a single entity, but also enhances to more than the sum of its parts: "Neither of us is anything special on our own... but put us together, people blinked... we turned heads." The trouble is, "This night of all nights I wanted to look like myself, whoever that was."
There are even similarities among those who are not twins, the same circumstances and actions recurring: romances arising from productions of King Lear, consensual incest (actual, presumed (but not certain, where paternity is not definite), and fictional (Lear and Cordelia, a pantomime goose and its gosling!)), and "to die for love runs in the family" - as does being long-lived (another contrast/contradiction).
Legitimacy and illegitimacy is another aspect, both in the literal sense of people's parentage, but also in terms of "proper" theatre versus lower forms of entertainment. Randolph, the patriarch, toured the world, evangelising Shakespeare, to the point where "the touring was turning into a kind of madness".
Performance is the background of everything, even real life: Grandma Chance's boarding house - on Bard Road "never looked plausible. It looked like a stage set of a boarding house, as if Grandma had done it up to suite a role she'd chosen on purpose", which was almost true. She even created her family out of scraps.
Fate is a strong thread, too, even in the main surnames, Hazard and Chance. "Ambition, the curse and glory of the Hazards, who'll risk everything they've got and a little bit more on a throw of the dice."
If you like spotting such things, also look out for mirrors, the grandfather's Grandfather clock (and indirect references, e.g. "we stopped, short..." re the menopause!), Shakespearean-style potions and poisons, and Melchior's obsessive attachment to a cardboard crown.
This is rather complicated, as there are lots of twins, as well as partner-swapping, resulting in children being raised by their uncles. Other children, including Dora and Nora, are raised by people who are not their parents or uncles. There is a Dramatis Personae listed at the back, but this family tree is more useful:
The title becomes clear towards, the end, "I may never have known my father in the sense of an intimate acquaintance, but I know who he was. I was a wise child."
This should be a troubling issue, but it's all glossed over in such a jolly way (no gory details), it's hard to be as outraged as one should be. Just the thought of it makes one character say, "Dread and delight coursed through my veins".
Parts of it are a little far-fetched, but whether that's Angela Carter's fantasy, or embroidered by Dora, we don't always know, though at times, doubts are explicit: "Over the years, Perry offered us a Chinese banquet of options as to what happened to him. He gave us all his histories, we could choose which ones we wanted - but they kept on changing." Another time, she admits, "I always misremember. It never seems the same twice, each time that I remember it, it distorts."
Similarly, "Grandma invented this family. She put it together out of whatever came to hand... she created it out of sheer force of personality."
There is a scene where a comedian tells an old joke about multiple illegitimacy (http://goodriddlesnow.com/jokes/view/...), but it becomes a rather meta joke within the novel, as the fiction has so many parallels in the story.
The conclusion is that children invent their own histories, and Nora wonders if much of their own memory (especially of Peregrine) is "just a collection of our hopes and dreams... Something to set our lives by, like the old [grandfather] clock in the hall."
ALL THE WORLD'S A STAGE
For their seventh birthday, Dora and Nora are given a beautiful toy theatre, and Dora comments (perhaps only with hindsight) that it's "just like life". They, like another pair of twins in the story, were born on Shakespeare's birthday.
"The priest and the game-show presenter. Not so different... Both of them in show business. Both, in their different ways, carrying on the great tradition of the Hazard family - the willing suspension of disbelief. Both of them promise you a free gift if you play the game."
"I... have always loved it best of all, the moment when the lights go down, the curtain glows, you know that something wonderful is going to happen. It doesn't matter if what happens next spoils everything: the anticipation itself is always pure."
When one pair of twins meet their real father, he denies parentage by quoting the Bard - ouch!
Dora describes the experience of watching film of her and Nora in their youth as "batty old tarts with their eyes glued on their own ghosts... When I was young, I'd wanted to be ephemeral... to live on just the glorious moment... But if you put your past on celluloid, it keeps."
* "The habit of applying warpaint outlasts the battle."
* "He loved his boys [who may not have been his]. He cast them as the princes in the tower as soon as they could toddle."
* "There he was on the bed, brushing up his Shakespeare." (Nudge, nudge.)
* Of a cheating wife, whose husband murdered her, her lover and then himself, "She always had a gift for exits".
* "She didn't so much talk as elocute."
* "To travel hopefully is better than to arrive... I always preferred foreplay, too, well, not always."
* "Tragedy, eternally more class than comedy."
* "Irish had an old soul... He was a man with a great future behind him already."
* When a wife is asked if she misses her errant husband, "she had the grace to twinkle right up at the very thought of him, but she twinkled dismissively."
* "I've never known such profound silences... Silences in which the unspoken hung like fog that got into your lungs and choked you."
* "We painted the faces we always used to have onto the faces we have now."
* "The third Lady Hazard, wearing a Vivienne Westwood somewhat too witty for her years."
* "She looked a million dollars... even if in well-used notes... a stunning advertisement for hormone replacement therapy... not a line on that skin but, then, sharkskin doesn't wrinkle" and her boyfriend was so unprepossessing "I hoped for her sake he'd got hidden talents."
* "Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."
Recommended by Danielle (CUSFS) ...more
Notes are private!
Feb 03, 2014
Mar 02, 2014
May 05, 2013
This is a pitch-perfect period piece: middle class couple in their mid 40s, living in middle England, mid wars. It could have been hackneyed, or just This is a pitch-perfect period piece: middle class couple in their mid 40s, living in middle England, mid wars. It could have been hackneyed, or just dull, but it isn't - and it's beautifully written.
It opens with exquisite descriptions of the minor niggles of a slightly dull life; the precise annoyances being different for husband and wife, although the latter generally has a great "capacity for contentment". Each mundane thought and task (even shaving) sheds delicate light on the character involved, setting the scene for what follows.
There is a clear arc to the plot - and indeed, the characters in it. Thomas Blake runs what was his family engineering business (sold because of his late father squandered money, mostly on drink). A chance meeting with entrepreneur Laurence Knight gives Thomas the chance to better himself, and thus his family. It cleverly portrays the excitement and expectation felt by characters, even when the reader suspects the future may not always be so rosy. It's poignant, without ever being sentimental.
Thomas and Celia have three children, who are teens at the start and young adults by the end: Freda, Ruth and Douglas. Each has a distinct and different character, and the way they are shaped by events has a certain inevitability with hindsight, even though none of the precise details feel predictable.
In addition, Thomas supports his widowed mother, spinster sister and feckless brother (Edward).
The eponymous Laurence Knight is a wealthy man, returned with his wife, to the town he grew up in.
The problem with mixing in these three different levels of society is that it involves a degree of unfamiliarity or even pretence and fear of being found out: "she was always... finding herself in company to which she felt either superior or inferior" - but never comfortably equal.
At one level, this is a small family saga with a predictable plot (transformation through rise and fall - not just of the main characters). But that is only true in the most superficial sense. Within that familiar framework, many issues are vividly explored.
There are minor spoilers in this section, so you may prefer to skim the headings and then jump to the quotations at the end.
Role of Women
Celia is a wonderful mother, loving wife, and diligent and competent housewife. However, she is ill-educated in matters of business and finance, and ponders "briefly, how helpless women and children are; their fates are decided for them by men". She is cross when Thomas assumes decision-making power about Douglas' schooling on the basis that he's the man; she makes her points, but doesn't dare be really firm.
In such an environment, it's no wonder that the childless women come across as sad, unfulfilled and, in the case of neighbour Mrs Greene, an unpleasant busy-body, loathed by all.
However, when times are tough, it is Celia (and to some extent, Ruth) who is the strength of the family.
Growing Pains - Parenting Teens
Celia, struggles to understand each of her children and react appropriately to the challenges that arise with each, letting them make their own mark - and mistakes - but hating the hurt that sometimes resulted. Issues about parties, friends, fashion, heartbreak, embarrassing family members etc are just as pertinent now as then. "She was beset with the desire, common to all anxious mothers, to press into service food, sunshine, cushions, distractions, everything she could think of... to make him better."
Freda is a dreamy, self-centred snob: "when involved in any disagreeable situation, Freda's instinct was to escape". When she has a perm, against her mother's wishes, she is "almost frightened by her own behaviour" but ultimately "vanity drove out remorse". Freda blames her mother for everything that is less than perfect in her life, and her mother "didn't know whether Freda was really trivial or merely being perverse".
Ruth is outwardly more practical, but finds it hard to complete things. However, she shares her parents' capacity for love and loyalty, and proves to be a shrewd judge of character, especially with her grumpy grandmother.
Douglas is passionate - mainly about chemistry, which would be fine, were it not for the fact his father runs an engineering business.
All the marriages have a delicate dynamic, and several include an imbalance of love or loyalty that is only acknowledge by one partner.
For one couple, the apparently pragmatic reasons for swapping between double and single beds have much deeper resonance and cause "a slight barrier... between them, of which poor [other half] was entirely unaware".
For another, the wife was "ashamed sometimes of clinging where she wasn't wanted... 'He'll be old sometime, and then he'll want me.'".
By contrast, there is a beautiful example of the transformative power of love.
Prosperity makes barely-dreamed of luxuries almost commonplace, but it also provides new stresses, whether of fitting in, spreading wings, not having enough to do - or all three.
Thomas thought "Celia ought to be very satisfied... to be so well set up in this house, with these maids. She had nothing to do now but enjoy herself." But the extra staff "kept their places and saw that she kept hers. There was none of the hearty coo-operation of maid and mistress that there had been at The Grove". This, and endless bridge, which she only does "because there seemed to be nothing else to do" lead to depression: "my top life is all right... But my underneath life is all wrong".
Conversely, "the bitter bread of dependence" affects many characters in the book at different times, and each reacts differently: some are strengthened by it, and others are weakened.
Thomas and Celia are non-religious (unusual in those days), though they take their children to church because "it was safer. No good taking away when they had nothing to offer in place."
Nevertheless, Whipple was a Christian, and the book is laced with subtle messages about avarice, snobbery and Faustian pacts, bundled with non-preachy lessons about pride, forgiveness and honesty. These are discussed more explicitly in an excellent afterword.
However, towards the end, there is a much more explicit section that feels out of place with the tone of the rest of it. A shame, imo, and the only real weakness in the book.
* Her daughters "had her smooth skin now, her perished bloom. She had flowered, borne fruit, and was now fading". Later "Beauty was fugitive now. It came and went" (she was only 41 at this point!).
* "It was the sort of house where one could speak upstairs and be heard down. Smells, too, travelled easily in it."
* "The tram careered on, without having stopped. It had a reckless air."
* A grand car "arrested his attention by its discreet magnificence".
* "He continued to read the paper as he talked, because he often found it easier to talk to his children that way."
* The spinster aunt came "bringing an atmosphere of martyrdom. 'I was chopping cabbage,' she announced."
* "They had no money and lived in a small, uninteresting way."
* "Edward was fortified by the knowledge that he was the most respected frequenter of The Swan... as comfortable at The Swan as the Blakes were in their own sitting room until he entered it." Ouch: the sting in the final phrase.
* The perils of making something for an ungrateful relative: "The jacket... gave more pleasure to the maker than it would to the recipient... They gave her double gifts... presents and causes for complaint."
