The premise: This unique dystopian tale is set 'in a world where people cannot form new memories, and the written word has been forbidden and destroyed. In the absence of both memory and writing is music.' The plot centres on Simon, a young man who arrives in London seeking the truth about his parents' fate.
First line:I've been standing here forever. My arms and legs and head and even my bones are heavy with sleep.
What I read: Part 1 (chapters 1-3).
Would I read the rest of it? If you've read any reviews of The Chimes, you're probably already aware that one of its most-talked-about features is Smaill's creative use of language. Right from the start it's clear this book has its own vocabulary, filled with familiar-but-altered words: prentissed, objectmemories, woolfat. Musical terms feature in abundance - for example, Simon uses 'presto' to mean 'quickly' and 'lento' to mean 'slowly', and some of the words I thought were invented, such as solfege and tacet, turned out to have musical meanings when I looked them up. All of this requires maybe a little more concentration than average, but it's not particularly difficult to figure out what the words are supposed to mean when you're seeing them in context, and the narration develops its own pleasant rhythm very quickly. Already I can envision this world and feel slightly enchanted by it; the main character is engaging and the mysteries brought up by this society's very existence have me hooked (it's set in London, so is this a future version of our world or an alternate reality?) My concerns that the book might be similar to a not-great dystopia I read a while back (The Ship) have melted away. This one's a definitely-maybe. ...more
Following two men working in a rural, near-deserted South African hospital, Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor is an ambiguous story, in which nothing happens, and everything happens; a book of thick and palpable atmosphere. Frank Eloff is the long-established deputy director of the hospital, perpetually waiting for a step upwards to the top spot, a move that has been repeatedly promised, but never quite happens. At the beginning of the story, a new junior doctor, Laurence Waters, arrives - having apparently insisted upon this location, despite the fact that there are so few patients, the existing team find themselves with hardly anything to do. Laurence is everything Frank is not: endlessly upbeat, hopeful and incredibly, perhaps even wilfully, naive. But he also has a sinister streak, and when the two doctors are forced to share a room, Frank finds himself more and more distrustful of Laurence.
The plot also weaves in small stories that build up a picture of the surrounding area and its people. Built to serve the capital of a now-defunct homeland, the hospital is located amongst arid wasteland and an entirely deserted town. It's a setting Galgut exploits to full effect, creating a vivid image of an eerie, empty backdrop perfectly suited to the lost individuals who inhabit it - 'a strange twilight place', as Frank calls it. Secondary characters come into their own as representations of this place's limitations and its chequered history. There's Maria, a local married woman with whom Frank has had a long-running, erratic and distinctly odd affair; Tehogo, a hospital orderly who exerts an inexplicable power over the other staff; and 'the Brigadier', the self-styled former dictator of the homeland, who may or may not still be alive and exists as a shadowy presence on the fringes of both the town and the story.
The book opens with Frank's first impression of Laurence: 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' Later: 'I wanted to say, you're very young. I wanted to tell him, you won't last.' Yet lonely Frank finds himself unable to reject Laurence entirely - the newcomer is 'like two people', one an unwanted, clingy shadow, the other a much-needed confidant. There is always something vaguely disturbing about Laurence's presence, and always some suggestion he is not quite telling the whole truth about his own past; at other points, there are hints of an always-formless sexual tension between him and Frank. These various suggestions remain, for the most part, suggestions, and The Good Doctor never reaches the simmering pitch of a thriller. Despite that, it's an engrossing story that had me completely captivated from the first page onwards.
Who is 'the good doctor' of the title? It could be either Laurence, with his puppy-dog optimism, or Frank, who is far more down-to-earth, realistic and practical. But the book keeps the answer from us, highlighting the characters' faults - Laurence's damaging and possibly deliberate guilelessness and Frank's jaded, unhelpful cynicism - too clearly for either to be truly worthy of the name. There again, The Good Doctor is also, arguably, an allegory, with the protagonists' attitudes illustrating different approaches to the 'new' South Africa and the flaws within them. Frank is stuck in his ways and resists change, unless it benefits him. Laurence, on the other hand, wants to enable change, but goes about it in all the wrong ways, blindly doing what he thinks is right or useful rather than what is actually necessary or helpful to the impoverished community. Both men struggle to relate to their non-white colleagues, and in the end this will play a pivotal part in their respective failures. Near the end, Frank's boss Dr Ngema confronts him about his innate racism, but he resists, and thereafter the two are simply 'carefully nice to each other' - he still hasn't learned.
I loved the graceful voice and controlled tone of this spellbinding novel. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, it's lost none of its power and feels incredibly fresh. I can't fault it - undoubtedly the best book I've read this year so far....more
The premise: Our narrator, known only as U., is a 'corporate anthropologist' working for a consultancy. He 'spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis... As U. oscillates between the visionary and the vague, brilliance and bullshit, Satin Island emerges, an impassioned and exquisite novel for our disjointed times.'
First line:Turin is where the famous shroud is from, the one showing Christ's body supine after crucifixion: hands folded over genitals, eyes closed, head crowned with thorns.
What I read: Chapters 1 & 2.
Would I read the rest of it? I'm not sure, but I'm leaning more towards no than yes. U.'s voice in the first couple of chapters is at once interesting and banal; many of the themes mentioned in the blurb, including his fascination with images of disasters such as oil spills, and perceived links between events discussed in news bulletins and the ordinary details of observed everyday life, are already coming into play. The problem is mainly that I get the impression it will just continue to be like this, a shapeless and detached cycle of observations, and I don't, at this stage, find the language remarkable enough to make that compelling in and of itself. This is the sort of book that I wish I could be a lot more interested in. But I'm just not....more
The premise: The life story of Anne, now an elderly woman suffering from dementia, unfolds when she and her grandson, a soldier, journey to an old guest house in Blackpool - a place that proves to be important in her personal history.
First line:Snow was falling past the window and in her sleep she pictured a small girl and her father in a railway carriage.
What I read: Part one - split into smaller chapters; up to 11% in the ebook.
Would I read the rest of it? The first part of The Illuminations concentrates on the viewpoint of Anne's neighbour Maureen, but Anne gets the best lines ('a scarf's like a friend, isn't it?') So far, it kind of feels like a better, more nuanced Elizabeth is Missing, although I'm aware it may change direction later. I'm intrigued by Anne and would happily read more about her, but this is a gentle sort of story, and I'm not compelled to read on immediately. So the answer is probably yes, but it's one that will just be added to my to-read-eventually list, not an instant priority. ...more
How to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girHow to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girl, George, designed to be read in whatever order the reader desires. The ebook edition I read had Eyes first (or you can skip to the middle and read Camera first, as the stories mirror each other, while the order of the sections is randomised in physical copies). I was pleased about this - Eyes may be a bit harder to get into, but it's fascinatingly different, and if I'd started with Camera I would have probably assumed the story was more ordinary than it is. The book does rather demand to be read twice, Eyes-Camera and then Camera-Eyes or the other way around, since the stories reference each other and almost overlap; cf. discussions within the book about a finished fresco overlaying the original, and about stories running concurrently, figuratively written on top of each other.
Francesco's story is mainly about art, George's mainly about grief, but there are many, many parallels, both big and small, between the two - I think it would spoil the book to say what they are; a number of reviews I've read have revealed some of the big surprises, which makes me glad I hadn't read any reviews before I started the book. The stories are about how the past affects the present, they are about gender and sexuality, as well as the usual literary themes of loss, the passing of time, how we tell stories (/create art), etc. Unsurprisingly, some things are left unfinished and open to the reader's interpretation: (view spoiler)[is Francesco (incorpo)really observing George or is the Francesco narrative George's (or someone else's) invention? What's the truth about Lisa Goilard? (hide spoiler)] Smith's style is playful and clever - it does a lot of wonderful things with language and meaning (this is particularly evident in the George story, which frequently employs clichés and then turns them inside out - and in the title, which itself has several meanings - and in the disconcerting and hilarious occasional use of modern phrasings in the Francesco narrative) but at the same time it isn't challenging to read.
So far I've only read one other Ali Smith novel, 2011's There but for the, and for me, How to be both was much more successful. I found There but for the too much of a typical literary novel: while it addresses many of the same themes, How to be both is more original in terms of form and style, and it just - I can't really describe it in any way other than to say How to be both made me feel happy where There but for the made me feel a bit bored.
(I wonder if which story you get first affects which character or narrative you feel most attached to? Most reviewers seem to have read George first and preferred George as a character. I definitely felt a greater attachment to Francesco and was really quite sad when I reached the suggestion that (view spoiler)[her narrative was invented by George (hide spoiler)]. Though I did, also, really like George/her story - more than I expected to, actually, I wasn't much looking forward to reading about yet-another-teenage-girl-character. And her narrative made me ache with jealousy in its depiction of what it's like to grow up in an intellectual family - the conversations her parents have with her at age 15/16, oh to have had that privilege! - which was both good and bad.)
