Over the course of my last few reviews I've been considering the role of the author as narrator and as character, and the degree to which authorial insertion is, to the mind of the reader, assumed to be inalienable. In large part this has been inspired by the narrator character--who is, perhaps, the author himself--in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and his/her thoughts regarding the use of characters as an author's possible selves.
The idea has continued to haunt me, and in my reading recently I've been pondering the inextricability of the author and their work. I do think that there's a winking fallaciousness to Kundera's statement, and it's to do with the slippery slope and extrapolation that's inherent in the idea of possibility. There are, obviously, degrees of remoteness involved in all of this. An author might create a character who is in every way the author's image (or at least as near as possible--the character can never be the author, but only ever a facsimile of the author). This would be an example of a close possible self. Of course, an author might create someone who is their polar opposite, but for all this dichotomy, this character would still remain a possible self, merely a distant one. After all, it's impossible to write without using oneself as a reference.
However, I do think that there is a tendency for readers, unless told otherwise, to see an author's characters as close possible selves. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, which I'm presently reading, says, "though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth character counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth." I think that this is particularly true of narrator characters. (For an example of this, you need only see my lack of certainty above regarding the identity of the narrator character in the Kundera.)
Where, of course, this conflation of author and character becomes a problem is when the character exhibits morally questionable traits.
I read with interest some months ago an interview with Junot Diaz regarding his writing of a misogynistic character in such a way that he as an author would not be seen as tacitly condoning the character's sexism, but that would not signpost his own beliefs in such a way that it would break into the narrative:
"If it's too brutal and too obvious then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this....For kind of sophisticated art I'm interested in the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don't think makes for good literature."
This line of moral ambiguity is one along which Nabokov carefully treads in his masterpiece Lolita, and throughout the book we see a careful distancing of author, narrator, and even character in order to achieve a separation of author and work. That the novel is bookended by an explanatory, absolving foreword from a fictional character posing as the author, and an afterword by Nabokov himself speaks volumes; there is also further distance created in my edition (The Everyman's Library edition) by the inclusion of a lengthy introductory essay. We see an additional obscuring of identity and therefore of self by the fact that Humbert is itself a pseudonym, as is the surname "Haze", given to Lolita and her family. These structural elements are probably the most overt attempts at separating the author and work, but Lolita is rife with them.
Take, for example, the book's self-consciously literary approach, with its three-act structure and its narrative artifice. The various deaths and disappearances of Humbert's lovers feel deliberate and unnatural, carefully shoehorned into the plot to create a sense of the created rather than the naturally arising. Characters and situations appear as obstacles or illustrative points less than they do organic explorations of real life, the effect resulting in a sort of moral cushioning, particularly when we consider the book as being framed within the context of the introductory foreword from a "John Ray Jr, PhD", with its placatory remarks about the text being a "lesson" or a "warning".
Beyond the higher level structural elements, however, we have those occurring at the character and prose level, and it's here that Nabokov plies his authorial genius, driving a stunningly wrought sentence-level wedge between the writer and the written. The book hums with a note of critique, with what feels like a misalignment between Humbert's predatory waywardness and the author's own moral code.Even at his most sincere, Humbert's account reads with a dissonance, with a careening madness that positions him as pitiable and unhinged, an egocentric individual whose myopic obsession transforms him into a figure to be mocked, one who is incapable of being taken seriously. He is a pathetic figure, a man who is obsolete, lost in a fusty history and a tumult of justification and self-deception, scarcely capable of existing in the present day. With his old-fashioned mannerisms and language, he is disconnected from reality, and approaches the world in a strangely cerebral, removed manner. This is characterisation by careful design: we are warned, cleverly, by a subtle authorial hand, against connecting with him.
And of course, finally, there's the elegant de-eroticisation of Humbert's relationship with Lolita, and of Lolita herself. There's something grotesque and impersonal about Humbert's obsession with Lolita: rather than being the actual object of his desire, she is simply a sort of sexual golem upon whom he applies a general sense of deviancy. His descriptions of her are ugly and garish: "her toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of adhesive tape across her big toe", he writes early on, and these descriptions grow no more beautiful over time--"monkeyish" seems to be his most commonly tapped adjective. There's a sense of appalling ugliness and baseness applied not just to Lolita, but to Humbert's courtship of her, and it's hard not to assume a degree of approbation emanating from Nabokov's pen throughout. This, to me, at least, is perhaps most evident in the searingly illusive, deeply figurative prose, a descriptive sleight of hand that misdirects the reader's eye away from the flinching carnality of the narrative and instead to the breathtaking richness of language.
All too aware of the danger of author-narrator conflation, Nabokov seems to be seeking solace in the diffuse wadding of the poetic, allowing himself to drift in the layered ambiguity surrounding the possible self, creating narrative buffers that prevent him from plunging headlong into the fraught waters of the character-as-self, and allowing him to tell the story that needs to be told. All characters may be linked back to their creator, but, Lolita reminds us, it is dangerous to assume that all characters are a close possible self.(less)
What happens but once might as well not have happened at all…
The story that I am asked to tell most often is how I met my husband, a story that is notable for the coincidence that it involves. We met, of course, in two different venues in a single night. Without exception, people seem to see this story as something involving fate.
But what if we’d met only once?
If I’m to be honest, this is a question that has haunted me for years now, and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, already widely regarded as a modern classic, has resulted in my exploring the idea a good deal further.
Like the circumstances behind how I met my own husband, the meeting between key characters Tomas and Tereza is one steeped in chance and coincidence. Although each of these chance events on their own is meaningless and trivial enough—the repetition of certain numbers, situational happenstance—when confronted with them as a series, it’s almost impossible not to apply some sort of narrative to them, seeing them as interrelated and inter-operative.
And with narrative, of course, comes meaning…and responsibility. Tereza sees the combination of chance events behind her meeting with Tomas as having some sort of essential resonance, enough that she not only predicates an entire relationship on these coincidences, but endures Tomas’s philandering in large part because she feels a sort of existential indebtedness to their relationship because of the circumstances of their meeting.
For Tereza this narrative is mostly unquestionable, but Tomas rails against it, embarking on a prodigious array of fleeting sexual encounters as though to prove that chance meetings are everywhere—and may result in all manner of possible outcomes.
But even Tomas concedes in some ways to the push and shove of fate, most demonstrably when he writes a letter to a newspaper regarding the need to accept personal responsibility for the outcomes of one’s actions, even if one doesn’t know the outcome of those actions. There is a second incident where Thomas bows—ostensibly—to fate: when he follows Tereza back to Prague, something that he claims is beyond his control (Es muss sein!, he cries. It must be so!)
And yet, despite this act in accordance with what he seems to believe is the hand of fate, Tomas conceives of his love life not in terms of Es muss sein, but rather Es konnte auch anders sein (It could just as well be otherwise).
But so too, I think, does Tereza. After all, she sees her relationship with Tomas as having arisen from a series of coincidences (and surely this is partly the motivation behind her decision to see the two of them move to the countryside, thus narrowing the range of possible “other” experiences?). The difference seems to be Tereza searches for positive affirmation of this, while Tomas searches for negative affirmation: that is, that Tereza sees their relationship validated by the things that have happened, and Thomas by the things that might have but have not happened.
Of a related note is the idea of “possible selves”, which Kundera examines at length—at one point breaking the fourth wall in order to posit that all of a novelist’s characters are necessarily hypothetical experiential alternatives.
Given this line of thought I can’t help but wonder whether Tomas’s womanising is his own way of exploring his own possible selves in a manner that is free from responsibility or culpability. After all, he argues the importance of taking responsibility of one’s own actions, and yet this becomes a moot point if we are to return to the idea of einmal ist keinmal. (Our narrator disagrees, however, arguing that things that happen just once can have resonance by the very virtue of their uniqueness.)
I think what strikes me most in all of this is the arbitrariness in the way that we apply the ideas of chance, fate and narrative. The applicability of any and all of these is up to individual interpretation—and possibly an imposed collective interpretation—and surely any narrative that is applied is influenced not only by the events of the time as they occur, but also those that follow.
For example, meeting my future husband twice in one night tends to invite narrative applications of “fate”, but would the same be true if we’d broken up shortly after, or if he’d turned out to be a crazed serial killer? Similarly, what would the interpretations be if we’d only met once?
And finally, what if we apply Tomas’s notion of es konnte auch anders sein?
Personally, I think that although it’s possible to consider this on a hypothetical level, it’s impossible to apply as much weight or import to something that might have happened as it is to something that actually has happened.
But then, maybe I’m just applying a narrative of my own…(less)
I picked up Susan Hill’s A Change for the Better from the shelves of the Little Library, a literary free-for-all thanks to which I’ve stumbled across all manner of elderly, fusty little books. The sorts of books that are faded to a jaundiced hue, their pages seeking respite from the glue of their bindings, their text cramped and tiny, set, in variably in Linotype Pilgrim.
It’s perhaps fitting that I chanced upon this sagging, menopausal book, giving it an opportunity to embark on an excursion away from its familiar surroundings for a while, because the volume deals in large part with the encroaching invisibility and narrowing of opportunity that comes with middle-age. That, and the tyranny of inescapable familial relationships–it’s probably unsurprising that overall it’s quite an intimidating read.
When I say intimidating, I don’t mean that it’s a big or a grand volume, but rather that because reading it is comparable to being stuck in a room alone with some hideous older relation for whom you, despite yourself, hold a sort of grudging respect. It’s not an enjoyable read at all (with the possible exception of the very end, where my inner schadenfreudian had a good old workout), but it’s biting and wicked and dreadfully incisive.
The novel follows three main threads, which are set up in such a way that they are thematically interlinked and contrastable, and to devastating effect. Probably most integral is the mother-daughter duo Deirdre Fount and Mrs Oddicott, who work together in stiflingly close quarters, their resentment towards each other and their disdain for each other’s life choices barely contained. Mrs Oddicott is a cruel bully who channels her own sense of failure and loneliness into endless passive-aggressive bullying, cutting the already cowed Deirdre down whenever possible in order to keep her at close quarters. Deirdre, meanwhile, is bit by bit attempting to break away from her mother’s clutches. She fears (and fair enough!) becoming her mother, and has begun seeking to improve her already ailing relationship with her young son James–who is on the cusp of adolescence and is himself trying to forge his own identity.
Things are further complicated by the reappearance of Deirdre’s womanising ex-husband and his vague efforts to establish some sort of relationship with James, and also by the appearance of the Carpenters, an embattled husband and wife team whose overtures towards Deirdre only further poison things between Deirdre and her mother. The dynamics between the Carpenters are not unlike those between Deirdre and Mrs Oddicott: snideness, intransigence and thanklessness colour their every interaction.
Everyone in this book, with the possible exception of James’s music teacher, is brutal beyond belief, and often knowingly so. The pettiness and mean-spiritedness is breathtaking, but Hill’s ability to get into her characters’ minds is such that we can almost forgive them their derelictions. I think it’s that there are so many layers created here, and beneath the strychnine-laced buttercream icing of these individuals is a pervasive sense of loneliness, desperation and fear.
It’s the classic balancing of the concepts of positive and negative face: wanting to be appreciated and shown attention while also wanting to be left to one’s own devices. But it’s the way that the characters in this book go about this that’s so cruel and startling. They’re manipulative and petty to a grimace-inducing degree, and yet the others in their relationship binaries are unable to escape their orbit.
(I’m presently searching through the book for an illustrative quote, but my blood’s boiling at every interaction!)
Here’s a choice snippet between Deirdre and her mother, after Deirdre has returned from going up the street to post a letter:
“Ah, there is James’s flute case – so he has come home?’ … Mrs Oddicott lifted the lid of a saucepan and peered inside. “He is gone out,” she said shortly. “Out? Out where? He did not tell me of any plan he had to go out again.” “And is that not only to be expected? He is taking after you in that respect, surely?” “Mother, do not be ridiculous. Where has he gone?” “Now I suppose I am to be blamed for giving permission. But what else was I supposed to do? You were not here, and I made it very clear that I was no longer thought to be responsible for him, I said all that there was to say on that score. James knows all that has happened.”
This continues over several pages, with Mrs Oddicott slowly circling around her daughter, her tongue a punitive force that makes the cat o’ nine tails look like an appealing option. But it’s not only Mrs Oddicott who punishes Deirdre: broader social forces conspire against her. For me, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the book was this one, where Deirdre decides to venture out for some personal time:
“Good evening,” Mrs Carmichael,” said Deirdre Fount, walking confidently past, “What a cold evening! So pleasant beside the fire!” I shall do this again some day, she thought, I have enjoyed my little treat, my rest and my glass of sherry, a quiet time to order my thoughts, it has all done me a great deal of good. Mrs Carmichael sat reading her library book and waiting for a friend, and when the friend arrived she said at once to her, “Poor Mrs Fount has just been in here, sitting alone over a glass of sherry.”
Poor Deirdre’s efforts to at long last step out from beneath the foul umbra of her mother are constructed entirely differently from the outside, applying to her a narrative that is not at all how she saw the turn of events. It’s a sad look at the degree of agency we really do have over our own lives, and how others can so readily influence the way that we live–whether we are aware of it or not.(less)
I purchased Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life some years ago on the strength of her book Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, which I remember being a tremendous read. I wonder now whether I’d feel the same way upon embarking on a re-read, as I’m deeply ambivalent about My Happy Life, a book that’s so painfully, mawkishly self-conscious that it’s hard not to look upon it with distaste.