* "The murk of the night curling in at the window."
* "She even managed to keep an expression of disapproval during mastication."
* "Man is not constituted to bear suspense. He can bear adversity, suffering, parting, death, but not suspense."
* A mother, with a son-in-law she dislikes, feels "bitter, uneasy, shut out, able only to ask brightly about the husband's health".
(Recommended by Clare P) ...more
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Sep 22, 2013
Oct 27, 2013
Sep 14, 2013
This is my first Proulx, so I didn't know if the unusual writing style is typical, or specially chosen for this particular story. I hope it's the latt This is my first Proulx, so I didn't know if the unusual writing style is typical, or specially chosen for this particular story. I hope it's the latter, as it works very well. Update: I've now read Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other stories (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), which use similar language, but somewhat toned down.
It covers a couple of years (plus some backstory) in the life of thirty-something Quoyle: a big, lonely, awkward and unattractive man, always having or doing the wrong thing. He is a not very successful journalist in New York, who ends up moving, with his young daughters (Bunny and Sunshine) and aunt, to a small, somewhat inbred, community in Newfoundland where the aunt and his late father grew up. Somehow Proulx keeps the reader on the fence: he isn't especially lovable, and yet he elicits more sympathy than mockery in this reader.
I think one weakness is that the mother of the girls is too horrible, and the manner of her departure from their lives stretched my credulity somewhat.
The narrative style is the first thing to hit. It is very distinctive, continues throughout the book, and could be infuriating, though I didn't find it so. It is telegraphic and observational, reflecting Quoyle's job. There are staccato sentence fragments, and some overworked analogies, some of which are wonderfully vivid, and a few of which are laughably awful. Grammar sticklers may struggle to enjoy this book, but it's their loss - context is all, and in this context, I think it works.
If I were as clever and witty as some of my GR friends (you know who you are), I would have written this review in the style of the book.
Anyway, some typical examples:
This is the entire opening paragraph of a chapter:
"The aunt in her woolen coat when Quoyle came into the motel room. Tin profile with a glass eye. A bundle on the floor under the window. Wrapped in a bed sheet, tied with net twine."
Another whole paragraph:
"Near the window a man listened to a radio. His buttery hair swept behind ears. Eyes pinched close, a mustache. A packet of imported dates on his desk. He stood up to shake Quoyle's hand. Gangled. Plaid bow tie and ratty pullover. The British accent strained through his splayed nose."
* "eyes the color of plastic"
* "the sullen bay rubbed with thumbs of fog"
* "On the horizon icebergs like white prisons. The immense blue fabric of the sea, rumpled and creased."
* "parenthesis around her mouth set like clamps. Impossible to know if she was listening to Nutbeem or flying over the Himalayas"
* "In a way he could not explain she seized his attention; because she seemed sprung from wet stones, the stench of fish and tide."
* "eyes like a thorn bush, stabbing everything at once"
* The ghost of his wife, "Petal's essence riding under his skin like an injected vaccine against the plague of love"
* "Fingernails like the bowls of souvenir spoons." (That's the whole sentence.)
THE TOWN AND COMMUNITY
Aspects of the town and its characters remind me of David Lynch's 1980s TV series "Twin Peaks": strange characters, often with impairments of mind, body or emotions, slightly strange names, odd superstitions, and dark secrets (murder, incest, rape, insurance fraud).
The town of Killick Claw isn't prosperous, and the environment is still harsh, but it's better than when the aunt grew up there: "The forces of fate weakened by unemployment insurance, a flaring hope in offshore oil money."
The Gammy Bird is the local paper, and it's like no other: lots of adverts (many of them fake), deliberate typos and Malapropisms, libelous gossip (including a regular catalogue of sex abuse cases!), shipping news and "we run a front-page photo of a car wreck every week, whether we have a wreck or not". Poor Quoyle is bemused and has the uneasy and familiar feeling "of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn't know".
Knots are the most obvious one. Each chapter opens with a quotation pertinent to what it contains, and many are from Ashley Book of Knots, which Proulx found second-hand, and gave her the inspiration and structure she sought. Knots feature in the plot metaphorically (in terms of being bound or adrift), in a more literal and superstitious sense. We also learn that Quoyle's name means "coil of rope", and I suppose he is pretty tightly coiled for the first half of the book.
Shipping is obvious, too, not just from the title, but because Quoyle ends up writing the eponymous shipping news in the local paper, in a community where everyone needs a boat. Most of the introductory quotes that are not from Ashley Book of Knots are from a Mariner's Dictionary. I confess there were times when the quantity and level of detail slightly exceeded my interest, but I'm glad I stuck with it.
The book is riddled with pain, rejection, estrangement and mentions of abusive relationships (never graphic); many are haunted by ghosts of past events and relationships gone wrong. But although it is sometimes bleak, it is rarely depressing, and sometimes it's funny. Even close and fond relationships often have an element of awkwardness and distance; for instance, Quoyle always refers to "the aunt", rather than "my aunt". Even after living with her for a while, "It came to him he knew nearly nothing of the aunt's life. And hadn't missed the knowledge."
Ultimately, it's at least as much about (re)birth and healing as death and doom. One character slowly realises it may be possible to recover from a broken relationship: "was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once?"
OTHER MISCELLANEOUS QUOTATIONS
* "a failure of normal appearance" - if you can't even achieve that, what hope is there?
* "believed in silent suffering, didn't see that it goaded"
* In a shop, "the man's fingers dropped cold dimes"
* "fog shuddered against their faces"
* "the house was garlanded with wind"
* In such a harsh environment, "The wood, hardened by time and corroding weather, clenched the nails fast"
* "a few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets" (I think I'd prefer that one without the fish)
* "the woman in the perpetual freeze of sorrow, afloat on the rise and fall of tattered billows"
* a babysitter "doing overtime in a trance of electronic color and simulated life, smoking cigarettes and not wondering. The floor around her strewn with hairless dolls."
From The Ashley Book of Knots:
"To prevent slipping, a knot depends on friction, and to provide friction there must be pressure of some sort." ...more
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Aug 07, 2013
Sep 04, 2013
Aug 07, 2013
Dec 01, 2007
This contains a novella, Boy in Darkness, and five short stories.
BOY IN DARKNESS
This 90-page novella resulted in three pages of notes! It is so beauti This contains a novella, Boy in Darkness, and five short stories.
BOY IN DARKNESS
This 90-page novella resulted in three pages of notes! It is so beautiful and so strange, and not even strange in the same way as the other Gormenghast books.
The story starts on Titus's fourteenth birthday (part way through the second of the Gormenghast "trilogy"), though all but once, he is referred to as "the Boy". He is a truculent teen, exasperated by the relentless and oppressive rituals that govern his life: "He was in a frame of mind quite savage in its resentment".
Watching a fly, "the Boy became dimly aware of exploration as something more than a word... as something solitary and mutinous... the first flicker of imperative rebellion... against the eternal round of deadly symbolism." (And yet this book is laden with symbolism.)
Naturally, he wants escape. So he does. "To be alone in a land where nothing can be recognized, that is what he feared, and that is what he longed for."
So far, so "normal" in Gormenghast terms. But then "the moon slid out of the thick clouds and he saw ahead of him a river", but there is something strangely unsettling about this river, and it's at this point the story takes on a more dream-like, allegorical or even magical feel. He awakes to "foreign air" and "indications... that he was on evil ground".
In the second part, the Boy encounters Goat and Hyena: part-human creatures who want to take him to their menacing master, the Lamb. "You are what [not "who"] we have been waiting for."
The disused mines where these creatures live sound a little like Gormenghast, with their lavish but decayed furnishings, but for all the oppression of the Castle, the mines have more menace: a "well of darkness.. a prodigious shaft more like an abyss than anything constructed".
The sycophantic Goat and vain Hyena compete for their master's approval. Their master is in some ways a stereotypical evil genius: he transforms and brainwashes his subjects, has a grand but evil plan that is going awry, and lives in an underground lair - but he is a lamb of the purest white (a strong symbol of purity and sacrifice), with child-like hands, which he uses to perform gross transformations.
Fortunately, the Boy's profound infusion of the liturgy of ritual, coupled with his intelligence, mean he can talk eloquently and persuasively (he even gets Goat and Hyena to make him a palanquin to take him to the Lamb).
The Lamb, now blind, lives in the mines and transmutates humans into a sort of animal hybrid, based on what he thinks they are really like, and somehow sucks out their souls. He has been doing this for more than a hundred years, but all have died except for Goat and Hyena, and he doesn't know why. He has waited ten years for another subject. His plans for the Boy are clear: "His very bones cry out for realignment: his flesh to be reshaped; his heart to be shrivelled, and his soul to feed on fear."
The Lamb's motives are never clear (beyond "his exquisite pleasure to debase" and "a deep and burning hatred of all humans"), but in some respects, he is like the leader of a cult (albeit with very few followers): Goat chants "he is the heart of life and love, and that is true because he tells us so" and both Goat and Hyena are subjugated to the extent they know they are "of a lesser breed and that to serve and obey their master was its own reward".
Some of the descriptions of the Lamb are wonderfully awful and often contradictory:
* "no substance... only the yielding, horrible mollience of endless wool."
* "white as... the brow of a dead man; white as a sheeted ghost... Bright wool... white wool... in half a million curls... seraphic in its purity and softness... the raiment of the Lamb."
* "the hollow where his soul should have been seethed with horrible sickness"
* "white lord of Midnight" whose voice is like "the sound of naked innocence".
* "The Lamb had bared its pearly teeth."
* "his arms like little white doves"
* "quenchless vitality of his evil"
It may not start with "Once upon a time", but the ending is classic fairy tale - not in the sense of being overtly happy, but in terms of how the ending comes about. (view spoiler)[When the Lamb dies (leaving no body or blood, but just a mass of dazzling curls), the spell on Goat and Hyena is broken and they turn into very very old men. (hide spoiler)]
IT REALLY IS TITUS
Despite Peake’s widow saying in her foreword that “The Boy”, though not named, is Titus, he is actually called that once early on, when he looks out of the window of his room. Furthermore, in her memoirs ("A World Away" http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...) she explicitly describes it as "Titus outside the Titus books". Apart from that, the descriptions of him and his home leave no doubt (an earl who is “lord of a towered tract”, “at the beck and call of officials” and “remote ceremonies the meaning of which had long been forgotten”, leaving “dust-filled rooms of his seemingly endless home”).
WHAT DOES IT MEAN and how does it relate to Gormenghast?
According to the foreword by Peake's widow, it was subtitled "The Dream", though she says "It was written as a story, to be read as a story", but acknowledges the many and varied slants people like to put on it (religious allegory, nightmare etc) and concludes "It is all or none or some of these things to the reader".
"The Boy", rips off a symbolic necklace (echoes of baby Titus ripping a page of book of ritual), sees night-owls (significant creatures in the main story), and Peake's recurring themes of islands and isolation run strong. More oddly, there is a scene near the end where his tactics are a very close parallel of a specific incident of Steerpike's! (view spoiler)[Titus promises titles and a gold throne, just as Steerpike promises the twins. (hide spoiler)]
However, it's hardest to ignore the repeated and overpowering inversion of the symbolism of a sacrificial lamb.