It's probably silly to say this when I'm unlikely to read any of the other shortlisted books, but I really hope this wins the Booker. It's definitely better than Howard Jacobson's J and strikes me as a worthier winner than the rest of the nominees.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010 with The Finkler Question; J - described as both 'a dystopian novel like no other' and 'like no other novel Howard Jacobson has written', along with platitudes like 'thought-provoking and life-changing' - is on the longlist for this year's prize. When I read the premise of J, I assumed it would be a serious dystopia, especially since the blurb makes comparisons to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. (Actually it says 'J is a novel to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World', which almost put me off reading it at all - I hate it when pronouncements like that are forced on the reader, and this one seemed a particularly foolish and grand example since the books mentioned are generally regarded as classics.) But, while it matures into something approximating this by the final chapters, it actually starts as a much stranger and more light-hearted mixture than I was led me to believe. This threw me off a bit until quite a way into the book, although I suppose it shouldn't really have surprised me after the strong element of humour in The Finkler Question, and the author's reputation for comic writing. J is also an unconventional love story, with a blossoming relationship between two of the main characters, Kevern and Ailinn, forming the basis for the plot.
There is a sort of post-apocalyptic setting, but it's a subtle one. Society is altered in some ways that are minor, but odd enough to be disconcerting; in other ways not at all. It is mentioned more than once that 'the past is a foreign country', rarely discussed, an ethos enforced by Orwellian slogans (or perhaps the logical conclusion of 'keep calm and carry on' mania) such as 'yesterday is a lesson we can learn only by looking to tomorrow'. Consequently, much classic literature and music has been forgotten - or at least is not consumed publicly - as with many, many things here, there is no explicit law against it, it just isn't done. There is some sort of taboo around the letter J, which is rarely used and which Kevern cannot pronounce without making a gesture - covering his lips with his fingers. Digital technology seems to have died out, so in some ways this feels like a historical novel or one about a remote part of the world isolated from modern society. (Although when the characters leave their home town, Port Reuben, and visit 'the capital', there's more of a typical dystopian vibe - city-dwellers are attired in colourful costumes that sound similar to the ones worn by the upper echelon of society in The Hunger Games (I'm basing this on the films, as I haven't read the books) and once-grand hotels limp onward in a state of dilapidation.) Love is championed above all things, and constant apology is encouraged, but adultery and violence within relationships are common for both genders. Above all of this looms the influence of an event only referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, a concept just as frustratingly opaque to the reader as it is for the characters. It has the significance of some apocalyptic disaster, yet the secrecy surrounding any discussion of it, not to mention the uncertainty about whether it even took place, makes it seem impossible that this could be the case.
In amongst all this, the relationship that develops between Kevern and Ailinn is so dysfunctionally whimsical it feels as though it's straight out of some quirky-hipster-romance story - something like Q: A Love Story or The Girl With Glass Feet. With his paranoia, rather pathetic nature and morbid romanticism, Kevern definitely shares numerous traits with Julian, the protagonist of The Finkler Question, while Ailinn occasionally veers a little too close to MPDG territory. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I felt like I was reading some kind of farcical comedy. Larger-than-life small-town characters have noisy affairs and brawl in the streets. Giving a member of the opposite sex a brutish kiss is a common practice, a disturbing expression of sexual aggression - but the fact that this act is still known as 'snogging' makes it read as amusing. Even murder has something colourful and comic about it and doesn't quite seem real. It is only later that these strangely, and sometimes uncomfortably, funny elements, converge and a darker, more serious narrative emerges. The story takes a new turn, focusing more heavily on the reasons why Kevern is being observed by an eccentric colleague (whose diary makes up part of the book), the secrets Ailinn's 'companion' - half housemate, half foster mother - may be hiding. Similarly, while I didn't feel that the relationship between Ailinn and Kevern ever quite transcended its twee foundations, it does become apparent as the story progresses that it has a greater significance than appearances suggest - which in itself makes it less annoying. This is a book in which threads really do come together slowly, but when they do come together, they make sense of so much.
J is, like The Finkler Question, essentially a novel about Jewishness; it is also, indirectly and abstractly, a novel about the Holocaust. This is not something that is made explicit at the start. Even going into the book knowing that this is the case, it is initially difficult to link the characters and their circumstances directly to these themes without feeling that you are clutching at straws, or shaping things to make them fit. It's especially disconcerting, if WHAT HAPPENED is the Holocaust or something like it, that the characters all have Jewish surnames - until you discover the reason for this. The humour and oddness of the first half of J work to obfuscate the real direction of the story in the same way that bland ballads, saying sorry, quaint and unnecessary jobs, sex and petty crime distract the population of Port Reuben from any public analysis, apportioning of blame or questioning of the past. This makes the eventual unfolding of the truth, achieved partly through explanation within the story and partly through gradual realisation on the part of the reader, all the more powerful.
There is something richer and more rewarding about J than much literary fiction - that element of light-heartedness also carries over into the language and wordplay - but it's still easy to read. It's a story you can (but don't have to) think about in order to read between the lines; the first half in particular could be read as a typical dystopian tale, and it may not mean the same thing to all readers. Its speculative aspect means that, although it discusses a lot of the themes typical of Booker nominees and novels by big-name authors of literary fiction - identity, memory, the power of history etc - it does so in an entirely original fashion. In a time when bestseller charts and awards lists are still saturated with fiction about WWII and its aftermath to the point that you wonder what else can be said about the subject, this approach makes it far more memorable.
Having finished J, I am still not entirely convinced by the comparisons to Orwell and Huxley - but I am far closer to being convinced than I was at the start of the book. Although I don't think any novel is ever really 'life-changing', it is certainly thought-provoking, and enormously clever; it plays with the reader's perceptions and subverts them, not just for the sake of doing so, but in order to draw parallels with the story itself. I really enjoyed this book, but more than that, I was impressed by it. It's also much better than The Finkler Question, and would be a worthier Booker winner. ...more
**spoiler alert** As I've noted before, it's quite difficult to review a David Mitchell book without spoilers. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet**spoiler alert** As I've noted before, it's quite difficult to review a David Mitchell book without spoilers. If you haven't read The Bone Clocks yet, I'd recommend not reading any further. I've used spoiler tags when referring to specific plot points (or ranting about characters), but I have discussed things that happen throughout the book, in general terms, all the way through the review below. Consider yourself warned.
The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell's sixth novel, nominated for the Booker prior to its release - is, like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, a series of interconnected stories set in different places and time periods. The difference here is that the link between the stories is explicit: they all focus, in one way or another, on a woman named Holly Sykes.
A Hot Spell: 1984. The first section is about fifteen-year-old Holly, and it's a sort of YA thriller crossed with a confessional diary; with all the childlike slang it's rather Jacqueline Wilson, if her books had more swearing and sex. Holly runs away from home, fleeing angry parents and a cheating boyfriend, and sets off to walk to a farm where she hopes to find work. On the way, some rather strange things happen, and ultimately, we learn that Holly's little brother, Jacko, has also run away and apparently vanished without a trace.
Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume: 1991. The second section is about a privileged, obnoxious Cambridge student, Hugo Lamb. He's a womanising misogynist and a self-confessed sociopath who swindles an elderly man with dementia and drives one of his 'best friends' to suicide. He's blatantly and deliberately horrible, but his narrative, a playful pastiche of a sort of Martin Amis style (underlined by references to a writer, Crispin Hershey, whose character is obviously 'inspired' by Amis), is at least entertaining to read (until the end, but more of that later). Hugo goes skiing in the Alps, where he meets Holly, now working as a waitress.
The Wedding Bash: 2004. This starts fairly banally, at a family wedding. Here, Ed Brubeck, who featured in the first part, resurfaces. Then, he was a classmate of Holly's who helped her, and tried to dissuade her from running away; now, it transpires, he's a war journalist, Holly's partner, and the father of her daughter, Aoife. Drama ensues when Aoife goes missing.
Crispin Hershey's Lonely Planet: 2015-2020. The Amis-esque writer, Crispin Hershey, re-emerges as a narrator. He's having a midlife crisis: poised on the brink of divorce and promoting a poorly received new book that's been rubbished particularly viciously by a high-profile critic, Richard Cheeseman (a friend of Hugo's from part two). He meets Holly on the promotional circuit - she's written a bestselling 'spiritual memoir' about her experiences of precognition. Crispin's adventures include revenge on Richard, much guilt over the resulting effects of said revenge, the birth and death of an affair with Holly's agent, and, as the years pass, an increasingly close friendship with Holly herself. This is possibly the most fully realised section of the book: in parts it is beautifully written, and more reflective than the others.
An Horologist's Labyrinth: 2025. Part five provides the real climax and crux of the book. Up to this point, strange, inexplicable things have happened, but they have happened in quick bursts, unremembered by the characters, and not infringing on their everyday lives. Up to this point, every section of the book would have made sense and been able to stand alone had these bursts of strangeness been taken out. However, part five is pure fantasy. The narrator is Dr. Iris Fenby, who treated Holly's cancer, except she's not really Iris Fenby, and she's also met Holly before, as a different person - it's complicated. Fenby and her 'colleagues' draw Holly into an extremely weird conspiracy, resulting in a climatic battle.
Sheep's Head: 2043. Holly is given her own voice again; now in her seventies, she lives on Sheep's Head Peninsula, southern Ireland, with her two grandchildren, one adopted. A number of disasters have befallen the world, including various technology failures and depletion of oil reserves, leading to a more primitive way of life. As society breaks down still further, Holly struggles to protect her family.
