Poppy Wyatt, a physiotherapist who works at a private clinic with her two best friends, Ruby and Annalise, is just ten days from being married to handPoppy Wyatt, a physiotherapist who works at a private clinic with her two best friends, Ruby and Annalise, is just ten days from being married to handsome university professor, Magnus Tavish. His parents, Antony Tavish and Wanda Brook-Tavish, are also professors, the kind that appear on television, say controversial things and have numerous books published. They completely intimidate Poppy, who's not stupid but is no academic genius, either. Half of what they say goes completely over her head, and she constantly feels like they're deeply unimpressed by her and disapprove of the match - and of Poppy wearing the family heirloom engagement ring, an emerald surrounded by diamonds, which Magnus had retrieved from the vault.
So when, at the Marie Curie Champagne Tea held at a hotel where she's celebrating with her friends (Annalise, Ruby, Natasha, Claire, Emily and her wedding planner, Lucinda and Lucinda's young intern, Clemency), Poppy loses her engagement ring, she's in an absolute panic to get it back. Her friends had been passing it around, trying it on, and then the fire alarm went off and everyone evacuated in a hurry, and Poppy's friends don't have it anymore. It's not just losing a family heirloom that terrifies her, it's Magnus' family finding out and thus cementing their poor opinion of her forever more (she can just picture it, the old "remember the time when Poppy lost our grandmother's ring?" being trotted out at all family gatherings).
Then a second disaster strikes: Poppy's mobile phone is stolen, and gone is her only means of hearing from the hotel, or the police, or all the hotel maids she gave out her number to. So when she sees a phone in a rubbish bin in the hotel lobby, she decides "finders keepers" and requisitions it for her own personal use. There's a company name on it, White Globe Consulting, and someone's name tag in the bin with it: Violet. Small details. But when Violet's boss, Sam Roxton, calls the phone, he's far from pleased with Poppy's decision to take the phone. Poppy agrees to forward on all the emails in exchange for borrowing it, and Sam's left with little choice but to agree.
Aside from losing the ring, Poppy's wedding is coming together in fits and starts. After a mere month-long courtship, Magnus's proposal came out of the blue but Poppy felt she'd met her prince charming. Their wedding planner, Lucinda, is a family friend, but she seems extremely stressed and put out by all the arrangements, and Poppy ends up taking on a lot of the tasks herself. Despite her best intentions, Poppy finds herself reading all the White Globe emails and forming her own opinions about the taciturn Sam. But it's when she starts writing emails to the company in his name that things get really messy.
Which is nothing to the mess Poppy finds herself in when the ring does finally turn up, and she discovers some very startling and unpleasant facts about what's going on around her - and that her perceptions of the people she knows is decidedly askew, including Sam - and herself.
I've Got Your Number is Kinsella's best novel, without a doubt. Okay so I haven't read all of her books, but it was better than the others that I loved (Remember Me? and Can You Keep a Secret?), better than the ones I really enjoyed (Wedding Night and the first three Shopaholic books - Becky Bloomwood can really frustrate me!), and really puts to shame the one that I consider to be Kinsella's worst book ever, The Undomestic Goddess (I couldn't even finish it, it was that bad). With I've Got Your Number, Kinsella has struck gold. It's the perfect combination of interesting plot, engaging and well developed protagonist, not-so-obvious and charismatic-without-trying-to-be male lead, humour that makes me laugh out loud, and even some subtlety.
Poppy is a clear winner of a character. She's trademark Kinsella but without the qualities that have frustrated me in her other books. She narrates - in equally-trademark first-person present tense (Kinsella is one of the few authors who can actually write in present tense) - with that slightly bubbly, slightly cringing enthusiasm and the sense that disaster is always just around the corner. But something about Poppy is different, and refreshing. It isn't until Sam points out Poppy's deep flaw to her that it clicks, and the character takes on a whole new dimension. More than that, she's imminently likeable and sympathetic, whatever her flaws are: you feel sorry for her, not in a pitying way, but in an empathetic way.
I'm back to the black hole of dread. What do I do? I can't keep dodging for ever.
I don't have a burned hand. I don't have an engagement ring. I don't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scrabble words. I'm a total phoney. [p.121]
The male love interests in Kinsella's novels usually come across as a tad under-developed, mostly because the perspective and narration is all the heroine's and they're always caught up in whatever foolish, idiotic mistake they've made to spare much time to really, intelligently, understand the hero. Sam Roxton somehow managed to rise above all that and figure very strongly in this. He had oodles of charisma without even trying. We get to know him mostly through texts and emails, and the way he comes across whenever he pops up in a scene (and he was a bit of a scene-stealer!). He seems so well-contained, and as if there's a lot going through his mind that he doesn't give voice to. This edge of mystery to him makes him charismatic, and makes you want more of him.
I didn't know Sam had a brother, either. As I sit there, digesting all this, I feel a bit chastened. I've never even heard of Tim or Andrew or Josh. But then, why would I have heard of them? They probably text Sam directly. They're probably in touch like normal people. In private. Not like Willow the Witch and old friends trying to hustle some money.
All this time I've thought I could see Sam's entire life. But it wasn't his entire life, was it? It was one in-box. And I judged him on it.