* "Ritual, like a senseless chariot, had rolled its wheels - and the natural life of the day was bruised and crushed."
* "That ochre-coloured and familiar patch of mildew that stretched across the cancelling like an island.... He knew by heart the tapering peninsular that ended in a narrowing chain of islets like a string of discoloured beads... and he had many a time brought imaginary ships to anchor in hazardous harbours or stood them off when the seas ran high where they rocked in his mind and set new courses for yet other lands." (Islands are a recurring theme in Peake's work)
* "in the tortuous Castle... he had on many an occasion been terrified, not only by the silences and glooms of the night but by a sense of being watched, almost as though the Castle itself or the spirit of the ancient place moved with him as he moved, stopped when he stopped; forever breathing at his shoulder-blades and taking note of every move he made."
* "Towers that a moment ago had been ethereal, and all but floated in the golden air, had now become, through the loss of the sun's late beams, like black and carious teeth."
* Bells "a murmuration, with the clamour of tongues that spread their echoes over the great shell of the Castle like a shawl of metal."
* "The night was heavy with its own darkness."
* "Signs of faded elegance... now breathed a folorn and dismal air" yet "there is a certain grandeur in decay and in stillness which slows the footsteps."
* "It was as though he had been deserted by the outriders of his memory, and an uprush of fear flowed over him like an icy wave."
* "sullen water with bilious moonlight glowering on its back."
* Sinister hounds have yellow eyes: "If a colour can have any moral value, it was incredibly wicked".
* "The sun gave out the kind of light that sucked out every hue... The water under the sun's rays was like grey oil that heaved as though with a voluptuous sickness."
* "Joyless sunlight... A gleam of dull light that had both fear and vengeance in it."
* "Far away beyond the power of search, in the breathless wastes, where time slides on and on through the sickness of the day and the suffocation of the night, there was a land of absolute stillness... the stillness of apprehension and a dire suspense. At the heart of this... where no trees grew and no birds sang, there was a desert of grey space that shone with a metallic light."
* The Weird Journey (a colourful dream-cum-non-specific nightmare)
* I Bought a Palm Tree (an amusing tale of Peake trying to sound impressive when ordering one!)
* The Connoisseurs (a self-consciously witty piece about the nature of art)
* Danse Macabre (a chilling supernatural story)
* Same Time, Same Place (a coup de foudre that starts off realistically, but then diverges).
COMPARISONS WITH GORMENGHAST
Like the main Gormenghast books, these stories are hard to categorise, but all feature subtle (and sometimes unsubtle menace) and wonderfully vivid descriptions, including quietness “resembling that of a cobweb crumbling to the floor or the step of a mouse on moss”; “a land of whiteness where no colours could breathe... I screamed for colour and none came... whiteness like a theory, draining the love from life”, and re the defiantly ephemeral nature of dreams “a memory of what I had seen disturbed me, yet I could not remember what it was”. It was also interesting to see “knobhead” used as an insult (more than once) as long ago as 1957.
My edition is printed on good quality paper, has a good introductions and is interspersed with many of Peake’s drawings, yet sadly has very obvious typesetting errors in TWO places, which slightly detracts from the overall quality.
Overall, an excellent - nay essential - counterpoint to Gormenghast.
All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf:
Notes are private!
Jun 16, 2013
Jun 24, 2013
Jun 05, 2009
Sep 24, 2002
Perhaps it's not fair to expect the writer of a wonderfully witty play ('Art') to be as good at writing a novella, even one that is really just one lo Perhaps it's not fair to expect the writer of a wonderfully witty play ('Art') to be as good at writing a novella, even one that is really just one long soliloquy. Nevertheless, I was sorely disappointed by this rather unpleasant book.
Some reviews describe this as "comic", but the narrator was just nasty, with very little humour that I could see (and I say that as one who often enjoys books that lack sympathetic characters).
Anyway, this is the ramblings and rantings of 73 year old man to his estranged 38 year old son. He moans about his son, his first wife (the son's mother), his second wife (Nancy), his mistress (Marissa/Christine), his housekeeper (whose faults include "existential positivism"!), friends, and others. He is self-obsessed, self-pitying, shares inappropriate details about his sex life, rattles on about the philosophy of dead friends the son is unlikely to care about, and the ending is horrid. There is also some pseudo-psychological stream-of-consciousness, general bile, and a dash of paranoia concerning his wife and housekeeper.
He claims, more than once, to want to know what happiness means, and yet his wife's happiness and zest for life infuriate him (it just puzzles me; I'd have left him or killed myself - or him!) and he is explicitly not pleased to be told that his son is happy. Later, he suggests "The road to happiness... is perhaps the road to oblivion".
The son is apparently non-productive, but happily travelling the world; had he been chasing women, the father wouldn't have minded so much.
The father has always been disappointed by his "average" son, "I would have liked you better as a criminal or a terrorist than as a militant in the cause of happiness". Both his wives accuse him of traumatising the son. His feelings about his son include "If I weren't moved by some degree of pity and affection for you, I'd find you repellent" and "If I loved you, I certainly didn't build an alter to your status as a child". Note that both start with "if".
His views of the housekeeper and her repairman husband (both of whom are Portuguese) are even worse, as he thinks of them as barely human, "Do they suffer as much as we do?... Without an imagination, you can't suffer." He is, culturally, Jewish, and particularly dislikes Jews who take on more of the trappings of Jewish identity.
When his daughter (a "cow") encourages him to read, now that he has spare time, he is less inclined to do so than if her reason was that he had less time; he attibutes this to her failure to understand him, rather than his contrariness.
The nearest he comes to self-awareness is when he says "Don't let yourself be upset, my boy, by my deplorable rantings... I make myself odious, I make myself utterly ugly to test your affection". That may be true, but it only serves to emphasise his unpleasantness.
There are a few good lines:
* "As she crunches her little piece of buttered toast with honey her eyes are marking out the hidden boundaries of her day... The woman is so upbeat, it's a nightmare."
* A friend, who has observed a tree, almost unchanged, in forty years, has noticed "time's shattering indifference".
* "We are only kissing the masks that hide the face of abandonment."
* "Another person's empty presence is the greatest lack of all... I can take your hand, and yet you couldn't be farther away. In your eyes I read your utter incomprehension... I read my abandonment."
As it is billed as humorous, the bits that come close include (view spoiler)[a friend's Viagra exploits (hide spoiler)]. And that's it, so it should be "bit" (singular)!
At 136 pages of largish print, I read it in one sitting; had I stopped part way through, I might not have bothered to pick it back up. Not recommended (in case you hadn't figured that out by now).
Julian Barnes covers similarly territory SO much better in his brilliant "The Sense of an Ending" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which I rated 5*["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jun 03, 2013
Jun 11, 2013
Jun 03, 2013
Jul 06, 1999
A beautifully-written, Edwardian faerie story for adults - not that there's any "adult" content, and were it published today, it would probably be cla A beautifully-written, Edwardian faerie story for adults - not that there's any "adult" content, and were it published today, it would probably be classed as YA (despite some rather unpleasant hunting). However, it only gets 3*, as a reflection of my enjoyment of it; I prefer things a little darker, even though the moral is perhaps "Be careful what you wish for".
It is essentially a tale of young love across a cultural chasm (human Alveric and elfin Lirazel), the quest of Orion (not the Greek god), and features a witch, a faerie, elves, trolls, a magical sword, runes, unicorns and many other staples of the genre.
It is written in a florid style, lauding the beauty and harmony of the natural world ("the autumn-smitten garden"), and suggesting the ephemeral, not-quite-there nature of Elfland (the other side of "the rampart of twilight").
The poetic feel is emphasised by some recurring phrases, in particular the contrast between "the fields that we know" (the normal, non-magical world) and places "that may not be told of but in song" (Elfland).
Furthermore, the word "glamour" is often used in its archaic sense, to mean casting enchantment over something. I'm less sure what to make of the two references to the King of Elfland's tower having "brazen steps"!
Then, about half way through, the magic is suddenly broken when the author addresses the reader directly with comments about real history. It jarred.
ELFLAND - (HOW) CAN WE KNOW IT?
I liked the ideas of how Elfland is occasionally but unconsciously perceivable by mortals:
"now lost to them but for dreams, a song of such memories as lurk and hide along the edges of oblivion, now flashing from beautiful years of glimpse of some golden moment, now passing swiftly out of remembrance again, to go back to the shades of oblivion, and leaving on the mind those faintest traces of little shining feet which when dimly perceived by us are called regrets."
Artists of all kinds are most receptive and "have had many a glimpse of that country, so that sometimes in pictures we see a glamour too wonderful for our fields; it is a memory of theirs that intruded from some old glimpse." Similarly, Elfland's "flowers and lawns, seen only by the furthest travelling fancies of poets in deepest sleep".
As well as being geographically abstract, Elfland exists, to some extent, outside time: time there passes V E R Y slowly in comparison with here. This is understandably disconcerting for the few who travel between the two realms. Coming to the fields that we know, "even the shadows of houses moved" as part of a "vortex of restlessness"
* "So strong lay the enchantment... that not only did beasts and men guess each other's meaning well, but there seemed to be an understanding even, that reached from men to trees and from trees to men."
* "a hare, who was lying in a comfortable arrangement of grass, in which he had intended to pass the time till he should have things to see to."
* "The glamour that brightens much of our lives, especially in the early years, comes from rumours that reach us from Elfland" and "all manner of little memories".
* "In a forest wherein it quieted the trembling of myriads of petals of roses, it stilled the pools where the great lilies towered, till they and their reflections slept on in one gorgeous dream. And there below motionless fronds of dream-gripped trees, on the still water dreaming of the still air, where the huge lily-leaves floated green in the calm, was the troll Lurulu, sitting on a leaf."
* "Little he knew of the things that ink may do, how it can mark a dead man's thought for the wonder of later years, and tell of happenings that are gone clean away, and be a voice for us out of the dark time, and save many a fragile thing from the pounding of heavy ages; or carry to us, over the rolling centuries, even a song from lips long dead on forgotten hills."
* Spring is "a mild benediction that blessed the very air and sought out all living things."
* "The hall that was built of moonlight, dreams, music and mirage."
And a dash of humour when a troll tells others about the world of men, "They listened spell-bound... and then, when he told of hats, there ran through the forest a wave of little yelps of laughter". ...more
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Apr 12, 2013
Apr 24, 2013
Feb 28, 2013
Apr 26, 2001
An excellently quirky, educational, thought-provoking, and often humourous book that avoids being confusing (despite multiple narrators) or off-puttin An excellently quirky, educational, thought-provoking, and often humourous book that avoids being confusing (despite multiple narrators) or off-putting when describing the more shocking aspects of the near extinction of Aborigines in Tasmania and the views of white supremacists. Even the potentially awkward mix of socio-political themes and jolly japes works.
(Not saying more than is on the back cover.)
It is set in the 1800s and opens with the crew of Sincerity from the Isle of Man, intent on petty smuggling, but who end up taking some Englishmen to Tasmania, including a priest with a penchant for geology who thinks he will find the Garden of Eden, and a doctor intent on proving the superiority of white races in scientific terms. In Tasmania, relations between white settlers and local Aborigines are deadly and often shocking, whether those settlers be impoverished seal-hunters or rich and powerful soldiers or officials.
