When seventeen-year-old Evelyn Roe digs an unformed, featureless human right out of the red clay of her family's farm in North Carolina during a torreWhen seventeen-year-old Evelyn Roe digs an unformed, featureless human right out of the red clay of her family's farm in North Carolina during a torrential winter rainstorm, she had little idea just how much her narrow existence, or her ideas of life, would change. Rhonda Riley's story of Evelyn's life, her great love for this Other being the existence of which she cannot explain but which will confront all her traditional, accepted ideas - and those of her small-town community in the aftermath of World War II - has all the quiet, everyday normality of a real woman's life, complemented by the bizarre, the extraordinary, the unexpected.
The war has not yet ended when Evelyn, the oldest of four siblings and the only one with any experience, is told by her parents that she will run her Aunt Eva's farm now that her aunt has died and her sons aren't coming back from the war. Evelyn is quite happy to work on the farm and live in Aunt Eva's old farmhouse, even if it has no electricity or indoor plumbing; she has a deep love for the land that nurtures them all and enjoys the hard work.
It is while she is out checking the property during a rainstorm that is turning into a flood that her dog, Hobo, finds something in the clay mud. Investigating, Evelyn discovers what she takes for a man's arm, then a body, and in a panic digs him out. His skin is rough-textured: she imagines that he was horribly burned in the war, but where has he come from and how did he get there? Taking him inside, wrapped in quilts, she lays him by the stove fire in the kitchen and snuggles close to keep him warm. Each glimpse of his face tells her that this is no ordinary man caught out in a storm with no clothes on. His features slowly take on shape and form, a face gradually appearing where there was barely one before. But it is days before Evelyn realises that not only is it a she, but she is identical to Evelyn. She has copied Evelyn's form.
Evelyn calls her Addie, and tells her family and the townspeople that Addie is her cousin on her father's side (her aunt being the run to run off and get pregnant - the scandal!). Belatedly she remembers that her father's side is dark, while she and Addie have the red hair and green eyes of her mother's Irish family, the McMurrough's. Still, nobody questions it, and when Addie displays an unusual skill with horses she becomes much sought-after as a trainer and "sweetener".
From almost the time when Addie's formation was complete, she and Evelyn had been lovers. As several years pass and Evelyn begins to yearn for children, Addie figures out a way to make it happen, and for the two of them to stay together: she leaves for two weeks and when she returns, she has the body of a man, a man called Roy Hope who stopped by their farm for refreshment - and to steal their money. A tall, dark-haired and handsome young man, Addie becomes Adam Hope, and the deception continues, only this time he and Evelyn can marry and have children of their own.
Throughout Evelyn's life with Adam, she is confronted by the ease of her own lies, her cowardice in never telling her children who - or what - their father really is, and the small-mindedness of the people she's grown up with, both family and townspeople. It is a long and fruitful life for Evelyn, but as she ages and Adam remains a smooth-skinned twenty-five, thirty at most, having never seen an older Roy Hope to model off, new questions emerge, and Evelyn must face a new fear - and Adam a new decision.
The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope has many strengths, especially it's fascinating premise, upon which the whole novel rests. With deep Biblical roots - the flood, the man made of clay taking the form of Evelyn, Adam-and-Eve, and the strange but beautiful bell tones Adam/Addie makes from his/her chest - the story takes the more interesting, organic angle by stripping these tropes of their religious trappings and taking them back, back to their clay-like beginnings. There is something so beautifully organic about Addie/Adam, so life-affirming. Like by removing religion from her/his beginnings, it reverts to an older form of mythology, an origin story that's about Life, not God.
Without becoming too heavy-handed, Evelyn likewise begins to question the religious upbringing of her youth (her family attend the Baptist church), which can no longer explain or speak to her new understanding of life, or the tragedies that occur. The advent of Adam in her life also makes her see the people she's always known in a new light, especially when they become small-minded and judgemental, ostracising Adam for something they don't understand: he becomes a metaphor for this in all its forms, across all of America and beyond. It was nicely done.
One of the things I loved about the story was the vivid descriptions of the land and the tangible sense of Evelyn's - and Adam's - love for it. It carries with it a strong feeling of nostalgia, too, as Evelyn's farm becomes surrounded by new highways over the years, and developers start offering pots of money for parts of their farm. Being an audience to Evelyn's life over so many decades, you really get a sense for how much has changed, some for the better, some not so desirable. The simple, peaceful life of Evelyn's youth, those early years when she lived with Addie, become rather sad because they are completely gone. Watching Evelyn go through the old farmhouse after they've moved to Florida, and feeling how empty it is, how bereft - with echoes of her and her family's lives like the height measurements on the doorframe, or the twins' treehouse - made me feel so sad, especially as I've felt such moments myself, though nothing so strong as this.
In a way, the novel struck me as less of a romance between Evelyn and Adam, and more of a romance between Evelyn and the land - which Adam came from, and represents. But while I never quite managed to connect with Adam - Evelyn keeps him at a distance from the reader; more on that in a bit - the land itself is a much stronger "character" in the novel. A "character" I could believe in and understand. These are the strengths of the novel; where Riley's debut novel struggles a bit is in knowing where to take the story, from that riveting premise to a satisfying and meaningful conclusion, and in creating characters who manage to resonate in your heart.
While I did find the story to be believable - it's written in such a way, with just enough focus on details and the everyday - I did find that the characters struggled to live off the page. Evelyn is writing this as something to leave her daughters, as she never managed to tell them the truth of their father or how her youngest, Sarah, now looks Asian after several years of living with her husband in China - but it's just the proof she needs. And it does have that cadence to it, a kind of storytelling rhythm, that I liked. It feels like Evelyn really is speaking/writing/retelling the story of her life; she is an ordinary woman, with no special gifts or talents of her own, and no remarkable life-changing moments - except for those concerning Adam, which she's always kept secret. So it is easy to relate to her. She feels incredibly familiar. But I never really connected with her, emotionally.
I had a similar problem with Adam, and all the secondary characters. I felt like I was watching a movie, a film play out before me, something that I could visualise clearly in my imagination but which never quite made it to my heart. The telling point was the terrible tragedy that strikes the family: it was exactly the kind of thing that would normally make me cry, a lot, and yet it barely made my eyes wet.
There are moments of tension, scenes of danger even - as when Evelyn races to "abduct" Adam from the hospital where the doctors, having X-rayed him and discovered some strange and, they believe, life-threatening abnormalities about him, are getting ready to cut him open - but by and large the story is more like a gently rolling hill. It was often quite soothing, to go with the flow, see where it took you, and watch this family grow and age and change and so on. But it also has a kind of aimlessness that I wasn't really expecting, and I can't decide whether the ending was the only ending it could have had (my gut says "yes") or a bit of a cop-out (that's my cynical, critical side having its say). Whichever it is, it wasn't totally satisfying, perhaps because it just lacked the kind of oomph you would want in this kind of story, about someone as incredible as Adam.
As an abstract concept, I loved Adam. Having him change from female to male (I don't feel qualified to comment on Evelyn taking a lover who looked exactly like herself) was a pivotal moment and, theoretically, opens up a whole range of questions on gender identity and the norm (in fact, Adam as an Otherwordly being opens up those questions regardless), but the novel shied away from going down that speculative route and instead stayed on the well-trodden path of a Woman's Story. Nothing wrong with that, but it was disappointing for me, as I love those books that delve into such topics and really make me think in new and confronting ways. That, I fear, is at the heart of my umming-and-ahhing: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope carries with it the promise of a confronting novel and instead tries to force the Unusual and Unknown into the mould of the Everday, the Normal.
While this is, I believe, partly the point of the novel - it is Evelyn's decision to put limits on Adam's Otherness, to try and make him fit in, and this fear of being ousted or found out is at the heart of Evelyn's inner conflict: she loves the things that make Adam unique but is too scared of people's reactions to allow him to reveal them to anyone else - it made of Adam's uniqueness a tool or literary convention, rather than a puzzling, speculative and thought-provoking question in its own right.
To be fair, that does make the novel successful in its aims: this is a story about an ordinary person trying to make the extraordinary into the everyday out of fear and cowardice, never quite able to unite the two sides of herself and make peace with the unanswerable questions. But to me it remained merely observational. Evelyn, with her minimal educational background, was not someone able to look too deeply into the unknown: she had questions but never once came close to thinking through them to find answers for herself, she wanted someone else to hand them to her, and Adam had no idea where he was from or what he was anymore than she did (but he, at least, was content with who he was and was focused on living and loving life to its fullest). Certainly, this leaves the reader to form their own speculations, but it doesn't change the fact that the novel remains sadly shallow in that regard.
As you can tell from all that, I feel very conflicted about this book. It is a fairly slow read, the prose being a bit stiff especially up until Evelyn has her first child (I loved that Riley portrays childbirth so realistically; too many writers don't and it's become a bit of a pet peeve of mine), but there is a great deal of potential here and Riley is, at the end of the day, a strong writer with interesting ideas and a deft touch for making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Regardless of how I felt about the ending and so on, this isn't a forgettable story and the lingering questions strengthen rather than weaken it: the unexplained mystery is more compulsive, fascinating and beguiling than the answers ever could be.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours....more
Rose Zarelli begins grade ten with a pool party that sets the tone for the year to come. The swim team - or "swim thugs" as everyone calls them - areRose Zarelli begins grade ten with a pool party that sets the tone for the year to come. The swim team - or "swim thugs" as everyone calls them - are initiating a new member, a trendily-dressed boy called Conrad, by throwing cups of beer at his face until he falls into the swimming pool while the boys yell homophobic insults at him, and blasting water from a hose into his mouth until he chokes. When Conrad is pushed into the pool he lets himself sink and isn't coming back up; only Rose seems to even notice, but when she leans over the edge to check on him she's pushed in too.
