‘Astha was brought up properly, as befits a woman, with large supplements of fear.’
Astha is an obedient middle-class girl growing up in Delhi during t‘Astha was brought up properly, as befits a woman, with large supplements of fear.’
Astha is an obedient middle-class girl growing up in Delhi during the 1970s. Her father wants her educated; her mother wants her to be settled into a safe, arranged marriage. While Astha’s family is not wealthy, they have hopes for the future. While Astha meets some males herself, and has a little more experience that her mother realises, she eventually agrees to an arranged marriage. Hemant seems kind enough.
‘She was a bride, and her grip of Hemant’s hand grew more certain, and the blush on her face more conscious.’ Astha has two children, and a job at a primary school, and for a while seems perfectly happy. She also paints. If the physical nature of her marriage has changed, this is not initially of great concern. Both Astha and Hemant are busy.
‘Life was shaping up nicely, with her mind and heart gainfully employed.’
But then Astha becomes involved in a theatre troupe run by Aijaz, a politically active man. This leads Astha to become more politically and socially aware, and she also begins to see her painting as something more than a genteel hobby.
‘Somewhere along the way Hemant’s attitude to Astha changed.’
As a consequence of growing community unrest, Aijaz and his theatre troupe are burned alive in their van one night. Astha joins the crowds in protest. Some months later she meets Aijaz’s widow Pipee, and they are drawn together. Fondness becomes love, friendship becomes complicated.
‘Why was it, thought Astha wearily, that love always had to be balanced by its opposite?’
Astha’s story unfolds slowly throughout this novel, details of her daily life serve to add depth to her development as a woman, to her frustrations and choices. By the end of the novel, Astha is a complex and complicated character, neither free of convention nor entirely entrapped within it. By trying to put the needs of others first, by being unable to celebrate her own achievements, Astha seems unable to completely take control of her own destiny.
‘She wanted to say yes, I have done it, I have sold my first painting, I have achieved something, let us celebrate, but the number of ‘I’s’ involved ensured that the words refused to leave her mind.’
This novel has stayed with me. Ms Kapur has managed to incorporate the stresses and tensions between the ties of tradition and the possibilities afforded by a more progressive life. The choices are not oversimplified: a progressive western education does not make it easy to move beyond the traditional, nor does visiting America. Life is more than culture, geography and history. Life is full of compromises. A thought provoking novel: well worth reading.
‘A trip abroad would be nice, no matter whom one loved and whom one left behind.’
‘You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.’
From the moment Guinevere Beck walks into the bookstore‘You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn’t slam.’
From the moment Guinevere Beck walks into the bookstore where Joe Goldberg works, he is smitten.
‘I really just go by Beck. Guinevere’s kinda long and ridiculous, you know?’
Joe is obsessed by Beck, totally fixated on her, and pursues her any way he can. Joe is convinced that they are perfect for each other. If only Beck’s other friends and acquaintances would get out of his way. If only other distractions could be minimised. As I travelled further with Joe (this is his first person account, after all) I learned more about Joe’s life and a lot – through Joe’s obsessive viewpoint - about Beck. And the deeper I travelled, the more horrified I became. Not just about Joe’s obsession, but also about how easy it is to obtain information about individuals, especially those connected to various social media and who share lots of information about their lives in those fora. And not just to obtain information, but to impersonate others and disseminate false information. To enter someone else’s world, and shape it. As Beck’s world is torn apart, she turns to Joe. And Joe wants ever more control.
‘Full of disclaimers, you’re like a warning label on a pack of cigarettes.’
I found it difficult to stop reading this novel: I wanted to know what would happen next, and how. Joe’s mind is a disturbing place to be and a difficult place to try to escape. He’s clever, dangerous and devious and people keep handing him the tools of their downfall. Yes, Joe will kill to obtain his objectives.
‘Life is not a Dan Brown book; you are dead and you are not coming back.’