The general events in Tasmania are broadly true. Events on the boat provide a contrasting degree of levity.
A few of the plot twists were annoyingly predictable - but I loved the irony of the ending, plus the final post script, which fully justified the inclusion of some of the more unpleasant aspects in the novel itself.
I lost track of the number of narrators, but each has a distinct voice, and is explicitly introduced. Some tell one small part of the story, while others recur many times. A difficult trick for a writer to make work, but Kneale manages it.
It opens with a philosophical conundrum that defines the book: "Say a man catches a bullet through his skull in somebody's war, so where's the beginning of that?... the day our hero goes marching off to fight... when he's just turned six and sees soldiers striding down the street... that night when a little baby is born?" By extrapolation, who is to blame for the near extinction of the Tasmanian Aborigines?
Conflict and opportunism are at the heart of the book; no one gets on with anyone else (with the general exception of the Manx crew) and everyone is trying to achieve personal success at the expense of others (not generally financial, though). This is often fuelled by self-deceit and the desire to see evidence and patterns where none exists.
Class, science, religion, nationalism, colonialism (paternalism, exploitation), evangelism, culture clashes, racial identity and tension, crime and punishment (redemption, reform), murder, revenge, and genocide are the main themes. Smuggling and survival are minor, but pertinent distractions.
The book is crawling with hypocrites, including the three, very different, main characters. Some are amusing, like Captain Kewley who justifies smuggling as altruistic capitalism, but others, especially Rev Wilson, have few redeeming features, while Peevay's personal history means he starts off in credit with the reader (and for most, probably remains so). Rev Wilson is the worst, though he is an easy target. His modus operandi is pious prayer that demeans and criticises those he dislikes: he always prays for their improvement, rather than his tolerance, whist stating "I am not one to judge", just as he does so.
Captain Kewley does have some redeeming features. In particular, (view spoiler)[he twice saves enemies, at considerable risk to himself. (hide spoiler)]
Dr Potter's racist "notions" are troubling to read: "The Chinese posses a unique impulse of delight in bright colours, while among the savages of Africa there was a complete absence of the impulse of civilisation." This is partly because of what they say, partly because they are mentioned at such length but most guiltily because he expresses them so ludicrously that it's often hard not to laugh (mainly when he's comparing the Celts, Saxons and Normans). However, people really did (and do) publish such tracts, and the book thoroughly ridicules and refutes such ideas.
Creationists and young Earthers don't come out of this well, so I wouldn't expect them to enjoy it.
Some of the whites genuinely want to help the Aborigines, thinking clothes, crafts, farming and Bible stories will bring salvation, civilisation and happiness.
Others want to expunge all trace of Aboriginal life and have less care for the people than for their own animals.
The Aborigines are given new names: some are Biblical, others almost heretical, but most are deliberately, and often nastily, chosen for reasons that the bearers do not realise. "The older and more exalted of the natives were rewarded with names of quaint grandeur, such as King Alpha... a girl who was dreamy and sad was now Ophelia.. the monstrous female... became Mary, and while this might seem innocent enough, I had little doubt as to which murderous monarch was in Mr Robinson's mind."
One tells an Aborigine "You must speak English now... only English", which is observed by another white as "Thus he displayed... his resolve to bring improvement to the unfortunate creature". A youngster with a newly discovered talent and passion for maths is told "it was neither useful nor practical for him to learn" and is given more Bible instruction instead.
It's not all one-way though: some of the Aborigines are determined to survive, whether in a confrontational way, or from within, by learning about European belief and culture.
Kneale clearly thought carefully about the language he used. He includes a glossary of Manx terms, though I never needed to refer to it, because context made the meanings clear. He also has a caveat at the beginning about Peevay's speech, which is how he imagines an Aboriginal of the time might speak English, given the influence of white settlers and preachers. Personally, I thought the intent was pretty clear, and the echoes of biblical language obvious.
The real skill with language is the way each of the many narrators has a clear personality and self-justifying way of telling their bit of the story.
Examples that caught my eye include:
* A Manx way of using "dream" without a preposition; "A few might have dreamed every penny on a new jacket or boots" and "I dreamed my great-grandfather, Juan, who I never met".
* "Particular words that must never be spoken aboard a Manx boat when she's out at sea", including rabbit, herring, cat, mouse, wind, sun, moon and pig! If someone slips up, they must "shout 'cold iron' and then touch the ship's cold iron as quick as he can".
* On first hearing English, an Aborigine recalls "it never was said properly but was just murmured, like wombat coughing. Now... they hardly are words to me any more but just thinkings that are said".
* Learning English swear words has a pleasingly powerful effect: "Once I said these at Smith, just to see their magic, and it was strong, as he hated me for them very much".
* Peevay's English has a quaint, simple lyrical and somewhat Biblical style. For example:
- "By and by I grew taller and got lustings, so I noticed females in a new way, and their bubbies and fluffs were tidings of joy and filled me with new hungry wanting."
- "Mother was transported with lamentation... [his] getting dead made her even worse... she never would speak to me at all, even for hating."
* "Publication is a powerful thing. It can bring a man all manner of unlooked-for events, making friends and enemies of perfect strangers." Even truer in the days of the internet.
* Suburbs are "houses marooned in fields being an advance colony of ever-spreading London".
* "His Majesty's colony of Van Diemen's land is not intended to reform criminals, but simply to store them, like so much rubbish."
* "There are few things worse than being forgiven, as you never have a chance of answering back."
PS Further thoughts, arising from discussion.
This book immediately reminded me of the first story in Cloud Atlas (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), which I had reread not long before reading this. As it progressed, parallels with Cloud Atlas continued, not just in terms of the period the voyage was set, but in the themes related to exploitation. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Mar 12, 2013
Apr 04, 2013
Mar 12, 2013
May 17, 2011
How can a novel about language leave one speechless? In a good way, I hasten to add!
This was the third Mieville I’ve read, and they are all very diffe How can a novel about language leave one speechless? In a good way, I hasten to add!
This was the third Mieville I’ve read, and they are all very different in style, content and my liking (or not).
The core idea of this one is language: how minds shape language and how language shapes minds. Wonderful as it was, I can see reasons why some people would hate it, or find it too weird, or just not sci-fi enough. If you don’t delight in polysemy and are not interested in the difference between simile and metaphor, this is unlikely to be the book for you.
Because of the tantalising style of storytelling, drip-feeding the reader snippets about things from the trivial to the fundamental, it’s definitely a book worth rereading, and that is especially true on the subject of language, to which I’ve devoted a whole section of this review (which I will doubtless need to rewrite after a reread!).
The plot is to some extent secondary, but it is the reminiscences (going back to childhood) of a woman from Embassytown who travels, comes back and becomes enmeshed in the extraordinary Language (capital letter) of the alien Hosts.
The first section left me exhilarated but reeling. It was so vague and yet specific, nearly familiar, yet also strangely different, and in such an enticing way. It hints at all sorts of weirdness that I couldn't quite put my finger on (odd units of time and some odd typography in the pages ahead) and others that I couldn’t even get my head around (what are “alien colours”- related to Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo, a “super intelligent shade of the colour blue”?). Even the names and numbers of the sections were hard to fathom, making the reader as disoriented as an ambassador in an alien land.
This teasing bafflement continues throughout most of the book: Mieville doesn’t pad with early exposition, so the reader is fed occasional snippets about what things mean. Sometimes I wondered if I’d missed something, particularly things that were clearly fundamental to the book (e.g. what was special about the Ambassadors, what the Hosts looked like, and what being/performing a simile means) but as I read on, and gradually learned more, I realised that was just part of the style of the book.
Having just read Mieville’s The City & The City (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), I was also struck by parallels: there is lots about borders, separation, boundaries, outsiders, the strange duality of the city ("the Host city, where the streets changed their looks... not quite a hard border but was still remarkably abrupt, a gaseous transition.") and one character is "cleaved", when cleavage is a significant aspect of TC&TC.
SENSE OF PLACE
Embassytown is a trading outpost used by humans from Bremen and Earth (Terre) in the future. It is on a planet inhabited by the Ariekei, more respectfully known as Hosts. They have a unique Language (view spoiler)[that requires two simultaneous voices from one mind (hide spoiler)], and the Ambassadors are the translators. The Hosts are also experts at biorigging, so many aspects of the city and its technology are appealingly bizarre, giving a very strong sense of place, even though some aspects are left to the reader’s imagination.
The immer is more amorphous concept of space or outer space, and Avice’s first experience of it is “impossible to describe”. “There are currents and storm fronts in the immer” as well as borders, but the usual laws of physics, and even direction, don’t apply. For instance, “in the first one [universe]… light was about twice as fast as it is here now” and some places are closer together in the immer than in the everyday. “The immer’s reaches don’t correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation.” Also, “People get lost in the overlapping sets of knownspace.”
Avice is an immerser (traveller of and in the immer). She isn't a fluffy, girly sort of woman, but I would have little interest in reading about her if she was. Even so, she came across as plausibly female to me, which is not something all male writers can achieve.
She wasn’t especially endearing, and in the middle of the book she was often faffing around, trying to find out what was going on, but not actually achieving much. In particular, there are some key plot points where she relies on hearsay (“I wasn’t there but that’s how I was told it happened”), which is brave decision on Mieville’s part, though I think he just about retains her credibility. Despite those instances, she is central to the story, mainly in her childhood, and then towards the end of the book.
Given that the Host’s Language is thought and literal truth, the most obvious theme is the nature of truth and lies and the question of whether we make language or language makes us. See the section on Language, below.
I don't think we're meant to have a clear idea what the Hosts look like: it's all about language/Language, rather than judging by outward appearance. Mieville drops little clues throughout the book, but it takes a long time to build up a picture, which remains somewhat fuzzy, but utterly alien. When newly arrived crew stare, unashamedly, at the Hosts, Avice recounts a theory that “no matter how travelled people are… they can’t be insouciant at the first sight of any exot race… our bodies know we should not ever see [them]” (Of course, the vagueness is also a teasing tactic, which entices the reader to keep reading, and avoids distracting from the main force of the story.)
Related to that is Ehrsul: an autom who is Avice’s friend, albeit they rely on “all the exaggerated intimacies of our friendship”. Scyle can never quite think of her as human enough to be friends with her, whereas Avice pushes any doubts to the back of her mind. Maybe an autom who is TOO realistic is more unsettling than one that is clearly not human? On the other hand, “She only ever used one corpus, according to some Terrephile sense of politesse or accommodation… having to relate to someone variably physically incarnate would trouble us [humans]” and her apartment is decorated with pictures on the wall, so that visitors feel relaxed and at home. Would Ehrsul pass the Turing Test? The fact she runs on Turingware suggests she would, but perhaps it would depend who tested her, which then questions the whole nature of the test itself.
Other aspects of what it is to be human touch more on Brave New World, and Soylent Green. In the latter case, the Hosts’ natural “last incarnation was as a food store for the young.” Having given that up, they “respectfully shepherd the ambulatory corpses until they fall apart”, despite their “dignified mindlessness”. The former (view spoiler)[ relates to the way Ambassadors are bred: identical twins, raised to be able to think, act and, crucially, speak, as one, as that is the only way to be understood by the Hosts (hide spoiler)].
