This is a wonderful series of short stories about a variety of different characters in early 20th century Dublin. The book begins with stories of younThis is a wonderful series of short stories about a variety of different characters in early 20th century Dublin. The book begins with stories of young people and works its way through college students, young adults, parents, and older people, and ends with a novella, The Dead, which ruminates on mortality.
Each story is highly character-driven, with Joyce's third-person omniscient narration diving deeply into the thoughts, feelings, physical senses, and even speech patterns of his characters. Each story also has a strong sense of setting and place, both in Dublin and in the more specific settings of the stories.
Joyce is, in general, not easy reading, but I found this collection of stories very accessible and, even, a quick read. I enjoyed being so deeply immersed in a new-to-me setting.
The Dead - I was intrigued by how Gabriel's love for his wife was accompanied by an increasing sense of tension as the story went on.
Eveline - This is a very short story, but I quickly felt for Eveline, who was unable to surmount her fears and hesitations to escape the pain of her family's past (and present).
A Little Cloud - Sad but very realistic, I felt for Little Chandler who feels he has failed himself, and then fails his family on top of it.
I've read and enjoyed a lot of Shakespeare's plays, but this was my first reading of King Lear. I found it to be a very odd play. The action, includinI've read and enjoyed a lot of Shakespeare's plays, but this was my first reading of King Lear. I found it to be a very odd play. The action, including numerous deaths, happens very quickly, and motives are not very clear at all. Why does King Lear demand his daughters publicly flatter him? Why does he repeatedly fly into rages so easily? Why is everyone so easy to manipulate? Unlike other Shakespeare plays, there is no clear motives for manipulation and mis-information hear and it's very difficult to make sense of why plots (such as Edmund's against his brother) are effective. Some characters, including Lear, even seem to die spontaneously. It was all very odd. Not difficult to follow, but difficult to accept or delve deeply into.
Themes: play, war, family, pride, jealousy, greed, secrets, rage, madness, poor decision making skills, moral murkiness...more
ALERT: If you aren't familiar with the plot of King Lear, there may be slight spoilers below.
My complaint about Shakespeare's King Lear was that motiALERT: If you aren't familiar with the plot of King Lear, there may be slight spoilers below.
My complaint about Shakespeare's King Lear was that motives were completely unclear. There was little indication for how Goneril and Regan became so villainous, and also little explanation for Lear's erratic decision-making that causes him to continuously make things worse.
In A Thousand Acres, Smiley fully solves one of these problems. In her version, the sisters Ginny and Rose are very depthful creations, with histories and personalities that make their actions and decisions mostly easy to understand (with the possible exception of Ginny's attempt to poison Rose). She endows these women with the complex histories they deserve to have made clear.
That said, Smiley doesn't do the same with Larry (the Lear father figure). His motives are not clear at all, and he becomes the extreme villain that the sisters are in Shakespeare's play. Particularly when his history of abusing his daughters comes out, he becomes a flat character whose uncontrollable urges have led him to madness. I don't demand that he inspire reader sympathy or anything, but it would have been nice for him to be more well-rounded.
Very early in the novel, Jess Clark (the Edmund character) says to Ginny: "Anyway, I always think that things have to happen the way they do happen, that there are so many inner and outer forces joining at every event that it becomes a kind of fate."
I felt exactly this way throughout my reading of the novel. First, because I already knew the story of King Lear, I knew that certain events would have to happen and that the story would end in tragedy, no matter what. But moreso than this, the reader is able to see many of these 'inner and outer forces' and so has to watch hopelessly as the characters are deal with the constant aftermath of decisions made or words spoken without any clear sense of how they got to that place. Everything happens so quickly and comes out of nowhere so it seems to be fate, though all of it is dependent on conscious and often unconscious feelings and decisions. Things that didn't have to be, up to and including the transfer of the farm and Ginny's miscarriages, seem very much like they had to be.
Overall, I was really impressed with how well Smiley manages the monumental task she set for herself: reinterpreting Shakespeare. I was also glued to the story from the start; it was very engaging and caused plenty of emotional turmoil. I found myself partway between Rose's selfish, angry perspective and Ginny's giving, forgetting and harmony-at-all-costs perspective. Part of the tragedy of the story (and of rural farm family life according to the novel) is that Rose and Ginny never release enough of their secrets and communicate enough to learn these perspectives from each other.
"And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiti"And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion."
I do get the point here - that the mind can be led into darkness and madness by physical surroundings, and that a journey into the unknown wilderness is just like a journey into your subconscious.
But as a contemporary reader, the racism here was too much to keep me very engaged in the metaphor. Usually I am able to let books be a product of their time and suspend by modern outrage, but I just couldn't do it here. I think it's because the racism wasn't just offhand comments or glossing over. It was a very direct dehumanization of the Africans as part of the darkness/madness metaphor. For example:
"We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend."
How exactly am I supposed to engage with this should-be-fascinating metaphor when this is what I'm given as food for thought?
The writing itself is visual and visceral; that talent is to be admired. But Conrad isn't the only author with that skill and I'd much rather read something that doesn't purposefully denigrate a large group of people over and over and over again as part of making its point.
Themes: race, racism, madness, Africa, boating, colonialism, journeys, the effect of place on the mind...more