To me, this novel is a psychological thriller about the dark side of obsessive ‘love’ and the potential dangers of life writ large on social media. Joe is an appropriately complicated character: capable of appearing normal in public while his internal monologue makes it clear that his reality is dangerously abnormal. And how does it all end? Sorry, you’ll need to read the novel to find out for yourself. Just don’t expect a happy ending.
‘Suspense is good for people. It makes us stronger.’
‘ “Well? Did he do it?” The least interesting question anyone could possibly ask.’
On Father’s Day in 2005, Robert Farquharson drove his old Holden Com‘ “Well? Did he do it?” The least interesting question anyone could possibly ask.’
On Father’s Day in 2005, Robert Farquharson drove his old Holden Commodore into a dam in Victoria. He escaped, his three young sons Jai (10), Tyler (7) and Bailey (2) drowned. Was it an accident? Or was it deliberate? Farquharson claimed that he had a coughing fit that rendered him unconscious, but he was found guilty of murder.
‘I mean, I mean, what sort of thing’s going to happen to me now?’
Ms Garner’s focus in this book is not on the details of the deaths of the three boys, instead she focusses on the sad, failed relationship between their parents: Robert Farquharson and Cindy Gambino. Ms Garner sat through the various trials held over a number of years, with her knitting and the teenaged daughter of a friend as her most frequent companions. She followed the trial from Farquharson’s initial court appearance in Geelong, to his failed appeal to the High Court in 2013.
Like so many of us who followed the case at the time, Ms Garner struggled with the reality of a father taking the lives of his three sons in what seems to be revenge on his ex-wife.
Farquharson was twice found guilty of the murders of Jai, Tyler and Bailey, but it’s still hard to accept, especially if Farquharson loved his sons as he claimed. The boys died a horrible death by drowning. What loving parent could do that?
Robert Farquharson was angry with his wife for leaving him for another man, and for taking the ‘good’ car. Ten months later, Jai, Tyler and Bailey are drowned. This is a difficult case: we wanted (needed?) to believe that Robert Farquharson was innocent, and that the deaths of the boys was a horrible accident. Instead of duty, love and protection for his sons, Robert Farquharson seems to have been consumed by hatred and revenge of his ex-wife. He now has three life sentences, with a minimum 33 years in prison, ahead of him.
There are no answers here, only possible explanations and unanswered questions.
‘The writing of this book was not always a labor of love.’
This is a book about the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr David Gurewitsch, her p‘The writing of this book was not always a labor of love.’
This is a book about the friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr David Gurewitsch, her personal physician and friend, during the last fifteen years of Mrs Roosevelt’s life. This account is written by David’s wife Edna and draws on both the diaries David kept and the hundreds of letters that he and Mrs Roosevelt exchanged over the years of their friendship. In 1962, in one of her letters to Dr Gurewitsch, Mrs Roosevelt had written: ‘Above all others you are the one to whom my heart is tied.’ Theirs was an intense relationship: they often travelled and entertained together and, after his marriage to Edna in February 1958, the three of them bought and lived in a town house in Manhattan which they divided into two separate apartments.
Mrs Gurewitch provides a unique perspective on their private friendship: she has her own memories of each of them as well as their voluminous correspondence and Dr Gurewitsch’s diaries. She writes that:
‘As a physician, David had private recognition, but he craved public approval. Mrs Roosevelt had public recognition, but she craved intimacy. Each satisfied the other’s hunger for acceptance. It was a fair exchange.’
She writes as well that:
‘Despite the closeness of their bond, evidenced in her extremely caring letters to him, David and Mrs Roosevelt were never lovers. Indeed, the tragedy of this superior woman was that she never had the absolute, intimate love of a man.’
The Eleanor Roosevelt who appears through the pages of this book is a kind and generous woman, interested in others, but also lonely and vulnerable, sometimes jealous and sometimes apparently overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. And yet, despite these insecurities, Mrs Roosevelt was able to make an enormous contribution to the USA (and the world). A woman born in the late nineteenth century, living through times when few women had any significant role in public life, Mrs Roosevelt seems to have met many challenges of the 20th century with courage and dignity.
