I had heard mixed reviews of The Time Traveller’s Wife since its publication in 2004. I didn’t know much about it, except that people seemed to love i...moreI had heard mixed reviews of The Time Traveller’s Wife since its publication in 2004. I didn’t know much about it, except that people seemed to love it or hate it. I can certainly see where these sentiments come from. I read the blurb when ordering books online and was instantly intrigued. So I bought it and have lapped it up over the last week, which is pretty fast considering the amount of uni work I’ve been doing.
If I had to describe the novel in terms of genre – well, I’d be pretty stuck for a while, but I think I’d call it a postmodern realist bildungsroman. Most of which is a contradiction in terms, but this book doesn’t work like most books.
I’ve found in my reading that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first authors have been playing with narrative structure into extremes. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it seems overwhelming. I feel that in The Time Traveller’s Wife it works immensely well, mainly because the strange narrative is intrinsic to the plot.
Speaking of, let me tell you a little about it, in case you don’t know.
The time traveller of the title is Henry DeTamble, a man with a condition which becomes known as chromo-displacement. His genes are kinda messed up basically, and every so often (usually when stressed) he gets thrown into the past or the future. Perhaps this premise seems very sci-fi, but I’m not a big fan of sci-fi literature, and this hooked me. I think the reason that it’s so easy to buy into is that whenever Henry moves from one time to another, he does so completely naked: anything that is not part of his body is left behind.
One of the places he travels to frequently is a clearing in a meadow. This meadow lies behind the childhood home of Clare Abshire: Henry’s wife.
Clare first meets Henry when she is six and he is thirty-six, and they get married when she is twenty-two and he is thirty.
We see the way the couple muddle through life, with Clare enduring long absences from Henry, one partner constantly with more knowledge of what has been or is to come than the other. Their experiences are heart-warming, funny, sexy and sad.
The novel left me with a feeling of both hope and despair, which I think plays off the themes of togetherness and loss, which run throughout the novel.
I think, overall, if you enjoy a good love story, and aren’t put off by something different, narrative-wise, then you should give this a try. It really is a love it or hate it kind of book, but don’t let that put you off: you might fall on the ‘love it’ side!(less)
Book Review: Mark Gatiss - The Vesuvius Club (Simon & Schuster, London, 2005)
If you live in the UK then the chances are that you're familiar with,...moreBook Review: Mark Gatiss - The Vesuvius Club (Simon & Schuster, London, 2005)
If you live in the UK then the chances are that you're familiar with, or have at least heard of, the work of Mark Gatiss. He is an accomplished writer and actor for the stage and television and a look at his IMDB page will porbably make you say 'oh yeah, I remember that!' In the last couple of years he has written for and appeared in the new incarnation of Doctor Who, as well as last years romcom Starter for Ten. He is undoubtedly most famous for his work as part of The League of Gentlemen, (not to be confused with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, US types!) Which spawned three television series, multiple stage shows and a film.
The influence of The League of Gentlemen on Gatiss' first novel is evident. The humour often contains a strangely geotesque aspect, and the plot twists contain some aspects of the implausible.
The cover is littered with comparisons to Oscar Wilde, and I agree that when the humour does not remind the reader of Gatiss' previous work we are given Wilde's wit - and the protagonist himself is more than a little Wildean.
Let's talk about him shall we? Lucifer Box is an artist, a dandy, a government agent and bisexual during the very early years of the twentieth century. It's a nice set up, a textured world and a persona that Gatiss seems comfortable writing in - the novel is first person, and under the guise that Box is attempting to write his memoirs. Initially we are told that he is an artist and a dandy. The government agent reveal comes early in the novel, as it must, for the plot to progress. What interests me is the representation of Box's sexuality in the novel. It is over halfway through when we discover that he is bisexual, and the character says 'there I've shocked you', and goes on to dream of a time in the future where people are not persecuted for their sexuality. It feels ... stilted, and unneccessary. There is no more mention of the persecution of the homosexual after this brief daydream, only a fun little love story between Box and his assistant, Charlie Jackpot, that should speak for itself.
I should mention that the novel is a murder mystery, something that I'm not a great fan of. Not knowing much about murder mysteries I can't say how well it worked and be very informed about it, but for me personally, it was a drag. I could have done without the mystery, and just had the double life and love story thing going on, but I think that's because it's what I prefer.