The fantasy element In part four, Richard Cheeseman says of Crispin Hershey's would-be comeback novel: 'The fantasy subplot clashes so violently with the book's State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look.' In the same section, another character tells Hershey, 'a book can't be half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.' It's surprising that Mitchell would include lines like these when these exact accusations could easily be levelled against The Bone Clocks, but I guess he's just cheekily pre-empting possible criticisms. In fact, this book is half fantasy - much of it is just about the ordinary lives of people who aren't interesting aside from their tenuous links with a hinted-at 'war', and until two-thirds of the way through the 600-page book, the reader is only exposed to short and isolated scenes of fantasy, which may add a frisson of intrigue to the narrative, but don't make it feel as if it's actually a fantasy novel.
Then, in part five, the book breaks away from these largely 'normal' narratives and dives head-first into truly fantastical events with language to match. There are real words used to mean something specific to this underworld (transverse, hiatus, kinetic); words that, as far as I know, are made up (submention, psychosoteric, suaison); and oft-repeated proper nouns (Atemporals, Horologists, Soujourners). You get sentences like, 'Incorporeally, I pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it at our assailants.' These chapters culminate in an otherworldly battle for power which takes place in some sort of alternate dimension. Unfortunately, the whole thing rather reminded me of The Magician King, the pretty terrible sequel to Lev Grossman's The Magicians.
Generally speaking, I love books that combine touches of fantasy, magic, or something macabre with a setting that's recognisable as the world we live in, with individuals' lives remaining largely realistic and relatable. However, in The Bone Clocks the gulf between the two is too great: the ordinary lives are too ordinary, the fantasy is too fantastic, they simply don't gel.
Misogyny, sexism and reading the book from a feminist POV While reading The Bone Clocks I spent a lot of time thinking about the fact that I can't help reading books from a feminist perspective - even when I'd prefer not to, because it often impedes my enjoyment of said books. This novel was a case in point. It's filled with deeply unpleasant male characters and I found the implications of some of their actions, and their relationships with Holly, impossible to brush aside.
I mentioned above that I found Hugo Lamb's story entertaining until near the end. That's because, in the final chapters of his narrative, a weird shift takes place: (view spoiler)[it suddenly seems as if Hugo abruptly becomes a character the reader is supposed to like and sympathise with. In a scene that ENRAGED me, he's HORRIBLE to Holly about Jacko, saying things he has no right to say, and what happens? She sleeps with him. For fuck's sake. Then we're meant to believe he's 'fallen in love' with Holly, despite his alleged sociopathic traits, his obvious misogyny in previous scenes ('I wonder why women are uglier once they're unpeeled, encrusted, and had'), and the fact that he's only known her a couple of days.
I tried to fence off my anger at all this and judge the narrative on literary merit alone, but it was too difficult. The whole setup, if - obviously - not the language, was more like something you'd find in some sub-Fifty Shades of Grey crap in which an abusive man is held up as a romantic hero. Complete with the idea that Hugo's serial womanising and inability to love is absolved and 'cured' by sleeping with Holly and that, of course, she's far more pure and innocent than him, fragile and slight, and 'out of practice' at sex, and as soon as he's slept with her, he immediately starts going into a jealous rage about the idea of her having male friends. Or a job. Nice. (In another echo of bad romantic fiction, I think we're meant to believe this creepy possessiveness is somehow endearing.)
I assumed, or at least hoped, there would turn out to be a greater point to all this. Maybe it was a parody after all, like the Luisa Rey story in Cloud Atlas was meant to be a pastiche of detective fiction/conspiracy thrillers? I was disheartened and infuriated even further when there was an implication that Hugo's comments to Holly about Jacko somehow changed the course of her life (ie, her career choice) thereafter, but salvation arrived when Hugo popped up later on as a bona-fide bad guy, properly evil, with reference to his misogyny actually made in Marinus' narrative. At this point, there's no doubt he's Bad with a capital B. Thank god - I finally thought we were getting somewhere. And then...
The denouement comes and it turns out we're still meant to believe Hugo was sincerely in love with Holly. (Just in case there was any uncertainty, Marinus extracts the memory of this from Hugo's own mind.) I mean... come on. (hide spoiler)] I sometimes wonder if authors forget what love actually is when they're writing books. They really seem to like turning it into whatever malleable thing they fancy so that it suits the plot, even when it makes absolutely no sense and goes against every aspect of the characters involved, as is the case here. This stuff is all the more galling when it comes from Mitchell, one of a very small number of authors to have written a love story that really made me cry (Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith in Cloud Atlas). I know he can write male characters that aren't arseholes, I know he can write believable relationships and moving descriptions of love. Yet Hugo's feelings for Holly weren't remotely believable, her relationship with Ed lacked chemistry entirely, and the idea of (view spoiler)[Crispin having been in love with her too (hide spoiler)] felt cheaply tacked on and pointless.
I am aware that many of the things that really bothered me are extremely minor points, not particularly important in the grand scheme of the book as a whole, and may not even be noticed by other readers. This is what I mean by wanting to be able to read without the constant feminist POV; if I only I could turn off the part of my brain that hates these things with such a passion, The Bone Clocks and many other books would be so much better. However, these bits really ruined my enjoyment of the book - some of the Hugo stuff truly turned my stomach - so I can't help but focus on them.
Characterisation To say that Holly is the centre of the whole story arc, I never connected with her. Though teenage Holly's voice was amusing, I wasn't entirely convinced by her as a character: there was just something hollow about her, something that stopped me completely believing in or caring about her; maybe the fact that her story had no tension in it, aside from the 'weird shit', which was instantly forgotten and not explained. When she met another runaway, a girl who might have been her five years down the line, that character was much more interesting, and I wished the story could have been about her instead. In parts two and three I only sided with her because the men she was involved with were so abhorrent and pathetic that of course I wanted her to get the fuck away from them. After that I found her vaguely likeable, but did I really care about her fate on anything other than the most basic level? Was I really bothered who triumphed in the battle that took place in part five? No - (view spoiler)[except to see Hugo die painfully, and that didn't even happen; instead there was a limp 'who knows what became of him'! (hide spoiler)] I understand that Holly's ordinariness was necessary, but sometimes I felt it was underlined to the point that she was just uninteresting to read about.
As I've mentioned already, the men are terrible. Ed isn't much better than Hugo - he's just low-level condescending, manipulative, and a bad father. Crispin fares better - he starts off being just as hateful as the others, but he does at least develop and change over the course of his narrative. By the end of his story, I had warmed to him enough that I found myself rooting for him to survive, despite all his wrongdoings. This kind of complex, interesting characterisation is more what I've come to expect from Mitchell; the considered voice of Marinus/Fenby in part five was also welcome, although the character wasn't given much chance to establish his/herself before the fantasy action infringed. And: (view spoiler)[Why didn't we get to find out more about Crispin's killer? Who was she, whose side was she on, what was the content of her poems? This, for me, was one of the main disappointments: Crispin's story had just developed into something genuinely rich and full and intriguing, there had finally been a character with depth, and then it just stopped, with no follow-up to further explain things. (hide spoiler)]
Similarities to and connections with the author's previous novels I've read three of Mitchell's books before - Cloud Atlas (good, but not as good as some people think it is), Number9dream (better), and Ghostwritten (best). The Bone Clocks features some characters who also appeared in these books, and makes references, both direct and indirect, to others. This is nothing new - Mitchell has always referenced his own characters - but here the connections are more transparent and overt, and far more frequent. I even recognised some references to books of Mitchell's I haven't read, because they actually mention phrases used in the titles of the books. The connections between chapters are also more obvious, an inevitability given the central focus on Holly, but this makes its world feel strangely small and insular, less dense than the world of its predecessors. In the end, I felt The Bone Clocks was hampered by its insistence on shoehorning in a self-referential namedrop at every turn. It could have been a stronger book if it had been allowed to stand alone.
In past books, Mitchell's stories have moved me without needing to be emotionally manipulative. Yes, I did feel vaguely emotional at certain points in the story, but it's easy to feel sorry for a character who has a terminal illness or is saying goodbye to their family forever. The Bone Clocks completely lacks something with the emotional power of, say, the heartbreaking love story between Robert and Rufus in Cloud Atlas; the immediately and endlessly sympathetic characterisation of Luisa Rey in the same book; the excruciatingly tragic life of Margarita in Ghostwritten.
tl;dr Annoying teenager followed by several hundred pages of misogynistic pricks, a flash of promising characterisation, a fantasy battle in a space church (or something), and a subdued if preachy final section that's probably the best bit of the whole thing.
I do wonder about the honesty of many critics when a book like this one is reviewed so positively, so widely. Don't get me wrong, it isn't bad, but to me it is quite plainly the weakest Mitchell so far (obviously I haven't read them all, but even taking that into account, it's still weaker than the three I have read). If it was a debut, if it had been written by a fantasy author who wasn't thought of as a literary novelist, no way would it have received the high praise it has. I liked parts of it, and as always I enjoyed the writing; I glimpsed flashes of brilliance, of promise, of intense intrigue; I found it compelling, and raced through it quickly; and at least I had a proper REACTION to it, for which I am thankful - rather that than complete boredom. But the overall experience was disappointing.