Our unnamed narrator is a (possibly) mentally disabled young woman who has been left, forgotten, in an abandoned mental institution; in the weeks that have passed since she has been left behind in this existential purgatory, she has been quietly subsisting on tap water and on the memories of her life up until this point. To an outsider, it is not a happy life, but rather an unrelenting march of abuse, neglect and exploitation. Found as an infant in a cardboard box, our narrator’s transient, in-between life continues with a slew of foster homes and abusive relationships that follow on from each other like the links of a brutal paper chain. And yet, our narrator sees the world through a lens of innocence and love: she sees beauty in the ugliest of things, is able to scratch out an iota of happiness from the darkest, most desultory thing.
Millet seems to be aiming for a sense of grace in the face of adversity, an inversion of the more usual approach of finding a gloominess and angst in the seemingly beautiful and virtuous. But the approach taken here is so extreme and affected that it’s difficult to stomach. Whether the overweening positivity is a coping mechanism or a genuine inability to grasp the bad in the world it just rings false. I found myself unable to reconcile the utterly guileless, ostensibly intellectually disabled nature of the narrator with the lyrical prose, and I couldn’t help but feel that the book felt overwritten and trite.
Take, for example, sentences like:
“The man of the house went on numerous trips and the woman of the house, who went and bought herself a new pedigree Pekinese, called Oscar Too on a tag that hung around his neck, also began to drink a vast array of fine intoxicants.”
“I gave up my bundle of possessions to the woman at the desk and was then led down a hallway. Its walls were close and seemed to have been washed in blue solutions of uncommon purity, which smelled very strong so that my eyes became teary. And the floor too had been stepped in blue solutions, so that they could not help but be breathed in with the oxygen.”
Even the narrator’s habitual, painfully understated response of “excuse me” to any of the horrors done to her never quite feels right; it sits uncomfortably within the narrative, a too polite, too measured, too neat reaction. In fact, this was my problem with the book as a whole. It reads like an extended literary affectation, the pointed unemotionality of it constantly setting my teeth on edge, the overwrought, over-polished prose an uncomfortably lingering guest casting a pall of literary construction over the book.
Ordinarily I love an unreliable narrator, but the conceit here doesn’t quite come off. Millet is a superb writer, but this book is a distinctly awkward intersection between story and storyteller, and on the whole it didn’t work for me.(less)
“And the frontier in here?” the North American had asked, tapping her forehead. “And the frontier in here?” General Arroyo had responded, touching his heart. “There’s one frontier we only dare to cross at night,” the old gringo said. “The frontier of our differences with others, of our battles with ourselves.”
The old gringo has come to Mexico to die: for him, night approaches. And in this richly symbolic, dream-like book we watch as the old man grapples with these emotional frontiers, falling in with those who allow him to make peace with his inner demons. Though he claims to be seeking death (“To be a gringo in Mexico – that is euthanasia!”, he says), death is not yet ready to claim him.
Upon arriving in Mexico he meets Tomas Arroyo, a general in the army of Pancho Villa. Arroyo and his men have just liberated the Miranda landholding, where Arroyo himself grew up. Notably, Arroyo is a mestizo, the mixed-race son of a native woman who was raped by one of the Miranda men; his background is wielded symbolically throughout the book as he engages both with the old gringo and with Harriet Winslow, a young white American woman who has arrived at the Miranda landholding with the intention of educating and civilising.
The old gringo’s relationships with Arroyo and Harriet are complex and moving: he develops a sort of paternal relationship with Arroyo and one that’s romantic towards Harriet. That with Arroyo becomes all the more arresting as we learn of the suicides of the old gringo’s sons and the reasons behind them; the fact that the old gringo eventually dies at Arroyo’s hand is almost inevitable. Meanwhile, his relationship with Harriet is key to helping Harriet begin to learn to live with Mexico, rather than imposing American values on it:
“You’re going to civilise them?” the old man asked drily. “Precisely. And starting tomorrow.” “Wait a little,” the old man said. “They say manana in Spanish, and whatever you do, you have to sleep somewhere tonight.”
The old gringo’s talk of tomorrow (and there’s a dry sense to its use here–not a literal tomorrow, but a more general sense of the future) is prescient, because the death that seeks is not immediately forthcoming, either; likely because he has established these new relationships that first require his attention. After a battle he is one of the few who remains unhurt, although this is perhaps because he’s not truly one of the army (“He is not one of us,” says Arroyo) and therefore can’t die on the same terms.
He hadn’t been wounded. He wasn’t dead….They were dead; not he. He wanted death and was still here, deserving of an ironic pity, helping surround what remained of the Federal regiment, feeling finally the boiling rancour he had expected: the gringo didn’t die, the was he bravest among us, he marched straight on again, like yesterday, as if he wasn’t afraid of anything or anybody, but he didn’t die: Old Gringo!
It’s not until the old gringo’s relationships with Arroyo and Harriet are effectively severed that death finally does claim him.
The dynamics between the three are further complicated by the fact that Harriet and Arroyo have begun a relationship: a fiercely sexual one that (if you can get past the excruciatingly bad prose in these scenes) is at its heart about power, with each of them symbolic of their own countries and backgrounds. ”I shall conquer General Tomas Arroyo before I go back to the routine of life at home,” says Harriet. This notion is quashed by the old gringo, who tells her that in Mexico there was “nothing to subdue and nothing to save”. “Mexico is not a bad country,” he says, “It’s just a different country.”
But although Harriet slowly comes to learn that Mexico is a place that she wants to learn to live with rather than save, her relationship with Arroyo remains conflicted, becoming more so when the old gringo burns the deeds to the Mirandas’ property, with which Arroyo has become obsessed as proof that he and those represented by the revolutionary army are the true owners of the land holding. Though Harriet seeks to cross the frontier between her and Arroyo and their cultures, Arroyo himself is becoming a faction, stepping away from both Harriet and the revolution itself. “My destiny is my own,” he claims.
But like the old gringo, who has crossed a physical frontier and with it, if you’ll excuse the melodramatic turn of phrase, the final one, Harriet too has done the same, physically and culturally. And in doing so she realises that a frontier that is once crossed can never be un-crossed: that the very act of crossing it changes everything.
“You can never go home again, even to the same place and the same people, if by chance both have remained, not the same, but simply there, in their essence. She realised that the English language could only conjugate one kind of being–to be. Home is a memory. The only true memory: for memory is our home.” Though I have my issues with this book, it’s deeply affecting, and one that I think requires more than a single read to do it justice.(less)
There are many kinds of bad novels. There are those that are simply bad for me, those that are deliciously terrible, and those that are merely dull and purposeless, warranting a "why bother?" response. But perhaps the very worst of these is the novel that is disappointing, the novel that has that potential to be so brilliant, but simply is not.
Anne Giardini's The Sad Truth About Happiness, I'm afraid, falls into this final category. It's a literary fall from grace, a book that opens with elegant language and a thoughtful premise, and then madly leaps from the narrative cliff, hurling the bungee cord of its plot off into an abyss. Oh, little book, if I were your parent, I would be very disappointed in you for failing to live up to your potential.
Our protagonist Maggie is a thirty-something woman whose personal claim to fame has been her "contentedness", her rock-like mildness against the blustering whims of her sisters Janet and Lucy and her vague and owlish parents. But when her flatmate has her undertake a magazine quiz to determine Maggie's projected life expectancy, Maggie is astonished to find that it's unlikely that she'll live out the year. The reason being that contentment and happiness are not the same thing, and it's the latter that is apparently linked to mortality.
It's at this point that the book begins to crumble away beneath the weight of its identity crisis. Though its initial chapters seem to set it up as a quiet literary novel, this quiz business adds a sense of whimsy, or perhaps even magic realism, that feels utterly at odds with the tone thus far. Perhaps if the quiz and its mortality projections had been dealt with by Maggie and her flatmate with rather less credulity, the book might have regained its feet. As it is, however, it continues to descend into an awkward literary pubescence, courting many different identities in turn, and never finding one that quite suits.
Maggie's quiz-predicted death apparently makes her irresistible to the opposite sex, and she finds herself courted by several suitors in a way that's almost reminiscent of a fairytale--and indeed, it's almost possible that there is some sort of odd Goldilocks framework at play here. These interactions are intriguing in and of themselves, but fail to integrate properly into the main plot arc, which transforms into an utterly bizarre account of Maggie's sister's affair with a married Italian man, and then Maggie's decision to kidnap the baby born from this union in order to prevent him from being taken back to Italy.
This truly strange turn of events takes up the remainder of the book, throwing a spanner of nonsensicality into the already rusty works, and we're treated to odd missives about homeless girls, church windows, and the wonders of breastfeeding, all of which feel so out of place that you could can't help but wonder whether halfway through writing this Giardini started mainlining old episodes of Gumby, along with Murakami's back catalogue.
The writing, too, suffers along the way, and I'm quite sure that I could put together an equation correlating page count with the quality of writing. What begins as a somewhat self-conscious but still finely written prose style devolves into a mess of em-dashes, off-kilter reportage and needlessly repeated motifs. Take, for example, this ill-conceived reported speech: "Soon after the move to Rome, however, the bello Corrado took up with one of his models, a long-limbed young man from Palermo with skin, Lucy reported, the colour of burnt oatmeal and a dark head of fat, oiled curls." Without the insertion of "Lucy reported" this sentence might have worked, but as it stands it feels painfully contrived and warrants questioning from the reader. Who on earth reports that someone has skin the colour of burnt oatmeal?
There are awkward introductions and re-introductions that should have been picked up in the editing stage, such as the several times that Maggie mentions her parents' lack of religiosity, each time doing so as though it's a novel concept to the reader; in addition, she twice introduces us to a former boyfriend called Chris Tolnoy with no acknowledgement of the first instance of his gracing the book's pages. Towards the end of the book, too, we begin to see repeated phrases, such as the doubled-up description of a cat as being bird-like and downy. Perhaps it's a mark of Maggie's increasingly unhinged outlook, but I suspect that it's more to do with the fact that this novel has leapt out of the author's grasp.
I was profoundly disappointed by this novel, not simply because it wasn't particularly good, but because it had the potential to be so very good. Perhaps Giardini's sophomore effort will bring the goods. (less)
"We hover on the edge of what used to be said, caught up, as we used to be caught in the histories we made up for Rosina and Mandy. They were always changing. That was the best thing about the dolls. If the storyline didn't work out, we could always erase their pasts..."
Increasingly as a reader I'm drawn to unreliable narrators and ambiguous narratives: perhaps it's a sort of literary knee-jerk response to the tidily spelled out, wrapped up, reading-group-questions-at-the-end books that seem to be in vogue. I'm a reader who likes to have a hand in my own reading experiences, constructing characters in my mind, piecing together various scenes and elements and braiding a sense of meaning from what is not said as much as what is said. That might be why spoilers don't bother me at all. A good book should be so much more than its final chapter, and so often, a book can be made even better without that big reveal.
Helen Dunmore's Talking to the Dead puts the onus on the reader to construct a truth of their own, and there are many possibilities at work here, each of which is plausible, and each of which is devastating.
From the book's outset, when freelance photographer Nina has gone to stay with her older sister Isabel, who has recently given birth, we have a sense of creeping disquiet. There's something slightly odd about Nina's venturing out into rural Wales for an extended stay given the circumstances: why is her presence needed when Isabel has hired a nanny and Isabel's partner is a constant fixture? Why, when the sisters seem to be entirely divergent in their personalities, and seem painfully lost when in each other's company?
Set during an uncharacteristic heatwave in rural Wales, the novel all but pulsates with a humidity of both setting and morality: it's rich and cloying, and distinctly unsettling. Isabel is strange and withdrawn, her unearthly beauty an ailing foil for her odd behaviour, such as her disordered eating and her worsening agoraphobia, both of which she hides through careful planning and excuses. Her relationship with her son, too, seems stilted and distant; it's his nanny who seems to be taking on the mother role, not Isabel. But as Nina's interactions with both her sister and nephew begin to send her searching through her own childhood memories, we begin to see what might be behind the eerie dynamics at work here: the childhood death of the sisters' infant brother.
The circumstances about this long-ago death seem to shift and cant as we learn more about Nina and Isobel, and as the book progresses we wonder whether we're dealing with an accident or something more. And of course, if it's the latter, then who might be at fault. At first, the truth seems obvious: Isobel seems to have a flippant attitude with both truth and memory, both of which she seems to approach in a changeable manner, while Nina is immensely protective of and deferential to her older sister. It's little wonder, then, that Nina is wary of leaving her sister alone with her newborn son. But yet, as we learn more about Nina, we can't help but wonder whether there's some narrative misdirection at work here, or whether we too, like Nina, are being buffeted by the manipulative hand of Isobel into seeing a truth that might not be there at all.
The novel is awash with nature and place, both of which provide an off-kilter sense of the gothic. The pages are rich with descriptions of the sensuality of food and human physicality, both of which Nina partakes in with bacchanal delight, which only stand out further given the counterpoint of Isobel's sensory abstinence. Is the latter's approach some sort of penance? Or is it a response to Nina's own appetites? Or is each merely one side of a coin?