‘The profound contrast between Mrs Roosevelt’s dependence upon receiving love and her considerable awareness of the power of her capabilities – the bottomless neediness that coexisted with her enormous strength – never ceases to amaze me.’
While this book was primarily about David Gurewitsch and Eleanor Roosevelt, I find myself wondering about the impact of their close friendship on Edna Gurewitsch’s life as David’s wife. It is often true that while two is company, three is a crowd.
I enjoyed reading this book: it offered me a different and human perspective of Eleanor Roosevelt. Edna Gurewitsch writes: ‘She was one of the few people in this world in which greatness and modesty coexisted’.
In 2037, Jackson (sometimes called Jack) Riley aged just 19 is orphaned when his father Alexander dies of an aggres‘Immortality is a sensitive topic.’
In 2037, Jackson (sometimes called Jack) Riley aged just 19 is orphaned when his father Alexander dies of an aggressive cancer. Jackson has a girlfriend, Nicole. On his father’s death, Jackson becomes a billionaire. He realises just how fleeting life can be.
Fast forward to 2052: Jackson meets his friend Arsen (an artist) once a month to play chess, and they talk (a little) about the medical research Jackson is funding in his quest to discover immortality. Jackson’s obsession has alienated Nicole, although he hopes to win her back once he has the key to immortality. But others are also interested in Jackson’s work, and even if he does find what he’s looking for it may not bring him the happiness he is after.
This story is both too long and too short. It’s too long for a short story, it’s not tight enough to work as a novella, and not long enough for a novel. There are some interesting passages, but the characters are not developed enough to carry the story. The narrative moves backwards and forwards between the past and the present which serves to fracture the narrative flow rather than create suspense. For me, action is not a good substitute for story development. I’m still shaking my head over the fate of poor David Ambroise and his rocket launcher.
I liked elements of the story, but not enough to recommend it.
Note: I was sent a copy of this novella for review purposes.
Poor John Yee. Having been the victim of Glenn Gillman’s practical jokes in the past, he decided it was ti‘John Yee died because of a practical joke,’
Poor John Yee. Having been the victim of Glenn Gillman’s practical jokes in the past, he decided it was time to return the favour. Who would have thought it would be fatal?
‘It is ironic that a man who didn’t understand the concept of humour was murdered playing a practical joke.’
But Glenn Gillman himself has run into a spot of bother with his practical jokes. It may be that the restaurant manager died accidently, but that could be a little hard to explain when his body goes missing. Especially if it’s in the boot of your car and the car is stolen.
‘He sighed. The only way he was going to get a car was if he stole one’.
So, who stole Glenn’s car, and when will the body be discovered? In the meantime, Glenn heads out of town with his girlfriend, Charity, while Carl Hamilton (a man with some serious issues of his own) has hired someone to get rid of a few people for him.
‘I am a man to be reckoned with!’
Jeff Norburn’s debut novel is full of black, bleak humour and fascinating, flawed characters. And just how will the different story lines come together? Will the car thief outwit the contract killer? Will Glenn’s girlfriend understand what he’s done? And will Glenn ever get his Mustang back?
I enjoyed this novel, with its laugh-out-loud moments, its humour and its action-packed twists and turns. And, while weakly resisting some seriously bad puns of my own about the meat of the story, and beefs with authority, there’s a deeper message here about taking responsibility – if you survive. No bull.
‘They both knew what they had to do. It was their duty after all to protect the national security of their country.’
On 10 January 2008, Grace Bryant i‘They both knew what they had to do. It was their duty after all to protect the national security of their country.’
On 10 January 2008, Grace Bryant is waiting to board Alaska Airlines Flight 874 to Washington from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. This is to be Grace’s last flight as a Federal Air Marshal: she’s been promoted to Special Agent in Charge of the Seattle Field Office, and will take over her new role after this flight. While she’s waiting she sees on the national news that President Bush has met with the Israeli Prime Minister and hopes to draft an agreement that will finally end the violence in Israel. Amongst the other passengers, Grace notices three Middle Eastern men. Two other Federal Air Marshals are also travelling on the flight: Grace’s long-time friend and colleague Justin Cole and a new team member: Andrew Cole. The flight is full.