That's when Jamie Forta arrives, just in time to help Rose out of the pool. She hasn't seen him since the end of the last school year and has no idea what he's been doing over the summer or where they stand or what he is to her. Is he even her friend still? He still seems awfully close to Regina, the girl who made Rose's life hell last year, and it turns out that Conrad is Regina's younger brother - Conrad who is, he tells Rose and her best friend Tracy, actually gay, and one very angry boy who's taking out his feelings of anger and impotence on everyone around him (he also hates Rose because Jamie likes her).
Anger is in the air it seems. Only Tracy is handling adolescence well, and turning some petty bullying into something positive: her own fashion website where she profiles the looks of her peers. Suddenly Tracy is someone everyone wants to be friends with, while Rose can only think: how come she's never taken a photo of me? At home things haven't improved much: Rose is still attending counselling with her mother, who wants Rose to take down the memorial website she created in honour of her father, who died in a roadside bomb in Iraq where he was working as an engineer. Her brother, Peter, is clearly doing more drugs at uni than studying, and it's no surprise to Rose when he's kicked out and arrives home to face the wrath of their mother.
But this year Rose is determined to take control of her life in whatever way she can, and that means trying out for the school musical - or maybe even a friend's band, as lead singer. It certainly gives her a chance to channel her inner angst, all her anger at everything she can't control in her life: her dad's death, her problems with her mother and brother, the elusive Jamie Forta, and all the crap that comes with being a teenager. Rose is still angry, but she's looking for an outlet, and she's also learning how to stand up for herself when it comes to Jamie, who's still dicking around with her feelings, going hot and cold on her, and making her choose between doing the right thing by him or the right thing by her worst enemy. Grade ten is going to be one messy year.
All the things I said in my review of the first book, Confessions of an Angry Girl, is just as true for this sequel. Rozett has created, with Rose, a truly distinct, relatable, identifiable heroine who is wading through adolescence in a realistic urban American high school setting and trying to deal with everything that involves. I may not have had the same high school experiences as Rose, but I had similar ones, and there's something universal about being a white middle class teenager in a western country that makes it easy to relate and identify with Rose and her experiences.
Rose is on a noticeable character-development arc, and she's not the same girl she was in grade 9. She's already grown up since then and finding some of her inner strength. She loses her starry-eyed perspective of Jamie, for one, and that was deeply satisfying. I like Jamie, as a character and a love interest for Rose, but he too is a teenager and he's been through some crap of his own. He's far from the perfect, gentlemanly boys the heroines of so many YA books fall in love with. He's a flawed character, as is Rose, and has a lot of growing up to do himself. He does shitty things, and this time Rose calls him on it. She learns how to tease him, how to express herself better, and she faces head-on her own limits: how far would she go with Jamie?
The mess of Rose's personal life is set against a backdrop of bullying and homophobia that is depressingly relevant today. This certainly isn't the first YA book or series to tackle these issues, but the way Rozett presents them and handles them is refreshing: they're not the point of the story, rather they're ever-present alongside the school lockers and the cat-fights and the homework assignments. It's the way Rose views the world around her and her seemingly callous dithering over whether to intervene or tell the truth about something she's witnessed. This, too, makes her a very realistic teenager. Telling the truth about what happened to Conrad at the party before school started, for instance, isn't a black-and-white matter. After what happened the year before, when Rose called 911 after a girl needed medical attention at a party where there was a lot of underage drinking going on, she's learned the consequences of "ratting" on her peers the hard way, and she's also learned that sometimes its important for the person being bullied or abused etc., to make that stand themselves, that you can't do it for them.
What I'm trying to say is that, Rozett doesn't moralise or try to slip in messages for "right" behaviour or even pretend that these things don't happen, because they very much do. I love that Rozett doesn't shy away from the worst of teenage behaviour, and I appreciate that she isn't trying to under-handedly moralise, which is something I've come across in other YA novels. In fact, she doesn't even need to. Simply creating Rose, a character I'm sure many teens will be able to identify with, and showing her own conflicts and her struggles in deciding what is the right thing to do - which isn't always as obvious as adults like to think it is - is enough. Show, don't tell. Nothing could be more true of teenagers, surely; nothing can get their back up more than being told how to behave etc. But they still look for guidance, reassurance, support, in their own way. And this is the kind of series to offer that.
What was funny - in an ironic way - for me was how much anger I felt while reading this. I felt furious at Rose's mum for the way she's handling her relationship with her daughter, and the joint therapy sessions they have with her mother's therapist, and how completely ineffective she is at expressing her own true feelings - you can't fault Rose for not being honest with her about her own feelings in turn. I felt anger at the injustice of the stupid "slut list", and all the forms of bullying that go on. I felt anger at Jamie for being a dick, and for being quite lovely when he wants to be, and for what happens at the end of the book. But I also felt unbearably sad - sad for Regina and Conrad, sad for Jamie, sad for Rose who's mourning her father yet feels that she's not allowed to grieve anymore, that, what, she should have moved on? It made me angry all over again.
In part, that's intense emotional connection is what makes this book really work. That and the gritty realism. These characters - not just Rose and Jamie but the supporting characters as well - are true-to-life, flawed human beings. They make mistakes. They struggle to express themselves. They can make bad situations worse. They lash out at each other. But such is Rozett's skill at depicting these people and giving them room to breathe and grow and be, you also see all their good points, their vulnerabilities, their strengths, their pain and their sense of honour. I liked this even more than the first book: the story only gets stronger and the adolescent stakes higher, as Rose continues to grow up and figure out who she is and what she wants out of life. This is YA fiction at its best.
Also, COVER LOVE! ;)
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. ...more
Ellie O'Neill is seventeen and living with her mum in the small coastal town of Henley, Maine. It's the summer holidays and she's working two jobs toEllie O'Neill is seventeen and living with her mum in the small coastal town of Henley, Maine. It's the summer holidays and she's working two jobs to save money for a poetry class at Harvard that she's been accepted into in August. When a Hollywood movie crew arrive to film scenes for a new romantic movie, Ellie doesn't have much time to take notice of it all, unlike her best friend Quinn whom she works with at the ice cream parlour, who's weak at the knees at seeing gorgeous young celebrity actor Graham Larkin, one of the stars of the film.
What Ellie doesn't realise is that she already knows Graham Larkin, the seventeen-year-old movie star made famous from his lead role in a trilogy of movies about a magician. She's been emailing him since March, when he accidentally sent her an email asking her to walk his pet pig, Wilbur. She replied to tell him he'd got the wrong person, and a flirty, friendly ongoing conversation began. While neither told the other their name, they shared many other details about their lives, details that were both vague and deeply personal all at once.
From these emails, Graham pieced together where exactly Ellie lived, and that she worked at an ice cream parlour. When the original location for the film fell through, Graham managed to convince the director to try Henley, Maine instead. Graham wants to meet Ellie. She doesn't know who he is or what his life is really like, and because of that he's been able to talk to her as if he were a regular teenager, not a celebrity.
When Ellie meets Graham in the flesh, she's torn. A part of her misses the emails they shared, the mystery of it all. Part of her wants to know him better, spend more time with him. And a part of her - the reasonable, clear-headed part - knows just how important it is for her to stay away from cameras, which makes dating Graham Larkin - who is always stalked by paparazzi - an impossibility. It's not just for her, but for her mother as well, who moved them up here when Ellie was five in order to escape the press and the stress of being watched, but also to protect Ellie's father. And it's this kind of secret that comes between Ellie and Graham now, a secret that seems impossible to overcome.
I greatly enjoyed Smith's previous novel, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, which was fast- and smoothly-paced, tightly written, poignant and thoughtful. I was excited to get her new book, and after reading a very heavy Israeli novel, a book with a title like this seemed just the thing for me. And while I still greatly respect and admire Smith's writing, the maturity of her characters and their ability to grow, and her avoidance of the usual clichés, I did find that this novel was missing something, for me. Some spark of magic, or chemistry, or oomph. I'm not sure what exactly, only that I was left feeling a bit disappointed.
There is much to enjoy here, nevertheless. The emails at the start are fun to read, and both Ellie and Graham are likeable and sympathetic characters who are learning independence and how to balance their conflicting wants. Graham, after the surprise of landing his first major acting role when he'd just been goofing around in the school play, finds himself really enjoying the job of acting, and wants to do it for as long as he's interested in it, even though his parents, both ordinary, unadventurous middle class teachers, want him to go to university instead. He lives with his pet pig, Wilbur, alone in a big house in Los Angeles, and finds himself isolated by his celebrity status. His parents seem uncomfortable in his world, and treat him like visiting royalty - a stranger, in other words - when he goes home to see them, so he's started avoiding them. Graham is young, and new to it all, and has a fan base of screaming teenage girls, so he's got a long road ahead of him in terms of balancing a career in the film industry with having any sense of normalcy in his personal life.