Whichever conclusion you come to by the end of the book--the onus is, after all, on you--I'm willing to contend that you'll be deeply unnerved when you've turned the final page. (less)
I wonder what it is that makes authors inclined towards not so much narrative progression, but a narrative reflection, or even a regression. Christopher Priest’s The Glamour, which I read earlier this year, involves the recreation of the pasts of two characters through their own conflicting, contradictory memories: it’s about a past or pasts made present. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which I read not long after, involves a sort of braided narrative where a character, in what is a painful act of self-deception, looks back on his past in order to determine how things have become the way they are.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters does something similar, although even more explicitly so. Divided into three parts, it travels back from the 1947 setting of part one to the 1941 of the third part, slowly tracing the meetings and liaisons and links between a half dozen or so characters living in WWII London. And yet, although I adored both The Glamour and The Remains of the Day–and perhaps just as much for that chronological creativity as in spite of it–The Night Watch fell short for me.
You have no idea how disappointed I am to write that. Perhaps as disappointed as you to read it, because I know that this is a book that I should love, and really, it’s one that I wanted to love. Waters has been on my to-read list for years, and I picked this one up with tremendous anticipation. But as I read I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the reverse chronology approach of the novel undermined the story being told.
The first section of the novel is an aftermath in many ways. We’re given a London that’s slowly pulling itself back together after the war, and characters who are listless and despondent after all that’s gone on. Not just from the exigencies of war itself, but from decisions made during wartime that are largely independent of the war itself. Both the setting and the characters are lost and joyless and ultimately changed by everything that’s gone on. And yet though it’s the reader’s job to tease out the mystery behind each character’s present self and how each character is connected, it’s not always possible to work up the desire to do so.
Interestingly, there’s a surprising degree of likeness amongst each of these apparently distinct characters, and you could spend a good deal of time drawing parallels and connecting the dots between their habits and outlooks and experiences. No matter their situation, there’s an overwhelming sense of solitariness and stultification present.
We have Helen and Julia, lovers whose relationship is rocky from the barbs of Helen’s jealousy–a jealousy we learn has arisen from her own infidelity, which she expects to see mirrored in her partner. We have Kay, whose connection to Helen and Julie is initially inchoate, and who wanders about the city, lost and bereft and alone. There’s Viv, who seems the odd one out, going about with a married man and looking out for her brother Duncan, who has recently been released from prison and is now living with the much older Mr Mundy.
Although I didn’t entirely connect with these shells–for that’s what they are towards the beginning (end?) of the book, I appreciated the jigsaw puzzle that Waters sets out at the beginning of the book. There are hints and suggestions as to how the characters have reached the point that they have, and I found myself admiring the author’s ability to provide so much material for the reader to work with without explicitly laying it all out.
Until I reached the second part of the book, and then the third, and my disappointment began to set in. All of my careful guesswork and consideration were for nothing, because The Night Watch’s backwards chronology means that those gaps are filled in. The slippery ambiguities and the maybes and the unknowns are patched up, and whatever mystery there was to these character is lost. It’s an approach that might work were there something to unveil, or if it sought to contradict the reader’s hypotheses, but this doesn’t happen. Instead, what does happen is that the reader overtakes the characters: we know more about where things are going than they do. But there’s a sense of fruitlessness to that knowledge. How do you end such a book satisfyingly when you’re only showing the reader where it all started, and where that starting point is largely known from the beginning?
At one point Kay says:
“Houses, after all–like the lives that were lived in them–were mostly made of space. It was the spaces, in fact, which counted, rather than the bricks.”
And I wonder why, when Waters has given us so many wonderful spaces to work with, that she had to point us in the direction of the bricks.(less)
It is the 1980s, and semiotic theory has infiltrated the hallowed halls of America's ivy league universities, bringing with it its anarchic reconstructions, critical symbolism, and its anaemic, black-clad supporters. Drawn by the promise of greener grass and the potential to be part of a "lit-crit elite", English major Madeleine Hanna has done the unthinkable, the parliamentary equivalent of crossing the floor that is the literal crossing of the campus. She has left the familiar, fusty nest of her English literature lecture theatres to seek out this business of signs and signifiers and embedded modality.
This rebellious academic act, one of few available to those going to uni in the moneymaking eighties, something that rather "lacked a certain radicalism", is an epiphany of sorts for Madeleine. She is, after all, "positive, privileged, sheltered, exemplary person", one whose background means that her future is one that is languid and non-urgent. The worst that might happen if her vaguely desired career in Austen studies does not eventuate is that she might move back home, to the bedroom that her mother, heaven forbid, might have redecorated (indeed, by wallpapering over the current Ludwig Bemelman Madeline, of "I may be very small, but inside I'm tall" fame, theme. Prescient.).
But Madeleine's semiotics class is not enlightening and vista-stretching in the way that she might have imagined. (Or at least not for her. The eyebrowless Thurston Meems, a boy who introduces himself with "Um, let's see. I'm finding it hard to introduce myself, actually, because the whole idea of social introductions is so problematised" surely has an exciting semester in front of him: "I read Of Grammatology last summer, and it blew my mind," he says.) The hatred unleashed upon her beloved literature by semiotic theorists engenders in her a feeling that these individuals had likely been unpopular or even bullied as a child, and sends her sneakily back to her nineteenth-century literature closet. "How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! There were going to be people in [the book]. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world."
However, though Madeleine's literature classes set at her feet all manner of Austen-era irresistible and gloomy fictional bedfellows, whom she adores despite her socialised habit to avoiding "unstable people", it's her semiotics class in which she meets the brilliant and troubled Leonard Bankhead (a bandanna-wearing character who has been widely likened to David Foster Wallace. Eugenides, at least at the talk I attended, denies this). A manic depressive, Leonard cycles through times of exuberant brilliance and crippling despair, the sheer weight of his personality dragging Madeleine along with him throughout the process.
Madeleine's love troubles, it turns out, "had begun at a time when the French theory she was reading deconstructed the very notion of love." No matter how much she attempts to liberate herself from its "tyranny" by viewing it merely as the cultural construction semiotic theory purports it to be, it's Madeleine's English major heart that guides her: "The magnolia trees hadn't read Roland Barthes. They didn't think love was a mental state."
This, of course, isn't the only literary question with which Madeleine is wrestling. Her honours thesis is on the topic of the marriage plot, something that her lecturer argues has become redundant in modern times. "Sexual equality, good for women, had been bad for the novel. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?...Marriage didn't mean much any more, and neither did the novel."
Where, we are asked, can the marriage plot be found in a world that has moved beyond it? Can it, perchance, be found in a book entitled The Marriage Plot?
This question is raised in the novel's first act, told from Madeleine's point of view, and lingers throughout the looping, wayward set of narrative leaps the novel circumspectly follows; it's finally returned to with force once more at the book's conclusion. The middle of the novel, however, that by which this thesis is bookended, is given over not to Madeleine, but to her boyfriend Leonard (who promptly becomes Madeleine's "madwoman in the attic") and his fascinating experiments with, of all things, yeast; and to her man-in-the-wings Mitchell Grammaticus, a man whose name says it all, really, and who jet-sets about the world on a pseudo-religious pilgrimage that involves discussing religion with an austere exchange student ("it's teleological and bogus") and even involves a brief stay with Mother Theresa. Until his sense of hygiene overwhelms him.
While Leonard ponders the mysteries of the human condition through his examinations of yeast ("even in the emotion-free broth of the agar broth, the haploid cells seemed to take their solitary condition as undesirable," he muses, enthralled), Madeleine lurks in the background, attempting to reconcile her feminist leanings with her love of Austenite literature, and proudly enduring their relationship:
"The experience of watching Leonard get better was like reading certain difficult books. It was like plowing through late James, or the pages about agrarian form in Anna Karenina, until you suddenly got to a good part again, which kept on getting better and better until you were so enthralled that you were almost grateful for the previous dull stretch because it increased your eventual pleasure."
Though we do see a marriage, and a separation, and some other bits and pieces besides, it seems that The Marriage Plot is less a novel of marriage, or of which of the two men will (or won't) end up with our Madeleine: it's more one of growing up. When the relevance of the marriage plot is debated within the novel, one imagines that it's less to do with the ability to get divorced, or to live by one's own means, but more to do with the fact that marriage is not longer equated with becoming an adult in one's own life. The marriage that we do see seems to change nothing: those involved are merely ageing children scarcely able to deal with finding a place to live or to go about finding a job. It's not that feminism has changed the context of marriage (although surely it has), but it's that the context in which marriage occurs has changed so drastically. Childhood now endures well beyond the use-by date of those Ludwig Bemelman illustrations, and well past, if Madeleine's sister is any indication, the having of children. There's a sense of temporariness about heading out there into the big bad world: a sense that, unlike in times of old, one can turn back home if the grass isn't as green as it seems--just like Madeleine and her foray into semiotics.
It's telling when Mitchell delights over his final university essay, a religious studies examination, in which he "keeps bending his answers towards their practical application [because] he wanted to know why he was here, and how to live". This is appended, tongue-in-cheek, with: "It was the perfect way to end your college career."
The Marriage Plot has received mixed reviews, and in a way, this doesn't surprise me. It's a novel about vain, terribly dull and entitled middle-class Americans, a novel filled with verbosely rendered descriptions of incomprehensible figure of academia ("College wasn't like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity."), a novel that feels rehearsed and over-polished, and which is very often over the top (see scene involving Leonard's running about a casino in a cape). But there's so much wryness here, so much self-aware piss-taking and hermeneutic delight, that you know that Eugenides is having a grand old time of it all. "The whole thing was beginning to look fairly comical and Shakespearean: Larry loved Mitchell, who loved Madeleine, who loved Leonard Bankhead," our narrator says at one point; at another, Leonard, a man who dreams of "becoming an adjective", argues that one's mother killing herself is not a literary trope. It's a novel that exists beyond itself and within itself, and it's superb.(less)
“Holidays were for the young, for people with a whole life ahead of them, while for me the long slumber was waiting just round the corner.”
When concentration camp survivor Julian travels to Costa Brava, it’s with a sense of purpose. Having been released from hospital after a heart operation, and hearing of the news of the death of his dear friend and fellow survivor Salva, Julian is imbued with a determination to see Salva’s life-long goal through to its end. ”Others had no alternative but to keep quiet and suffer the fear, shame and guilt of survivors…But we became hunters,” he says. The two have spent their lives tracking down surviving Nazi war criminals, many of whom they find living the normal, quiet lives of retirees, as though the past never happened.
It’s an undertaking about which Julian is ambivalent, however. Although he longs to see justice meted out, he worries that the remainder of his life, like Salva’s, will be spent in such a manner, rather than being lived. “When we left there, I just wanted to be normal, to join up with normal humanity. But [Salva] said that this was impossible,” says Julian.
This turns out to be the case, as Julian’s moral compass precludes him from allowing others to fall in harm’s way. By chance, Julian meets young, pregnant Sandra, a girl who has formed an unwitting friendship with an elderly Norwegian couple, Fredrik and Karin. Fredrik and Karin, of course, are two of those Salva and Julian have been searching for, and not only that, but they’re infamous for the atrocities they’ve committed. ”She was alone,” says Julian. “A perfect victim for the Christensens. They might have met her on the beach and singled her out to suck her young blood, absorb her energy and defile her freshness.”
Sandra’s initial impressions of the Christensens, however, are entirely different. Sandra is an ingenue in many ways; she is trusting and friendly, and is seeking for a place into which she can be accepted. Her relationship with her family is distant at best, and she is uncertain about whether she wishes to pursue a relationship with her unborn baby’s father. Her first meeting with the Christensens occurs when they assist her on the beach, and soon enough she finds herself pursuing a friendship with the quiet, mannered couple, going so far as to imagine herself as their adopted grand-daughter. ”She was a trusting girl who believed in her right to be in the world without anything bad happening to her…” says Julian of Sandra. Sandra’s innocence–or unwillingness to be pulled away from her new life–is such that it takes a good deal for Julian to convince her that the Christensens are not the kind seniors that they seem to be. ”Everyone knew that the Nazis had existed, that they got turned on by the swastika and all that. But Fred and Karin? I knew them,” protests Sandra. Upon seeing Fredrik in his SS officer’s uniform, Sandra is convinced that he is merely playing dress-up: it’s not until she finds Fredrik’s gold cross hidden away in an enormous case of priceless jewellery (“that had probably been snatched from somebody, maybe even along with her life”) that she begins to accept Julian’s case. Even so, she struggles to reconcile these unseen, distant actions in the Christensens’ past with what she knows of them today. For Julian, however, the opposite is true. For him, it’s the past that’s the truth, not the present.
Both Sandra and Julian slowly find themselves drawn into a complex, terrible nest of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers, a group that includes not only the elderly, but also the young. There’s the eerie notion of group law and groupthink, with the members apparently acting together and as a part of the group rather than as individuals–and thus without individual culpability. This depersonalisation, which occurs on so many levels throughout the book is horrific. At one point, Sandra is speaking to Aribert Heim, who says to her: ”You young people are crazy – young people are always crazy. We also did terrible things…They did not seem terrible to us in those days. We did these things because we could and they seemed normal. Like putting a ring in your nose.”
Even the way these individuals relate to each other is viciously pragmatic, such as how Karin perceives of Fredrick. ”If anything happened to Fred, it would be the end, do you understand?” says Karin at one point, and at another: ”He was a spectacular man…the man I’d been dreaming of…a superior man…complete.” But neither Karin nor Fred are “spectacular” any longer, and like Julian, they and their cronies are ailing. It’s here where Julian’s ambivalence over his mission comes in, and where we see the depressing futility of it all: and nowhere is this more evident than in the twist at the book’s end.