Ninety minutes into the flight, Grace learns that Israel is not going along with President Bush’s plan, and that violence has broken out in Gaza and on the West Bank. At the same time as Grace is learning this, one of the Middle Eastern passengers she noticed earlier has moved near the cockpit door and stabs a flight attendant who tells him to return to his seat. A man who tries to help the attendant is shot. Grace is able to alert the pilot.
How many terrorists are there, and what arms do they have? Can the Air Marshals prevail? Grace is at the rear of the plane, some distance from her seat and from her weapon.
‘Grace couldn’t come up with the correct plan because she wasn’t sure what his motivation was. What did he want out of this?’
Grace survives the attack, but there are many questions to be answered before she can move on with her life. The trauma of the experience is part of it, but knowing who and trying to understand why is important to Grace, even if it causes other disruptions in her life.
The novel moves between different aspects in the lead up to the attack, during the attack, and afterwards. The shifts are clearly signalled and although it is disconcerting at times to move from one aspect to another, it is not confusing. There are a couple of twists in the tale, and while some procedural aspects seemed unlikely to me, it didn’t stop me enjoying the story.
Note: I was offered and accepted a copy of the novel for review purposes.
‘Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’. That was natural; she was dreaming.’
Elderly and widowed, living on her own in an‘Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’. That was natural; she was dreaming.’
Elderly and widowed, living on her own in an isolated house on a beach on the east coast of Australia, Ruth Field senses a tiger prowling around her house. She rings her son Jeffrey in New Zealand to tell him. This may only be a flight of fancy, or is it a harbinger of greater danger ahead?
The next morning, a woman appears at Ruth’s home: ‘My name is Frida Young, and I’m here to look after you.’ Frida has, she says, been sent by the government as a carer to help Ruth with cleaning and cooking. Jeffrey, on the telephone from New Zealand, is wants to see the paperwork but is delighted about what he considers to be a good use of taxpayer funds.
And so Frida, who arrives each morning with a different hairstyle (and sometimes colour) brings Ruth back from an essentially solitary life, providing help and companionship. Frida looks Fijian to Ruth, and this reminds her of her childhood with her missionary parents in Fiji, and of her first love: Richard. She gets in touch with Richard, and invites him to visit for a weekend. When Richard visits, Ruth discovers that Frida has moved into her spare room: the room that her son Phillip once used. Ruth doesn’t remember inviting Frida to move in, but Frida is adamant that she did.
It’s clear that Ruth’s memory is worsening, and while her memory of the past is clear there are gaps in her memory of the immediate past and holes are developing in the present. Is Frida changing, or is it Ruth’s perception of her? Is Frida protecting her, or exploiting her?
‘There’s some sense in not going back. That way, you preserve it.’
Frida is a larger than life character who works hard to earn Ruth’s trust. But there’s a sense that Frida is not what she seems, and Ruth is very vulnerable.
I could not put this book down. Even though I had a fair idea of what might happen, the ending is heartbreaking. Ms McFarlane does a wonderful job of creating two very different characters: the vulnerable Ruth and the seemingly confident Frida, of reminding us how fragile connections can be. It also reminded me that the elderly are particularly vulnerable when they live alone. This is the kind of discomforting novel which you admire for its writing rather than enjoy for its content. And which may dwell in your mind long after you’ve finished it.
‘Did it work that way? Did people set out in one direction and end up going another?’
January Winston is a mother of two, hoping to establish her own b‘Did it work that way? Did people set out in one direction and end up going another?’
January Winston is a mother of two, hoping to establish her own business with the help of $250,000 - money that she and her current boyfriend/fiancé George scammed from a previous employer. But January’s life is turned upside down when she is attacked in her own home. Her attacker, Rey Parsons, has already spent time in prison. He’s paranoid and angry, sometimes confused, and doesn’t always remember to take his medication. January doesn’t identify Rey in a police line-up, and he’s released. While both January and George consider seeking revenge, George becomes obsessed by it. And in the meantime, January’s life starts to fall apart. By contrast, Rey gets a job in a telephone company, and becomes successful.