Colonialism and all the socio-political and practical issues around it are central, though not my main area of interest. I saw many echoes of (view spoiler)[the Opium Wars, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_wars) (hide spoiler)] a particularly shameful episode in British colonial history. I suppose the main difference is (view spoiler)[that the Language Ariekei were addicted to (albeit a corrupted form) was something previously regarded as unequivocally good. Does that change the ethics of addiction, drug-pushing, treatment (“they might not be addicted any more but they’re not cured; they’re changed”), and do the means justify the ends? (hide spoiler)]
IDEAS ABOUT LANGUAGE
This is the heart of the book, but so hard to do justice to, but I’ll attempt it.
The Hosts’ language (called Language) is the most important to the story, and it is wonderfully strange: it must be spoken simultaneously in two voices by a single mind: “The sounds aren’t where the meaning lies… it needs a mind behind it”. The Hosts themselves have two means of vocal output (cut and turn), but it’s more of a challenge for humans to utter it in a way that the Hosts even register as speech, let alone understand.
The other distinctive feature of Language is that it is an utterly concrete and literal language: lies and multiple meanings are not possible: “For Hosts, speech was thought” and “Words don’t signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language?”
Side-effects of the strangeness of Language are that the Hosts have no system of gestures nor of writing (Mieville accommodates the duality by writing simultaneous words above each other, like fractions).
However, it’s not quite so straightforward or static as that sounds…
The Hosts use similes to express things that are not literally true – the catch being that the similes themselves must be concrete and must continue to be true. (“The man who swims with fishes every week” has to swim with fishes every week. If only the simile had been in the past tense, his life would be much easier.)
Avice was a simile (“You speak Language. I am it”), but others were examples and topics, and later, Avice declares, “I don’t want to be a simile any more. I want to be a metaphor”.
One puzzle is how the Hosts know they need a simile, let alone define it, before they have it in Language?
Similes are the thin end of the wedge where truth is concerned: “Similes start… transgressions. Because we can refer to anything. Even though in Language, everything’s literal… but I can be like… anything… Similes are a way out. A route from reference to signifying.” It’s a relatively small step from “You are like x” to “You are x”. A metaphor is a step further: a lie that is the truth.
The Hosts can understand lies, and they also have a Festival of Lies, where they entertain each other by trying to lie. I was reminded Lister, in the comedy sci-fi, Red Dwarf, trying to teach the mechanoid, Kryten, to lie –using fruit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oB-NnV...).
There are several tactics to lying; they tend to be incremental and often use similes: collaborative, going slow, going fast.
But does lying have a moral cost – does it inevitably lead to evil? And what is “evil” in a non-religious place where some barely have a concept of the word?
The ideas of Sapir-Whorf underlie much of this: “Without language for things that didn’t exist, they could hardly think them”, with “hardly” being the crucial get-out. What about Hosts who lose the power of speech? “If they can’t speak, can they think? Language for Ariekei was speech and thought at once.”
Do we make language or does language make us? As the book progresses, some Hosts have a strong desire for the former: “We want to decide what to hear, how to live, what to say, what to speak, how to mean, what to obey. We want Language to put to our use.” Avice realises “Their longtime striving for lies [was] to make Language mean what they wanted”.
Another way of looking at it is whether “Language is the continuation of coercion by other means”, as one character claims, or whether it’s cooperation, as another claims.
OTHER LANGUAGE-RELATED IDEAS
Other odd languages are fleetingly mentioned, such as Homash: “They speak by regurgitation. Pellets embedded with enzymes… which their interlocutors eat”. There is also mention of “Tactile languages, bioluminescent words… Dialects comprehensible only as palimpsests [a favourite word of Mieville’s] of references to everything already said, or in which adjectives are rude and verbs unholy.”
The quirks of Language affect the writing of the book. In particular, are Ambassadors singular or plural? The answer is both, even in a single sentence, for example, “Ambassador JasMin was in earshot and I made a point of asking them…”. This makes sense, the more you understand about them.
The vagueness of some things, and the neologisms (see below) only added to the appeal for me: maybe I became a little addicted to Language?
There is a wonderful passage describing the joy of a Helen Keller moment, when one who lacked the power of communication suddenly “got it”.
A trivial surprise was that in a largely non-religious future society Christian-based swearing continues in recognisable form, “Jesus Pharoahtekton Christ”, whereas I’d expect the words to have morphed a little (like “crikey”).
Finally, I’m not enough of a linguist to be sure of the truth of this, but it’s thought-provoking: “Sometimes translation stops you understanding.”
Most of the coinages are thrown at the reader early on, and there is no glossary (this isn’t one either). However, the meanings are usually clear from context and common-sense etymology:
Shiftparents, voidcraft, exoterre, biorigged, immerser (versus landstuck), plastone, bookware, newsware, alt reality, sidereal, monthling, basilisking (I love that one), oratee, augmens, datchip
Floaking: “the life technique of aggregated skill, luck, laziness and chutzpah”.
Trid: This seemed to cover quite a lot of things, but all involved a video player/display.
Miab: An acronym (view spoiler)[ Message In A Bottle, i.e. cargo from afar. (hide spoiler)]
Floak is my favourite, and I think Mieville is fully aware of its appeal and the perils of overuse: ‘”Did they tell you I can floak?” I said. “I wish I’d never told them that fucking word… they just want the opportunity to say ‘floak’.”’
I also like the fact that "exot", which refers to exo-terre (of or from Earth) conjures strong implications of "exotic".
• “Like all children we mapped our hometown carefully, urgently and idiosyncratically.”
• “Its surface sheened with the saft that evanesced out from its crystal shielding in threads that degraded to nothing.”
• “It was an insinuation at first, composing itself of angles and shadows. It accreted itself from its surrounds, manifesting in the transient. [Things] spilled toward and into the swimming thing, against physics. They substanced it. Houses were unroofed as their slates slipped sideways into a presence growing every moment more physical, more suited to this realness.”
• Someone flirting was “using augmens to make his face provocative, according to local aesthetics.”
• “the gluttony of the architecture… the frantic eavesdropping of the walls.”
• Because the building are biorigged, and thus alive, when demolition happens “construction site like combined slaughterhouses, puppy farms and quarries”!
I read this in part because of Betsey's review, focusing on the fact it's about language: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...
An interesting Q&A with China, here on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/5...
And here is a video of him talking about the book:
Notes are private!
Feb 13, 2013
Mar 05, 2013
Aug 20, 2012
Jan 01, 2009
May 06, 2011
Mieville is the sort of author I expect and want to like, but I didn't feel the love with "The Scar" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). This Mieville is the sort of author I expect and want to like, but I didn't feel the love with "The Scar" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). This second foray into his works was far more rewarding, and my third, Embassytown, was even more so (there are some interesting parallels, too, which I've outlined in my review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
I enjoyed the concept, the wordplay, and the impossibility of categorisation: it's a detective story, but it's set in a world that is not exactly dystopian or futuristic or fantastic - but it isn't quite realistic either!
One of the characters sums it up nicely, "There's a series of random and implausible crises that make no sense other than if you believe the most dramatic possible shit. And there's a dead girl." It is self-referential in another way: a book called "Between The City and The City" is mentioned several times. Very meta. ;)
The title relates to a divided city that operates as separate cities, but it's not like Berlin, Budapest, Belfast, Nicosia or Jerusalem because (view spoiler)[the two cities (Beszel and Ul Qoma) occupy the same geographical space. Instead, the separation is psychological and sensorial: citizens of each learn to unsee, unhear and even unsmell anything from the other city. If they don't, they invoke the vague but terrifying wrath of Breach. There is also the mythical secret place/power of Orciny. (hide spoiler)] It is this brilliantly weird central premise that makes the book so good. If you don't know about it when you start reading it, the clues are gradually built up, but knowing it, as I did, didn't spoil my enjoyment.
Ultimately, the division is maintained by consent, like the Emperor's New Clothes: "It's not just us keeping them apart. It's everyone in Beszel and Ul Qoma... It works because you don't blink. (view spoiler)[That's why unseeing and unsensing are so vital. No one can admit it doesn't work. So if you don't admit it, it does. (hide spoiler)]" Mind you, there is very limited political freedom in either city (UQ is a one-party state and in Besz, dissident groups are monitored - and both cities are under the mysterious power of Breach), so the idea of consent is somewhat moot.
MURDER MYSTERY & THEMES
This situation creates a variety of intriguing and sometimes amusing complications and paradoxes which hamper police operations. The impetus of the story is the discovery and subsequent investigation of a woman's body, and uncertainty about which domain the crime occurred in. There are disputed zones - shades of Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" and even when authority is agreed, the normal difficulties of solving a crime are compounded by the complexity of the two cities. (view spoiler)[It's difficult to get witness statements from people who are used to unseeing people and things, and who are ever fearful of accidentally seeing what they should not. There are even "Places that no one can see because they think they're in the other city". Chasing criminals without breaching is comical, but crucial. (hide spoiler)] "Smuggling itself is not breach, though most breach is committed in order to smuggle."
These issues raise all sorts of questions about the nature and power of the state and its police (one of the cities - maybe both? - allows only one political party), and particularly about the relevance of intent in determining whether something is a crime. "Because you may not see the justice of what we do doesn't mean it's unjust" (neither does it mean it is just).
COP DRAMA TROPES
I'm not really a follower of detective stories, either on the page or on screen, but Mieville tips a hat to many of the clichés of the genre: good cop (Borlu)/bad cop (various, fluctuating, minor), the sparky relationship between partners (Borlu with Corwi and later with Dhatt), following hunches, breaking the rules for the greater good, messy love life, a few car chases and so on.
The chapters are mostly short and punchy, and each ends with a revelation or cliff-hanger (or both). Yet it doesn't feel hackneyed, perhaps because the setting is so startlingly original. In fact, Mieville confronts the risk of cliché head-on, saying of one character "His fidelity to the cliché transcended the necessity to communicate".
WORDPLAY AND WRITING STYLE
Mieville has fun with neologisms and a few existing but esoteric words. At times he explicitly defines them when context and etymology make that unnecessary (e.g. gudcop and mectec), which is irksome, but nevertheless, some of the words are good. For example:
* Grosstopically: (view spoiler)[Two locations, each in a different city, but occupying the same geographical space in other terms. (hide spoiler)]
* Topolganger: (view spoiler)[When grosstopical places look alike. (hide spoiler)]
* Alterity: (view spoiler)[Alternative, a grosstopically equivalent place, "A Besz dweller cannot walk a few paces next door into an alter house without breach". (hide spoiler)]
* Insiles: Sort of the opposite of exiles.
* Glasnostroika: Glasnost + Perestroika, and the cities have echoes of central and eastern Europe.
* Gallimaufrians are mentioned: perhaps a nod to Dr Who?
* Cleavage: The reason for there being two cities - in both senses of the word: "was it schism or conjoining"... "split or convergence"?
* Crosshatching: A whole new meaning to a familiar word.