The Scent of Lemon Leaves is a profound and difficult book in many ways, and endlessly posits questions regarding morality, individual purpose, and the fulfilment of retribution. And yet, the book as a whole didn’t quite fall together for me. I found that the use of alternating first person narrators, although offering us deep insight into both Julian and Sandra, resulted in an uneven read, particularly in those scenes where we see the same thing from both characters’ point of view. Julian’s ambivalence over completing Salva’s life work necessarily results in some narrative foot-dragging, but this becomes almost tedious after the first third of the book, as it feels that the narrative isn’t progressing at all. On the other hand, some plot points are so fleetingly touched upon as to feel out of place, such as Sandra’s sudden falling in love with a person she meets only a handful of times.
In all, though a slow-going read, this is a haunting and moving read that persists long after you’ve put it down.(less)
"We all this land of ours Great Britain...I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint." So muses Stevens, erstwhile butler to Lord Darlington, as he embarks upon a brief sabbatical at the behest of his new employer, a sabbatical in which he reflects on the actions, and indeed, inaction, of his past, and sets out to make sense of a series of unknowns that plague his conscience. There are parallels, believes Stevens, between the proud stoicism of is native land and of his profession, with both exhibiting, at their finest, a sense of dignity. A true butler should comport his or herself with utter dignity, offering "no clue as to his desires or intentions."
Stevens lives and breathes his role as one of Britain's finest: as his new employer, an ebullient American, puts it, he's a "genuine old-fashioned English butler, not just some waiter pretending to be one." And yet, Stevens needs to be pressed to confirm this, having remained tight-lipped about his previous employment for reasons, we are told, out of fear of impropriety: speaking of one's past employment is not the done thing, he says, using his new employer's unfamiliarity with the way things are done as leverage. Though his statement may initially be taken at face value, we soon begin to see that Stevens is perhaps not the paragon of virtue he presents himself as.
For one so taken up with conduct and comportment and properness, Stevens is rather less one for veracity than we might expect. In fact, not only does he have a capacity for self-deception--an extraordinary one, as it turns out--but of deceiving others as well. His transgressions at first seem minor, but soon grow into something large and ghastly. And yet Stevens paints everything with a veneer of dignity, having us look through the lens of measured professionalism he applies to his life.
He offers excuses and justifications for the most minor of misdemeanours, a sleight of hand that would have us believe that such a mild-mannered man could not, surely, be capable of any wrongdoing, or of succumbing to any of the weaknesses of the human spirit.
Take, for example, his preference for calling the former Darlington Hall housekeeper by her maiden name of Miss Kenton, though she has been married for some years now. The fact that her recent letters may indicate that her marriage is in trouble provides further justification for this "impropriety", he argues, although as Stevens continues to reflect on his time at Darlington Hall, we see hints of the scarcely acknowledged romance that has haunted him since.
And yet, he argues with cool emotionlessness that there is nothing of note here: Stevens' visits to Miss Kenton's parlour after hours, are entirely above board in that they are strictly work related. No matter that Miss Kenton hints at one point that marriage may be an option: "It occurs to me that you must be a well-contented man. Here you after, after all, at the top of your profession, every aspect of your domain well under control. I really cannot imagine what more you might wish for in life."
A stringently emotionally repressed man, Stevens purports to conduct his entire life within the boundaries allowed by his position, noting that even when off-duty, a butler still remains a butler--and it is within this professional cocoon that he is able to safely live his life without having to take any sort of personal responsibility. He rejects Miss Kenton's gift of a floral arrangement out of the fear of blurring the boundaries of his work and personal life; his habit of reading romance novels is, he says, purely for the purposes of improving his verbal skills. He responds to the news of his father's death with the words, "I see...", then upon being asked whether he wishes to view the body, defers to his workload, adding, "I'm very right busy just now. In a little while, perhaps."
Stevens would have us think that he does not exist beyond his status as a butler, with even his clothing marked by his professional life: "I am in the possession of a number of splendid suits, kindly passed on to me over the years by Lord Darlington himself, and by various guests who have stayed in the house and had reason to be pleased with the standard of service here." These suits, he muses are "rather too old-fashioned these days", highlighting just how much his life has been delimited by his work. And yet, when he travels out to the countryside on his holiday, he allows others to labour under the mistaken assumption that he is a man of importance himself--it is only when he is directly asked about his title that he admits to being a butler.
These deceptions form a web of quiet concealments and duplicity, although Stevens continues to assert that he has always conducted himself with nothing less than the utter dignity he sees as so integral to his role. And indeed, one supposes that this is true enough, save for the fact that by evoking this conception of dignity and of the master as one whose will cannot be questioned, Stevens is able to extricate himself from any moral culpability.
And since, as it turns out, Lord Darlington is a Nazi sympathiser, this continued reliance on impartial, disinterested dignity is perhaps the greatest, most horrific self-deception of all. When two Jewish staff members are dismissed, Stevens believes that his "duty in this instance [is] quite clear." He adds, that although a difficult task, it is one that demands "to be carried out with dignity". Indeed, when asked directly about his opinions about his employer, he is utterly circumspect, retreating into ignorance and self-deception and speaking of his loyalty. After all, he notes, those who allow "strong feelings" to affect their work will inevitably see "their careers come to nothing as a direct consequence."
And yet, although he is all too aware of his employer's chilling ideological position, he argues that his "fate [is] ultimately in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world." Indeed, he says, "How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington's efforts were misguided, even foolish?" With his culpability resting solely with another to whom he has given his loyalty, be believes that "it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account."
The Remains of the Day is a quiet, mannered novel that juxtaposes dignity with atrocity and loyalty with culpability--a theme that can of course be extrapolated more widely to wartime horrors and crimes. Stevens' endless deception and indeed self-deception renders him unreliable as a narrator, resulting in an ambiguous, challenging read where the full truth will always remain unknown. But then, that is part of Stevens' loyalty, is it not? (less)
“I learned how to slaughter the animals,” says Charlie Beal. “Learned to walk up to them so they trusted me and they weren’t afraid.”
The year is 1948, and the laconic, enigmatic Charlie has arrived in small-town Brownsburg, Virginia, carrying two bags. One is full of cash, and the other full of butcher’s knives. Taking a job with Will, the town’s butcher, Charlie proves himself a deft hand at his work, and slowly acquaints himself with the manners and norms of this deeply conservative, strictly segregated small town.
“The people here then, they believed in God and The Book…the faith of their fathers passed through them mother to son, son to daughter and son, until it peopled the towns they made,” recounts the book’s narrator, Will’s son Sam, looking back over the years to tell the story of Charlie’s arrival and the grim events that follow–and in which Sam himself was horribly swept up.
Brownsburg is a superficially picturesque town, but beneath its veneer of civility is something startlingly mercurial. In a context where it’s standard practice to turn a blind eye or to avoid rocking the boat, the existence of seething undercurrents of despair and loathing can only be expected. All that’s needed is an inciting event to set them bubbling to the surface. And Charlie Beal’s behaviour begins to depart from what’s appropriate and moral, peeling away little bit little to begin with, and then recklessly so.
It starts when Charlie admits that he’s not a church-goer–in large part because he has not found a church that focuses more on the positive aspects of spirituality rather than the fire and brimstone side of things. There’s a suggestion, of course, that there’s more to Charlie’s past than we ever learn as readers, and it seems that Charlie’s neighbours themselves have their qualms. It’s Will and his wife who insist that Charlie attend church if only to keep up appearances. Charlie, however, missteps by attending the local black church, which ignites gossip all around.
Charlie’s misdemeanours don’t end here, however. Upon meeting Sylvan Glass, the young, beautiful wife of the foul Boaty Glass, who has quite literally purchased her from her family, Charlie is smitten: “Everybody in town began to notice the change in him, the distance. What he did with his body began to show in his face.” It’s soon evident that Sylvan and Charlie are carrying on an affair, but the townsfolk’s habit of unseeing the truth, along with the general dislike levelled at Boaty results in an effective code of silence. Even though Charlie has set about buying up vast tracts of land in Sylvan’s name, something which can be easily checked by anyone who cares to look, no one says anything of it, and so Charlie continues to quietly rail against the town’s way of life, creating a disturbance that begins slowly but soon becomes difficult to ignore.
“It’s a sad thing to watch your best friend turn into somebody you don’t know any more. Or even want to know. Still, you’ve got to pretend. Make the best of it,” Will says early on in the book. He is speaking at the time of Boaty, but these same words can be just as aptly used to describe his relationship with Charlie. For Charlie grows ever-more self-destructive, and though we never learn what it is about his past that haunts him, there’s a suggestion of violence and brutality that increasingly haunts the pages.
Charlie may be “A better man than [Sylvan's] husband” but he is “nevertheless a man whose ownership of her consisted of giving her power over everything he had in this world, so that he had nothing, nothing at all except her.” This sort of dependency is something that Charlie loathes. ”He hated the way the dog looked at him with such pathetic faith…there’s something about helplessness that makes us despise the helpless,” we hear at one point, and we know that this deliberate ploy to give himself over to Sylvan is going to be his downfall: it’s as though he’s positioning himself beneath the guillotine. Charlie is like the dress that Sylvan loves, a dress that “only revealed itself after the initial effect had come and gone…as though the dress held a secret, and only told the secret when the time came.”
And yet, for all the lurking darkness and Charlie’s prophetic words about getting others to trust him utterly no matter the danger, the final act seems difficult to reconcile with what we know of him. It’s desperate and emotional and seems to go against the grain of the taciturn, if disturbed and amoral, man that we have come to know. In part it’s that the novel is told from the perspective of Will’s son looking back on these events, an approach that creates unnecessary distance, but it also seems as though there’s a need for a more explicit inciting act.
There’s a good deal to like here: Goolrick’s quiet, gentle prose serves up a good deal of darkness, and the elegant thematic echoes reverberate across the text in a way that means that much of the book works on several levels. However, the use of Sam as the narrator detracts from the book’s sense of veracity and immediacy, and some transitions, such as the beginning of Charlie and Sylvan’s affair, seem almost glossed over. The township’s fickle reaction to Charlie’s behaviour seems odd, too, and though their vacillation between acceptance and rejection of him is certainly rather disturbing food for thought, it feels engineered rather than real. In all, though, this is an intriguing and layered read whose themes will be sure to divide readers. (less)
When walking home from dinner one night, my husband and I were hounded by a group of drunk youths who bellowed at my husband to go back to where he came from. This was only two years ago. I also remember as a teen in the late nineties being accosted by a drunk man while waiting for my train. He shouted at me, calling me a bloody wog.
Australia is a country of migrants, an ethnic melting pot of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and languages and lifestyles. We’re also a country famous for our racism, and despite how often the phrase “tolerance”, a loaded term in itself, is bandied about, there’s a seething undercurrent of paranoia and suspicion that’s scarcely covered by a blanket of civility. It’s telling that in both the situations mentioned above alcohol was involved–alcohol is, after all, a truth serum.
Diane Armstrong’s fourth novel Empire Day takes us back to 1940s Bondi, a time rife with racial and cultural conflict. Large number of migrants have arrived from Europe, bringing with them unfamiliar customs and languages that rankle the locals, who fear their way of life being set awash amongst a wave of foreignness. With the memory of WWII still fresh, fear and suspicion are palpable, and these “New Australians” bring with them an unknown factor that immediately sets the locals on edge. Without knowing who they are and what they’re saying, they argue, how are we supposed to know whether they’re with us or against us?
Armstrong narrows her focus to the residents of Wattle Street, who fall into the groups of the white Australians, or their new migrant neighbours. Within these groups, of course, is a diversity of experiences rather than the homogeneity they may seem to comprise at face value. The white Australians represent different classes and religions, and these come into play as a way of signalling the divisions that have long marked this country. The migrant groups, too, are separated by language, religion, and war-time experience–and when Armstrong extends her focus beyond the street, we can see a further division between those migrants who have experienced the war in Europe, and those who experienced it within an Australian context.
The migrant experience is one that’s necessarily complex, and for every individual there’s an individual story. Armstrong creates a careful, thoughtful picture of these experiences from both the perspectives of those new to the country and those who aren’t. The book is rife with miscommunications, misunderstandings, and differences of approach and belief, but there are also those who seek a common ground, or who choose to reach out even when there is no evidence of that common ground. The novel is many-threaded, with the plethora of point of view characters used to provide both the depth and breadth needed to navigate these stories in a balanced manner, and although some characters do become lost in the dense fabric of the book, Armstrong largely manages to keep things intertwined enough that it’s easy to keep on track.
Probably the key plot-line is that of journalist cadet Ted, whose role on a local rag affords him the opportunity to be able to explore the migrant context, and the discrimination levelled towards migrants, in a meaningful way, and whose stilted love affair with a young Latvian girl highlights the cultural negotiation involved in bridging two very different life experiences. There’s also Sala, whose wartime experiences and resulting Stockholm syndrome continue to haunt her, and who is also wrestling with how to begin her studies in this new country. There’s the taciturn, reclusive Mr Emil, who lives in a sort of self-imposed exile from a guilty conscience over his war-time choices; and there’s Hania’s mother, whose own forced decision-making during this time continues to torment her. And there’s single mother and bartender Kath, and the angry and seemingly vindictive spinster Ms McNulty, both of whom have been outcast in their own way throughout their lives.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but these various narratives are cleverly interwound–sometimes, admittedly, too much so. Armstrong manages to make sympathetic all of these characters, no matter how diverse their backgrounds and personalities. Yes, there’s an amount of romanticism here, and as the book progresses some of the subplots take on a soap operaesque tone, but character is king, and this is something at which Armstrong excels.