Overall, I feel that the novel is a fair effort, and good for something light to read. Better if you're a fan of murder mysteries. I couldn't help but feel though, that Gatiss' talents are definitely better suited to the television screen, and that perhaps Lucifer Box would fare better there. He would certainly make a change from the Daziel and Pascoes, Midsummer Murders, Touch of Frosts, and Prime Suspects we're used to in that genre today.
(This was a short review because I was underwhelmed by the novel, but I think if you're into that sort of thing, you'd really like it. Also there is a graphic novel version available, which seems to be selling better.)(less)
The genius here is that historical fiction merges with science fiction, to produce a kind of double whammy of the historical.
The novel is set, initial...moreThe genius here is that historical fiction merges with science fiction, to produce a kind of double whammy of the historical.
The novel is set, initially, in 1946 Scotland, where a couple take a second honeymoon after the Second World War. Whilst not a huge presence in the piece, WW2 is something that feeds into the motivations of Claire, the protagonist, and informs the story. Through magic, science, coma, act of God or who knows what else, Claire Randall finds herself in mid eighteenth century Scotland. She meets the fearsome ancestor of her husband, English officer, Jack Randall, and finds herself put in danger through his suspicions that she is a spy. Given refuge by the MacKenzie clan, she embarks upon numerous journeys of self discovery, and a journey of impossible love.
The romantic lead of the piece is Jamie Fraser. Strong, young, witty, and a little innocent, he is everything that Claire's husband in 1946 is not. The love between Jamie and Claire is beautifully paced, and the main focus of the novel. It is different to most romantic fiction I have read in that throughout their affair, they face the world together, growing as a couple. When the time comes for one to turn the other away, it doesn't feel like it is simply a necessary part of the formula, or a plot device, but rather an organic development of character.
It is the characters that make this novel what it is. Each with their own personality, story to tell and multiple motivations, they are crafted with precision. It is, of course, Jamie and Claire who shine through. I recently wrote an essay on George Orwell, and read a piece of criticism which quoted him as saying that first person novels do not work, because they focus too much on the individual and not on a greater span of humanity. Rather than going into how Orwell failed to achieve an avoidance of focus on the individual, I will simply say that Gabaldon proves him wrong in Cross Stitch. Claire is the first person narrator, and so we see a world unfamiliar to us through her equally unfamiliar eyes. This grants us easier access to the more alien aspects of the society she finds herself in. But we are not restricted to Claire's perspective. Multiple times throughout the novel, stories are recounted to Claire by other characters, part told in dialogue, part by Claire's narrative, switching almost imperceptibly into a third person narrator.
Something that shows Gabaldon's skill as a storyteller particularly well is the way that history is integrated. I feel that the sign of a weak historical author is one who says 'this is how this was in this particular century, and this is how that was' (which is how I felt when I tried to read novels by Robert Harris and Phillippa Gregory, but that's a matter for another day). Gabaldon does not tell her reader about history, she shows them. Rather than history ruling the story, it becomes a texture of the setting, making the novel even more of a joy to read.
Something I love about this novel is Gabaldon's treatment of what may be seen as taboo subjects. If not so much now in some cases, certainly in 1991 when this novel was originally published. There are issues of rape, husbands beating wives, hysteria, mental illness, abortion, homosexuality. Some are explored in depth, some skimmed over. But all are treated as part of life: they are treated honestly, and not made to look any better for the sake of the reader. In some respects, this is extremely brave of Gabaldon. There are points where readers could be lost for it, but there is a truth in these scenes that cannot ever really be presented in any medium other than the novel, and it is scenes like this that we sorely need, if we are ever going to gain anything from reading novels.
Cross Stitch is by no means great literature, nor will it ever find its way into the canon, but it is entertaining storytelling at its best.(less)
Book Review: Ian McEwan, Atonement (Vintage, London, 2002)
The cover of Atonement is plastered with reviewers claiming it to be a 'masterpiece', and Mc...moreBook Review: Ian McEwan, Atonement (Vintage, London, 2002)
The cover of Atonement is plastered with reviewers claiming it to be a 'masterpiece', and McEwan's best novel to date. I'd previously read his novel Enduring Love, and whilst I appreciated its merits as a literary piece, I was never completely pulled in by the characters and plot. But, Atonement really is a masterpiece. Being the geek that I am, I was practically squeeing over the sheer skill of it all.