The story moves between January and Rey, and backwards and forwards in time which enables the reader to get some sense of who January and Rey are, and were. Can January find happiness and success, and will it include George? Are January’s parents a help, or a hindrance? Will Rey have to answer for his actions, or can a changed (more productive) life atone for the past?
‘Time did and did not pass. That was the simple fact of it.’
There are no blameless heroes in this story, but it’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for both January and Rey. It’s quite an accomplishment for an author to create such flawed characters who are not (at least in my reading) completely beyond redemption. But are they redeemed? It’s difficult to know. The structure of the novel is challenging because of the shifts in time and between the characters breaks the flow of the story. But if you can accommodate these fractures in the story, you may well enjoy this novel. I kept wondering about alternate sequences of self, of different lives for both January and Rey. And despite the fact that I liked neither character very much, they appear to have taken up temporary residence in my mind. At least, I hope it is a temporary residence.
It is 1785, and France is on the brink of revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, ‘a disciple of Voltaire’, dream‘Who are you? I am Jean-Baptiste Baratte.’
It is 1785, and France is on the brink of revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, ‘a disciple of Voltaire’, dreams of a bright future. Baratte is an engineer with some experience in mining, and considers himself fortunate when he is awarded a government commission. He travels to the palace of Versailles and through a maze of rooms to find out what is required of him.
‘The palace is a game but he is tired of playing it.’
Eventually, Baratte finds the person he is looking for, and the task for which he has been engaged? Jean-Baptiste Baratte is ordered to exhume the vast and ancient cemetery known as Les Innocents. A subterranean wall separating the necropolis from the city of the living has collapsed, and is creating problems for those who live near the cemetery. Candles are being extinguished, food is being tainted by the smell of putrefaction. And it’s possibly corrupting the young as well, by way of causing ‘moral disturbances’. Cleaning up the mess could be a grand existential battle between dark and light, but the idealistic and pragmatic Baratte can take pride in sweeping away the poisonous influence of the past. Baratte’s first tour of Les Innocents reveals that the cemetery’s church is rotting from the inside out. The parishioners may have moved on, but there are others who live amongst the ruins, and they will be part of the challenge.
‘Over Paris, the stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky.’ It will take Baratte a year to clear away the past and make way for the future. He employs a crew of 30 miners with his old friend Lecoeur to oversee the excavation. None of them realise quite how difficult this excavation will be. There’s a seemingly endless stream of corpses to be managed, and removed under cover of night so as not to disturb the locals.
‘A day’s difficulty can be measured by the amount of strong liquor necessary to endure it.’
The work changes Baratte in a number of ways, he loses his assurance and his sense of self. The cemetery becomes a form of hell, with huge fires burning to clear the air while bones are piled in heaps before they can be moved. Baratte becomes less practical, more susceptible to impulse. Why else would he trade his sensible brown jacket for a suit in a pistachio green silk? It’s madness, and soon he can’t sleep unaided. The year will pass, but who will Jean-Baptiste Baratte be at the end of it?
‘Who are you? Asked the doctor. He is Adam alone in the garden. He is Lazarus rousted out of his tomb, one life separated from another by a slack of darkness.’
While I was reading this book I often felt lost in Les Innocents, contaminated by the dust and the smell. When I finished the book, I admired what Andrew Miller achieved in it. The contrasts between life in Versailles, and life in and around Les Innocents, Baratte’s experiences (good and bad), those people torn between past and future. It’s not an easy read, and nor is it particularly entertaining. But it has its own lingering impact.
‘Can a childhood filled with violence and pain be transformed into one filled with strength, love and freedom?’
According to UNICEF (as quoted in this‘Can a childhood filled with violence and pain be transformed into one filled with strength, love and freedom?’