Perhaps what is most keenly felt here is the fact that everyone within this book–and in Australia–is an outcast in some way, and that those dividing lines can be drawn so arbitrarily. Whether it’s due to language, culture, red colour, religion, occupation or disability, it’s easy for a society to become one where everyone is maligned for their differences–but the flip side of the coin could be just as easily embraced instead.
Although I felt that Empire Day ended a little too abruptly and tidily given its breadth of scope and the time put into building its characters and setting, it’s a rich, enjoyable read filled with relatable characters and insights into post-WWII Australia, and one I’d recommend. (less)
I’m always fascinated by how much an individual’s identity is constructed by context and circumstances rather than necessarily stemming from that individual themselves. I’ve found, in my travels, and in my reading, that it’s often the case that being thrust into a new environment, or returning to one that has shifted and changed over the years, brings someone’s identity to the forefront. It seems a contradiction that displacement is needed to pinpoint cultural or personal identity, but I find that, personally, that it’s when I’m somewhere unfamiliar that I realise who I am.
Drusilla Modjeska’s much-lauded fiction debut The Mountain is concerned very much with ideas of identity. Divided into two main sections, the book first looks at the experiences of the Dutch Rika in Papua New Guinea, and the second at a new generation of Papuan natives and their cross-cultural dilemmas. Modjeska examines culture on a number of levels, including the traditional arts, the aspirational desires of particular groups of people, and the uneasy intersection of two very different cultures with very different power dynamics. She also looks at length at how culture does not exist in a vacuum, but is constantly changing and evolving both of its own accord and from its interaction with other cultural groups–no matter how much it is expected to remain the same.
Rika, whose story occupies the first half of the book and in a way, too, the second, epitomises all of these themes. Born in the Netherlands, Rika has since married an English husband, and has arrived in Papua New Guinea as part of her husband’s anthropological studies. The reader immediately feels the tension between the two: Rika has been transplanted twice now, and this time to a world that is utterly unfamiliar and alien. Her husband, in contrast, is an anthropologist/ethnographer who is on a mission to study the local mountain communities. Perhaps it’s this displacement that affects Rika’s perspective of her new home–although an outsider, she sees similar alienation occurring in the village, which has an awkward relationship with Australia and has been affected by a transfusion of white colonialists who though often seeking to study PNG culture are instead influencing it. Rika, however, avoids this cultural imposition, and from behind the lens of her ever-present camera, seeks to learn about the village through customs such as art and dance. Though inevitably a “white” woman, she manages to bridge the cultural divide enough to begin a romance with a local man, Aaron. The nature of this relationship is one that’s complex, and it strongly parallels Rika’s relationship with her new home itself.
The Mountain is in many ways a story of women, and Rika’s story is one of only many in the book. However, hers is not a solitary voice of displacement: all of the women in the book are torn between places or identities in some way, and it’s not uncommon for them to be subjugated in some way to their male partner. Many, too, are in relationships of convenience or which are rooted in pragmatism rather than love. Martha, for example, married her husband Pete largely for the visa that it would afford her, and in moving to PNG for her husband’s work has lost many of the opportunities available to her at home. Her degree and work were seen as more movable and interpretable, and as such she finds herself taking up a sort of second-best education that’s not in line with her original line of study. The context of the study is also awkward, with Martha finding herself the sole white woman in a class of PNG locals studying colonialist literature. Like many others in the book, Martha finds herself without a voice–who is she to speak on such things in this setting? It’s a relevant question, given the efforts of the white volunteers who variously study the locals or attempt to ingratiate themselves into the local culture, both of which Modjeska paint as contrived approaches of misguided philanthropy.
Cultural validity and belonging are clear and persistent themes throughout the book, and it’s not just Rika and Martha’s struggles to find a place in PNG society that are touched upon. As the novel progresses, we look at the stories of local women as well: Laedi, for example, with her white father and a name (a rendering of the Australian pronunciation of “Lady”) that marks her as an outsider. Although the women are given the most voice throughout the book, the male characters are involved in a similar tug-of-war of identity. There are locally born brothers Jacob and Aaron, the first who is focused on “progress” and is happy to sacrifice the beauty of his home country in its name; and Aaron, an activist who seeks the opposite, but yet who falls for a white woman. There’s Milton, who affects the trappings of a western playwright.
And then there’s Jericho, who travels from Australia back to PNG as he seeks to learn about his background–his is a story of “homecoming”, and though he’s earnest in his efforts, his desire to find his cultural heartland smacks of pride and self-indulgence, and feels almost as patronising as the ways in which the white volunteers of the previous generation sought to “improve” PNG through their altruistic efforts. His story comprises the second half of the book, and knits together many of the hanging threads from the first half. It’s a valuable lens, but I couldn’t help but feel that the switch between voices and generations was disorienting.
Racism in its many forms is a key theme of the book, and Modjeska doesn’t shy away from it. The Mountain is in many places an uncomfortable read, as the covert and overt examples of colonialist racism are cringe-inducing. The fences put up to divide the whites from the locals are numerous and exist in both the literal and social/cultural senses. Mixed-race children are forever between cultures, and multicultural relationships are met with anger on one side and a pat sense of conquering to improve on the other.
The Mountain is an admirable read, but it’s no means an easy one. I won’t deny that it’s one that I appreciated more than I enjoyed, and can’t help but feeling that the title embodies exactly the kind of climbing effort involved in reading what often feels more like an anthropological thesis than a novel. There’s just so much here that it’s overwhelming, and it’s easy to become lost in the complexity of the book, particularly when one comes up against the second section of the book, which applies an entirely different lens of an analysis.(less)
A few years ago, my husband and I visited an antiquated lighthouse at the very edge of Western Australia. It was an eerily isolated place, an icon that represented the divide between land and sea, between the order of life ashore and the buffeted, rancorous nature of life on the oceans. It was a wall of sorts: the wind was such that the trees, the shrubs, everything was pitched towards the sea, growing with a hunch-backed bentness. At the very edge of the land were more flies than imaginable: a dark haze of the things that created a wall of their own. The divide between water and land could not have been any clearer, and yet, there was a strange, alluring pull on both sides towards this lighthouse, this beacon that strove to create order out of chaos.
M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans is set in a not dissimilar context, although the lighthouse that forms the key milieu of the novel is located even further away from civilisation, on an island that’s wrapped about by the sea. The island, aptly named Janus, for the two-faced Roman god who looks simultaneously in two directions, is not only physically separated from the morality and social norms of the land, but it’s also a place that represents the key intersection of duality–and duality is a theme that arises again and again in this book.
Janus has but two inhabitants: the lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne, a returned veteran, and his wife Isabel. Their existence is initially a quiet one, the couple fancying themselves as a lovestruck duo set romantically against the world, but their marriage is soon beset by the tragedy of several consecutive miscarriages. So when a boat carrying a dead man and an infant girl washes ashore, they see this moment as a karmic sign, a fulfilment of their desires to at last bear a child. But although Isabel is adamant that the child’s arrival is so serendipitous that it must surely be divine intervention, pragmatic Tom is beset by the unshakeable feeling that the child, unlike Janus, could surely not exist in isolation, and that somewhere she must have a family.
The consequence, of course, is that the Sherbournes’ happiness is built on what can only be the misery of others, and Tom finds this a moral dilemma he can’t abide. And surely enough, just like the lighthouse at Janus, the child, Lucy, becomes the light between two oceans, a force that both unites and divides. This division gradually extends and expands as Tom desperately tries to make things right by anonymously contacting a woman whom he suspects is Lucy’s mother, setting into motion a chain of events that render the illuminating force of the light not a halcyon savour, but rather the cause of the clash between two oceans that, much like the Indian and South Oceans themselves, are utterly different in origin, force and nature.
The paradigm of this dichotomy/duality is not only found in the relationship between the Sherbournes and their subsequent contact with Lucy’s mother, but also in the relationships and experiences found more generally throughout the book, and it’s intriguing to see how far this motif can be extrapolated across character and context. The small town of Partaguese, the closest such down to Janus, is rife with such things, with the recent WWI still looming large in the memories of its residents: there are divisions between the survivors of war and those who remained behind, divisions between class, between race, and so on, and all of them quite thought-provoking. However, it’s the ongoing struggle between the Sherbournes and Lucy’s true mother, as well as that between Tom Sherbourne and Isabel, that takes centre stage: each is convinced of the morality of his or her actions, and that, as Tom so often puts it, the lighthouse is always the first and foremost priority for a lighthouse keeper.
The Light Between Oceans is intelligently and warmly written, and Stedman has done an admirable job of creating three central characters whom it’s possible to identify with and support, no matter how divergent their perspectives. The duality motif does come across as a little explicit at times, and I’m not generally a fan of forefronting a later scene in order to artificially pique a reader’s interest, but overall it’s an excellent read, and one I suspect will become a firm book club favourite.(less)
I was not expecting, in my rambles through the bookshops of Buenos Aires, to come across much in the way of Australian writing, let alone a c...more4.5 stars
I was not expecting, in my rambles through the bookshops of Buenos Aires, to come across much in the way of Australian writing, let alone a crumpled Penguin edition of a 1970s modern classic by Shirley Hazzard. I picked up this slim volume to keep me occupied whilst my husband snoozed in the small plazas we’d settle into after a day of walking, or to read in snatches between tango classes, and found myself caught up not so much in a story, for to be honest there isn’t much of one here, but in a setting that all but seethes off the pages, and in piecing together the fumblingly vague snatches of the characters who exist somewhere between the gauntness of memory and the shadow cast by the blinding Neapolitan sun.
In rebuttal of those who rave about a picture telling a thousand words, I give you Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? Despite a page exten...moreIn rebuttal of those who rave about a picture telling a thousand words, I give you Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? Despite a page extent that runs at just under 150, it’s an immense, almost overwhelming read. Johnston’s style is sharply laconic, and her ability to pinpoint and tease out those horrible, selfish mannerisms and attitudes that are so painfully inherent in human relationships, but which are so often glossed over, is up there with Fitzgerald’s (who did the same with admirable skill in Tender is the Night). This may seem like a slim, slight novel at first glance, but it’s a deeply affecting one, and I’m in awe of Johnson’s relentlessly honest approach.
As 1Q84‘s characters seek the truth of a manuscript whose subject matter is utterly absurd, merrily slip between dimensions to apply whicheve...more2.5 stars
As 1Q84‘s characters seek the truth of a manuscript whose subject matter is utterly absurd, merrily slip between dimensions to apply whichever reality allows the novel to press forward (a dimension where it’s possible to walk through doors certainly helps breaking and entering), and wax lyrical about whether Chekhov’s gun should be fired, there’s a topic that the novel frequently touches upon: the fact that the people of Japan have made the strange and demented Air Chrysalis a huge success simply because it’s the cool thing to do. Given that the characters frequently remark on the book’s odd title (the misuse of “chrysalis” vs “cocoon”) and the fact that the reading population will buy anything they’re told to, one can’t help but wonder whether Murakami is making a (very, very long-winded) statement about his readers.
The cover of Favel Parrett's debut is understated yet quietly eerie: there's a sense of something canted and off-kilter, of loss and confusion. And it...moreThe cover of Favel Parrett's debut is understated yet quietly eerie: there's a sense of something canted and off-kilter, of loss and confusion. And it's apt, for this laconic little read is in equal parts challengingly compelling and surprisingly sympathetic from start to finish.
Shakespeare famously (and metaphorically, but work with me here) asserted that a rose is a rose, no matter its name. For Victoria Jones, Vanessa Diffe...moreShakespeare famously (and metaphorically, but work with me here) asserted that a rose is a rose, no matter its name. For Victoria Jones, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s misanthropic protagonist, every variety of flower or weed is drenched with allusive meaning: peonies represent hatred, while yellow roses have associations of jealousy and infidelity. And it is through this floral language that taciturn, self-loathing Victoria communicates: there is a meticulous concreteness to the idea of communicating via a carefully crafted gift, and the one-to-one subject-to-meaning ratio takes away the ambiguity that Victoria so loathes.
Despite her frank, pragmatic outward persona, would-be novelist Lily Lin is a romantic at heart. Tales of her childhood homeland have always captivate...moreDespite her frank, pragmatic outward persona, would-be novelist Lily Lin is a romantic at heart. Tales of her childhood homeland have always captivated her, and she has always held a certain nostalgia for the famed Silk Road. So when Lily receives an offer from a mysterious benefactor that will see her inheriting three million dollars in exchange for travelling the Silk Road–and undertaking a few admittedly odd tasks besides, she scarcely hesitates before booking her ticket. In China she finds herself a world away from her domineering married boyfriend and her minimum wage job: instead she finds herself caught up in the nuances of life in, for the most part, rural China. Her trip takes her to remote Buddhist temples, to Uyghur settlements, and through exquisite, challenging landscapes. And of course, Lily finds herself falling in love…
Books in which the protagonist finds themselves on the receiving end of a life-changing sum of money abound. There’s Patricia Wood’s Lottery, Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare (see our review), and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s a trope that abounds film and TV (ah, poor Homer Simpson and his elusive millions), perhaps in part because there’s something utterly life-changing about the promise of such huge sums of cash. Money is something that has the potential to change both the how and the why that we live, and its impact can be immense. Curiously, the financial aspect of Lily’s journey is scarcely touched upon throughout the novel. Of her promised three million, she receives fifty thousand up front, and it’s this that she uses during her travels throughout China. Given that even this sum is exorbitant in rural China, there’s never any real sense of need. In fact, despite the fact that Lily asserts that she’s financially motivated, we really only see this towards the end of the novel, when she meets her benefactor. Lily’s journey, rather, seems to be more motivated by the desire to escape from the rather desultory living situation in which she’s found herself.