Ellie is a strong heroine, intelligent and thoughtful but her moments of great maturity are balanced by her moments of adolescent drama - which aren't often but they do happen. Though I must add that I found her a bit, well, cold. She was just so very confident and "together". I found it hard to feel much interest, or sympathy, for her family secret, and felt a bit resentful on her behalf about it all. It also seemed a bit, well, tacky, and rather irrelevant. I would have quite happily cut that part out completely. But Ellie knows how to hold her own, even if she is rather serious about everything. (I liked Ellie, but I think I liked Graham more; aside from anything else, he just seemed a bit more human than she did.)
I don't know how realistic the premise of their original meeting is, or whether we should be romanticising it. Too many girls get trapped or taken advantage of or worse, through anonymous online communication of various kinds. Granted, Ellie is clearly too smart to fall for an online stalker or creepy pervert masquerading as someone younger, but still, she never really had any doubts about continuing to communicate with some unknown person half a country away. And true, they never discussed meeting in person, never went from slightly flirty to anything more overt, never wanted to exchange photos. But still, it's one area where I feel a great deal of caution around, because the mystery of it all makes it very tantalising to the teenage mind.
This is a lot longer than Smith's previous novel, and I found it a bit slow. It works in the sense that you get the chance to get to know the characters and understand them, but there just wasn't a whole lot else going on. I'm also unconvinced as to Ellie and Graham's chemistry. I just didn't really feel it. Perhaps because Ellie was so sensible and oh so mature, and perhaps because, like Ellie, it was a bit anticlimactic to meet someone in the flesh whom you've created as a certain person in your head while texting back and forth, all this time. As I mentioned, it's the mystery - the romance of the mystery - that appeals, but once the mystery is solved, well, then it's more of a struggle to remain interested. (The mystery isn't much of one to the reader, but you still pick up on their feelings about it.)
They always felt like real people, Ellie and Graham (though not, perhaps, as flawed as real people), and their friendship and budding romance was realistic - not rushed, not instant, but cautious and tender and a bit anxious too, lit with possibilities, not certainties - and the romance was not really the point of the story: growing up and figuring things out, was. As such, it was a successful novel, a solid chapter in adolescent life, but while I did like it, I did find it lacking in oomph. And that, for me, with this book, was a critical ingredient in making me care. Instead, I found the novel - which I read a couple of weeks or so before writing this review - to be sadly forgettable, especially in the details. I couldn't even remember the characters' names. Smith is a strong writer and I like her style and the characters she creates, but I just wasn't all that interested in this particular story....more
After many years, Amaranth has run from the polygamous commune she married into. It is the only world she's known, since her earlier life was one of nAfter many years, Amaranth has run from the polygamous commune she married into. It is the only world she's known, since her earlier life was one of no family and poverty, which ended the day she married wandering preacher Zachariah. The polygamy came later, as did Zachariah's increasingly rabid pronunciations of the coming of the end of the world - aided by Amaranth's own oldest daughter, Sorrow, who has become her father's assistant, acting as a Seer to his Prophet.
Now, after a showdown with local police who were more worried than anything else that ended in their temple burning, Amaranth took the opportunity to flee. Taking one of their many cars, the boot loaded with provisions she's been hiding away, she drives for four days across the country, with her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow, sitting in the backseat. After Sorrow's first attempt to escape when they stopped for fuel, Amaranth tied her daughters together at the wrist with a strap. But driving without sleep takes its toll, and in the middle of nowhere, Amaranth crashes into a stump, flipping the car onto its roof.
There is help at hand, of a sort: they are by an old shop and petrol pump that belong to a farmer called Bradley. His wife has left him and he has only an adopted teenaged son nicknamed Dust to help him on the farm. In this corner of Oklahoma - the dusty panhandle to Oklahoma's frying pan - there's little money to be made off the farm which is being squeezed by the companies selling the seed, and aside from letting the strange trio sleep on his porch, Bradley has little interest in helping them.
Amaranth was initially certain that Zacharia was following them, hunting them, livid with rage and determined to drag them back. But as the days go by and he never appears, she turns her attention to Bradley and the run-down house. Meanwhile, her daughters - aged fifteen and twelve - are caught in a strange new world where the rules they have always lived by are being discarded and everything they once understood about the world is being threatened by a new reality. Amity, younger and more flexible of mind, tries to incorporate the new world into her previous understanding, but Sorrow remains fixed in her belief of her father's claims, and will not be shaken. She is determined to get home to him and in her skewed reality, it matters not who is harmed along the way.
Amity & Sorrow is a fairly short novel and simple in its structure and its story; yet for all that it focuses its energy on some big key themes and explores them deftly without falling too heavily into the tides of melodrama - yet it becomes somewhat side-tracked by these issues at the detriment of its characters. The story could certainly have gone many ways, and one of the reasons why I've given as detailed a summary as I have, is because I felt a bit lost going into this - I wasn't even sure of the time period, at first, or where it was going. Sometimes this is ideal, preferred even, but other times it helps to know something of the story first.
But as I said, this is a story of themes rather than action, a story of human nature rather than a story of a life's journey. It takes on some key themes that are something of a preoccupation in America: fervent, zealous religion and a belief in televangalists and the end of the world; and the sorry state of agriculture - which ties into the end-of-the-world frenzy, the idea that everything's going to shit. Bradley, the farmer, lends his voice to this theme, giving voice to the paradox of large scale farming and the problems that arise when the seed companies - and the stock market and government policy - dictate what he can and can't grow.
"I got acres of rape out there and I don't know what I'm doin'. We was always wheat here but the price drops and someone says they want rapeseed oil, so you buy it and you plant it and then they call in a loan. You plant soybean, then sorghum, and you keep settin' your share, diggin' deep, diggin' broad, puttin' in things you never grew before 'cause they say someone'll buy 'em. And everythin' you grow you sell and put back into seeds, 'cause they won't let you save seeds anymore. And then you have to spray and you have to buy their spray. And then out of the blue, folks want organic, but your seeds and spray ain't green and if you don't spray you'll only harvest cheatgrass and shattercane. And then they tell you to plant corn for ethanol when that's what all the rape was for. [...] When all of this was dust once. And before that it was buffalo grass and they made it worse, men like my pa, settin' their shares too deep. Wantin' too much. Turning everythin' over 'til nothing would grow. [...] Hell, anything growin' here is a miracle."
The landscape of this part of Oklahoma is a tangible, vivid one, as is the sense of isolation and poverty. It's in the small details but also captured effortlessly in Bradley himself, who typifies the situation in the way he speaks, the life he's lived, his attempts to keep going and not give in, though he knows full well that farming's a joke when the soil's bereft of nutrients and there's barely any rain. He's trying to make a living off a new kind of desert, and that makes a certain kind of man.
Tied into this is, of course, the much larger theme around religion in America. Zacharia's polygamist cult consisted of fifty wives by the time Amaranth leaves, and while many of them are brought back by her husband at the end of his summer preaching travels, others arrive of their own accord, having met him and learned about the commune as a place they can escape their old lives to, a place of basics and a simple life far removed from terrorist attacks, drugs and all the other problems that come with living our hectic contemporary lifestyle. This will resonate easily with Riley's readers, giving Zacharia's cult believability - and from there it's not such a huge step to understand how people can buy into his fervent spiels about God and the coming apocalypse, especially as these women have all seen (or are all thinking about) the worst side of humanity.
Where the cult becomes scary is when the madness takes over, when the things Zachariah says lose all semblance of reason, and, most especially, with Sorrow. She's at that age where teens are caught up in their hormones, carving out a place for themselves and trying to figure out their identities. Sorrow believes everything her father says and more, she has created a God that no one outside her would recognise, and she makes the rules up as she goes without even realising it, all to satisfy whatever aim or desire she has. She's like the ultimate spoilt child. I got the impression that even if she'd been raised in a "normal" household, she would have still had the potential to go her own way, to look for something that would have given her the illusion of being special and superior. What her father did to her - and I'm not just talking about the brainwashing - was absolutely horrible, but you can't feel sympathy for her because, in her twisted mindset, she's made it into something else that puts her above others.
In any contest with Sorrow she is bound to lose. Amity shrugs. "How will He bring us a car?" "A truck." "What truck?" Amity has a bad feeling about this sign. "A red truck. A faded truck." "The man's truck? You can't just take his truck." "God put it here for us." "God gave the truck to the farmer. He won't just give it to us." Sorrow reels Amity in by the end of the wrist strap. "God says the boy will take it for us, just as he took the food. God will make him."
What Sorrow really needs is firm parenting, right from the beginning, but that never really happened and this is the result. Needless to say, Sorrow's mother Amaranth is useless as a mother. She has no role models to emulate, and no education to help her think her way through things. She knows she's ineffective but that knowledge alone can't fix things. This is another theme that is touched upon in the book, that sometimes weak parenting without barriers is just as bad if not worse than no parenting at all.
"I hit her!" she calls to him. "I hit her." She gestures with the stick. "I've taught her. I've done it." A dark row of spikes stands between them. "That what you people do?" "She is willful. She has to learn." He nods. "My pa used to beat the crap out of me. Didn't teach me nothin', 'cept he was a bully. Big man, hittin' a kid." She squeezes the stick. "I don't know how else to reach her."