According to UNICEF (as quoted in this book’s description), growing up with domestic violence is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, affecting more than one billion people. What are the impacts on those children who survive to adulthood? Is it possible to (somehow) move beyond those impacts, and break out of what can so often become a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse? When we think of abuse, we often think of physical violence. But abuse takes many forms, and the effects of abuse are not always obvious.
‘For a child, witnessing domestic violence is as psychologically damaging as being physically abused.’
In this book, Brian Martin (himself a survivor of abuse) sets out to uncover the ten lies that abused children learn to believe (including how the abuse is their fault and their sense of guilt for not being able to save others). Each chapter addresses one of these lies, and includes a path from the lie to its corresponding truth. What I particularly like about Mr Martin’s approach is that he provides an explanation for why (and how) the lie becomes accepted as truth. For example, we believe as children that we are responsible for the violence we lived with because while the emotional brain is fully developed, the neocortex (the logical thinking centre of the brain) is not fully developed until adulthood. Over time, this belief becomes ‘true’ and we do not challenge it.
‘Guilt driven people are manipulated by memories. They allow their past to control their future.’
While those interested in (but not personally directly affected by) domestic violence as children may be able to read this book straight through, I’d recommend that domestic violence survivors deal with one chapter at a time, and undertake the exercises suggested in each chapter, before moving to the next chapter. While each chapter is important and has its own wisdom to impart, for me the reading order is less important than tackling and completing one chapter at a time. And, for some of us, it may well be necessary to revisit some chapters more than once.
There is hope in this book: the possibility of learning how to break out of negative (and self-destructive) cycles. For me personally, a key phrase is that: ‘Between a stimulus and a response there is a gap in time.’ And that gap provides an opportunity to consider which response might be most appropriate (for you) to the stimulus. You may not be able to change the stimulus, but there may be a more appropriate response to it.
I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about their fellow human beings. If you were fortunate enough not to suffer as a consequence of childhood domestic violence, this book will help you to better understand some of the actions of those who have. If you have suffered, this book will provide you with some very useful tools for taking control of your life rather than reacting to the pain of your past. It takes courage to make changes.
Note: My review is based on an uncorrected galley proof which was provided to me prior to publication.
‘They’re like the pieces in a mosaic: until they’re all set in place, there’s no clear picture.’
Set in Crete, ‘The Threshing Circle’ involves betrayal‘They’re like the pieces in a mosaic: until they’re all set in place, there’s no clear picture.’
Set in Crete, ‘The Threshing Circle’ involves betrayal, kidnapping, murder, revenge and vendetta. While mostly set in 2004, this particular cycle of blood began in 1942, during the German occupation when a young woman named Marianna was murdered. In 2004, a young couple named Patrick and Eleni arrive on Crete – as tourists they say – but they seem very interested in the story of Marianna’s execution. When they disappear Kirsty, the expatriate Scotswoman who runs a kafenion and who has befriended them, is concerned. Those who remember Marianna see that Eleni resembles her, and a number of them have their own reasons for not wanting to revisit the past. In a reluctant allegiance with a local man, the intriguing and irritating, Barba Yiorgos, Kirsty tries to find them.
‘But sometimes there is nothing trivial about vendetta. Sometimes the cycle of blood must flow.’
There are a number of different angles to this fast moving story, and it isn’t until near the end that all of the pieces will fall into place. In the meantime, there’s a sense of great urgency. Patrick and Eleni are surely in danger, but where are they? And which stories, of those told to Kirsty, are true? Who can she trust? Is Kirsty also in danger, and what about Barba Yiorgos? There’s a fascinating cast of characters in this novel: some are good, some are evil, and some seem magical. Crete itself is central to this story with its famous monasteries, abandoned villages and long-lived hatreds.
‘Timing is everything.’
I found this a difficult novel to put down: each of the different strands of the story had me hooked. It’s difficult to say more without introducing spoilers, and I’m trying to avoid that. Suffice to say, the ending took my breath away and I’d hate to ruin that experience for another reader. This is a novel in which characters represent the best, and the worst of humankind. There is beauty and nobility, violence and ugliness. Oh, and one day I’d like to visit Crete for myself.