But Lily’s efforts to escape from her rather vile partner and lead an unencumbered life throughout her travels, she quickly finds herself courted by a young man intent on playing a rather significant role in her life–indeed, this 21-year-old lad drops the “marriage” bomb within a day or so of meeting Lily. His infatuation is so over-the-top that I couldn’t help but wonder whether he himself had a similar quest to Lily’s (this doesn’t turn out to be the case). It’s a sweet relationship for the most part, despite its oddly stalkerish beginnings, but there’s such a sense of convenience to it that I felt myself struggling to believe it. This element of the book in my mind runs counterpart to the love story in Xinran’s Sky Burial, in which a widow searches endlessly for her lost husband in Tibet.
Yip takes us through a fascinating array of cultures and scenery, and the narrative is liberally peppered with all manner of anthropological and ethnographic delights: religious customs, herbal healing, philosophy and ideology, and more. Oddly, these elements are far more enticing than the actual narrative itself, which reads like a poorly plotted road trip novel slotted into an exotic milieu. Lily’s trip, despite requiring her to spend several years in China, only contains three or four actions that she must undertake in order as part of her benefactor’s “mission”, and all of these seem extraneous to the actual themes of the novel– self-discovery. These tasks feel almost as though they have been stitched into the novel as an afterthought, and don’t quite sit neatly against the wider tapestry of the novel. While some of them result in some amusement for the reader, others simply feel like devices to get Lily on her way.
This is in part because of the particular stylistic approach of the novel. Song of the Silk Road is not a translation, but its style is certainly far from that found in a typical western novel. There’s a bluntness and matter-of-factness that I’ve come across in other Chinese novels (and indeed in the Buddhist texts and stories that my Chinese boyfriend occasionally passes my way) that is occasionally jarring to the western ear, and the narrative asides occasionally result in textual bloating. This narrative style also affects our ability to empathise with Lily: heavily self-critical and exceedingly honest in her intentions and goals, she comes across as distinctly unlikeable, and honestly if it weren’t for some of the other characters with whom she interacts along the way, I think I would have struggled to get through some parts of this book.
Moreover, while the Silk Road aspects of the book offer up some truly fascinating insights and experiences, things get messy when Lily returns to New York, and the remainder of the book turns into blatant wish fulfilment and authorial insertion. It’s just so neat and tidy, and while I do understand that Lily gets what she deserves (albeit in rather a different manner from how she imagined she might), I can’t help but feel that the last few chapters of the novel might have benefited from taking a slightly different turn of events. This is a personal taste issue, of course, but there’s a certain “nyah nyah!” to these final chapters that feels awkward to the reader.
If you’re a lover of international literature and you have a yen for travel, then Song of the Silk Road may be something that you enjoy. Despite its slightly wonky narrative and its rather frustrating series of plot coincidences, it brims with cultural insights and explications, and I don’t doubt that many a reader will take something from this novel. If you put yourself in the mindset of a romance reader rather than a mystery or literary reader, you’ll find plenty here to like.(less)
When Peter Hansome dies in a car accident, a number of carefully concealed–or perhaps simply wilfully ignored–truths bubble to the surface. Bridget Hansome, Peter’s widow, is contacted shortly after by Frances Slater, Peter’s long-time mistress, who asks whether she might attend his funeral.
If the authorial pen for this narrative were being wielded by anyone else, this story would veer into flagrant tumult, but in the hands of acclaimed writer Salley Vickers things proceed rather differently from how one might expect. Bridget and Frances, rather than locking horns over who is the rightful possessor of Peter’s heart, embark instead on a mutual journey of self-discovery, delving quietly and inexorably into Peter’s past, which is a dark and problematic area about which each has her own suspicions, but has continued thus far quite happily without airing them to the world. The two develop an acquaintance that teeters between friendship and adversary, and it’s this unlikely relationship, along with that of the mysterious Zahin, a handsome Iranian boy whose relationship with Peter remains ambiguous until the end, that takes up much of the rest of the book.
I suspect that American readers might be put off almost immediately by this development, but that British readers or those from rather more conservative societies might well be sympathetic to each woman’s quiet acceptance of the other’s existence. Both women wish to maintain face by avoiding explicitly addressing the subject in public, but what’s perhaps most curious about this is that the status quo that has extended for the past seven years has been maintained. Peter, after all, made little secret about the fact that he took mistresses, and both Bridget and Frances were aware, to at least some degree, of the existence of the other.
This may seem horribly anti-feminist, but I’m not entirely sure that it is. As the book unfolds, the reader sees that while Peter sees himself as playing a major role in the lives of his wife and mistress, neither woman considers him in such a light. Both are independent and successful in their own right, and while they partake of his company, there is little sense of their giving themselves over to him. Peter fills a gap or sorts, but whether this gap is one that needs filling is questionable. Indeed, the complex relationship that the two women develop is less about wishing to keep Peter alive in some sense, but more about examining their own selves through the lens of the other–something that is possible largely because Bridget and Frances are so curiously different.
Peter, then, despite being to some degree the theme of the novel, is rather less of a character (although he does crop up, Hamlet-like, in ghostly form every now and then). While the reader is guided to look towards trilogies, triptychs, and triads throughout the novel–at the levels of character, symbol, and theme–I found personally that Bridget and Frances are rather more of a binary, and that while Peter is omnipresent, his role is certainly not that of a third party within their relationship. Peter, indeed, fades as the others move on with their lives, and additional binaries take over instead: Frances’s pregnancy, for example, linking her to her child, but curiously helping to break her bond with Peter; and Bridget’s relationship with unsubtly named and alarmingly well-read chimney sweep Stanley Godwit, which of course has a severing force. Of course, love triangles abound throughout the book almost to the point of absurdity, but in my mind rather than highlighting the famous strength of the three-sided bond, there’s a certain unevenness in these relationships: two parts of the three unfailingly dominate the third.
Vickers’s work famously draws on literary and artistic allusion, and Instances of the Number 3 is no different, although its approach is slightly less heavy-handed than those in works such as The Other Side of You, which uses a Caravaggio painting as an anchor point, and Miss Garnet’s Angel, which rather heavy-handedly integrates an historic, Biblical narrative into the main story. Poetry and performance are caught up in the novel (and indeed, are quoted at length, which is not an approach that quite works for me), and we are given myriad works against which to consider Peter’s ethical self, and indeed those of his surviving lovers. Dante gets a nod, and so does Shakespeare–and let’s not forget Yeats, whose When You Are Old gets more than a look-in. The issue of godly punishment and religious self-flagellation is also raised: Peter, a closet Catholic, after all, dies on his way to visit another lover, and it is his mistress, not his wife, who ends up carrying his child.
As always, Vickers provides enough food for thought to feed the metaphysical souls of an army, and while Instances of the Number 3 does occasionally overstep the mark in the coincidences and twists it throws up, for the most part it’s a fascinating, absorbing read–perhaps in part because of the author’s sober, uninvolved style, which allows these characters to indulge their flights of fancy without it coming across as such.
Vivacious, intelligent, driven, and high-achieving, Allison Glenn was not the sort of teenage girl you’d expect to see sent to prison. Five years on, Allison is being released, but it’s into a world of fearful unknowns. Estranged from her family and ostracised by the residents of the small town in which she grew up, Allison is painfully alone. Even the residents of the halfway house into which she moves, although broken and damaged themselves, can’t accept her. But Allison’s luck turns when she is offered a job at a local bookshop, and she leaps upon the opportunity, hoping that she will be able at long last to pull her life back on track. But arriving at work, Allison comes face to face with a sight entirely unexpected: a little boy who is the very image of herself. A little boy who is the twin of the baby girl for whose murder she was convicted.
These Things Hidden is Heather Gudenkauf’s sophomore effort, following from the highly successful The Weight of Silence. It’s a beautifully written novel, and one that demands quite a lot of the reader, revealing its secrets slowly and with substantial gravity. The four point of view characters are exclusively female, and Gudenkauf does a remarkable job of differentiating them beautifully around a particular key attribute (which I’ll discuss in depth below). Their voices are superbly rendered, and there’s scarcely a false note in the novel when it comes to narrative voice. The plot necessarily makes a few leaps of coincidence in order to bring together these four characters in the way required to bring about the chilling denouement, and while they’re not entirely unbelievable, they did mar this book just a touch for me. I think part of this is to do with the size of the town in which the characters live: we’re first led to believe that it’s a vanishingly small town in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, but the town’s size and closeness seem to change depending on the immediate demands of the plot. Still, Gudenkauf’s suggestion of predestination and synchronicity (which is what seems to be suggested by the plot) is interesting, and the idea that certain fates are intertwined until particular courses of action have played out is fascinating.
In my mind, These Things Hidden is perhaps most profoundly a book about motherhood, and the different ways in which motherhood can be constructed by different actors. It’s with exquisite care and sensitivity that the novel braids together four separate points of view, using each one to explicate the complexity and variability of the mother-child relationship. Inevitably, it’s Allison we come to know best, as it’s because of her actions that the other characters come to be in their own respective situations. Allison’s mother-daughter relationships are myriad, and rarely traditional. We watch as she becomes slowly crippled under the pressure she places upon herself in trying to win the love of her brutally cold mother, and how the mothering role she plays towards her younger sister Brynn slowly transforms into something equally as distant. There’s the disconnect she feels upon giving birth to her children, whose presence she has tried to ignore throughout her pregnancy, in a sense mirroring again her own tenuous relationship with her mother. Finally, there’s the comfort she gives to Claire, her boss at the bookshop, and the way in which she steps into the life of Joshua, Claire’s adopted son, despite the years that have been elided from their relationship. Allison that becomes the focal point through which we can examine the mothering tendencies of the other women. There’s Claire, who is unable to have children, and who has placed herself firmly and wholly into the role of Joshua’s mother. Claire’s fear of losing Joshua is palpable, and the ease with which this could happen is highlighted throughout the book: we flash back to her first would-be adopted child being returned to its mother, then witness a robbery in which both Joshua and Claire are threatened. Claire is also positioned as a way to muse on the value of motherhood and the child-parent relationship: her desperate struggle to have children is contrasted with Allison’s detachment, and there’s certainly a value judgement here being explored.
Charm, the sister of Allison’s erstwhile lover, and a regular patron of Claire’s bookshop, is positioned somewhere between Allison and Claire on the motherhood scale. Initially given the task of raising Joshua, Charm found the task to be too challenging, particularly given that she has long been playing the role of carer (and/or mother) to her terminally ill step-father. The issue of the role of determination and desire is raised here, as is that of the limitations of gregariousness and selflessness: can Charm stretch her empathy to care not only for her stepfather, but for a baby, too? The notion of finite empathy is one that is often raised in situations relating to charity or sympathy, and is interestingly dealt with throughout the book. Charm’s role is not limited to this, however: her challenging relationship with her mother also features strongly, and the selfish and self-interested role occupied by her frivolous mother is an interesting comparison point with Allison, with whom she inevitably comes face to face, resulting in a necessary confrontation/comparison. This juxtaposition is quite fascinating, given that both women are attempting to mitigate the errors of their pasts, yet are haunted by the legacies they’ve created. Finally, there’s Brynn, Allison’s younger sister a girl who has lost her mother twice: first her maternal mother, whom she perceives has always rejected her in favour of Allison, and then Allison herself, who gradually grows away from Brynn as she enters adolescence. Brynn’s desire to be loved and accepted seems from an early age to be unhealthy, but it’s only as the book progresses that we find out the extraordinary degree to which this is true. Brynn herself is given some few opportunities to play the role of the mother: first, during Allison’s labour, during which she tends to her sister and is told to care for the newborns. Her actions in this scenario result in her “failure” as a mother, and trigger the resulting situation. Later, Brynn becomes seen as broken: she begins to care for animals instead, and then only the imperfect and unwanted ones. Brynn’s sense of self has been crippled, and this notion presents itself dramatically during her tragic and chilling reunion with Allison.
In addition to addressing motherhood in great depth, the book also examines the consequences of actions both good and bad, and the interconnectedness of things (as noted above in my opening paragraph). It highlights the consequences of acting rashly or without deep thought, and without taking the time to consider how deeply and to what degree one’s actions will affect not only oneself, but those with whom one directly or indirectly interacts. Allison’s actions to only to protect herself in light of her pregnancy, but also to protect her sister Brynn, have a compounding effect that continues to manifest, and the same is true of the other characters within the book. At the same time, action in the form of inaction, in this case in the form of silence is also a key element, and the various characters’ failure to speak out or tell the whole truth continues to frustrate their efforts, resulting in a festering, simmering situation not easily resolved without precipitative action.
With nods to authors such as Maggie O’Farrell and Alice Sebold, These Things Hidden is a quiet exploration of the lives of several women whose seemingly normal desires (ie, those related to the maternal instinct) result in their being in an entirely extraordinary situation that gains a startling and supremely challenging depth and complexity. It’s a novel about identity, relationships, honesty, and agency, and it’s a truly fascinating one. While the ending is telegraphed fairly early on, and there’s a certain inevitability to the plot, Gudenkauf writes with such integrity that it’s difficult not to become caught up in the lives of her characters. I’d highly recommend this as a book club pick.(less)
Having recently listened to an episode of the excellent Book Show in which two biographers of notable historical figures were interviewed, I found myself pondering the complexity of the the genre of biography, and of the different approaches taken to it by different authors. The art of biography seems maddeningly akin to piecing together a vast jigsaw puzzle without having as a starting point the image of the box: the final result is dependent on the materials at hand at the time and the ways in which they seem to fit together. Victoria Glendinning, author of The Grown-Ups no doubt knows this fact well. A noted biographer, she has completed a number of critically acclaimed accounts of the lives of well-known historical figures, so it’s perhaps not unsurprising to see her try her hand, and rather successfully indeed, at a fictionalised version of the same.