In contrast to Sorrow - who is really quite scary, in her brainwashing - Amity is young enough to have more of an open mind, and also her place in the cult wasn't anything like Sorrow's. She was a watcher, observing much but mostly keeping quiet; she also believes she can heal with her hands. Her naivete and ignorance is that of a child, so that what becomes frightening in Sorrow, a wilful, headstrong, selfish teenager, is mostly amusing or merely sad in Amity. She looks out for her sister, looks over her even, but has a task she is ill-equipped to know what to do with. Her ignorance puts her in a dangerous position and her mistakes are the direct result of her lack of parenting and the cult's over-zealous theology.
Amaranth isn't a hateful figure, for all of her mistakes and stupidity. I felt sorry for her much of the time, but also angry with her for how her daughters have turned out. What was most telling were her thoughts regarding her place in the polygamous cult. She is Zacharia's first wife, his only legally-recognised wife, but she has no special hold on him and doesn't seem to regard their lifestyle as a religious one. And at the end of the day, it's the women who are her family, the women whom she lives all her days with who mean so much more to her than her own husband. It's a poignant moment:
She had only ever wanted a family, to love and belong to, and she thought of the time when she had first arrived, when she saw he women there, women she didn't know and hadn't expected, and thought she was better than them because he'd married her. She thought with a start that she should have married them, not her husband. It was these women who stayed when her husband did not. It was these women who cared for her and loved her in her failing. Her husband didn't even know that she had had Eve and already she'd lost her. Her thumb picked at the oversized ring she wore, hers alone.
And of course, the novel spends a fair bit of energy on the state of religion in America, and the appeal of televangelists. Through Bradley's bed-ridden curmudgeon father, we get the voice of the tricks of the trade, breaking down the so-called spirituality of these preachers into a give-and-take commodity: giving the people what they want to hear in exchange for money. When Amaranth takes Sorrow and Amity to the nearby town, Sorrow is drawn to a local preacher of this type, who has styled his own young son into a prophet, and they have a show-down:
"Our work glorifies God," Sorrow bites back. "What works do you do - what gifts have you?" "He has the gift of tongues!" a woman in a wheelchair calls. "Then speak, Prophet," says Sorrow. "You got nothing to prove, son," the man says, but the little boy screws his face up, throwing his head back and opening his mouth in a susurration of consonants, a string of long and sensuous vowels. A woman in a caftan falls to her knees, hands up to fondle heaven. Sorrow flings her own head back then and roars her gift through clenched teeth. Where the boys words are silken, hers come as stabs. Where his slip along a slick path, hers are a switchback of barbs and hooks, grunts and clicks. "Listen to that!" the man calls. "Will the grapes of our Lord be gathered from thorns?" The woman in the caftan struggles to get back up, grabbing hold of the wheelchair arms. "That's the devil's talk!" "It is not!" Sorrow protests. "You're making it up," the boy says. "Yours is a bunch of noise." Sorrow pokes the boy in the chest. "You're making yours up." "You are!" The boy's face goes red. "You're only a girl!" "And you're too little to make Jesus!"
It is these scenes (scenes I've quoted here) that hit hardest, that carry the most weight and make the most impact. They aren't subtle, but they are effective. I like subtlety when tackling these kinds of issues, but I must admit to being entertained by them nonetheless - especially when, as in the quote above, I hear a little bit of Monty Python coming through.
There is much to like and admire in Amity & Sorrow, though it's not a novel that I'd say you would "enjoy", it's ultimately too sad and tragic for that. The issues it deals with are just too heavy of heart. And I know for sure that I would have been able to immerse myself better in this story had I read a physical copy rather than an e-book - that's just the kind of reader I am. But even had I read it in hard copy, I still would have been left feeling rather disappointed. The novel lacks oomph, it lacks subtlety, and it lacks the kind of characters - even one - that you can really connect with. I felt that Amaranth was meant to be that character, but you never quite get below the surface with her. The book is not just short, it's a bit too short. It wanted to take on so many big issues, that it lost its heart. For what is at the heart of this story, really? It's no one character, no one issue or theme. It's a broad, overall picture that skims over its characters depths to paint their surface and not much else. As interested as I am in the topics it touches upon, and as interested as I was in the characters it introduced to me, it never quite achieved heart. And that was a real let-down for me.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. ...more
Twenty-six-year-old twins Rashid and Iman live with their mother and older brother Sabri in Gaza; the night the bombing starts, Rashid is blissfully sTwenty-six-year-old twins Rashid and Iman live with their mother and older brother Sabri in Gaza; the night the bombing starts, Rashid is blissfully stoned after receiving the welcome news that he's won a scholarship to study in England, and his sister Iman is at a meeting of the Women's Committee in a basement room at one of the newly-built universities. Trapped inside until the following day, she is frustrated by the other committee members refusing to hear her thoughts and opinions because she is new, but she rises to the challenge of being stuck inside and sorts out cups of tea and rugs for the women to lie down on. She daydreams about kissing a young man, Raed Abu Warde, cousin to one of her students, whom she's only met once. As the bombing finally ends and it's safe enough to leave for home, one of the other women, a pious Muslim woman called Manar, makes cryptic comments to Iman inviting her to join a movement and telling her that they will make contact.
It isn't until Iman is brought to the home of her student, Taghreed, and sees the bodies of Taghreed and Raed that she starts to take Manar's offer seriously. But someone else is keeping an eye on Manar's group and one of its leaders, Mustafa Seif El Din: a soldier high up in the Patriotic Guard, Ziyyad Ayyoubi, the son of scholars who had been assassinated years earlier. He looks quite a lot like Iman's brother, Rashid, though a bit older, and is knowledgeable about Iman's family. Her father, Jibril Mujahed, was once in the Palestine Liberation Organisation, or PLO, but left eight years ago and took up new residence in the Gulf with a slightly younger woman called Suze. To get Jibril's daughter to join a fundamentalist group and even become a suicide bomber for them - the political ramifications would be extreme. Ziyyad warns Iman to leave Palestine, to get out, go to England or to her father in the Gulf, somewhere where she can't be used.
But Iman, and Rashid, and Rashid's friend Khalil, they are Palestinian, and getting out isn't the end of being Palestinian. It is their home, and it follows them regardless. They can never escape the politics, and in Palestine, politics are a matter of life and imminent death.
I have been putting off writing this review because I'm not sure what to say or how to say it. This is one of those books where I'm torn between admiring its achievement and the story it tells, and yet not liking it very much. Some people are quick to declaim that if you don't like a book such as this one, it's only because you didn't understand it - the implication being that you're too ignorant or stupid to get it. While the politics are complicated and there isn't enough exposition or explanations offered to fill in the gaps for non-Palestinian readers (and to be honest, how many people outside of Palestine can really claim to understand everything about it?), I was certainly able to follow what was happening and pick up on the undercurrents well before the characters themselves knew what was happening. No, it's something much more subtle than that, and relates more to Dabbagh's writing than the content of the story itself.
Having just finished Susan Abulhawa's Mornings in Jenin last night, I wish I had read that book before this one, as it provides a great deal of historical background and context and would have helped me navigate the political chaos of modern-day Palestine. Though to be fair, Rashid's advisor in England, Professor Myres, an expert on Palestine who was there in the 40s as a junior police officer, provides an intriguing, knowledgeable and gruesome glimpse into the establishment of Israel. Regardless, it wasn't hard to follow, it was just a bit frustrating because I'm someone who always wants to understand and know more. Out of It certainly captivates your interest and curiosity!
The story of Israeli-occupied Palestine is told through the movements and daydreams of the Mujahed family. Sabri, considerably older than the twins, was once married and had a son, a toddler, when his car exploded, killing his family and taking his legs. He now lives in a wheelchair in his bedroom, writing an epic chronicle of Palestine's history and the numerous battles with the occupier-invader, Israel. He is envious of Rashid, a young man who lavishes more attention onto Grace, his marijuana plant, than he does his studies, and yet who has received this amazing scholarship to do his Master's degree in England. Rashid, for his part, has always felt overlooked and rather useless by the rest of his family. He knows he's no Sabri, and he feels distinctly unwanted because of his failing. (Ironically, the paragraph in Rashid's essay that he lifted straight from one of Sabri's emails on the topic gets big question marks and a large cross, while below, "clearly marked, next to the paragraph that he, Rashid, had typed out without looking at any other source, as an articulation of ideas that rippled away at the back of his mind, was a large tick" and the word "Excellent!" [p.131])
Rashid and Iman are modern-day Palestinians, not all that different from you and I except that their home is surrounded by the rubble of their neighbours' houses, demolished by bombs and bulldozers - why their own house alone was spared is never explained, directly or through implication, and is one of the minor details that bugged me throughout the story. Iman goes out with "big hair" (she doesn't cover her head; her family isn't religious) and modern ideas, but struggles to make sense of her world, to align her contemporary understanding with the reality of living in Palestine. She grew up in countries like Switzerland, moved around often because of her father's job with the PLO, but when she arrives in London finds it discombobulating:
London was quiet to Iman. The traffic, planes and people worked along allocated channels. They moved along the grooves cut out for them. It was not a world shaken down and cut through night after night. The noise was conformist and the talk and expressions appeared to operate on one level only. People behaved in ways that seemed unconnected to others. Their actions had repercussions only for themselves. There was an enviable ability to relinquish involvement in the bigger picture, to believe that it was all under control, that somebody with your interests in mind was looking out for you. [p.185]
Very true - I've never lived in a war-torn country or anything like it, but I've long noticed this about our western countries, our "free and democratic" societies, this assumption that someone is looking out for us, this blind, naïve belief that everything for sale is safe for us, that the problems of tomorrow are already being dealt with today, so that we can continue our lives in peace.