2.5 stars; could be bumped up to 3 for prompting me to write the longest review ever. I think this is the only time I've been worried I might exceed Goodreads' 20,000-character limit. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["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
1. Identities of all kinds are important and this is, in essence, an exploration of the concept of identity: whileParagraphs from an unfinished review:
1. Identities of all kinds are important and this is, in essence, an exploration of the concept of identity: while it starts as a study of gender, it doesn't stop there. Naming is always significant. Harriet's surname, Burden, is an obvious example, along with her chosen masculine nickname, Harry. Harriet is frequently infantilised by male critics, who insist on calling her by her married name, or referring to her by her first name and her husband by his surname. Anton's surname is deliberately altered by Harriet so it can be read as an anagram of shit, a joke at the expense of those who have rejected her yet embrace him. Rune (an ambiguous moniker to begin with) symbolically rejects his last name, severing himself from his family in the process. Meanwhile, the curator of this volume, Dr. I.V. Hess, remains faceless and genderless throughout.
2. Harriet is remembered completely differently by different characters - one claims she was so quiet and unassuming as to be virtually invisible, while another, who encountered her in a similar setting, describes her as overtly loud, obviously eccentric and embarrassing.
3. I'm loath to compare The Blazing World to its immediate predecessor in Hustvedt's canon, The Summer Without Men, since the latter was poorly received and widely criticised. I still maintain that it's an excellent book, but a terrible way to start reading Hustvedt, and loses a lot of its power if read outside the context of her other work. Still, I can't help but draw comparisons since both books centre around a similar character study.
4. Even though it has an impassioned, emotive portrayal of its protagonist at its heart, The Blazing World is not conclusive about the truth of the events of its plot. Reading the 'evidence' compiled here it is very difficult to definitively believe that Harriet was wholly responsible for Rune's magnum opus - even if you desperately want that to be true, as I did. The other viewpoints included often question the veracity of Harriet's account. One, a horrendously misogynist male art critic, is easy to dismiss, but does the blatant offensiveness of his narrative totally obscure the fact that it may contain some uncomfortable truths? On the flip side, a female critic argues that Harriet's lack of success was partly self-imposed and that she wanted to be a martyr; reading the more self-pitying sections of her journals, it's easy to see how accurate this could be....more
Five Star Billionaire was not, unfortunately, a five star book. (Sorry.)
This novel is set in Shanghai, and it deals with five main characters, whose sFive Star Billionaire was not, unfortunately, a five star book. (Sorry.)
This novel is set in Shanghai, and it deals with five main characters, whose stories are covered in alternating chapters. There is Phoebe, an ambitious young woman who has come from Malaysia to Shanghai to find love and get rich; Justin, the heir to a fortune who becomes a recluse when his family's business fails; Yinghui, a successful entrepreneur; and Gary, a teen pop star who suffers a painful fall from grace. Then there's Walter Chao, the self-styled 'five star billionaire' who acts as a link between the others - although it's never quite clear whether this is his real name (he writes books under a number of pseudonyms), or indeed whether he is truly rich. 'Fakeness' is a major theme throughout the novel: whether it's Phoebe's counterfeit designer bag or Gary's media image, the characters are all putting on some kind of front.
At the beginning, I was sucked into the atmospheric depiction of Shanghai. I tend to like books of this type - in which a number of vaguely linked characters within one city are studied separately - and I was reminded of Sam Thompson's Communion Town and some of David Mitchell's work. I was really interested in Phoebe immediately, and although the other characters didn't captivate me in quite the same way, I wanted to know what would happen to them, and was interested to see how their stories would converge. However, I ultimately felt that rather than building up to anything exciting, the plot just slowly, quietly, petered out. A couple of fairly dramatic things happened towards the end, but they happened without much fanfare and it didn't even feel like the reader was supposed to care much.
The whole narrative is peppered with first-person interjections from the so-called billionaire, while the rest of the characters' stories are related in third person. It all reminded me a bit of Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (another one I started but never finished), particularly the self-help-book-style chapter titles. There's no doubt that Chao, or whoever he is, is an intriguing character, but I didn't feel the promise of this setup was fully exploited either. I know it's sometimes best for an unreliable narrator to remain unknowable, but I would have liked some resolution as to whether anything about Chao's story and how he presented himself was actually true.
This was my second attempt at reading a novel on the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist: the first, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, was abandoned because although it had the bones of an interesting story and was well-written, I found it too dull and unengaging to continue past the halfway point. The same sort of thing could be said about this, really. It's another book I can't say anything particularly terrible about - but nor can I bring myself to get excited about any aspect of it. I liked the setup and the setting, but it was all a bit forgettable and it could have been so much better....more
I found the idea of this very interesting at first, and I made it about halfway through, but I just became so bored with it. I liked Nao's own story,I found the idea of this very interesting at first, and I made it about halfway through, but I just became so bored with it. I liked Nao's own story, but I wasn't really interested in either her grandmother or Ruth, so when Nao went to live in the temple my interest waned to the point I didn't want to pick it up again. Life's too short, and I haven't exactly had any sleepless nights wondering what I might have missed....more
The Garden of Evening Mists starts in the late 1980s, as retired judge Teoh Yun Ling returns to Yugiri, a property where she spent a period of her lifThe Garden of Evening Mists starts in the late 1980s, as retired judge Teoh Yun Ling returns to Yugiri, a property where she spent a period of her life almost forty years earlier, in Malaya during the Japanese occupation. Told in flashbacks as she looks back on her life, the majority of the book is devoted the events of this time. We learn that Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese POW camp - a fact which, in itself, is a source of mystery, as she seems determined not to reveal how she managed to escape. Staying with Marcus and Emily, a pair of family friends originally from South Africa, she seeks out their neighbour Nakamura Aritomo. Formerly gardener to the Emperor of Japan (a fact which causes much moral conflict for Yun Ling), Aritomo is now living in exile and has created an authentic Japanese garden at Yugiri. Mindful of a promise made to her sister, who died in the camp, Yun Ling persuades Aritomo to tutor her so she can create a memorial garden. The story focuses on the developing relationship between Yun Ling and Aritomo, set against a backdrop of political unrest as communist rebels terrorise the surrounding estates.
I've read a few reviews of The Garden of Evening Mists which have criticised it for being dull. I can completely understand why some would think that - it's a slow-moving, descriptive book and although there are some dramatic events, it couldn't really be described as action-packed. However, I found it a very soothing read: thoughtful, reflective and intelligent. The story is a very complex one - even having finished the book, I didn't find it easy to write the summary above. There's lots of strands to the plot, lots of characters, lots of background detail, and it does require concentration, but in my opinion at least, it's worth it.
I must admit that I was occasionally frustrated by the way the narrative skirted around things rather than addressing them directly, particularly when it came to the relationships between certain characters. I didn't actually realise for quite some time (view spoiler)[after Yun Ling and Aritomo kissed that they had actually become romantically involved (hide spoiler)], until a throwaway comment from Yun Ling brought it to my attention. Given the animosity and apprehension between the two at the beginning, I would really have liked to know more about how this relationship developed. I felt the main problem with the book was that it didn't explore details like this fully and often seemed to be dwelling more on external events which could have been left out of the story.
Overall, though, I really, really liked The Garden of Evening Mists. It's left a memorable impression on me - the time I spent reading it provided me with a true sense of escape. I have the author's acclaimed debut, The Gift of Rain, on my wishlist now and I'm looking forward to (hopefully) being transported and calmed once again when I read it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I have had this book on my to-read list for years. In fact, I've already tried to read it once before and just couldn't get into it, but for two reasoI have had this book on my to-read list for years. In fact, I've already tried to read it once before and just couldn't get into it, but for two reasons I was recently inspired to give it another go. The first reason was that there's a movie adaptation due out soon, and I thought I'd better get the book read before I start hearing all about the film and people are posting screencaps of it on Tumblr and any twists are ruined for everyone. The second was that I've read a number of reviews of Sam Thompson's Communion Town, one of my favourite recent reads, suggesting that the two books are alike. It's easy to see why: like Communion Town, Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of stories written from very different viewpoints, at least some of which have an element of fantasy to them, and all are linked. There are six stories, most of which are split into two parts. The first parts have an infuriating (but attention-grabbing) habit of cutting off just as you are absolutely desperate to know what happens next. The second parts, which unfold in reverse order to the first half of the book, conclude each of the stories in turn, although the narratives ultimately remain separate and don't come together in any definitive way.
What follows may be considered spoilers - I have outlined what happens in the first half of each story, although not how they end, and have also referred to the links between the stories.
The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing The mid-nineteenth century. Adam Ewing is a naive notary travelling across the Pacific on the Prophetess, along with a shifty doctor called Henry Goose and a bunch of untrustworthy sailors and stowaways: he believes he is suffering from an illness caused by a parasitic 'Worm' and that only Dr. Goose can cure him. It took me some time to get into this narrative and, in fact, I think it was the fact that the book started like this that put me off the first time I tried to read it. The constant racism was also pretty offputting, although it's necessary and has a 'point' which links in with a lot of the themes that run through the other stories.