The Grown-Ups is less a linear narrative than it is a work whose chapters, and indeed perspectives, radiate outwards from a central character. Leon Ulm is a social philosopher who enjoys continued success in almost every field of his life, although the reason for this is almost unfathomable to the reader, making the entire conceit all the more intriguing. Ulm is a high-status academic whose occupational success hinges on a book written in his youth, and which he continues to reference and facetiously expand upon in both his personal and professional life. Ulm is a fraud of sorts in all spheres of his existence: he admits by the by that the more pivotal sections of the book in question were lifted from the work of another (now forgotten) academic, and devotes much time and effort to extra-marital affairs and, often, the mere possibility of these affairs. Ulm is boorish, crass, increasingly irrelevant, and yet puffed up with his own self-worth–a self-worth that others around him seem to see and accept almost unquestioningly. Ulm, rather like Marlon Brando in his post-Dr Moreau days, is certainly nothing worth fancying, but those around him find themselves inexplicably drawn to him. Multiple wives, myriad lovers, adorers from afar: there’s something about Ulm. But, of course, a man so lost in his own nebulous pomp and circumstance is bound to see a downfall, and Ulm’s ludicrous, arrogant actions result in a personal capsising from which there’s no hope of return.
Glendinning’s background as a biographer bursts through the pages of The Grown-Ups: it’s a rich, confident, and evocative work that, like many works of (faux-)history, paints a convincing argument by knitting together a patchwork of small details that eventually become part of a larger whole that often turns out to be astonishing in its scope and direction. Ulm is the principal character in that he is the pivotal aspect of the book’s plot, and is also the key focus of the book’s other major characters, and thus his presence serves, too, as a springboard from which the lives and motivations of Glendinning’s other carefully wrought characters leap and launch.
The Grown-Ups is as such a literary mosaic, examining the lives of all of those influenced by Leo Ulm, and who, as much as Ulm would no doubt like to ignore this fact, significantly influence his own life. There’s a sense, too, that as Ulm becomes increasingly irrelevant to the world, try though he might to refute this fact, his influence on those around him is less and less. For example, Ulm’s ex-wife, Charlotte, broken and maddened, leads a forlorn and lost existence that continues to revolve around Ulm despite their having been divorced for many years. Martha, Ulm’s current wife, on the other hand, leads a life whose most promising, valuable moments are those where Ulm is elsewhere. Martha, quiet, selfless, and yielding when Ulm is around, comes into her own when he is away at a conference or is unwell, allowing herself to become engrossed in her work as an illustrator and adopting the swift and pragmatic habits of the younger, more progressive women around her. A small act such as eating a simple sandwich with cheese for dinner, rather than vast and elaborate cooked meal that would be otherwise eaten, when Leo is in absentia highlights Martha’s palpable relief at no longer having to do her husband’s bidding, and these small rebellions slowly grow in number and immensity.
The fascinatingly ambiguous, ambivalent character of Clara is an excellent addition to the book, as where Ulm’s influence is patriarchal, crushing, and endlessly, hopelessly, boorish, Clara’s is in many instances the opposite. It’s a curious juxtaposition, as Clara, unlike the happily self-obsessed Ulm sees herself as invisible, uninfluential, and yet her presence has a precipitating force on many of the other characters. The relationship between Leo and Clara is tense and complex: one is the yin to the other’s yang; one represents the increasing irrelevance of the gentry class, while the other is representative of forces for social change. Ulm, of course, recognises this, but uses his position as a social philosopher (of all things!) to rail against the potential societal changes that would see him, and those like him, take a back seat to those whose success is more the result of their actions than their backgrounds. Clara’s feminism is a welcome counterpoint to Ulm’s regressive beliefs, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable to watch her, often entirely innocently, utterly skewer Ulm as she ponders various misogynistic quotes from Tolstoy, or squirrel away for later use the odd classist comment from a new mother and her obnoxious, born-into-wealth children. Of course, as Clara gradually grows more confident in her role and her person, her influence grows more vast, while Ulm’s dwindles (a narrative approach that reminds me of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (see our review), and as Ulm begins to take a more off-stage role, those who once lived in his shadow begin to come into their own. There are a number of fascinating character transformations as a result, a sense of Dante-esque returning to the light of life and agency after spending so long underground. After a life of forced infantilism, the grown-ups eventually do become just that.
The book does stumble marginally towards the end, with Ulm’s fate perhaps a mite unbelievable, but given that the book is more thematically than narratively oriented, the conceit still holds up. And given Ulm’s desultory character, one admittedly delights in his being taken off-stage at last to allow for the emancipation of the remaining characters.
On a prose level, Glendinning’s work is superlative, and there are a number of lines that I, if I were a book-graffitiing sort of person, would have underlined or dog-eared for later reference. Glendinning appears to write very much for the ear, and has a style similar to that of the exemplary Salley Vickers (see our reviews), although perhaps a little more explicitly introspective. The book abound with quotable, memorable moments, and time and time again Glendinning so perfectly captures a character’s thoughts or the mood of a scene that it’s difficult not to jab at the book and wave it around in delight. (“See! See! That’s it! That’s exactly right!” my poor boyfriend had to hear on several occasions). Glendinning’s characterisation is superb, and her characters are complexly, frustratingly human, contradicting themselves, wavering constantly, and changing and altering with every situation. Everyone, including the rather execrable Ulm, is utterly, fiercely believable, which is an achievement in a book so slim.
Like Salley Vickers, Glendinning is an author I picked up on a whim, but who I am utterly overjoyed to have encountered. Her ability to so beautifully delineate not just a small group of friends and relatives, but the entire society into which they fit, is remarkable, and this, combined with her beautiful characterisation and exquisite prose, makes for a wonderfully erudite and enlightening read. Ulm’s position as the central character is a risky step, but one that Glendinning pulls off, particularly given the insightful feminist critique that occurs through the character of Clara. Highly recommended.(less)
For someone whose background involves copious amounts of Jungian psychoanalysis, it's no surprise that Salley Vickers in her work so frequently touches on notions of the development of self, and on individual narrative journeys in order to reach a greater sense of consciousness and agency. While Vickers has in some of her work, such as the tremendously erudite The Other Side of You (see our review), done this by means of the presentation of a character whose main role is to act as a facilitator, other novels, such as her most recent, Dancing Backwards (see our review), have relied on more internally precipitative forces in order to do so. For Vickers, it seems as though such progressions can be afforded through the offerings of art, music, literature, and spiritual considerations, all of which have in common the fact that they require substantial intellectual and emotional engagement on behalf of a given individual. As such, Vickers's novels tend to be those of emotional and spiritual renaissance, in which an individual, or indeed several individuals, epiphanously unfurl into a degree of personal enlightenment, rather in the manner of a fern unrolling towards the touch of the sun. Miss Garnet's Angel, Vickers's accomplished debut, epitomises perfectly this particular authorial proclivity.
When her long time friend Harriet passes away without warning, the abstemious Miss Garnet finds herself facing a void whose substance or raison de etre she is unable, perhaps on some level willingly, to fathom. As a torrent of existential torment threatens (albeit done away with with pragmatic huff), Miss Garnet finds herself fleeing to Venice, where she takes up residence in a homely apartment whose amenities scarcely extend beyond a battered pan for coffee and which is decorated in the tragic remains of her landlady's glory box. But despite her efforts to the sort of anonymity she has so long enjoyed in London, Miss Garnet finds that her quiet, English ways serve only to make her conspicuous amongst the warm Venetian community and amidst the cultural richness of the famously romantic city. Miss Garnet, an individual whose worldview is cripplingly narrow and which relies upon vicariousness rather than personal experience, and who prefers to rely on the expounded theories and perceptions of others rather than engage with her own, finds that her newly public persona is a facilitating force when it comes to developing quaint and curious friendships, and to finding herself the subject of a series of curiously circumspect encounters. Despite her naturally retiring ways, Miss Garnet, or Julia (meaning "young"), as we come to know her, begins to find that her most deeply, intransigently held conceptions in relation to herself and her place in life are perhaps resting on rather shaky foundations. Through a multi-pronged plot that intertwines with the ancient biblical tale of Tobias and the Angel, Vickers traces Miss Garnet's slow but inevitable efforts towards personal realisation as she finds herself nested within a series of complex, ambiguous relationships and curious, inexplicable occurrences.
Miss Garnet's Angel sits beautifully within Vickers's oeuvre, and the more of her work I read the better I'm able to discern how her novels form a thematic (if not a narrative) series. Fortunately, given the fact that the continuity here is thematic, there's no issue with reading her work out of order, which is of course the path I've apparently taken to her work.
Vickers delights in working with those characters who are so often overlooked both within fiction and within society: the quiet, the shy, the introverted, and given this, her choice of Miss Garnet as a protagonist is unsurprising. However, what is surprising is that while many others will conflate introversion and introspection, Vickers sidesteps this trope, giving us a character who is not only cut off from the world, but from herself, too. Her frugality of self is almost total, and she struggles to engage with anything that might have meaning or that may pose a threat to the face that she has so carefully established. Curiously, her lack of identity is so absolute that when pressed, she names herself by her (former) occupation as a history teacher rather than as an historian, the latter being, at least to Miss Garnet, far more intertwined with one's sense of self. Indeed, Miss Garnet's sense of personal isolation is such that she even perceives of herself in the third person; it is some time until she becomes comfortable using her given (or perhaps "Christian", given the themes of the book, and Miss Garnet's self-professed agnosticism) name.
This inability to self-reflect or to challenge one's personal assumptions and conceptions of course extends through to Miss Garnet's necessarily narrow social life: despite having considered the late Harriet a close friend, it is really only in death that Harriet begins to exert any great influence on Miss Garnet's life. Miss Garnet, despite herself, travels with a giddily ostentatious hat that was once Harriet's, and this prop becomes a substitute for her friend, offering Miss Garnet both comfort and a safe and unchallenging means by which she might at last engage with her erstwhile friend. The notion of a post-mortem friendship is curious, and speaks to the degree to which a person or a relationship can be so completely created or moulded by the mind of another. To me, the relationship between Miss Garnet and Harriet is perhaps the strongest element of the book, and Miss Garnet's own realisations about the nature of the relationship--such as the magnanimity Harriet kept from her friend to avoid being seen as frivolous--are often deeply moving.
Miss Garnet's spiritual renaissance, of course, is also alluded to by the way in which her bigotry is slowly uncovered and dealt with: gender, class, and racial constructs come to the fore time and time again and are steadily dealt with as the narrative, and thus Miss Garnet, progresses. I do have some qualms about the way in which issues such as Miss Garnet's virginal, love-less past and her cautious, frugal nature are dealt with through this spiritual awakening, and do find it somewhat confronting that it is, largely, spirituality that is highlighted as the key transformative force for Miss Garnet. Still, Vickers does not require of her character a transmutation from lead to gold or the like: rather, for the most part Miss Garnet largely remains herself, but simply a more weathered, self-assessing version of the same.
Perhaps the element of Miss Garnet's Angel that worked least well for me was the counterpoint narrative, an account of the spiritual recovery of Tobit and Tobias that limns Miss Garnet's own journey. While I appreciate the conceit, I felt that this secondary narrative devolved into confusion at some points, and at others was simply too neat and coincidental; the result of which was that these chapters felt rather smug and knowing, and detracted from the quiet beauty of the rest of the narrative.
As a debut outing, Miss Garnet's Angel is beautifully accomplished, revealing the wit and perspicacity that is a hallmark of Vickers's fiction. Her depiction of Venice is outstanding, and her characters equally so, both of which together lends the book a sense of sincerity and groundedness that is needed given the pervasive themes of religion, spiritualism, and self-discovery. It's my feeling that the narrative would have benefited from a better integration (or excision) of the Tobit/Tobias secondary narrative, but I do appreciate Vickers's efforts in working with such a story.
Tender is the Night, one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s later works, was begun in 1925, but was not published until some years later. Indeed, the lapse betwe...moreTender is the Night, one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s later works, was begun in 1925, but was not published until some years later. Indeed, the lapse between composition and publication had significant impact upon the book’s success: although the author considered it to be his masterpiece, it was met with little of the runaway success and critical accolades of a work such as The Great Gatsby, which arguably remains today Fitzgerald’s seminal work. This in part was due to the temporal disconnect between the novel’s setting and themes and the emerging literary trends at the time. Rather than the novels of excess and delight that had so been in vogue in earlier years, the American literary horizon in the 1930s demanded greater austerity, greater restraint. Fitzgerald also considered the book’s structure to be commercially problematic, and as such, a significantly reworked second edition of the book was subsequently released after his death; it is this edition that is discussed in this review. Read the rest of this reviewhere(less)
This little snippet was told to my high school writing class by author Cate Kennedy some years ago, and it’s something that has continued to haunt me. Why does the world seem to get smaller rather than larger as we age? Why is growing up accompanied by a closing up of our minds and our imaginations? Why, despite my efforts to extend my mind through art and literature and music, do I see a box where my little brother sees a rocket ship or a tiger? Why is our time necessarily given over to activities and processes whose ends and purpose we can scarcely elucidate? Why do we concern ourselves with the so readily assessed concrete when we might instead spend our days engaging with the abstract, the unanswerable?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s astonishingly erudite and incisive novella The Little Prince is a plea to those of us who suffer from the degenerative disease of the imagination known as the adult condition to set aside the prescriptive boundaries of our realities and focus instead on those things that are truly real and meaningful despite the cultural narrative that says otherwise. The book whimsically begins with de Saint Exubery, himself the narrator, describing the dashing of his budding art career at the hands of adults who fail to see what he does:
I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: “Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?”