The contrast to Gaza is a strong one: bombed and blasted, riddled with bullet holes, unpredictable, never knowing what's coming next or how long it will last for - a life of uncertainty, of insecurity and instability, of rubble and chunks of concrete and stone, twisted steel and broken glass. Without going into the history of Palestine, Dabbagh is able to portray the mindset of extremists, what leads them to that place and that belief that retaliation at the cost of their own lives is the only avenue left. Always the sensation is one of despair and rage, impotence and overwhelming grief. This atmosphere creates a tangible backdrop to the story of Iman and Rashid, the choices they make.
Out of It takes the situation in Palestine and brings it to the world stage: in London, Rashid is a pretty regular young man, a student who isn't that much different from any other student except for his background. But his girlfriend, Lisa, likes causes, and is miffed that at a dinner with her sister and a few others, including a diplomat she wanted to impress, Rashid didn't portray himself as the helpless sufferer like she expected him to.
"You just don't get. it, do you? You can't just go around showing your dirty laundry in public - dope, corruption, hypocrisy, all that crap that you're so good at. Keep it to yourself. You can't afford the luxury of showing that off."
"We can't just present ourselves as graciously suffering all the time either. The stress of that place: people feel suicidal. When they get just a whiff of what freedom feels like they do strange things. That's understandable, isn't it? It's not like anywhere else." He tried to hold her arm but she moved away from him. "Come on, Lisa, I was out for the evening having a meal, I thought, with you and your friends. I didn't know I was expected to sound like some zealot standing outside a mosque shouting propaganda." [pp.143-4]
At the heart of the novel is the Palestinian heart, crumbling after onslaught after onslaught. Between the informers - Palestinians who betray their own to Israel in exchange for money and other benefits - and the lack of unity within Palestine, with political parties turning on each other, and the people inside the parties turning on their own - the distinct picture is one of hopeless chaos, a lack of trust, a scrabbling for petty morsels. Anyone who ousts his or her fellows for corruption or fraud is turned on. In occupied Palestine, people take what they can get, and as long as there are no strong leaders and the people are helping Israel do its dirty work by killing each other, there seems to be no hope left either. This is at the core of the ending, which was slightly predictable (the foreshadowing is too obvious), a little bit corny, and ultimately, surprisingly, ambiguous.
I found it to be a hard novel to get into, especially the first two chapters which were hard to follow, but later the pace picked up, the story became more interesting and flowed better. The characters were realistic and believable, however overall the story - written by a Palestinian-British author who had previously published only short stories - suffered from its debut status: the prose staggered a bit throughout, was encumbered with heavy baggage in some places and seemed to skim too lightly across the surface in others. The uneven narration made it harder for me to fully connect with the story, which was a huge disappointment as the story itself is very interesting, and I wanted to follow the characters through to the end. Out of It provides an astute, intelligent and moving look into the turmoil of modern-day Gaza and its young adults, who are stuck in a war zone not of their making and want nothing more than to get out - only to find that Palestine isn't a place you escape from, but a home that defines you....more
For decades Hungary endured Soviet-imposed communism and the internment or executions of political activists and anyone else who dared to speak up. RuFor decades Hungary endured Soviet-imposed communism and the internment or executions of political activists and anyone else who dared to speak up. Rumour created an extensive underground tunnel and prison system beneath Budapest, and even though proof of its existence has never been found, the legend lives on. It is these tunnels that link the dual narratives in Under Budapest, connecting the stories of Tibor, an academic who specialises in Hungarian history, and his mother, Agnes, a Hungarian who fled the revolution of 1956 for the safety of Canada, with the mysterious disappearance of Agnes' teenaged sister, Zsofi, during the Soviet retaliation all those years ago.
In 2010, a young Canadian-Hungarian man, Janos Hagy, navigates Budapest's streets with his less intelligent friend, Csaba, preying on begging gypsies, scoring dope and looking for a party. What Janos finds instead is nothing short of an end to all his scheming dreams.
In Toronto, Tibor tries to shake himself out of the funk he found himself in after the break-up of his affair with a married woman, Rafaela, by accepting a place as speaker at a conference in Budapest. When his mother, Agnes, hears of his new travel plans, she decides to go too. In her old age, this could be the last chance she has of finding out what happened to her sister Zsofi in 1956, after the last time she saw ever saw her. Having just met another Hungarian immigrant who claims she escaped the underground prison tunnels with Tsofia and another woman, with the help of a guard, Agnes now has reason to hope that her sister survived the revolution.
Instead of finding distraction from his relationship blues, Tibor finds a decapitated head on Gellert Hill, and having overheard the voices of the murderers, finds himself becoming implicated in the crime. And instead of finding her sister, Agnes finds a way to put the demons of the past to rest, including her own guilt over leaving her sister with Agnes' lover and fiancé, Gyula, a student leader in the revolution who excels at the art of lying.
Their stories weave together and culminate in the mythologised underground tunnels, for beneath Budapest lies all Hungary's secrets, it seems: all the things - and people - that it wants to keep hidden away, buried beneath layers of forgotten history.
Long before the revolution of October 1956, the rumours were that the Soviets were tunnelling. Their tunnels spread with the speed of rhizomes, under the surface of Budapest. The rumours spread the same way, sprouting and multiplying, their source untraceable.
When the revolutionaries stormed the Communist Party Headquarters in Koztarsasag Ter on October 30, they found half-cooked palascinta - far more than would be required to feed the number of prisoners found in the building's cellar prisons. Frantic, searchers fanned out into every dank hallway, looking for secret doors, knocking index knuckles on walls that looked solid, testing for hollow. There were so few prisoners in the building. Where were the hundreds who'd vanished? Someone had heard shouting from below. Someone else had heard a number: one hundred and forty prisoners. Where were they? They had no food, no water. Time was running out. [p.55]
It was interesting - and, I think, reassuring - to read that Ailsa Kay, a Canadian, fell in love with Budapest when she lived there several years ago, because reading this book gives me little urge to visit the country. Kay's Budapest is a bleak, grotty place, free of its Soviet reins but still in survival mode, a place of corrupt police and suspicion, of wild parties late at night in abandoned apartment buildings where the wealthy once lived but are which now ready to be torn down - if only the government had the money to tear them down. From the opening chapter, in which Janos and Csaba encounter a frail gypsy man and a young gypsy boy in a cold and wet underpass and Csaba proceeds to kick and punch the man to death, we get a vivid and heart-breaking look into the underbelly of this city. It is a scene that sets the tone and atmosphere for the entire novel, making the murder Tibor witnesses almost ordinary in this context.
And it does all tie together. In this city, with its powerful criminal underworld and its derelict, abandoned neighbourhoods, the sense of threat and danger lurks around every corner. When Agnes goes out on her own to try and find the tunnel exits she learned about from the woman who said she escaped with Agnes's sister, she gets caught up in a march, a large group of black-clad fascists - people who consider themselves to be true Magyars, or ethnic Hungarians - calling for "Hungary for Hungarians". 2010 was the year of the election that saw Jobbik gain a surprising footing in parliament. Their name means "very right" and "the best" and their campaign carried explicit anti-Roma (gypsy) and anti-Semitic sentiments; they are closely linked to the Magyar Garda - the group of marchers Agnes runs into in the novel, who are quasi-military. Csaba, the violent youth who kills a homeless Roma, likes to think he is one of them. Hungary is fast becoming openly racist and anti-Semitic, which creates an atmosphere that puts Agnes in mind of WWII - she calls the marchers the "Arrow Cross", which was a Nazi group set up by the German Nazis in the 40s. With such open hostility towards Others, it is no wonder that the Budapest of Kay's novel is brimming with tension, suspicion, fear, mistrust and outright danger. It is also winter, and far from the days of sunshine and warmth.
For a relatively short novel, Kay manages to achieve a great deal. Her characters have unique and distinctive voices, each transporting you to a different mindset as much as a different place in the story. Janos, staying with his grandmother on this trip to Budapest, is a self-styled schemer and fancies himself something of an entrepreneur-in-the-making, an ideas man. He's bright enough to have ideas and to see a bit farther than his scary friend Csaba, but not so bright that he can't see when he's being played. Tibor is a more subtle character, a man whose always cast himself in his friend Daniel's larger shadow - perhaps this is what prompted him to pursue an affair with Daniel's wife. He's an ordinary man, a man you would call "good" and yet, when he finds himself the sole witness to a crime, he is reluctant to go to the police or give peace-of-mind to the victim's family. He is impatient and embarrassed by his mother, but he is loving and loyal. Yes, an ordinary man, someone easy to relate to precisely because he has such everyday flaws.
Agnes is a woman who has refused to share her own knowledge, experience and insights of Hungary with her son, which, he thinks, is maybe what led him to specialise in Hungarian history. But her silence carries the weight of guilt and self-recrimination; her memories are painful ones. She's a level-headed woman, brave enough to flee Hungary while her sister and fiancé were brave enough to stay and fight for their country - two different kinds of bravery that weren't compatible with each other. When we go back in time to those heady days of revolution in 1956 and watch it play out, the Budapest of the past isn't all that different from the one we get to know in 2010 - the time in-between seems to vanish. They are markedly different, and the nostalgia permeates Agnes's scenes in the present, but perhaps because these European countries ruled by the Soviets were in effect stuck in a time warp, with minimal progress, the intervening years have no presence.