Letters from Zedelghem Early 1930s. The young, charismatic Robert Frobisher escapes his debtors and family (who have disinherited him) in England and flees to Belgium, where he successfully ingratiates himself into the household of Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive composer. His experiences are related in the form of witty letters to his best friend/lover Rufus Sixsmith. This section was when I really started feeling that I was going to love this book - the playful language, the combination of pathos and humour. The ending of Robert's story is also by far the best and most powerful of the lot. (view spoiler)[At first I disliked the second half, primarily because I disliked Eva, but the last letter - wow. It made me cry. 'We both know in our hearts who is the sole love of my short, bright life' - TEARS. (hide spoiler)] Link with the last story: Robert finds a copy of Adam Ewing's journal in Ayrs' mansion.
Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery 1975. Luisa Rey is a small-time journalist who uncovers what may be a massive conspiracy involving a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. This (the Lana Del Rey mystery as I kept thinking of it) was instantly my favourite, a fact I am almost embarrassed to admit as it is by far the most conventional and ordinary of the narratives, and is apparently supposed to be bad. Ha! Well, I absolutely adored it regardless. I liked Luisa more than anyone else in the book, the atmosphere and pacing were fantastic, I really felt like I was THERE. Exciting and emotive with plenty of dramatic twists - I loved every minute of it. Link with the last story: Rufus Sixsmith is now a scientist whose study is responsible for uncovering the scandal.
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish Roughly the present day? Timothy Cavendish is a publisher of 'vanity' books who becomes famous when one of his authors murders a critic, then finds himself on the run from the author's thuggish brothers. He thinks he's found safety at a 'hotel' in Hull, but it turns out his own brother has installed him in a prison-like nursing home. Written in what I felt was an entertaining but somewhat derivative style, this story both rips off and sends up a certain style often found in contemporary literary fiction. I found the aforementioned style a little too self-conscious and I didn't feel as invested in Timothy's plight as I had with the other characters. Link with the last story: Timothy is sent a manuscript of 'Half-Lives'.
An Orison of Sonmi~451 A dystopian future 'corpocracy', about a hundred years from now. Sonmi~451 is a cloned 'server' working in what appears to be a truly nightmarish version of McDonald's. As a result of an experiment gone awry, she attains learning and knowledge, and begins to behave like a 'pureblood', unheard of for a 'fabricant' such as herself. This chapter is told in the form of an interview with Sonmi~451 following her arrest and incarceration for crimes which are not fully revealed until the end of the story. I thought the tale itself was fascinating, but it bothered me that once I started thinking about the way the corpocracy worked and how it had come to be, it didn't seem at all believable or plausible. Link with the last story: Sonmi~451 watches a film version of Timothy Cavendish's story.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After The far future, after the 'Fall' of civilisation. The narrator is Zachry, a member of one of the few tribes now left, living in a post-apocalyptic version of Hawaii. His story follows what happens when Meronym, a member of a more advanced tribe known as the 'Prescients', comes to stay with Zachry's family. The whole account is written in an annoying and difficult-to-read dialect, which I really struggled with at times - meaning I sometimes skipped over bits I wasn't that interested in - and didn't feel was necessary at all. I did get into the rhythm of this after a while, and I didn't hate it, but it was by far my least favourite of the narratives and the only one I was glad to finish. Link with the last story: The people of this society appear to worship Sonmi as a goddess.
In order of how much I enjoyed them: Luisa Rey, Letters from Zedelghem, Sonmi, Timothy Cavendish, Adam Ewing, Sloosha's Crossin'.
Cloud Atlas seems to inspire extreme reactions - it's often viewed as either a modern classic or a case of the emperor's new clothes. Personally, I don't agree with either of those interpretations. I certainly didn't take any deep and meaningful philosophical point away from it, and I didn't look too hard for connections between the stories, other than the obvious and deliberate ones: I felt they could all stand on their own well enough. I thought the implied theme of (view spoiler)[reincarnation (hide spoiler)] was flimsy, so I chose to ignore it - nor did I spend too much time thinking about whether all of these people were supposed to be 'real'. I don't think any of the stories are meant to be examined at in too much detail (the circumstances of Sonmi's society being a case in point) and I certainly didn't think the book was a work of genius. But I also happened to think it was exceptionally well-written and well-woven, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for what (I think) it is - a collection of good stories which are either smarter than they seem to be or not as smart as they think, depending on which way you look at it. Some may object to the fact that it's a patchwork of pastiches, but personally, that was a big part of what I loved about it. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["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
Subtitled A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson's debut is a collection of ten short stories: all are set in the same unnamed city, and all have looseSubtitled A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson's debut is a collection of ten short stories: all are set in the same unnamed city, and all have loose connections with the others. The city itself remains an enigma, though its many districts have colourful, slightly offbeat and evocative names - Sludd's Liberty, Glory Part, Low Glinder. The narrative style varies enormously, from the cool, detached tone typical of literary fiction, present in (my favourite) 'Outside the Days', which recalls the best bits of Great House by Nicole Krauss, to the noirish romp of 'Gallathea' and 'The Significant City of Lazarus Glass', which is a bit like a dark spoof of an Agatha Christie mystery. The many narrators and their vastly different experiences in different locales of the city create a patchwork effect, as if you are studying something huge from a number of different angles, while the whole remains too vast to perceive. The experience of reading Communion Town is much like that of exploring an unfamiliar city on foot - both disorientating and seductive, and full of sharp turns with the occasional dead end.
There is an element of something strange and supernatural to almost all of the stories, giving the book as a whole an unmistakeable air of fantasy. This much I expected from the fact that it has won plaudits from the likes of China Miéville. However, this is not actually a fantasy novel: rather, each of the stories has a touch of something weird and inexplicable, with the most prominent example being the 'monsters' that stalk the city at night, which are never quite described or explained properly. Most of the interactions that take place within the stories are recognisable, even mundane, and easy for anyone to relate to, but their surroundings and circumstances are not. I won't pretend I understood everything that was going on in the stories or precisely how they were all linked, and this may be frustrating for some readers, but for me it just deepened the intrigue.
Communion Town is one of those books I want to go back and re-read straight away. I miss being immersed in its world, and I wish there had been ten, twenty more stories about the city. I want to pick apart the layers and puzzle out the connections, figure out who each character was to each of the others. I borrowed my copy from the library and held onto it for weeks after I'd finished reading, because I just didn't want to let it go: I found that there was something weirdly comforting about this strange, beguiling, nameless city. It's a place I want to escape back to and, in fact, I can't stop thinking about it. I can't think of a better reason for a five-star review than that....more
Narcopolis isn't so much a story as a non-linear network of little stories and vignettes: a sort of tapestry of pieces of fiction and character studieNarcopolis isn't so much a story as a non-linear network of little stories and vignettes: a sort of tapestry of pieces of fiction and character studies. The characters include an opium/heroin addict who initially acts as narrator (although the narrative soon wanders away from him and takes on a life of its own), several opium den 'entrepreneurs', a eunuch prostitute and a degenerate poet-slash-artist. Set in Bombay, and more specificially on Shuklaji Street where Rashid's opium house is located, the narrative flits from character to character, place to place, and back and forth through time, as well as occasionally slipping in and out of reality. I really should qualify my five-star rating by stating that I am absolutely certain this book will not be everyone's cup of tea: the author is a poet and the style is extremely lyrical, with the surreal narrative constantly evolving rather than being structured in a conventional manner. As such, it's quite hard to describe exactly what it was that really captivated me about Narcopolis. It's kind of a plotless, rambling, druggy story, so if you don't like that kind of thing then it's unlikely you'll enjoy this, but I just knew from the very beginning that I was going to love it - the sprawling cast of characters, the dreamlike voice, the astonishingly well-evoked atmosphere of Bombay in the 1970s (and onwards). I am very glad the Booker Prize longlist brought this beautifully written book to my attention, as it's the kind of novel I probably would never have heard of, let alone thought of reading, otherwise....more
First of all, I really want to mention that whoever wrote the blurb for this book should win an award just for that. A historical novel that doesn't kFirst of all, I really want to mention that whoever wrote the blurb for this book should win an award just for that. A historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it. See? That paragraph makes The Teleportation Accident sound like the best book EVER.
It isn't quite as good as all that, and it isn't as good as Ned Beauman's brilliant debut - Boxer, Beetle - either, but it's still a pretty great read. Starting in 1930s Germany, the story takes in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles across a span of thirty years as it follows Egon Loeser, a dissatisfied young man who flits around the world because of his twin obsessions with a 17th-century set designer, Lavincini - the creator of an infamously disastrous 'teleportation device', about whom Loeser is attempting to write a play - and a beautiful girl, Adele Hitler ('no relation'). The Teleportation Accident is full of the same farcical humour, grotesque characters and surfeit of coincidences that characterised Boxer, Beetle, and again, I was reminded very strongly of Jonathan Coe's signature style, albeit coupled with a historical setting. I loved the fragmented, surreal narrative style used for the section of the story focusing on Bailey, and wished I could have read more of this. The characters didn't engage me as much as those in Beauman's debut, however, and nor did I find the book anywhere near as funny. It's possibly cleverer, though: it is indeed a story about 'how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it', and this element of the plot is handled beautifully, with the historical events one might expect to take centre stage remaining firmly in the background, and seen mainly through the filter of Loeser's selfishness.