As in The Scar, there are a few awkward or ugly sentences that I had to reread, but far fewer. A couple of examples (for my own reference more than anything else):
"He came to UQ, from where he went to B, managed I do not know how to go between the two of them - legally I assure you - several times, and he claimed..." Just adding a single comma would make all the difference.
"Unlike for my distance viewing of the night, up close the walls blocked off the site from watchers."
There are others that are convoluted in a clever and amusing way, though: "I couldn't help fail to completely unsee"!
I think my only quibble with the story-telling is the quantity of rushed explanation and exposition towards the end, rather as Goldfinger or another James Bond baddie would do.
* A dead body: "skin smooth that cold morning, unbroken by gooseflesh... like someone playing at dead insect, her limbs crooked, rocking on her spine... Her face was set in a startled strain. She was endlessly surprised by herself."
(view spoiler)[* "Architecture broken by alterity... The local buildings are taller... so Besz juts up semi regularly and the roof-scape is almost a machicolation... laced by the shadows of girded towers that would loom over it if they were there." (hide spoiler)]
* "Those most dedicated to the perforation of the boundary... had to observe it most carefully."
* At an archaeological site, "Security guards, keeping safe these forgotten then remembered memories".
* "the explosive percussion of the bullet into the wall... Architecture sprayed."
* There is an unreal, almost supernatural quality of Breach (and their forces have a distinctive and intimidating gait): "The soundlessness was enervating... he was a cutout of darkness, a lack... clothes as vague as my own... Their faces were without anything approaching expressions. They looked like people-shaped clay in the moments before God breathed out." And yet it turns out that Breach uses cameras to watch the fringes (shades of Peake's "Titus Alone"), when I was expecting something less tangible.
* "Students might stand, scandalously, touching distance from a foreign power, a pornography of separation."
* A helicopter is "percussion in the otherwise empty locked-down sky".
* "Schroedinger's pedestrian... That gait... rootless and untethered, purposeful and without a country... He.. strode with pathological neutrality."
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE CITIES
I didn't get hung up on which real world cities might have inspired this (I doubt there would be a simple answer). However, I was interested in the ways in which they apparently differed, the "intense learning of cues" required of all children (and the few tourists). "We pick up on styles of clothing, permissible colours, ways of walking and holding oneself." Some colours are actually illegal in one city, and one is more diverse (view spoiler)[(UQ has more Asians, Africans and Arabs, and it has spicier food, whereas Beszel has a more potato-based diet) (hide spoiler)].
As a reader, one has to learn these cues very gradually. Even half way through I didn't have a very clear picture of the different appearance, culture or politics, other than that (view spoiler)[UQ was somewhat richer, more technologically advanced and with better archaeological sites (hide spoiler)].
Their languages use different alphabets and it is heretical to say they are the same, and yet they are mutually intelligible.
Borlu, the hero and from whose point of view the story is told, is from Beszel, but I would rather live in UQ.
MISSED A TRICK
The book mentions fracturedcity.org - twice - but it just redirects to http://www.randomhouse.com/!
GOOD BOOK TO PAIR THIS WITH
I read this in the middle of reading Alistair Reynolds' "Century Rain" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). Neither is typical of the author's works, but both are noirish detective thrillers, featuring archaeologists and set in two versions of a city, albeit a very different sort of separation. Reading one enhances enjoyment of the other.
An interesting Q&A with China, here on GR: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/5..., including references to TC&TC.
Notes are private!
Jan 17, 2013
Jan 30, 2013
Aug 20, 2012
Oct 03, 2005
WOW! What a cracking - but crazy - read. I'm still reeling from it. It doesn't get muddled or daft and yet it has everything... really... everything: WOW! What a cracking - but crazy - read. I'm still reeling from it. It doesn't get muddled or daft and yet it has everything... really... everything: time travel, spies, archaeology, cyborgs, a love triangle, wars, wormholes, virtual reality, a quest, death and sacrifice, murder mystery (with all the usual clichés lovingly included), nanotech, code-breaking, genocide, bodysnatching/ swapping, bootleg music, ecological disaster, white-knuckle chases, wraith-like horror characters, alternative history, secret passages, ethics of immortality, terraforming, some steampunk, a nod to Casablanca and an even bigger nod to (view spoiler)[The Truman Show (hide spoiler)], and the weirdest biological weapon I've ever heard of! It even has some strong and significant female characters, which is not exactly the norm in sci-fi.
SETTING & PLOT
It is primarily a detective drama in a noirish sci-fi setting. Whereas all the other Reynolds' I've read have three threads of story, this has only two: Paris in 1959 and Paris in 2266. The difference between the two versions of the city were enhanced because I read this before and after Mieville's "The City & The City" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which is also a noirish detective thriller, featuring archaeologists and set in two versions of a city, albeit a very different sort of separation.
Floyd is an impoverished private eye in 1959, whose excitement at the prospect of a case echoes my own feelings about the book: he "felt a weird sense of vertigo: a combination of fear and thrill that he knew he would not be able to resist. It would pull him deeper and it would do what it would with him." Similarly, there's a character who doesn't want to be a detective, but gets sucked in - just like the reader.
One thread starts off as a slightly odd murder investigation; the other is a slightly odd quest to retrieve historical artifacts (though the most important artefacts turn out to be a rather bigger concept). As with any good thriller, what seem like trivial asides often turn out to be important later.
As usual, Reynolds' story is told in a very visual way: at times it is almost like watching a film: the chases, the wraiths, and especially a nail-biting scene where someone is looking for a vital bit of paper that is not quite hidden (will they find it or not?).
There are a couple of places where the exposition of backstory and science is explained in a slightly heavy-handed way (and a couple of the baddies are not much of a surprise), but those are trivial issues when there is so much good stuff crammed in barely 500 pages.
When you climb off the walls from the relentless excitement, this raises many profound issues:
* How do we know what is "real" and what is simulated - and does it matter? Who decides? (view spoiler)[Do simulants have the same rights and feelings as "real" people? How would you cope if you thought you yourself weren't real? (hide spoiler)]
* If you could be immortal, or virtually so, would you want to be, and to what lengths would you go?
* If you could have the (appearance of) whatever you wanted, whenever you wanted, would you tire of it? What if you could even conjure things we can't imagine: "colours were unfamiliar (and heart-wrenchingly beautiful) , but she could hear them, fell them, smell them"?
Four more (view spoiler)[
* Every archaeologist's dream must be to travel back in time to see and experience things first hand. But the risks - ethical, practical, psychological - are high. "As much as she longed for all the time in the world to explore it, she did not want to become its prisoner."
* What are the ethics and etiquette of taking over someone else's body?! Once there, would you evict a friendly usurper if it meant they would die? What if they wanted to do something altruistic, but which imperilled you body: "My body was mine to throw away... [but] you just don't do that with someone else's."
* If the Nazis had failed to invade France so that Enigma codes were not cracked, how much later would the computer revolution have happened, and with what consequences?
* What are the dangers of digital (over physical) storage? Or maybe the past has nothing to teach us, so we can we live in the present and not worry about the past?
* "New patterns would begin to emerge from the doughy grey of unstructured cloud... But right now the clouds were bickering. The patterns formed and decayed at an accelerated rate, with lightning of a kind of emphatic punctuation to the dialogue. The clouds fissioned and merged, as if negotiating age-old treaties and alliances."
* "Charm was what he excelled at. If anyone sensed his underlying shallowness, they usually mistook it for well-hidden great depth of character, like misinterpreting a radar bounce."
* On the dangers of studying maths too deeply (Reynolds was a physicist before turning to writing): "she had studied mathematics so furiously that after an evening manipulating complex bracketed equations, simplifying forms and extracting common terms, her brain had actually started to apply the same rules to spoken language, as if a sentence could be bracketed and simplified like some quadratic formula for radioisotope decay."
* "like an electric shock without the pain... a sharp inquisitional light... it lasted an eternity and an instant."
* "The trains waited with snorting impatience, pushing quills of white steam up towards the roof... Its red tail light spilled blood on to the polished surfaces of the rails."
No technology is omnipotent even if, to quote Arthur C Clarke, it is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic: "In the presence of a wizard, she wanted miracles, not excuses." With this book, I felt the story was being told by a wizard with words; no excuses were necessary. WOW!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 06, 2013
Feb 13, 2013
Jan 06, 2013
Aug 17, 2004
This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which has s This is definitely a book that is richer with rereading, but I still prefer his "Ghostwritten" (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), which has significant echoes of this.
Imagine six very different short books, each open at roughly the middle, then pile them up - and that is the structure of Cloud Atlas (story 1a, 2a, 3a, 4a, 5a, 6, 5b, 4b, 3b, 2b, 1b). The structure is echoed in this clever and very brief review: http://www.fromnought2sixty.com/final....
(The structure of the film is entirely different: it cuts between all six stories repeatedly, which emphasises the parallels in the different stories. In the medium of film, I think it works quite well - if you already know the stories.)
Each story is a separate and self-contained tale, told in a different format, voice and even dialect, but with similarities in theme and some overlapping characters.
There are many themes. Connectedness (and possibly reincarnation) are perhaps the most obvious - and the themes themselves are often connected with other themes. In addition to connectedness, themes include: victim/predator/leech, journeys, escape, transformation, falling/ascending (both literal and metaphorical or spiritual).
I think the overriding theme is the many, varied, but perhaps inevitable ways that humans exploit each other through power, money, knowledge, brute force, religion or whatever: “The world IS wicked. Maoris prey on Moriori, Whites prey on darker-hued cousins, fleas prey on mice, cats prey on rats, Christians on infidels, first mates on cabin boys, Death on the Living. ‘The weak are meat, the strong do eat.’… One fine day, a purely predatory world SHALL consume itself.” This is echoed in The Thousand Autumns, "In the animal kingdom... the vanquished are eaten."
There are also connections between characters and events, and, less subtly (completely unnecessarily, imo), someone in each has a birth mark that looks like a comet.
(Connectedness is much the strongest theme in the film, partly through rapid switching between stories to emphasize the parallels, and also because the same actors are used in multiple stories.)
1a THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING
The opening tale concerns a voyage, and immediately draws the reader in with echoes of Crusoe, “Beyond the Indian hamlet, on a forlorn strand, I happened upon a trail of recent footprints”. Adam is a wide-eyed and honourable young American lawyer in 1850 (somewhat reminiscent of Jacob de Zoet in Mitchell’s latest novel: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...), on his way to the Chatham Isles to trace the beneficiaries of a will. He struggles with the politics of the ship’s crew and issues of colonialism, slavery, genocide (Maori of Moriori) and then… it breaks off mid sentence!
This story has particular parallels with Matthew Kneale's English Passengers (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...): a voyage between colonies, with a theme of exploitation.
2a LETTERS FROM ZEDELGHEM
This is a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a penniless young English composer, to his friend Rufus Sixsmith, written in 1931 (quite a lot of sixes in this book). He has a wealthy and educated background, but has been cut off from his family, so is in Belgium (Edinburgh, in the film!), searching for the aging composer Vyvyan Ayrs, where he hopes to gain a position as amanuensis and collaborator: the journey involves literal travel, but also the seeking of fame and fortune. This section opens with a visceral passion for music, which infuses this whole section; Frobisher hears music in every event: dreaming of breaking china, “an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats”. Frobisher is an unscrupulous opportunist (very unlike Adam Ewing), but not without talent. The latter enables him to wheedle his way into the complex lives of the Ayrs/Crommelynck household (the latter cropping up in other Mitchell books).