"Get my suitcase. You cannot go to the National Police. Why should you? Did you ask to be a witness?" "Mom, stop." "Did you know this boy? He's probably a drug dealer. An addict. A waste. And now he's dead, okay? Why do you have to risk your life? No, Tibor. It's time to go. And don't talk to anyone. Don't speak to anyone." "Mom. It's not 1956." "Yes, it is." She turns on him. "It is. It is always 1956. People do terrible things. You think they won't, but they do. They spy and they lie, and they will tie a man by his ankles and they will light him on fire and they will watch as he burns. They will watch. Why don't you listen to me, Tibor? You never listen to me." [pp.132-3]
While Under Budapest may seem like a criminal thriller of a novel, it has no tidy ending, no tying up of loose ends or an arrested mob boss at the end. It isn't a story about crime so much as a story about people, humans caught in the trap of their memories, in their own madness, in their own lies and guilt and pain. It is a story of human flaws as much as it is a story of moving beyond them to do an act of good. It is a story about the past and how it has a tight hold on Hungary's present, no matter how far away the people emigrate. It is a story of the mysteries beneath Budapest, secrets that the people hold onto out of hope as much as fear, because when your loved one goes missing, is arrested and vanishes, it's better to believe they are locked up under Budapest than dead and discarded.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
When the Shalom Foundation, run by billionaire American Jew Philip Weinraub, approaches Dr Annie Kendall with a proposition she can't refuse, little dWhen the Shalom Foundation, run by billionaire American Jew Philip Weinraub, approaches Dr Annie Kendall with a proposition she can't refuse, little does she realise just what the three-month research project she's signed up for will entail. The proposition is quite simple: go to London and research the so-called Jew of Holborn, a Jew who lived in hiding during the Cromwell years (1535 in particular), who found a treasury of ancient Jewish artefacts and later distributed them to synagogues across Europe. Her task is to corroborate this theory and even locate the source of the treasure, "but simply proving that such things found their way to England will be a remarkable coup," as Weinraub puts it.
To smooth the way, Annie, an architectural historian, is allowed to use a flat, No.8 Bristol House on Southampton Row, paid for by Weinraub whose secretary is the niece of the owner, Mrs Bea Walton. The flat is much bigger than Annie has need for, and comes with a couple of interesting features: a huge black-and-white mural depicting miniature scenes of London that covers one wall in the room she'll use as her bedroom; and the ghost of a Carthusian monk from the same period she's here to research: the Tudor period.
Several things give Annie the sense that the monk is here to help, not harm her. As a recovering alcoholic who lost custody of her son when he was just three years old, she has the unique perspective of someone who believes in AA; as she thinks of it, AA and the process of dealing with her addiction has left her hollowed out and open to manifestations - as well as the kind of revelations that many would deem strange or plain crazy.
Then she meets well-known British television personality and investigative journalist, Geoffrey Harris, and is shocked to find that he is the spitting image of her Carthusian ghost, minus the tonsure. Confiding in Geoff leads to a close friendship and growing intimacy between the two, but it also puts Annie in contact with people Geoff knows whose experience and knowledge sheds further light on the mysteries that she begins to uncover. It's quickly apparent that the task the Shalom Foundation set her on is little more than a smokescreen, though there is something they - or rather, Weinraub - is keen to have her find. But what is really going on here? What is Weinraub's interest in the mural in her bedroom, what is the monk trying to tell her, and what is the Speckled Egg?
Figuring all of these mysteries out will lead Annie on a fascinating path into Jewish mysticism, ancient Catholic politics, code-breaking and the complicated underground tunnels that lie beneath London. Danger is closing in on her, and the closer she gets to the truth, the more desperate her enemies become.
Having absolutely loved Swerling's novel, City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan, which I read over ten years ago, I was very eager to read her latest book, Bristol House. I knew what the basic plot was about, having read the publisher's summary, but I still wasn't sure what kind of book this was going to be, nor where it was going to take me. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise, not what I was expecting and yet so much more. Reading this finely-crafted novel was hugely enjoyable, for many reasons, and had the added bonus of making me think pretty much every chapter: "Ah, the plot thickens."
(It would do Bristol House an extreme disservice to compare or liken it to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and yet - not being a reader of these kinds of mysteries, typically, but I have read that one (a REALLY long time ago) - it was the book that came to mind when the story began to delve into ancient religious politics and conflicts, religious secrets and artefacts and a conspiracy that ties it all together. But that's really the only thing the two have in common, and aside from that loose connection they're very dissimilar. If anything, this is the novel for people who didn't like Brown's, as much as it is for people who did: it's still a mystery, a suspense story, loaded with historical and religious exploration and discovery. The things that annoyed so many people about The Da Vinci Code are absent from this, while it retains all the excitement and adds some new elements to the structure.)
I do enjoy a book containing mystery and suspense that takes me down a path unknown. Combining the story of Dom Justin, the Carthusian monk, and Giacomo the Lombard, otherwise known as the Jew of Holborn, from 1535 with a present-day mystery and religious conspiracy sounds a little bizarre when I put it like that, but actually it gives the story a depth and uniqueness that would otherwise be absent. Both Dom Justin and Giacomo tell their stories from "the Waiting Place", purgatory - Dom Justin in particular understands that he needs to atone for his sins by helping "the woman", Annie. I'm a little unsure over whether Giacomo did anything to help Annie or not, but his perspective on Justin's tale really fleshes it out. The parts of the story set in 1535 instantly transport you to Tudor England (and, later, Europe); in fact it was at times jarring, first to be whipped away from Annie's story, then to be torn away from Justin's.
This near-constant tug-of-war between the two narratives is not a negative; it actually makes the story both stronger and more insistent, or imperative - the sense of urgency is greater for having Justin's insight. Besides which, 1535 sounds like a scary time to live, with Cromwell breathing down your neck and Henry VIII beginning to round up and burn anyone who disagreed with his decision to make himself the head of the Church of England - thus breaking ties with the Catholic church. The historical portions of the story are vividly rendered, right down to the food and the underwear and the pestilence. With Annie uncovering clues about the period in the present, the two layers of narrative work together to present a sense of true danger and uncertainty, in both periods.
I confess I wasn't able to really grasp all the revelations, not because they weren't well explained (from different angles, too), but because I just don't have any prior knowledge of things like Kabbalah numerology etc. and I still don't really understand the part about the A's - I do and I don't. I need to be able to see it I think. And have some understanding of Hebrew. And French. Honestly the depth and breadth of Swerling's knowledge and research is astounding.
At first I was a bit wary of Annie having this horrible past: her parents die in a car accident when she's quite young; then her aunt packs her twin brother Aaron (who she calls Ari) off to another aunt and he ends up committing suicide; she becomes an alcoholic, gets married while still a uni student and has a baby, Ari, who was removed from her home when he was three because of neglect and unhygenic living conditions. It was just piling up on Annie's head and seemed like way too much, except that the more you get to know her, the more it all just ... works. Certainly it's all inter-connected and the important point, the part relevant to the mystery narrative, is how AA has helped reshape her. I really don't know much about AA, clearly; I got a new and very insightful look into the inner lives of (recovering) alcoholics and the kind of tensile strength they needs must possess.
As a mystery story, Annie's character isn't the focus of the book, but it does come through in the narrative, both distinct and subtle. Swerling uses small details and a keen eye for flaws to depict Annie. In contrast, Geoff Harris was a little too perfect and convenient: he's attractive, he's wealthy, he's extremely well-connected and has loads of sources and contacts and inside people, plus he was already sniffing around Weinraub because of something else. And yes, all of those reasons (except his appearance) were why he sought out Annie after their initial introduction, and the idea of, if you like, 'fated coincidence' is a running theme throughout the book. I wasn't too bothered because I liked Geoff a lot, and he seemed so, well, normal to me - a man removed from the stereotypes upheld by popular media, especially TV commercials. He was quite finely balanced, as a human being, and definitely the kind of man you'd want someone like Annie, who's been through so much already, to be with.
Of course, one of the other major characters in the book is Bristol House itself, and I do love a book where a building becomes a character in its own right. It's a bit of an eery place, though I'm sure that's just the ghost - and the mural; going by the description, it sounds pretty overwhelming and even a bit oppressive. Amazing no one had painted over it already (it dates from early-ish 20th century). The way No.8 Bristol House plays into the mystery side of the narrative, going beyond a haunted back room to becoming integral to deciphering what's going on, is deftly handled. Again, it's Annie's state of mind that enables her to arrive at many of her intuitive conclusions, though for the reader, it's her conversations with some very interesting Rabbis that help it sound reasonable (though I don't have any trouble going along with magical realism wherever it pops up, in fact I love it and without that element I wouldn't have enjoyed this half as much as I did).
I did get the impression that Swerling was writing with an American audience in mind, as the characters conveniently translated British English (expressions and vocab) for Annie. It was smoothly incorporated but while once or twice would have seemed natural enough, that both Annie and Geoff were doing it every time seemed one convenience too many. And seriously, is there anyone who doesn't know what porridge or a mobile is, in the English-speaking world? Surely American readers know those at least! That kind of thing will probably stick out to non-North American readers, but at the very least Swerling's dialogue is quite natural and effortless, and such things as this became light teasing that was quite fun.