My main quibble was - well, my first main quibble was that after the first chapter, I really hated Loeser. I hated him so much, in fact, that it took me a couple of days to even pick the book up again. My antipathy towards him lessened slightly as the story went on, but that was partly because midway through the story - round about the point he stopped reading the letter from Blumstein - I realised you weren't supposed to like him anyway (as if his name practically being 'loser' wasn't enough of a giveaway). After that revelation, my remaining main quibble was that I didn't really understand why Beauman had chosen to focus so much of the narrative on Loeser's preoccupation with Adele and his sexual frustration. Why was Loeser so obsessed with Adele? Okay, she was beautiful, but he travelled the world for years after his brief meeting with her, so surely he'd have found other women to lust after/fall in love with/obsess over? And if he was so desperate to have sex, surely it's impossible that he wouldn't have been able to find anyone whatsoever to sleep with in all those years, in all those different social circles in all those different cities?! Wouldn't he just have gone to a prostitute - since we already know that he's done this before at the start of the book, I don't see why he would have any moral objection to the idea later in life... It all seemed quite flimsy and contrived, and when the whole situation turned out (view spoiler)[to have practically nothing to do with anything else anyway (hide spoiler)], I felt a litle bit confused. I also didn't really 'get' the final chapter, I'm afraid.
I've noted previously that when you have very high expectations for a new book by an author who has impressed you in the past, it's often inevitable that it will disappoint you (even if only a little). This was one of my most-anticipated books of the year, and I have to admit that it wasn't quite the tour de force I was hoping for. The Teleportation Accident is fantastically written, entertaining and (for the most part) engaging, and the plot is incredibly well-woven together. However, the characters are universally hard to like and, although the plot fizzes with energy and ideas, there's just nothing to really care about (at points I wished the story wouldn't 'ignore history' quite so much, even though I did fully understand what the author was doing, and the significance of this).
As this review goes to press (!), The Teleportation Accident has just been longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize. It's great to see such a young and relatively 'new' author being recognised, but I just wish this had happened for Boxer, Beetle!["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Told in the form of a lengthy letter relating the protagonist's childhood, career, and - ultimately - his crimes, this is a dark, unsettling novel thaTold in the form of a lengthy letter relating the protagonist's childhood, career, and - ultimately - his crimes, this is a dark, unsettling novel that also acts as an unflattering portrait of modern-day India. Our unreliable narrator and anti-hero is Balram Halwai, a dubious 'entrepreneur' residing in Bangalore. For reasons never really explained, he is writing a confessional document, addressed to a Chinese politician, telling the story of his life. Over the course of seven nights he describes his poor upbringing, how he came to be employed as a driver to his landlord's son, his subsequent escape from the 'Darkness' of his youth to Delhi, and the final, terrible action culminating in his escape to Bangalore, and his freedom from servitude.
The White Tiger is a page-turner - it only took me about a day to finish it. It reminded me a little of a recent read, A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth; also a disturbing tale with a dishonest and emotionally corrupt narrator. When writing my review of that book, I mentioned that I felt Ashworth revealed the truth of her protagonist's nature too early in the story, and Adiga does the same thing here, giving away the climatic event of Balram's life within the first couple of chapters. Unfortunately, the narrative that comes after this makes no effort to draw you into Balram's world or encourage sympathy for his actions (nor whatever led him to them). This is in stark contrast with Ashworth's book, in which you can't help but feel sorry for the delusional, lonely Annie. Balram is almost definitely lonely, and may well be delusional too, but there's no attempt to humanise him. As you probably know, since I mention it every couple of reviews or so, I love unreliable narrators - even more so if they're isolated from society and lacking in ordinary morals - but Balram's tale is too bleak and, in the end, too pointless to be genuinely memorable.
The novel is effective in its unflinching portrayal of India - the poverty of Balram's childhood village, the corruption that infects political systems in both the country and the city, the contempt masters have for their servants, the chaos of the city streets and how this clashes (in what appears to be an almost mocking fashion) with the intrusion of American tourists and glossy new corporate buildings. Whether accurate or not, it's certainly attention-grabbing and thought-provoking. There's also an inevitable undercurrent of dark, sly humour which adds to the compelling feel of the narrative.
There are so many interesting ideas in this book, and the premise is, or at least could have been, fascinating. However, for me, the whole was a disappointment. It's perhaps most notable for its commentary on India and its depiction of the relationship between master and servant, but the device of Balram's confession falls somewhat flat, mainly due to the characterisation. Balram is, in a sense, the only character - the views we get of the others are very, very limited - so it's vital that the reader engages with him, yet this is almost impossible. Worth reading, if only because it's a quick read, but not a book I can say I truly enjoyed....more
When Swimming Home was longlisted for the Booker Prize, I was elated. Not because I'd already read the book, but because, having read an early reviewWhen Swimming Home was longlisted for the Booker Prize, I was elated. Not because I'd already read the book, but because, having read an early review that had piqued my interest, I had been trying to get hold of a copy of it for months and hadn't even managed to see one. Now it's actually been shortlisted, it has of course been re-published in paperback with a more WH Smith-friendly cover, and suddenly it's everywhere.
Like last year's winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Swimming Home is a typical Booker nominee. As such, while it is beautifully and elegantly written, I'm afraid I found it rather unremarkable as far as literary fiction goes. It's a very short book, with the story unfolding over the space of a week in which the Jacobs family - poet father Joe, war correspondent mother Isabel and 14-year-old Nina - are staying in a French villa along with a couple of friends, Mitchell and Laura. Into this already tense atmosphere waltzes the beautiful and mentally ill Kitty Finch, a glamorous but incredibly unstable botanist who is given to stripping naked in public, talking to herself and seeing visions, and happens to be obsessed with Joe.
Although the plot undoubtedly reaches a climax, in many ways I felt like almost every strand of the story was left unfinished. I was interested in all of the characters, yet didn't feel particularly connected to any of them - and while none of them are likeable, that isn't really the problem. You know when a great artist draws a simple sketch of a person, and it's just a few brief lines on a page, but you still get a strong and clear impression of what they look like or how they move? That's what the characters in this book are like - the details the author does provide are executed wonderfully, but ultimately they are frustratingly incomplete and always seem to be at a distance from the reader. At the end, I wanted to know more and I was annoyed that certain issues hadn't been addressed at all. Still, I'm glad I got to read this book and it's nice to see something like this, from a small publishing house, make it onto the Booker shortlist rather than one of the 'usual suspects'. ...more
Harrison Opoku, an 11-year-old boy whose family have recently arrived in England from his native Ghana, is the narrator of this sad and funny hybrid oHarrison Opoku, an 11-year-old boy whose family have recently arrived in England from his native Ghana, is the narrator of this sad and funny hybrid of a coming-of-age tale and and a murder mystery. At the beginning of the book, a boy Harri vaguely knows is stabbed and killed, and he and his friend Dean set out to catch the murderer. Their mission forms the backdrop for Harri's lengthy observations on life in England: the social hierarchy of his school, a first crush on classmate Poppy, home life with his mum and sister in a London tower block, and his terror and admiration of a local gang - the Dell Farm Crew - who rule the surrounding estate. The title has a dual meaning - it refers to Harri's 'pidgin' English, peppered with schoolboy slang and misunderstood words, but also to the pigeon who visits Harri on his balcony, a creature he sees as his friend. The pigeon also serves as a second narrator, in brief interjections which add an intriguing (if ultimately disappointing) edge, suggesting that the bird is somehow watching over and protecting Harri.
Harri is a beguiling and very funny narrator, and Kelman has done a brilliant job of creating an entertaining narrative voice that's also thoroughly believable as that of an 11-year-old boy. I was quite surprised to learn that Kelman is white and British, though not at all surprised that he apparently grew up poor. The book practically exudes a particular kind of masochistic working-class nostalgia, and the setting and its details jump off the page. The story captures perfectly the wonders of childhood and innocence, even in such a bleak environment, in a way that made me remarkably nostalgic for my own schooldays. It's by turns endearing and scary in its depiction of how quickly the children of today are forced (and expected?) to grow up.
The problem with authentic-sounding child narrators is that, after a while, they become exhausting and a little annoying (just as you'd get fed up if you had to listen to a child telling the equivalent of a 300-page story, complete with random and irrelevant diversions). I did find Harri tremendously engaging as a character, and laughed out loud at his observations - especially about school - and misinterpretations on a frequent basis. But I thought the story would have been so much better if a variety of viewpoints had been used: if, as well as Harri, we'd been able to hear from his mother, some of the older gang members, Lydia and Miquita, one of the teachers, the police, even the murdered boy. The contributions we hear from 'the piegon' are very well-crafted, so Kelman obviously has the ability to pull this off. There are so many fascinating characters in the book, all of whom undoubtedly would be able to cast a very different light on its events, and it seems a shame to confine the narration to one young character. Harri's naivety and optimism is an effective filter for the brutal circumstances that surround him, but this only works up to a point before it limits the story and becomes quite frustrating. I kept thinking of Simon Lelic's Rupture, which used multiple narrators to explore the issues surrounding a similarly shocking event - a school shooting - with far more effective results.