3a HALF LIVES: THE FIRST LUISA REY MYSTERY
It’s 1975 and Dr Rufus Sixsmith is now 66. He is broke and either in trouble with mysterious forces or paranoid. This one’s a thriller, involving a would-be-investigative-journalist, Luisa Rey. Mitchell inserts a caveat via Sixsmith, “all thrillers would wither without contrivance”, though actually much of this story is obscure until the second half.
4a THE GHASTLY ORDEAL OF TIMOTHY CAVENDISH
This is contemporary comedy: Cavendish is a vanity publisher with an unexpected best-seller on his hands (memoirs of a murderer). Like Sixsmith, he ends up broke and fleeing enemies, though this one is more of a farce, with echoes of Jonathan Coe’s “What a Carve Up” (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
5a AN ORISON OF SOMNI-251
This is set in 22nd century Korea, which is an extreme corpocracy (corporate capitalism taken to its logical conclusion – which even affects the language (see below)). Purebloods are “a sponge of demand that sucked goods and services from every vendor” and it is a crime to fail to meet one’s monthly spending target. (In the film, this section looks stunning, but the underlying philosophy is largely ignored.)
The format is an interrogation of Somni-251, a fabricant (humanoid clone), who is a monastic server of fast food at Papa Song’s – which just happens to have golden arches as its logo (the film plays safe and is not so obviously McDonald's). She is knowledgeable and opinionated, though it’s not immediately clear what, if anything, else she’s done wrong. There are plenty of nods to Orwell, Huxley and others – even to the extent that Somni mentions reading them. The ideas of ascension, heaven, an afterlife and so on that are suggested in many sections are explicit in this one; it’s where the themes of the book really begin to come together. What it means to be human, exemplified by the relative positions of purebloods and fabricants, are reminiscent of the slavery that Adam Ewing considers: the idea that fabricants lack a personality is a “fallacy propagated for the comfort of purebloods”. She has a distinctively poetic voice, which lends beauty to the section of the book, but causes problems for her: a fabricant that is as eloquent as a pureblood creates unease.
6 SLOOSHA’S CROSSIN’ AN’ EV’RYTHIN’ AFTER
The only section told, unbroken, from start to finish, which is ironic given that it’s set in a very broken future world. Even the language has disintegrated to some extent, much as in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”, to which Mitchell acknowledges a debt in this article:
See below for specific linguistic quirks, and here for my review of RW: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....
Zachry is explaining his life, beliefs and practices, though it isn’t clear who he is addressing (or why). He talks of “The Fall” and “flashbangin” which were the end of “Civ’lize Days”, though some “Prescients” survived on a ship which visits and barter at regular interval, but never leave anything “more smart” than what is already there. “Human hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it too” – even though Malthus was revered as a prophet by that earlier civilisation.
Then one of the Prescient, Meronym, comes to stay for six months. She wants to learn and observe, but many of the islanders fear her motives. Zachry is keen to explain himself and to learn from her. His language can make him sound simple, but he’s actually quite prescient: “There ain’t no journey what don’t change you some”, which is perhaps the message of the book. The deeper question in this section is who is exploiting whom (there is also a warfaring tribe, the Kona)?
5b AN ORISON OF SOMNI-251
Somni’s story starts to make more sense, particularly the meaning and method of ascension and her story’s connections with Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6).
4b THE GHASTLY ORDEAL OF TIMOTHY CAVENDISH
Imprisoned in a most unlikely place, Timothy hatches an extraordinary and comical bid for freedom. (It’s not quite The Great Escape.)
3b HALF LIVES: THE FIRST LUISA REY MYSTERY
There is real excitement in this, though some may find it slightly confusing. When one character writes notes comparing the real and virtual past (p392-393), the levels of stories-within-stories and boundaries of fact and fiction are well and truly blurred, which is part of what this whole book is about. (Is Luisa "real" in the context of the book? She doesn't always feel it, but there is a direct link between her and another character.):
“The actual past is brittle, ever-dimming… in contrast, the virtual past is malleable, ever-brightening + ever more difficult to circumvent/expose as fraudulent.”
“Power seeks + is the right to ‘landscape’ the virtual past.”
“One model of time: an infinite matryoshka doll of painted moments” – something this book is often likened to.
“The uncreated and the dead exist solely in our actual and virtual pasts. Now the bifurcation of these two pasts will begin.”
2b LETTERS FROM ZEDELGHEM
Will Frobisher make good – or even be good? “We do not stay dead for long… My birth next time…”
1b THE PACIFIC JOURNAL OF ADAM EWING
Adam lands on an island where white Christian missionaries appear to be doing good work. However, the relationship between blacks and whites (and even between man and wife) exemplify the unequal power relationships that are common to all the stories. Adam dreams of a more utopian world, though.
The two futuristic sections are notable for their language. Some people seem to dislike or struggle with this aspect, but I think it adds depth, interest and plausibility.
The corporate world of Somni-451 (5) means that many former brand names have become common nouns (as hoover, kleenex and sellotape already have): ford (car), fordjam, sony (PC), kodak (photo), nikes (any shoes), disney (any film/movie), starbuck (coffee).
There are neologisms, too: facescaping (extreme cosmetic surgery), upstrata (posh), dijied (digitised).
Perhaps more surprisingly, a few words have simplified spelling: xactly, xpose, fritened, lite (mind you, that is already quite common), thruway.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6), the dialect is a mix of childish mishearings and misspellings, very similar to that in Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (see links in the section about Sloosha, above): I telled him, hurrycane.
At times, it’s very poetic: “Watery dark it was inside. Wax’n’ teak-oil’n’time was its smell… An’ then we heard a sort o’ roaring underneath the silence, made o’ mil’yuns o’ whisp’rin’s like the ocean.” More graphically, “We’d get a feverish hornyin’ for each other… I was slurpyin’ her lustsome mangoes an’ moistly fig”!
LINKS BETWEEN SECTIONS
Adam Ewing’s journal (1) is found by Robert Frobisher (2).
The recipient of Robert Frobisher’s (2) letters is Rufus Sixsmith (2, 3).
The letters from Frobisher (2) to Sixsmith are sent via Sixsmith (2, 3) to Luisa Rey (3). Rey ponders, “Are molecules of Zedelghem Chateau, of Robert Frobisher’s hand, dormant in this paper for forty-four years, now swirling in my lungs, in my blood?”
Ayrs/Frobishers’s (2) music is heard by Luisa Rey (3), and she has a sense of deja audio.
Luisa Rey’s (3) manuscript is sent to Timothy Cavendish (4).
Apparently, Luisa (3) sees Ewing's (1) ship, The Prophetess, in a marina, but I read that after I'd read the book.
A film about Timothy Cavendish (4) is watched by Somni-451 (5).
Somni-451 (5) is prayed to by those in Sloosha’s Crossin’ (6) and a recording of her interview is watched by Zachry. She also has a memory of a car crash (perhaps like Luisa 93)?) (hide spoiler)]
Kazuo Ishiguro tries something slightly similar and less ambitious in his short story collection, Nocturnes
Who has comet birthmarks:
(view spoiler)[(1) No one
(2) Robert Frobisher
(3) Luisa Rey
(4) Timothy Cavendish
(6) Meronym - but in the film, it's Zachry (why??)
Mind you, the first time I read it, I expected it to be Zachry who had it.
There is also a character in Ghostwritten (see below) with such a birthmark.
See discussion here: http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/8...
SOME LINKS WITH HIS OTHER WORKS
Katy Forbes in Ghostwritten has a comet-shaped birthmark.
Adam Ewing (1)'s ship is seen in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (see 1.30 in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNpwR...)
Luisa Rey (3) and Timothy Cavendish (4) appear in Ghostwritten.
Vyvyan Ayrs (2)'s daughter is an old woman in Black Swan Green.
* I love the bathos of “cancerous suburbs, tedious farmland, spoiled Sussex… versified cliffs [Dover] as romantic as my arse in a similar hue.”
* “Implausible truth can serve one better than plausible fiction.”
* “I felt Nietzche was reading me, not I him.”
* “Most cities are nouns, but New York is a verb.” Attributed (in the book) to JFK.
* "Power. What do we mean? 'The ability to determine another man's luck.'"
* “The room bubbles with sentences more spoken than listened to.”
* “A predawn ocean breeze makes vague promises.”
* “Time is the speed at which the past decays, but disneys [films] enable a brief resurrection.”
* “Lite [sic] from the coming day defined the world more clearly now.”
* “Sunlite [sic] bent around the world, lending fragile colour to wild flowers.”
* “We [over 60s] commit two offences just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly… Our second offence is being Everyman’s memento mori.”
* “Once any tyranny becomes accepted as ordinary… its victory is assured.”
* “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”
* “As dear old Kilvert notes, nothing is more tiresome than being told what to admire.”
* “Her contempt… if bottled, could have been vended as rat poison… I heard male indignation trampled by female scorn.”
* “The colour of monotony is blue.”
My review from early 2000s...
A novel comprising six interlocking tales on the theme of connectedness and predacity (few likeable characters, though certainly some interesting and amusing ones).
The idea is that souls drift through time and space (and bodies), like clouds across the sky. As one character learns the story of another, the layers of fiction meld: which are "fact" within the overall fiction?
Each story has a totally different style, appropriate to its time, genre and supposed authorship. The two futuristic ones use two different versions of English: etymologically logical, but lots of made up words; the capitalist Korean one hints at the political/corporate philosophy underlying the society (as in Orwell's 1984) and the primitive Hawaiian one has more shades of Caribbean/Pidgin and a very similar feel to Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). One crucial but evil corporation is a fast food place with a golden arches logo - I hope Mitchell's lawyers checked that was OK!
Somewhat incestuously, a couple of main characters had a mention in his first novel, Ghostwritten (Louisa Rey & the Cavendish brothers, the latter having echoes of Coe's What a Carve Up) and the composer's daughter from this book appears in the later Black Swan Green.
Much as I enjoyed this, and think the Russian-doll, nested story structure is clever, I preferred the more subtle and less gimmicky approach he uses in Ghostwritten (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...).
Three good pieces about this on Guardian Bookclub:
* The importance of interruption: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...
* Connections: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010...
Notes are private!
Oct 31, 2012
Nov 29, 2012
May 30, 2008
Jan 01, 1951
Oct 01, 2009
A teenage near-romance has the chance of being rekindled twenty years later. Twenty years too late? (This review gives away no more than is in the boo A teenage near-romance has the chance of being rekindled twenty years later. Twenty years too late? (This review gives away no more than is in the books's blurb, though the quotes section at the end is a little less subtle.)
It is poignant and painful, occasionally funny, but never sentimental or saccharine. Beautifully written, and it doesn't take the easy options. However, Taylor often introduces new characters or situations as if the reader knows all about them, only filling in the gaps later. Also, there are a few sections that are rather different in tone from the rest of the book, making it feel a little unfinished.