This is quite a complex story, and fascinating to read if you're interested in history - both religious and European - and ideas surrounding time and the supernatural. The ending is both climactic and, yes, a little cheesy, but I was so caught up in it that I couldn't have cared less. (And there are a few details in it that sent some serious chills going down my back!) I learnt a lot from reading this, which I don't often get to say. Full of atmosphere, believable characters and a genuine-feeling romance that nicely balances out the darker aspects, Beverly Swerling has achieved that thing that high school teachers the world over try to capture: a book that is both entertaining and educational.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more
Unsticky was recommended to me by Angie (Angieville) many years ago, and I am pleased to have finally read it. It's an interesting novel, not quite whUnsticky was recommended to me by Angie (Angieville) many years ago, and I am pleased to have finally read it. It's an interesting novel, not quite what I expected, with Grace being a mix of Sophie Kinsella's shopaholic and Bridget Jones, and the love interest, Vaughan - a sickeningly rich art dealer - being a far from likeable character. It has humour but it is shadowed by a tense edginess, and overall left me feeling quite unsettled. It's still compulsive reading; while long, it isn't slow or tedious. It is a kind of coming-of-age story for Grace, a maligned, lowly assistant at a fashion magazine whose boss, Kiki, is truly quite horrible. I expected Grace to give it the flick but she doesn't, she soldiers on and actually, finally, makes some progress there - all because of the new confidence and assertiveness, not to mention other polishing skills, she acquires as Vaughan's mistress.
It's Eliza Doolittle with sex, really. And there's plenty of it - not overly detailed, but the tension is ever-present. Vaughan's no real hero, in fact he's a bit of a prick, but Manning does a good job of making both Grace and Vaughan believable, and their attraction to each other believable as well - especially on Grace's side. Grace's growing up isn't rushed, but she does mature and improve for the better. I'm not so sure about Vaughan, though, and in the end I still wouldn't want to spend social time in his company. Having said all that, I like books that make me uneasy, that aren't always comfortable, so I do recommend this as an edgier 'chick-lit' type of read.
Loretta Boskovic is a different woman from the one her useless husband and the father of her two children walked out on several years ago. She's no loLoretta Boskovic is a different woman from the one her useless husband and the father of her two children walked out on several years ago. She's no longer the same chain-smoking, easily-intimidated frump that he would remember if he ever came back to the small rural town of Gunapan in Victoria - well, the frumpy part is still pretty much true, but Loretta is fine with that. She's got a job, though money's still tight; she's active in the community and leads the Save Our School (SOS) committee, rounding up the unenthusiastic members to attend meetings, writing to the education minister and anyone else she can think of, to keep the local school from closing. And in the privacy of her own head she daydreams about the wonderful men who turn up in flashy cars to seduce her and take her away from all of it.
Her two children, Melissa (Liss) and Jake, are good kids, though they're hurting from the absence of their father, Tony, especially Melissa who doted on him. After ten years of marriage, Tony disappeared one day, leaving Loretta a postcard that read "I'll be in touch. Cheque coming soon." No cheque ever came, of course, or any other correspondence, and Loretta is ever hopeful that he never reappears in her life again. Of course, he does, and with a surprise: a young, friendly girlfriend on his arm and more useless promises coming from his mouth. The new girlfriend doesn't even realise he's still married, not divorced, and tensions in Loretta's house rise as he completely ignores his two children.
While there's plenty of drama going on in Loretta's life, she has the energy to wonder about a clearing in the bush outside town, where no clearing had been before. It's all very secretive and hush-hush, what's happening, but she finally learns that the council is working with a developer to build a resort for rich city people - and has sold the land and the rights to the natural spring beneath it. Water that the town could sorely use. As Loretta digs deeper and tries to find out what's really going on, matters with her children and her deep friendship with her neighbour, an old junkyard man, Norm, take a serious turn.
This is my new favourite book of the year. I'm on a roll! The fact that almost every Australian book I've been reading has totally won me over partly because of how homesick I am does not in any way diminish the treasure that is The Fine Colour of Rust. It's just such a perfect book, this is going to be a completely, dementedly gushy review, and I'm going to make it so you just have to get your own copy to read it for yourself, just so you can come back with your own opinion (and, possibly, to shut me up). And quickly, I have to thank Marg (The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader), who posted a longish quote from the book a while back which absolutely tickled me pink and led me to immediately order a copy - thank you Marg!!
The story touches on several themes, including bullying and classism, social inequality and racism, and the government's attitude and policies towards the Aborigines (it's there in small but ever-present moments, as it is in real life), but you can read it in several ways: as a fun, almost chick-lit novel about a woman left to her own resources who more than comes into her own; a dry, humorous examination of small-town politics and oddball characters that reminds you of TV shows like Seachange and Hamish Macbeth (yes, it really has been that long since I a) watched TV in Australia and b) watched TV, full stop); or as a really warm, astute story about a mother's relationship with her children and of love between unlikely friends in a harsh but beautiful setting. I very happily read it as all three, and as such got a lot of enjoyment out of it in so many ways. The humour is deftly balanced with a darker, grittier side; the light-weight local politics that borders on cheesy (local politics always has that quality to it) is balanced by the very real struggle faced by rural areas to maintain their funding for public services and schools. Nothing is heavy-handed or too belaboured: O'Reilly has achieved that lovely blend of subtlety, humour, whimsy, astute character development and a story that gently draws you but holds you there with the grip of a wiry rural woman with strong arms.
It's a simple enough story, but those can make the best novels. Loretta is a great narrator, flippant, irrelevant, yet very caring and committed and pretty smart. We never really learn all that much about her before the present day, except that she comes from Melbourne and moved to Gunapan with Tony many years ago when he was offered work there (if I'm remembering correctly); there aren't too many details about her earlier life but you get snippets and subtle hints that paint a kind of artistic impression of a life that's become irrelevant to present-day Loretta. She made some mistakes but she has her children, whom she loves dearly, she's come to love Gunapan and be accepted by the "natives" (locals), and she's made her home here. Her sisters, Patsy and Tammy (her mother had a thing for country music and named her daughters accordingly), live very different lives in the city, but Loretta has no intention of moving back to Sydney. She's tenacious, has a sound moral and ethical compass, and watching the way Tony's presence immediately alters and affects her makes you want to punch him and wrap your arms around her to protect her - not that she really needs it.
Loretta's friend Norm quickly became one of my favourite characters. An older man, very much "rough around the edges", he is like a grandfather to Liss and Jake and a good friend to Loretta. He brings around bags of lemons from his tree, a goat to mow their wild backyard, provides good conversation and is someone Loretta turns to when she needs a surrogate parent-figure. Norm is separated from his wife, Marg, who couldn't tolerate his junk-collecting ways - or, indeed, his junkyard, from which he makes no money but to which everyone gravitates to gossip with him (Loretta figures he could make a bomb if gossip were a commodity). He has a son, Justin, who as a teenager pulled a stupid prank with some other boys, took the fall and has spent fourteen years in prison for it; he's just been released and it's shaken Norm's life up a bit.
Loretta has problems enough of her own, but she takes others under her wing - not in the way of some people where their kindnesses are "well-meaning" and suffered out of politeness. She doesn't come across as interfering or overbearing, just caring and offering support. Her relationship with her kids rang true, and I could really feel for her, having to bear Liss's anger and blame for driving her father away (so she thinks), and her reaction to the truth of what's going on between her kids and the immigrant children from Bosnia-Herzegovinia at school. Every detail felt honest and realistic, yet the story contained enough doses of farce and downright silliness to not only keep it from sliding into maudlin drama, but to also make it feel even more realistic.
The humour was just right. The episode where the minister of education visits and is entertained in true local style with a demonstration of a record cattle-carcass butchering (and is subsequently spattered with gore and stunned into a zombie-like silence) was hugely entertaining. But the humour is present in smaller, more subtle ways too, little details or in how characters interact with each other. It had such a warm, cozy vibe going, I wanted to crawl right into the story and take up residence in Gunapan myself.
Speaking of the location, while Gunapan isn't a real town it certainly represents plenty of small, out-of-the-way towns in rural Australia. They're everywhere, really. And I could picture the location quite easily, as I spent a month in Sheparton one year, January it was, absolutely brutal humidity (the temperature was 38 degrees most days, but unlike in Canada they don't measure the humidity, which must have been at least 10 degrees hotter). We travelled around to many of the smaller towns in the area, and stopped in Ballarat and Bendigo on the way through - classic, famous Aussie towns. It's all in O'Reilly' details: the eucalyptus leaves, the diminished waterhole where everyone goes swimming, the red dust, the heat and flies, right down to the way people walk and talk.