The ending is also problematic. Without giving away what happens, it's very blunt, unsatisfying and somewhat anticlimatic following the gradual building of tension throughout the prior chapters. I can understand why the author chose to end the book like this, but I felt cheated more than shocked (and I presume the latter was the intended reaction). I also felt the central mystery, initially introduced as the linchpin of the plot, was never satisfactorily resolved and the abrupt change of direction felt like the author was dodging the responsibility of having to deal with this.
In the end, this is a beautifully crafted and convincing narrative which unfortunately feels incomplete without another voice, another perspective, or a properly conclusive ending. Kelman has done enough here that I am pretty certain I will be interested in his future work, but Pigeon English feels like exactly what it is: the debut novel of a young author. I can understand why some complained about this (among others) being on the Booker Prize shortlist, because honestly, it's not on that level at all - although the author may be, someday....more
I’d heard nothing but praise for this book before I started it. Almost all of my Goodreads friends who’ve reviewedIt’s not you, Skippy Dies, it’s me.
I’d heard nothing but praise for this book before I started it. Almost all of my Goodreads friends who’ve reviewed it have given it five stars. Nearly all of the top-rated reviews on Goodreads give it five stars. It was nominated for various awards, including the Booker (well, it was longlisted at least). Apparently, it’s one of Donna Tartt’s favourite books. So you can imagine that I had high hopes for this one, and started it with absolute optimism that it was bound to become a favourite.
The story is set at an Irish Catholic boys' boarding school, Seabrook, and charts the interlocking lives of a number of characters. There's the titular Skippy, aka Daniel Juster, a troubled young boy who - you won't be surprised to learn - dies; his friends, notably the overweight and frighteningly intelligent Ruprecht van Doren; Carl, a drug-addled boy in the year above who is 'in love' with Lori, a student from the neighbouring girls' school, who also happens to be the object of Skippy's affections; Howard, the boys' history teacher, who is obsessed with a female colleague and haunted by memories of a traumatic incident by his own days at Seabrook. The narrative weaves around these characters in a mix of third and second person voices, which vary hugely depending on which character is in the spotlight. It’s all very well-written, incredibly clever, and doesn’t put a foot wrong as far as themes and plotting are concerned. It’s also very amusing - laugh-out-loud funny in places and darkly comic in others.
So what went wrong?
The main barrier was that I liked almost none of the characters. Skippy and Ruprecht are just about the only likeable people in the story. The boys were mostly funny, and definitely true-to-life, but I found the girls horrendous (perhaps they were too reminiscent of people I loathed at that age?), and the adults... I can't emphasise enough how much I detested Howard (appropriately nicknamed 'the Coward'), which was a significant problem since he was the adult protagonist. Aurelie, the object of his affections/lust, was equally infuriating - such a contrived fantasy figure I would have thought she was a figment of Howard's imagination if there hadn't been scenes with other characters speaking to her. Such was my dislike for these characters that I delayed reading for as long as possible whenever I knew a chapter involving them was coming up. Then there's the dreadful headmaster, the positively Satanic Father Green, psychotic Carl, and supporting characters in various shades of horrible. I totally understand that the awfulness of these people is a part of the story (although I'm not convinced I was supposed to hate Howard as much as I did) but for whatever reason, rather than making it entertaining to me, this just made me keep wishing I was reading something else.
I did find that the book picked up towards the end. The description of the boys' changed world following Skippy's death was beautifully done, and I even felt a bit sorry for Howard (despite the fact that he was still being a spineless idiot, and (view spoiler)[I agreed far more with what Greg and Aurelie said to him than with Howard's own viewpoint; and he may have had good intentions in teaching the boys about a forgotten part of their history, but he's supposed to be a TEACHER, and veering so far away from the curriculum - which was mainly just because of his obsession with Aurelie anyway! - was a ridiculous thing to do (hide spoiler)]). The fact that Howard (view spoiler)[didn't end up with Aurelie - THANK GOD - and didn't get Halley back either (hide spoiler)] made me happy. I liked the fact that the ending did everything but tie the story up neatly, even if some of the resolutions were quite horrifying. It's hard not to see the story as an indictment of this type of education, especially since Murray was a student at an all-boys Catholic school himself.
Ultimately I'm finding it difficult to put my finger on what made Skippy Dies such a hard slog to get through (it took me a month and a half to read, almost unheard of for me), which forces me to conclude that the problem is with me as a reader, not the book itself. This book and I just weren't compatible with each other. This was a big reminder that books can't just be sorted into 'good' and 'bad' - there will always be someone who hates even the most revered classic, and there will always be plenty of readers who adore the most dreadful examples of 'literature' imaginable. I'm saying all this because I really do not want to put anyone else off reading Skippy Dies, and apart from the dreadfulness of Howard, I can't find anything really negative to say about it. It simply wasn't right for me.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The Sense of an Ending is currently second favourite to win the 2011 Booker Prize, and it's typical of this sort of heavily lauded, critically acclaimThe Sense of an Ending is currently second favourite to win the 2011 Booker Prize, and it's typical of this sort of heavily lauded, critically acclaimed book. I don't necessarily mean that in a disparaging way, but I've noted before that the formula for award nominations and congratulatory reviews seems to be: well-established author + story featuring an ageing character looking back on events in their own life + much contemplation of the nature and significance of memory. This is a perfect example of the type.
The narrator is Tony Webster, who is now retired and considers his existence to have been, in the main, mediocre and uneventful, but also largely happy. In looking back on the events of his life, Tony returns repeatedly to the friends of his teenage years and the messy end of his first, largely chaste, relationship with the spiky Veronica. He initially presents his recollections of these experiences as largely accurate, but as the story progresses, we learn that all may not be as it appears - not because Tony is an unreliable narrator, at least not the type you normally encounter, but because he has excluded everything he wished to forget from his own memories. When he receives an unexpected and surprising bequest, he is forced to re-examine what he thinks he remembers about Veronica and his friends (particularly the precocious Adrian) and, in the process, begins to reconsider his whole identity, considering how his edited memories may have contributed to his character and choices.
I thought this short novel was beautifully written, and at the beginning I felt instantly compelled to read on. The idea of looking back on youthful friendships later torn apart, and slowly uncovering the reasons for this, is always an appealing one for me. Tony isn't the most likeable character of all time, but he's affable enough; his mediocrity and lack of ambition make him unthreatening, and perhaps easier to relate to than I'd like to admit. However, I was left confused by the ending. I won't go into what happens so as not to spoil it for any prospective readers, but there's a 'revelation' which seemed, to me, very much like a deus ex machina moment, and I didn't think either the event itself or Tony's reaction to it stood up to much analysis - which is perhaps why it had to be delivered right at the very end. (I also really wished Tony wouldn't keep referring to the... thing that he and Veronica would do in lieu of 'full sex'. Despite being far from explicit, it made me feel really queasy.)
Part of me would like to give this a higher rating, but I always have this slight bias against very short books. If they're poor anyway they feel totally pointless, and if they're good - like this one - I can't help but feel a bit cheated that the story wasn't more fleshed out, or that it finished when it did. In this case, I'd have liked to see more of the friends' schooldays and more pages from Adrian's diary, perhaps some of the aftermath of Tony's eventual discovery. That said, I did find Barnes's writing very beguiling, and I'd like to read more by the author at some point....more
I actually bought this book several months ago; a handful of good reviews combined with the setting, Moscow (I've been fascinated with Russia since myI actually bought this book several months ago; a handful of good reviews combined with the setting, Moscow (I've been fascinated with Russia since my teens, and wrote my university dissertation on the Russian presidency) piqued my interest, but somehow I never got around to reading it. I only remembered it after learning that it's one of the thirteen books on the longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize. Billed as 'an intensely riveting psychological drama', Snowdrops follows about a year in the life of Nicholas Platt, an English lawyer living and working in Moscow. A chance encounter with two young women, sisters Masha and Katya, develops into a friendship and, with Masha, a rather one-sided relationship. Nick agrees to help the girls' ageing aunt with the sale of her flat; at work, meanwhile, he is involved in a business deal with a shady character known only as the Cossack. The reader knows from the beginning that something or other is going to go wrong, as Nick narrates his story from a future perspective, and drops occasional hints that all is not as it seems - particularly with regards to Masha. All in all, I started this book feeling very intrigued about what turns the plot might take, and relishing the Russian setting. However, it turned out to be one of the biggest reading disappointments I've had all year.
The first stumbling block was the main character. Nick is far from likeable - immature, judgmental, sexist and sleazy, a grown man who looks down on his own parents; I think he's meant to represent the corrupting influence of modern Russia on a gullible Westerner, but it seemed more likely to me that he just wasn't a very nice person to begin with. At first, I felt his unpleasant attitude to women and apparent lack of experience with them (we learn he's only ever had one relationship, with a girl from university) were surely down to youth. I assumed he was in his mid-twenties at the very oldest, so it was a significant shock when his age was dropped into the narrative and it turned out he was 38! It's clear his 'love' for Masha is more of an obsession, but she does nothing to justify it - she's portrayed throughout as cold and almost characterless. I would have found her more interesting and perhaps even someone I could sympathise with, except there's no meat on the bones of the character. There's no suspense involved in figuring out that she's deluding Nick - it couldn't be more obvious.