Harriet and Vesey have known each other since childhood, but the book starts between the wars, when they are around 18 and spend much of the summer at the house of his aunt, where Harriet is helping with the children. There is plenty of frisson, but Harriet in particular is naive, and the reader is somewhat in the dark as well. As she remembers a tryst, she reinvents it, whereas Vesey dismisses it because "'we are children.' He did not know that at his age most youths believe that they are men."
This summer makes up the first third of the novel, and teenage awkwardness and doubt is painfully authentic, though it's harder to see why Harriet is so attracted to Vesey when he's oafish, self-centred and lacking in empathy. There is also some pop-psychology about them both being only children, Vesey's mother being a poor parent, and Harriet's suffragette mother being disappointed in her daughter's lack of academic success and ambition. It feels a little out of place, though it does deliver some wonderful insights: Vesey's mother "drew attention to him as if he were a beloved marmoset on a chain, somehow enhancing her own originality, decorating her" so he had "no close friends, for he had too much to hide."
They drift apart. Harriet finally shows a smidgen of initiative and gets a job in a shop (a very comical section, but more caricatured than the rest of the book). She then marries a pleasant enough man and has a daughter, Betsy. When Betsy is in her teens, Vesey comes back into Harriet's life. Their feelings are clearer, but their course of action less so. This takes its toll on her marriage, and this is the finest section of the book (see some of the quotes). Time drags on, with increasing tension, longing, and doubt all round.
The tragic passages are balanced by comedy: in the shop, and then with Harriet's incompetent au pair, "the Dutch girl". In the latter case, the humour is based on misunderstanding, exacerbated by the housekeeper using twee British idioms that she doesn't understand. When wondering why she came, Charles suggests "it's a cheap way of learning how to speak American".
Overall, despite its inconsistent style, this is a beautiful book.
* Suffragettes wondering, years later, if it was all worth it or whether "time would not despite them have floated down to them casually what they had almost drowned in struggling to reach." Nearly a wonderful sentence, but actually horribly mangled.
* An adult's irritation at young Vesey "was in in reality impatience with another person's youth heightened by nostalgia for his own."
* A bucolic bus journey: "In those days, trees laced together above many a road; buses took perilous journeys, with twigs scratching at either side; cars, meeting them, backed up into gateways. The bus conductor was like the conductor of an orchestra. He guided the conversation, drew out the shy or bored or tired, linked the passengers together... and made a whole thing out of an assortment."
* When lovers walk, "Time's winged chariot was not a thing that they could hear."
* "Departure in the afternoon is depressing to those who are left. The day is so dominated by the one who has gone and, although only half-done, must be got through with that particular shadow lying over it."
* "The days shortened, but only technically. The time it took to live them seemed endless."
* Virginity a mixed blessing: "She was left with only her self-respect, which did not seem to mean as much to her as she had been led to believe."
* "What she had dreaded in suspense and embarrassment, she now fastened to. She embraced him with an erratic but extortionate passion. He was profoundly moved, though shocked, by her desperation... But to her, life seemed all at once simplified."
* "The lady of the Manor who looked as if she had been bred in her own stables."
* "Far from fearing middle age, one took refuge in it." I'm not sure about that!
* Being tormented by a cue for jealousy: "It was as if an unkind hand raked up dead leaves in his heart."
* When tension is highest between Harriet and her husband: " Marriage doesn't solve mysteries... It creates and deepens then. The two of them being shut up physically in this dark space, yet locked away for ever from one another, was oppressive."
* "Looking back on her married life, it seemed a frayed, tangled thing made by two strangers."
* "Beyond their familiarity and nakedness they could now sense their true isolation and were more perfectly strange to one another than people passing in the street."
* "Betsy had not so much grown up as unrolled - as if she were all there at the beginning, but that each birthday unrolled more of her, made more visible, though suggesting more."
* A lady's companion "had nothing to sell but her own company, which most people would have paid to avoid"!
* More teen angst: "Nothing was explicable, even to herself. When she wept, it was from confusion. Her ravelled emotions fatigued her. She was overwrought from uncertainty, more than from any specific cause."
* "Dusk, like a sediment, sifted down through bluish sky." ...more
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Oct 31, 2012
Oct 01, 2012
Jan 01, 2010
Sep 13, 2010
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?
This seems to be a real Marmite book (love it or loathe it, with no fence-sitting), so I'm going to mix my metaphors: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY?
This seems to be a real Marmite book (love it or loathe it, with no fence-sitting), so I'm going to mix my metaphors: I bit the bullet, to see which way the wind was blowing and was surprised to find myself sitting on the empty fence. I was very undecided about stars, but there are many much better books I've given 3*, so this gets 2*, even though there was, on reflection, more to it than I first thought. The quality of the writing is not sufficient for 3*.
Overall, I think it’s poorly written (exacerbated by the way Donoghue tries to use unusual language for specific effect), but it is something of a page-turner, it’s quite a quick read (unless you overempathise, get depressed, and need a break) and it does contain some interesting ideas, especially in the second half about aspects of coping with “freedom” (though I am unsure how many are taken directly from news reports and interviews with former captives, and how many are her own).
The situation is well-known: a twenty six year old woman, “Ma”, is living with her five year old son, Jack, in a tiny locked room. She has been there since she was abducted aged nineteen, and the story is narrated by Jack. They have daily visits from their captor, who brings meagre supplies, though they do have a TV and half a dozen books. Jack thinks reality is everything in their room, and that everything “in TV” is pretend.
The first half of the book is set in Room (yes, with a capital letter and no article (“a” or “the”), like most of the few objects in their lives), and the second half is on the outside. It is clearly influenced by the recent news stories of Natasha Kampusch and Jaycee Lee Duggard etc, and that potentially prurient aspect did hold me back from reading this book for a long time.
LANGUAGE AND WRITING
Right from the start, I found the narration annoying - not because it's by a 5-year old, but because he's such an unconvincing 5-year old. For example, he has a very good vocabulary for his age (fair enough), and yet there are a few really basic words that he seems not to know (instead of "a man" or "the woman" he refers to "a he" and "the she" - except on one occasion when he unaccountably gets it right), and he often gets irregular past tenses and word order wrong, in the way that children younger than five often do (“I winned”, “we knowed”, “I brung”, “why you don’t like” and to a driver, “may you go us please to…”). Furthermore, he repeatedly makes these errors despite his mother's diligence in correcting his grammar and the fact he watches TV.
It’s almost as if you can see Donoghue weighing up the need for Jack to be intelligent and insightful enough to tell the story in an engaging way (which, to a large extent, he does) with the need to tick certain boxes to make it clear he is just a small child. Similarly, we’re expected to believe that Jack points out “a dog crossing a road with a human on a rope” and thinks someone lighting up is trying to set himself on fire, even though he’s had TV and a mother who has tried to teach him about the (fictitious) world.
The fact Jack is still breastfed is not surprising: it’s comforting for both of them. What is surprising though is that the word itself seems to be taboo (instead, he talks about “having some”, without ever saying what), and yet he’s happy to use the words “penis” and “vagina”, and is open about bathing with his mother. That may sound like nit-picking, but it’s an example of the sort of thing that frustrated me. I just didn’t feel Donoghue had really thought it through thoroughly. If you’re going to play with language to make your point, you need to be able to do so convincingly.
The book is in five sections, though really it falls more naturally into two: inside and outside.
The relationship between mother and son is touching and the book opens by establishing the routines and rituals of their restricted life, including the almost liturgical way they say “good night” to all their (few) possessions: “Good night, Room… good night, Rug” etc. The creativity required to raise a child in a confined space with such limited resources are impressive, too (they blow their eggs, so the whole shells can be threaded to make a snake, and do PE using their limited furniture as gym props).
Initially, and in some ways, their life doesn’t seem as bad as you might expect, and even the first appearance of their captor (“Old Nick”) is relatively benign. That reflects the way Ma is raising Jack in the most positive way she can. Of course, we know something of the real horrors of the story, and they are discussed, though never in graphic detail, in part because Jack’s comprehension is limited, and in part because of Ma's success in shielding him from the nature of the situation.
I thought the escape was badly done, but much better is the when, leading up to it, Ma has to explain to Jack that what he’s seen “in TV” is real. They go through a confusing process of “unlying” as she tries to prepare him for what might follow an escape.
Once outside, it’s superficially about the practicalities of adjusting to the real world, but really it’s questioning the nature and price of freedom. I found this part had more interesting ideas, but contained more implausibility of plot (though I’m no expert in such matters) and very flat new characters. In particular, the method and speed with which the police locate Room was absurd, and also some of the logistics, practicalities and oversights of those charged with their care and settlement on the outside were dodgy, such as the first planned trip for these traumatised celebrities being to a museum with an uncle whom Jack had only met once!
WHAT IS FREEDOM?
The reader roots for Ma and Jack to escape, and they do (no spoiler – the book blurb tells you). Hooray! But of course they soon discover a new form of captivity: medical/psychiatric, hiding from fame, and so on. And this is where it gets interesting and starts to feel more plausible. Jack’s only knowledge of outside is from occasional TV programmes, and Ma’s is from seven years ago, when she was a carefree student, rather than a traumatised mother. Jack has to discover the world, and Ma has to (re)discover a new version of herself; she tells Jack, “I know you need me to be your ma but I’m having to remember how to be me as well”, to which he replies, “But I thought the her and the Ma were the same”. Similarly, having more, can leave one feeling impoverished: Jack is puzzled when Ma cautions him to be careful of something her brother gave to her, “I didn’t know it was hers-not-mine. In Room everything was ours.”
Some of the things they struggle to cope with are not ones that would initially have occurred to me (germs, sunburn, stairs), and one effect is to make it almost as if Jack has acquired Asperger’s syndrome: he can’t filter the multiple stimuli of a busy world; doesn’t understand social conventions, etiquette, and privacy; is confused by relationships and pronouns (“The ‘you’ means Ma, not me, I’m getting good at telling”); takes common idioms literally (such as “I’m afraid so” and “get his act together”, but surely some cropped up from Ma and TV?); doesn’t like being touched or having to wear shoes; is borderline agoraphobic; increases his counting-his-teeth stress-relieving tactic; is uncoordinated from poor spatial perception; and feels insecure without routine. Jack asks, “But what’s the rule?”, to which he is told “There is no rule.” That’s a liberating idea to Ma, but scary to Jack. He misses Room and his few possessions because it’s all he’d ever known; Ma, understandably, wants to leave it all behind both literally and in even from conversation and memory. When he has nightmares, the doctor says “Now you’re safe, it’s [the brain] gathering up all those scary thoughts you don’t need any more, and throwing them out”, but Jack disagrees, “actually he’s got it backwards. In Room I was safe and Outside is the scary.”
Another aspect is how Ma’s family react. The girl they knew – and thought dead – has been replaced by someone similar, but different, and they have Jack to contend with. Ma loves him unconditionally, despite his parentage, but if you were her mother or father, how would you feel about this constant reminder of what happened?
To sum up, this wasn’t as prurient as I feared, and it was very thought-provoking, but it could have been SO much better.
Notes are private!
Sep 12, 2012
Sep 20, 2012
Sep 12, 2012