Note: I was offered and accepted a copy of this novel for review purposes. I am glad that I did.
In Russia, profoundly in the grip of Stalin during the 1930s, the Devil visits two atheists. Add to the‘Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?’
In Russia, profoundly in the grip of Stalin during the 1930s, the Devil visits two atheists. Add to the mix an assassin, a black cat, Jesus, Pontius Pilate and a naked witch and you have the main ingredients of one of the most amazing novels of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to try to write a coherent review of this novel: it’s a little like trying to fit together pieces of an abstract puzzle.
‘It can’t be! He doesn’t exist!’
There are three distinct elements: Professor Woland’s discussion with Berlioz and the poet known as Bezdomny about the existence of Jesus, the section involving the Master and his lover Margarita, and a novel about Pontius Pilate. The link between this elements? Well, the Devil (in the guise of Professor Woland) challenges Berlioz and Bezdomny’s concepts of atheism, which leads the conversation to the novel about Pilate which was written by the Master.
‘Intelligent people, however, become intelligent by solving complicated problems.’
Simple, right? Only because Mikhail Bulgakov was such an accomplished writer. Action then shifts between Jerusalem, where Pilate wants to free Jesus but has no choice, and Moscow where Berlioz dies, and Bezdomny (whose real name is Ivan) is taken to an asylum. Ivan’s neighbour in the asylum is another writer, known only as the Master. As we shift between Jerusalem and Moscow, the stories start to converge. And when Woland hosts a grand ball with Margarita as his hostess and then grants her a wish, the Master and Margarita are eventually reunited.
No, these words do not do this wonderfully complex, multi-layered story justice. It’s inventive and satirical, it’s brilliant on so many different levels. The book was written between 1928 and 1940, but was not published until 1967. I really don’t understand why it took me until 2014 to read it for the first time.
‘But what happened in Moscow after sunset on that Saturday evening when Woland and his followers left the capital and vanished from Sparrow Hills?’
‘The mussels sat silently in the bowl; they were dead.’
A mother and her two children, a son and a daughter, are waiting for the father to come home. T‘The mussels sat silently in the bowl; they were dead.’
A mother and her two children, a son and a daughter, are waiting for the father to come home. The mother has prepared an enormous bowl of mussels. While she doesn’t like them very much herself, they are her husband’s favourite dish and so she has spent a long time scrubbing the mussels in cold water. The family waits: he is usually home at six o’clock. He is not home at six o’clock, and while the family waits we learn more about the father and his role in this family mainly through the thoughts of his daughter.
‘It’s astonishing how people react when the routine is disturbed, a tiny delay to the normal schedule and at once everything is different – and I mean everything: the moment a random event occurs, however insignificant, people who were once stuck together fall apart, all hell breaks loose and they tear each other’s heads off, still alive if possible; terrible violence and slaughter, the fiercest wars ensue because, by pure accident, not everything is normal. Broadly speaking, that’s what happened.’
As we wait with the family (where is this father, and why is he late?) the other family members become more alive and step slightly outside the roles they seem to have assumed within the family when the father is present. Time ticks by: perhaps he’s not coming home, but will anyone really care? He has been critical of his wife and of his children, he is inflexible and seems to be uncaring. But in his wife’s words:
‘There is much goodness in him, and he is as noble as a man without real love can be.’
This is a powerful novella. We are left to do our own thinking and form our own conclusions about this family and especially the father’s role. Early anxiety – about making sure that everything is just right for when he returns – decreases as the wife and the children seem to become more relaxed (and how can this be?). And we readers are drawn into the scene: wondering about the father and why he is late, and his impact on his wife and each of his children. We don’t meet the father in person, but by the end of the novella I don’t like him any more than I like the mussels.
In fewer than 120 pages, Ms Vanderbeke creates a story that expands beyond the situation she has described. It took less than two hours to read this novella, but I’m still thinking about the characters. Wondering about the father, and about what happened once the final page was read. Thinking that there has to be more to it.