The characters of the piece are each beautifully created creatures - the three protagonists especially. McEwan touches on characterisation a little when Briony muses that modern (mid twentieth century) novelists have no need for plot and characters - as she discovers, and as McEwan shows us, this is not the case. Along with Briony is Cecilia and Robbie. These three characters really come alive, both when the writing is from their prospective and when they are merely appearing in a scene. I found I could relate to each of them, finding shades of light and dark in them, liking them, but at the same time disliking them.
The central 'crime' of the piece is an interesting one, and it's hard to pin down just how much actual atonement there is when we reach the final stages of the novel: is Briony atoning for her sins as a person, or as a writer?
I found Part One to be the tightest section of the novel. It created the pre-war atmosphere of the mid-1930s beautifully. The fact that all of the action was kept to a single setting and over a very short period of time made it all the more sumptuous to read, as we delved into the lives of the Tallis family and those around them. I felt for a short time in the middle of the novel that the entire thing may collapse - when it was all very centered around Robbie's time as a soldier in France, but in hindsight, it is an essential part of the structure. The final scenes between Briony, Cecilia and Robbie were beautiful - so visual, yet full of characterisation and an atmosphere that really caught me.
The final section brings into question the idea of the reliability of the narrator, which is something I remember encountering whilst reading Enduring Love also. I think it is better handled in this novel, as it is brought to our attention as a choice, rather than a lack of sanity (as with Joe in Enduring Love). The way that it is handled - I'm trying to describe this without spoiling the novel - is so successful because it creates a stronger hold over us long after the final page is turned. There is always a series of lingering 'what if?'s. The ending itself is more than a little bittersweet.
Overall, a fantastic novel. McEwan's skill is incomparable - a writer who can be truly literary and also tell one hell of a tale. He is an example of twenty-first century writing at its very best, and I look forward to reading more of his work when I get the chance.(less)
I know almost nothing about art, but even I can tell that Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is a brilliant painting; 'captivating' is prob...moreI know almost nothing about art, but even I can tell that Girl With a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer is a brilliant painting; 'captivating' is probably the best word to describe it. One presumes that Chevalier agrees with me, and this is what lead her to write a novel about the painting, its subject and its creator. So, is the novel as captivating as the piece that inspired it?
The short answer would be 'no'.
Now for the longer answer...
Chevalier is probably one of the best-known historical novelists of the last ten years, with this book always in the foreground when she is discussed. As far as historical information goes, I think she does okay with it. I had a pretty clear picture of the Netherlands in the seventeenth century by the time I was done with the book (whether or not its accurate or not is another matter), but I felt at times that there wasn't that detail that critics proclaimed about on the cover.
The characters, I feel, are never truly developed. Vermeer himself remains a mystery throughout, even to the protagonist and narrator, Griet, who appears to have some connection with him. Griet meanwhile, is what I would describe as a stock teenage girl character. She is similar to many characters I've read before, and yet she does not really advance on that.
The narrative style is one that I would have adored at 14, but by now find to be pedestrian. This is first person narrative at its simplest (and blandest) and I don't feel that we gain anything from it - the novel may just as well have been in third person and would not have suffered for it. It may even have benefited from it.
The structure is interesting. Split into parts that represent years, rather than having chapter breaks makes it difficult to find a stopping place at times, and it is this more than anything else that makes a page turner of the novel. Meanwhile, the entire thing seems to be building to the inevitable moment when Vermeer will paint Griet. The scenes are handled with less intensity than I had hoped for from the build up, and once the painting is finished, Chevalier seems to want nothing but for the novel to be over too, and closes it down rather too quickly.
Perhaps the fact that little is known about Vermeer's life would imply that a fictional version of it would be easy to tell. Sadly, the gaps in knowledge seem to be too big to fill.
At the end of the novel, I had discovered how this work came about, the girl staring out from it, but still had almost no real idea of the man behind it. It is, in my opinion, a failure in this respect.
However, it is a good read if you're looking for something historical but not too heavy. Or if you like art there are some interesting discussions about colour in there. I can see why many people enjoy this novel, but I cannot fathom why some hold it in such high acclaim. I feel it will be some time before I read anything else by Tracy Chevalier.(less)