The second issue was the narrative structure. For some unknown reason, perhaps in an an attempt to add an extra layer of intrigue to the plot, the author has chosen to relate Nick's tale in the form of a letter to his present-day fiancée, looking back on his time in Moscow. This is problematic on so many levels. The fiancée character isn't so much one-dimensional as nonexistent - I couldn't get any sense of who she was, and the device was so cursory it felt as though it had been tacked on after the rest of the book was already written. Apart from that, the story doesn't work as a letter - there's too much dialogue and detail, and I refuse to believe any man would be so rigorously committed to telling the truth that he'd fill a letter to his current partner with details of threesomes with strippers, how many times he'd paid for sex, how irresistably sexy he found his ex-girlfriend, how he occasionally fantasised about her sister, and so on. This all happened years before he met the fiancée, so it's not as if there's any need for Nick to 'confess', and it's obvious the author just didn't want to leave the sex out of the story and has used the conceit of Nick's absolute honesty to justify its presence. Furthermore, when the book ends with (view spoiler)[Nick lamenting his present 'thin life' and how much he misses Masha and Moscow, (hide spoiler)] it's impossible to understand how on earth he could have ended up becoming engaged to this woman, let alone why he'd bother to sit down and write a lengthy, confessional document to her.
The only thing I really liked about Snowdrops was the setting. The frozen wastes, seedy clubs and shabby flats of Moscow were all evoked well and I enjoyed how the corruption and bribery spawned by Russia's history were shown to have invaded every aspect of the characters' lives. But on the whole, the book isn't particularly well-written (there's a lot of repetition - try counting how many times Nick says 'one of those...' or 'it was, I think, [name of month]') and for a story brimming with degredation and vice, it's somewhat lacking in action. In fact, nothing much happens at all. It can basically be summed up thus: (view spoiler)[some people pretend to be something they're not to get money out of an unpleasant man who thinks with his dick. Big deal! Nicholas isn't even particularly upset or affected by the loss of the money, (hide spoiler)] so the final 'revelations', if they can be called that after the heavy-handed hints dropped throughout the rest of the novel, don't have much impact.
I do generally look upon the Booker as a benchmark of sorts; I've read a number of Booker-nominated novels I haven't liked much, but I have at least generally found them to be high quality, well-crafted and so on. I suppose this must have made it onto the longlist for the same reason Emma Donoghue's horrendously overrated Room was shortlisted last year (though that at least had a bit of media hype and controversial subject matter going for it). I just can't believe the panel would overlook something like Gillespie and I for this! But I suppose that's beside the point. Personally, I wouldn't recommend this book at all, though perhaps other readers with different tastes might get more out of it. It's certainly not the worst thing I've ever read, but even so, I think there's too many other good reads out there for it to be worth the time.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
The only other Alan Hollinghurst book I've read is the beautiful but disturbing Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, which, from what I can gather,The only other Alan Hollinghurst book I've read is the beautiful but disturbing Booker Prize winner The Line of Beauty, which, from what I can gather, is typical of his work. The Stranger's Child, then, is a departure: while homosexuality and gay relationships are a strong theme throughout the book, it is a family saga spanning almost a hundred years - stretching from the eve of the First World War to the present day - and is the first Hollinghurst novel to feature major female characters. Divided into five parts, the book follows several generations of the Sawle and Valance families. Cecil Valance - first introduced as the young lover of George Sawle - is the central figure of The Stranger's Child; a bisexual poet and aesthete, he achieves fame - and creates an impact which will resonate throughout history - with a poem titled "Two Acres", ostensibly a message of ardour directed at George's teeenage sister, Daphne. Daphne is the secondary protagonist, and while Cecil remains frozen in time as an increasingly mythical figure, we follow her through youthful infatuation, marriage, motherhood, family life and old age. Later, a younger character is introduced: Paul Bryant, an aspiring writer whose obsession with Cecil and the two families' entwined histories leads him to pen a speculative, sensational (and in fact remarkably accurate) biography.
I initially found it quite difficult to adapt to the narrative jumps between generations. After the opening, which I instantly loved, I struggled to get used to the second section. But by the time this ended, I had become so involved that I hated the next skip forward in time. However, by the end I was glad this device had been used; to see the impact of these characters on their descendants near to a century later gives the story a uniquely insightful feel. You really get the sense not only that you've genuinely known these people, but that you've travelled through time to see how the echoes of their thoughts, feelings and actions have reverberated down the years. Hollinghurst is clearly a fan of keeping the reader guessing - each of the sections opens in such a way that makes everything a complete mystery at first, with the truth gradually revealed; there are some witty red herrings in the narrative too, and the dates of each event are never actually given, just subtly implied through cultural changes, topics of conversation, the characters' manners and clothes.
Because the story takes leaps through time, it's impossible for me to discuss the plot in any detail without giving away significant spoilers - so I won't. However, I do really want to talk about how much I loved the party scene in the second section of the book. It's an absolute masterclass in writing; I actually don't understand how Hollinghurst managed to write it in such a way, as if you are there with the characters as they move from room to room, in the thick of the action, experiencing the confusion of drunken fragments of conversation and the disorientation caused by interaction between a number of people with disparate goals and desires. It's breathtakingly filmic and one of the most impressive and memorable scenes I have read in any book in recent memory. Surely, surely, a television adaptation of this novel must already have been mooted. Fans of Downton Abbey and the like would absolutely lap it up.
This was a slow, leisurely read rather than a compulsive one, but for all that I enjoyed it immensely. I was immediately drawn in by the first two sections, which bear what I'm sure is a deliberate resemblance to Brideshead Revisited; the period, the relationship between George and Cecil, the significance of the two families' houses ("Two Acres" and Corley Court, the latter clearly the book's Brideshead). I thought the book sagged in the middle somewhat, and the introduction of Paul was troublesome - he isn't likeable, though this is necessary for his character to work - but the plot gained momentum in the last few chapters and I found myself captivated by Paul's race to uncover the 'truth'. The short final section wrapped things up neatly - I enjoyed the fact that we see members of yet another new generation still obsessed by Cecil, suggesting that this will always continue while the man himself will remain an unknowable enigma. Therefore, the ending itself, in which (view spoiler)[Cecil's missing letters remain lost - perhaps forever, (hide spoiler)], seems a fitting conclusion even as it is a little frustrating. I didn't want the book to end, and I wished more time could have been spent on the final section - I understand that Paul's introduction was necessary as a bridge between the generations, but I think it could have been done with more brevity.
It's a real shame The Stranger's Child was excluded from this year's Booker shortlist, and I can't help but feel it's been snubbed precisely because it seemed like such an obvious choice. Though both were very good and neither perfect, I think The Stranger's Child has the edge over The Line of Beauty; its scope and ambition make it both more appealing and more resonant. I didn't fall head over heels in love with the book, but nevertheless, I believe it's worth the hype.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I seem to have read a lot of books like this recently - stories about memory and loss, recalling various unconnected events from one's life, reflectinI seem to have read a lot of books like this recently - stories about memory and loss, recalling various unconnected events from one's life, reflecting on the power of remembrance and nostalgia. These books are generally very well-received and have often won awards; it sometimes feels like the combination of these themes with florid language is a foolproof formula for critical acclaim. In this case, our narrator is Max, an middle-aged man who, mourning his wife, returns to a seaside town he visited as a child. There he recalls one particular summer which found him becoming entranced by a well-off family, the Graces, staying in the same resort. The narrative constantly switches between the present day and that summer, as well as visiting other significant events in Max's life; thoughts of his parents, scenes from his wife's physical decline. His obsession with the Grace family, however, dominates, particularly his fascination with twins Chloe and Myles and his sexual awakening in the form of a crush on their mother Connie.
While I found this book to be full of gorgeous prose (Banville's writing is often called 'sumptuous', and I think this is an accurate description), it totally failed to capture my interest. There isn't much of a plot, which I don't think should necessarily be an issue with a book like this, but nothing else about the story is exciting or resonant enough to compensate for it. The story of the Graces has a tragic ending, but a weirdly anticlimatic one, perhaps because nothing seems like it's actually going to lead to anything dramatic. I also felt there was an unpleasantly sexist tone to Max's narrative, and with stories like this one, it's always impossible to know whether such things are intentional or not. There was just something about the way every woman's physical appearance was analysed and critiqued in great detail, while the male characters were barely described, that irked me. The actual descriptions themselves, often making the women sound repulsive (Max writes about being disappointed in his adult daughter Claire's unattractiveness and speculates that she is probably still a virgin) and focusing heavily on smell and bodily excretions, also seem somewhat misogynistic. Or, if not that, just generally unpleasant anyway.
In many ways The Sea reminded me of Anne Enright's The Gathering - both are set in Ireland, both deal with the aftermath of a loved one's death and involve extensive recollection/reconstruction of memories from childhood and family history, both are written in a flowing lyrical style that cuts between past and present, and both won the Booker prize. However, I found Enright's novel much more engaging, and comparisons with it only serve to make this seem even less satisying. A beautifully crafted piece of writing, but one that left me cold....more