My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. However, it is not until many years later that his potential as an artist is once again revived, and by this point de Saint-Exupery lacks, if you’ll pardon the pun, the exuberance of his childhood years. He has spent his life travelling the world and participating in the various routines social norms required of Important Adult Life, but these achievements mean little when he finds himself stranded in the vastness of the Sahara desert, a place that gives little weight to social status, economic position, or comport. The Sahara is, like de Saint Exubery was all those years ago, vast, open, endless, and given the lack of boundaries or inhibitive forces present–beyond, of course, the most base need to survive–it represents a landscape of potential renaissance and transformation.
And this is indeed the case. For into de Saint-Exupery’s world comes The Little Prince, a solemn, innocent child who has travelled from planet to planet seeking sense and meaning from those he has encounters. The Little Prince’s stories, allegorical tales satirising the futility of modern life, are interspersed with questions that, firmly and deliberately, have a foot in both existentialist and absurdist camps. Thus, while de Saint-Exupery seeks desperately to repair his plane or seek water to sate his thirst, The Little Prince assails him with commands to draw a picture of a sheep that he might use to tame the hungry boabab trees on his own world, asks to consider the nature of rose thorns, and regales him with tales of the fox with whom he has made friends. The apparent strangeness of this situation is contrasted with equally strange situations from our “real” world that are nevertheless perceived as normative: the merchant who has developed a pill designed to slake thirst indefinitely, thus removing the need for (and pleasure of) drinking; a chilling train station scenario that highlights the meaninglessness and lack of engagement associated with work; the careful tending and creation of reverent things but purely for the sake of ornament.
But in addition to its satirical condemnation of adulthood and the superficial machinations of modern life, The Little Prince is also a poignant examination of love in all its forms. It not only addresses filial and romantic love, but also the source, the manifestation, and the reciprocation of love, not to mention the poignant, richly motivated acts to which love can drive us. There are elements of the book that are truly heart-rending: The Little Prince’s struggles with an unrequited love–the object of which would typically be pooh-poohed in our world–and his eventual final act in the name of that love are hugely, deeply moving.
The Little Prince isn’t flawless. There are times when its titular character is simply a skilled orator professing arguable truths and perhaps engaging in sophistry. But it’s difficult not to be rallied by its call to live in a more meaningful, sincere way, and to find beauty and value in those things that are beyond fact, that offer more than superficial engagement.
So perhaps I, as an adult, will one day be able not just to pretend, but to truly believe, that my little brother’s cardboard box is not just that, but is infinitely expandable, transformative: perhaps it is a boabab tree, perhaps a sheep, perhaps a planet of its own. Until then, every time I feel lost within the grim absurdity of adulthood, I’ll take to heart de Saint-Exupery’s exhortation to look up at the sky and ponder whether somewhere, a sheep that I’ve never seen has eaten a rose. And I hope you do the same, too.(less)
I always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fa...moreI always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fascinating. All art and literature is informed by that which comes before it and, likewise, my own reading is informed in the same way. It’s curious, because at some subconscious level I seem to select my reading in waves, and I’ll find that when writing my reviews the previous few books that I’ve read vie for a place within my latest review (or perhaps I simply notice in those instances when this happens, and otherwise not so much!).
Reading Albert Camus’s classic existentialist work The Stranger (alternatively rendered as The Outsider) was one of these experiences. Having studied The Plague extensively a few years ago, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the author’s work, but this was my first encounter with this particular novel. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help but find myself slotting it in amongst recently read novels such as The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee, and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. All feature those who are in some way lost or deficient; all are about the role of the individual within society, and how that role is simultaneously (and conflictingly) created by and created for that individual; all feature condemnation of this individual; and all a sort of phoenix-like redemption or self-renaissance through the arts or through introspection. Fascinatingly, though, while similar themes are touched upon in each of these books in each case the take and perspective of the author is different. As such, we get a series of books that intersect but that don’t necessarily overlap, and which inform each other without deriving from each other.
The protagonist of The Outsider is Mersault, an ambiguous character who, like Coetzee’s K, is rarely named and who as a result (as Foucault, who emphasises the importance of names in modern society, might argue) seems to float, inchoate, at the periphery of the reader’s awareness despite being forefronted by the author. Unlike K, however, whose laconic, socially distant ways stem from his imbecilic innocence, Mersault’s antisocial ways are painted in more of a nihilistic light. Where K functions adequately and largely unquestioningly within the bounds of society until the exigencies of civil war, Mersault has spent his life struggling with societal norms, seeing himself as beyond their artificially negotiated bounds. There is a sense of acceptance (or perhaps resignation) within K that is not evident within Mersault, whose self-imposed sense of alienation has an air of the cynical and hostile to it. Moreover, throughout Coetzee’s novel, K’s ‘deficiencies’ are accepted by others as being due to his slow-wittedness and his physical weakness, while Mersault, who is physically and intellectually normal, is seen as deliberately transgressing. There are differences, too, in the degree to which they function as part of a wider social circle. K, for example, despite being penniless and without means of transportation, seeks to return his ailing mother to her rural home-place–doing so during shocking conditions and circumstances–while Mersault’s treatment of his own mother is used to position him as amoral and heartless, and is eventually the cause of his downfall. In contrast, K is always depicted as benign and to a degree beatific, although one could argue that the torment his mother suffered during the trek was far more cruel than Mersault’s actions, which involved placing his own ailing mother in a nursing home when he is unable to accommodate her in his own residence. Both believes he is doing the right thing, and while both are punished eventually, it is for very different reasons and very different ways.
Where The Outsider linked in to The Man in the High Castle for me was largely to do with lived realities and the seeming powerlessness one has over fate. Dick in his classic dystopian novel has his characters realise that they are living in one of many possible realities, and that there are indeed worlds where the United States has not come under combined German and Japanese rule. However, Dick’s point is that despite this realisation that what seems real is not what is necessarily real, it is still real to those living within those circumstances. That is, while there are indeed realities in which the Allies won World War II, this is practically little more than a hypothesis, as Dick’s characters have no choice but to continue living the narrative that has been ascribed to them. Similarly, Mersault, eventually condemned for murder less on the actual facts of the crime and more on his murky character, reflects on both his current reality as well as other possible outcomes and the points from which they have sprung. Like Dick’s characters, however, after reflecting on these possibilities and seeking solace within, he eventually grimly yields to his one and only lived reality, which in his case ends a long, painful march to the scaffold. Curiously, however, where Dick’s characters arguably always act in moral ways regardless of the extenuating circumstances in which they find themselves, Mersault seeks to absolve himself by arguing that he has done no wrong. He has, of course, wronged, but like the jury who tries him, fixates on the wrong circumstances and acts when trying to assert his innocence.
The notion of absolution through art is a strong theme of The Man in the High Castle, The Other Side of You, and The Outsider. In Dick’s novel, art is used as a way of finding the chung fu, the inner truth, of the world, and the book within the book that is so central to its final outcome is also a means to existential enlightenment. In The Other Side of You art, in the form of Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s famous Supper at Emmaus and through more traditional spoken-word narratives, is used to allow Vickers’s two main characters to embark upon a journey of self-discovery and to finally assuage their guilt and ambivalence over past wrongs. Similarly, in The Outsider Mersault pointedly assesses a women whose only interaction with culture is in circling indiscriminately the radio programmes on offer that week; and indeed, later, he seeks to find himself not through the spiritual absolution offered by the prison chaplain, but through throwing himself into his memory and seeking self-realisation through this means.
Curiously, the absurdity of life and the arbitrariness of societal rules is touched upon in all four novels, despite their largely stoic approaches. In each, the novel’s characters manage to transcend themselves by a self-realisation that largely stems from rationalising society as absurd.(less)
Caravaggio’s famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man wh...moreCaravaggio’s famously evocative painting the Supper at Emmaus depicts a scene from the gospel of St Luke in which a deceptively unprepossessing man who has walked anonymously with two disciples reveals himself as Jesus. The scene echoes Jesus’s earlier words that he will always appear when others gather in his name, and this theme of rebirth, although more of the spirit than of the spiritual, becomes a key motif in Salley Vickers’s novel The Other Side of You. Read the rest of this review here(less)
From birth K, the titular character of JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, exists outside the normal routines and regulations of society. A harelip prevents him from breastfeeding, forcing his mother to enter into a tormented, fragmented feeding routine; as he grows older, it affects his ability to communicate with others. Or at least this is what we are led to believe; as the novel progresses it is difficult to determine to what degree K’s extreme taciturnity is attributable to his mild physical abnormality, or whether it is his overwhelming desire to be left alone that is the cause. K is the very embodiment of negative face, wanting nothing more than to be left to his own devices, unquestioned, answerable to no one, undisturbed. But such a thing is impossible within a modern society, which draws its very strength from the way it pulls together citizens and makes them useful, makes them contribute. Indeed, Coetzee emphasises the inability of a society to leave someone be, highlighting the inevitable massaging of a wayward spirit into something that is societally appropriate. The very value of a person is dependent on the degree to which they can do so, and society works to imbue its citizens with whatever value can be squeezed from them: even K, mentally impaired, unambitious, and with little proclivity towards any form of participatory citizenship, is guided into special care, and eventually into an employment program.
The assertion of the impossibility of the individual’s ever truly being extricated from the grasp and influences of a society or a community is expounded upon throughout the novel, with Coetzee positioning K to demonstrate the way in which an individual can be, and inevitably is, caught up in events not of their causing, and moreover events where they are unable to effect any sort of meaningful change, but must instead allow themselves to move with the current of progress and time. K finds himself amidst the exigencies of a civil war—ostensibly one of the many struggles arising under Apartheid, but which Coetzee avoids naming presumably so as to shift the focus from matters of race and ethnicity and on to the individual instead—and is soon lost amongst a confusion of new laws, requirements, and permits, the very notion of which is entirely at odds with his (deceptively) simple desire to be able to exist without external intervention. K retreats to his mother’s childhood home, an oasis of sorts in the countryside where he is able to shake off the shackling demands of society and eke out an astoundingly solitary existence.
K, as his minimalist moniker and flight from a crowded urban environment might suggest, seems to wish to make as little an impact on the world as possible, and this is an end he pursues with what might be naiveté, or what might be the sort of enlightenment only available to those otherwise unencumbered by social and material trappings. Coetzee paints K as beneficent, beatific, a lone voice of passion and self-awareness against the illogical actions of the soldiers and medical officers who occasionally intervene in his narrative of solitude. While these individuals are painted as unreflective, allowing decisions to be made for them, and pursuing certain courses of action for no reason other than they simply should, K’s conceptually simple but demonstratively challenging desire to lead an uninhibited and unoppressed life becomes his identity, and gradually, perhaps pointedly, perhaps not, he allows the power of its ideology to consume him. K’s needs become less and less of this world, and he retreats not only socially, but physically, gradually waning due to a growing inability to stomach any sort of food, a cyclical return to his innocent infancy. His state brings to mind that of saints said not to have needed to partake of food or water: he is slowly deserting the physical elements of reality, but in doing so reaches a painful existential clarity.
Of course, Coetzee pointedly has others, usually representatives of society as a whole, intervene, trying to guide him to follow their schedules, to eat their foods, to participate in their worlds, to take on, even, a name. This all serves to craft a vivid dichotomy between the reasoned and the routine, with these scenes providing a commentary on the typically bestowed value of human life. K is seen by others as being inscrutable, as contributing nothing, and they therefore seek, through ironically nonsensical and unconsidered means, to move him to provide this value: at one point, for example, K is ordered to dig holes that are later filled in. It’s curious, though, that K never actually denies their demands; rather, he complies to the best of his ability, forcing his emaciated frame to run as commanded, or to choke down the gruel that his body can no longer digest. K’s passivity is perhaps the result of a growing disconnection from this world.
Life and Times of Michael K is for the most part exquisitely rendered, written in Coetzee’s famously sparse and disinterested prose, which at times serves to provide a chilling clinical tone that seems apt given the actions of the state towards its citizens. However, it does veer towards the didactic at times, and while K is generally a superbly realised character, there are moments where he feels like an awkwardly maneouvred vehicle for Coetzee’s pointed social and existential commentary. This is particularly the case in the latter parts of the book, which are told from the perspective of K’s doctor, and in which the two stoically face off in relation to their perspectives of what life could and should entail. The sudden introduction of the doctor’s perspective, after a finely wrought and deeply moving narrative from the viewpoint of K feels far from seamless, and it’s as though Coetzee has realised the shortcomings of casting a simpleton as his protagonist. The doctor’s role is almost that of a Greek chorus, but a thoroughly unnecessary one, and the blatant philosophising that characterises this section detracts somewhat from the quiet strength of the rest of the book.
In all, though, Coetzee has in his second Booker Prize winner crafted a world of tormented melancholy that is rich, vivid, and utterly believable, and will haunt the reader long after it has been returned to its place on the bookshelf.(less)