I thought I had marked some pages to share quotes with you, but it turns out I didn't. That's what happens when I get so wrapped up in a story, I completely forget my own name and that I'm even reading a book. I lived inside this story, and my only complaint is how quickly it ended! I'm not even going to whinge about the use of present tense, because O'Reilly is one author who actually knows how to write it (yay!) so it read smoothly, fluidly, naturally. But I do want to share something with you, so I've chosen this particular scene from a creative writing class Loretta audits, which I loved though it's by no means the most classic or funniest scene in the book:
Next it's my turn to read aloud. "I don't think I've done it right. Maybe someone else should read theirs." "Now, Loretta," Ruth says, shaking her head. "In this class, we don't judge each other. We're learning together." I shrug my shoulders and pick up my piece of paper. I take a deep breath. Reading out my work makes me feel like I'm in primary school. "OK," I say and I look around at the four nodding faces of the teacher and my classmates. "OK, I wrote a few things. The List of Pleasing Things. Wednesday night comedy on the TV. A Kmart undies sale. The smell of the Scouts' sausage sizzle outside the supermarket on a Saturday. Reading my daughter's diary and not finding anything horrible about me. The jingle of spurs." Ruth wipes her forehead with her hand. It's warm in here, all right, but not that hot. "That's lovely, Loretta," she says. "Now, who's next?" Everyone who hasn't read yet shoots their hand in the air. I remember this moment from school. It's when someone gives a dumb answer to the teacher's question and the others all realize immediately that they can do better. My career as a writer is over in thirty minutes. The other class members read out their lists and not one of them has anything as ordinary as Kmart in it. Roses, moonlight, the smell of mangoes, the swish of silk against your skin. Is this why my life turned out the way it did? Perhaps I should work on developing refined taste and lofty thoughts. [p.91]
Now, I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the UK edition, and nothing in the text appears to have been changed or edited to suit a non-Australian audience. I can't vouch for that in the American edition, however (published by Washington Square Press - you can tell it by the spelling of "colour" in the title); I would be very say indeed to find out that they had changed anything at all, as this book is full of Australianism, from spelling to colloquialisms and slang, and if you started changing them there wouldn't be anything left! So as much as I'm thrilled that such a quintessentially Australian novel has been published in North America, I'm leery of just how "authentic" it still is. If only more such books were published overseas, we wouldn't have to keep on explaining what a "ute" or a "sausage sizzle" was to American readers! (and for the record, we bloody well invented the ute so I think we get to name it, right? Right!) ...more
Chloe is only twenty-five and studying post-grad psychology; she has no time or interest in finding a boyfriend let alone anything more serious than tChloe is only twenty-five and studying post-grad psychology; she has no time or interest in finding a boyfriend let alone anything more serious than that. Between her classes, her research assignments, clinical hours and her part-time job, she barely has time to spend with her best friend and neighbour, Ben. But at a weekend wedding she attends with her mother, Kristine, and her maternal grandmother, June, Chloe happens to catch the bouquet. So does Kristine. And June.
Not that any of them take it all that seriously, though they each keep a souvenir rose from the bouquet. Getting on with their lives, Chloe schedules a meeting with a well-established, handsome older psychologist, Dr Geoff Gable, to see if he'll support her application for a prestigious research grant, but the meeting goes badly. When she encounters him at the kids' indoor play centre where she works and discovers he's a single father to a spoilt little girl called Mary Beth, he surprises her by asking her out on a date. She surprises herself by saying yes, then - completely lacking in experience and worried about making a fool of herself - she agrees to go out on a practice date with Ben - a night that ends in a steamy kiss that she's determined to ignore.
Her mother, Kristine, has been married to Kevin for twenty-five years. It's their wedding anniversary, but Kristine is celebrating alone. Kevin's new job forces him to travel almost constantly, and the distance that's grown between them has Kristine worried that her marriage is going to end. It doesn't help that the handsome travel photographer now working at her travel bookshop, Ethan, seems attracted to her. When Ethan's essay wins a competition for the bookshop, he and Kristine are awarded with an expenses-paid trip to Rome, a place Kristine has always wanted to visit. But with Kevin's work hours and his worries over their finances, he's refusing to go with her.
June may be a grandmother, but she's no little old lady. Though, it's true, she is quite little. But she's a sprightly, active widow who hosts clubs and parties at her brownstone house in Chicago, and is entertained by the year-long war she's been engaged in with her neighbour, Charley, a widower of about three years. It started with his interest in his backyard and gardening, and has grown into deliberate acts of sabotage on both their parts. But June's pre-occupation sparks an interest in her lady friends, who see a handsome single man and a conquest. Now June is up in arms against her friends and takes her spying to new heights.
As Chloe gets deeper into a relationship with Geoff while worrying about how to tell Ben that he proposed, Kristine has agreed to a vow renewal ceremony with Kevin, all while feeling that such an event isn't going to fix their marriage at all. And June herself has some happy news, and a big new wedding to plan. As the wedding date approaches, though, tensions grow and doubts multiply, and June's new promise not to meddle and interfere with her family anymore may be about to backfire with disastrous consequences.
Like many people, I enjoy a good chick-lit novel, a romance that's light on angst and sex but with more humour and silliness than you usually get from romance (a romantic comedy, in other words). It's the relationships side of these novels that I enjoy, as much as the silly misunderstandings, the humour or the growth of the characters as they figure things out. Marriage Matters definitely has that side of things down pat. It is entertaining at times, especially June's side of the story, and Chloe goes through some good maturing, though she never quite seemed able to articulate what was so obvious to everyone else. Kristine's side of the story was the most realistic, a story that will no doubt feel all-too familiar to many people who've been married as long as she has. But I have to say that I struggled a bit with this book, for a few reasons.
Firstly, the three different narratives is a device I usually enjoy, but here it kept moving onto a different character right when I was enjoying what was happening with another. And some key scenes - scenes that I was really interested in witnessing as they happened, that is - often occurred "off stage" so to speak, and are shared by being told to another character or in a quick flashback, making the women's emotions feel, well, second-hand. Clearly, taken individually you'd get a chance to get to know each woman so much better, and their stories would have been told rather differently in such a format. As it was, they felt a bit superficial to me. I never really understood them and I couldn't say that I knew much about them. I only knew what I was told in the here-and-now. And June and Kristine, especially, were a bit too stereotypical for my liking. June was a bit unreal, to be honest. I had a hard time even picturing her. She just didn't seem like a woman her age (how old was she? I'm not sure. Late sixties, early seventies? I can't remember).
Having the three entwined narratives also made for quite a long book, which is my second point. It just seemed to drag on a bit, and in such a disjointed manner too that it was hard to get momentum and find the flow. It moved around in time a fair bit too, and that was hard to keep track of. And once the big triple wedding is decided upon, it became almost crowded.
That's my third reason for not liking this very much. I'm not a big fan of weddings. In fact I like to avoid them as much as possible. I have watched a few episodes of Four Weddings and it tends to make me angry - not just because of how mean the women are towards each other, but also for the irrelevant and old traditions they blindly follow. Marriage Matters is no different in that regard. These women have pretty, ah, conservative and traditional ideas for a wedding. Which is fine, really, each to their own. Your wedding should be what you want it to be, right? Except of course, here it is the wedding June wants, and Chloe just agrees to everything and Kristine just looks sick because she hasn't told anyone she thinks her marriage is over. Really it just comes down to the sad fact that I got bored. I find listening to people's wedding plans pretty boring, especially when they're the same-old thing as everyone else's. (I strongly object to the cliched idea that all women want to get married and all women imagined their dream wedding when they were little girls - what a crock of shit.) To be honest though, the title should have been enough to warn me. I just thought it would be more fun than it was.
All of these things overshadowed the parts that I did enjoy - like Chloe's first meeting with Geoff, that was fun. I found myself getting really angry with Chloe for not facing up to Geoff's expectations of her, which I'm sure was the point, as is the way you feel about Mary Beth, who's just horrible. There's a great scene actually, one of the ones I enjoyed, that highlights it:
"You look beautiful," he repeated. Looping an arm around her shoulder, Geoff pulled her in close. Chloe thought he was going to kiss her, but Mary Beth made short work of that idea. "Daddy!" Ripping off a patent leather shoe, she flung it at Geoff's face. It hit him square in the jaw, just missing Chloe. The other kids at the park gave up a collective gasp. Mary Beth was obviously In. For. It. Dropping Chloe's hand, Geoff took a step away. "I'm so sorry. Mary Beth must feel threatened." Walking toward the jungle gym, he called, "Honey, let's go get that ice cream." Ice cream seemed to be Geoff's go-to parenting move. And it was all wrong, as the women at the park were quick to point out. "Ice cream? Hell no." A heavyset mother glared at Geoff. "Don't you set a bad example in front of my kids." The woman shook a thick finger at her daughter, as if her daughter had done something wrong. "You don't get ice cream after that." The other parents nodded. Delighted to have everyone's attention, Mary Beth took off her other shoe and whipped it at Chloe. Catching it, she considered her options. Kids needed security. They needed boundaries. Even though Chloe wanted Geoff to like her, letting Mary Beth run wild wasn't helping anyone. Especially not Mary Beth. "Geoff, can I please have your permission to get your daughter under control?" "Fine." His expression was as petulant as Mary Beth's. "I don't know what to do anymore." [p.169]
Suffice it to say, I never really liked Geoff at all. As Chloe pointed out early on, for a psychologist, he makes a terrible father. But then she just feels bad for him and lets him use her as a nanny - which Ben points out to her and which she, naturally, takes badly.
After all the drama and goings-on in the book, the ending was rather pat. And needless to say, rather predictable as well. It all worked out so nicely - and no that's not a spoiler, this is chick-lit after all: they don't come with sad endings. I was left feeling a mix of things. Sad that I didn't get to know Kristine better, as she was the character I was most interested in (Chloe second), and relieved that it was finally all over. Not a great feeling to have when you finish a book. Aside from my dissatisfaction with the split narrative, it's well written and there're some really entertaining moments, but overall it was sadly lacking. I can see others enjoying this a lot more, especially if you enjoy wedding planning, the antics of a sprightly grandmother and women who take forever to realise that their male best friend is really in love with them.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book....more