He has friends. He has a life. He has a relationship with his family. He has a whole load of stuff I have no idea about. I was an idiot if I thought I'd got to know the whole story. I know a single chapter. That's all. [p.326-7]
Magnus you'll be able to see through fairly quickly, though he does seem perfectly reasonable and sweet and loving at first. Kinsella is able to share subtle little details with us through Poppy, that enable us to form new opinions better and quicker than Poppy, thanks to our impartiality.
As well as the characters feeling realistic and believable, likeable but flawed (something Kinsella also did well with in Wedding Night), the plot felt the same way. It all flowed together, all the disparate parts, so that it never seemed contrived or "if Poppy hadn't done X which was so obviously stupid, none of it would have happened" - something I tend to feel when reading a Shopaholic book. I could completely sympathise with Poppy's ideas of Magnus's parents, and Kinsella handled the difference between truth and perception deftly. If Antony and Wanda hadn't been the over-bearing, over-achieving (and very messy) smart-arses that they are, Poppy would have been in less of a panic over the ring, and less opportunistic when she lost her own phone. (Yet where would have been the fun in that?)
Speaking of her phone, Poppy's dependency on it wasn't something I could sympathise with (I do now have a mobile, for the first time since 2005, but while it's useful at times, it in no way has my whole life on it or is a crutch), but I could understand it. It's very, well, 21st-century, I guess.
I'm starting to shake all over. I've never felt so bereft and panicky. What do I do without my phone? How do I function? My hand keeps automatically reaching for my phone in its usual place in my pocket. Every instinct in me wants to text someone, 'OMG, I've lost my phone!' but how can I do that without a bloody phone? [pp.17-18]
It may be a book about things going wrong, but Kinsella can really make you laugh, time and again. This must be her funniest book to date, or maybe I should say, her most ironic. Part of this is achieved by use of footnotes - yes, footnotes! Poppy observes how Magnus and his family are big on footnotes, as a way to say things that aren't directly relevant, and starts including them herself, to superb affect. Humour also comes through in her observations, which are quite astute, though it's the way she words them that has me laughing.
I went over the whole place yesterday, replaced all the old manky bottles of bubble bath and got a new blind for the bathroom. Best of all, I tracked down some anemones for Wanda's study. Everyone knows she loves anemones. She's even written an article about 'Anemones in Literature.' (Which is just typical of this family - you can't just enjoy something, you have to become a top academic expert on it.) [p.41]
As you can tell by now, I absolutely loved this book and have nothing negative to say about it. It was the perfect read when I was wanting something absorbing, funny, intelligent and surprising. It's entertainment that actually perks you up and makes you feel better about the world. If you're after a story that will cheer you up, take your mind off things and make you laugh, this is the book. For sheer entertainment value, I couldn't suggest anything better, but it had the added bonus of providing an engrossing story full of depth, warmth and humour, a story that really came to life for me. I was sorry to have it end....more
Ellen O'Farrell is a calm, rational woman in her mid-thirties who enjoys her life and loves her job as a hypnotherapist. She works out of her beachfroEllen O'Farrell is a calm, rational woman in her mid-thirties who enjoys her life and loves her job as a hypnotherapist. She works out of her beachfront home in Sydney, an old house last decorated in the 70s which she inherited from her grandparents. The one thing that hasn't worked out so well for her is her love life. With three serious ex-boyfriends littering her past and giving her secret insecurities, she has big hopes for the man she's currently seeing, a contractor called Patrick whom she met through an online dating site.
When, during a romantic dinner, Patrick says they should have a talk and then abruptly disappears into the men's bathroom for some time, Ellen fears the worst. So when he finally returns and tells her that he has a stalker, an ex-girlfriend whom he broke up with three years ago, Ellen isn't just surprised, she's actually quite pleased. Patrick suddenly becomes a whole lot more interesting to her. After all, it's not just anyone who has their own stalker.
But more than that, Ellen develops a burning curiosity and interest in Patrick's stalker, Saskia. What kind of woman becomes a stalker? What does it take to fall into that cycle and not be able to escape it? Ellen doesn't feel that Saskia is a personal threat to her, she just wants to understand her. She'd even like to meet her, talk to her. What Ellen doesn't realise is that she already has: Saskia is one of her own clients, and she already knows a lot more about Ellen than Ellen had ever realised.
This was a fantastic book, one of those wonderfully understated novels that's light on plot but heavy on understanding the psychology of its characters. It is not the "breezy summer read [that] will make you feel warm all over" that one of the cover endorsements (from USA Today) proclaims it as; I was rather surprised that anyone would describe this in that way. Yet it's not a dark psychological thriller either. It's more realistic than that, more familiar and more focused on ordinary people and their inner demons and insecurities. It's a character study of two very different yet connected women, as well as a study of life, love, loss, grief, insecurities, neuroses - everything, in short, that makes us human.
Moriarty is an astute social observer who understands people and what makes us tick. I've read a few books over the years whose authors have a knack for digging beneath the skin and teasing out those hidden thoughts and feelings that we have, and laying them bare: I love those kinds of books. Moriarty successfully and skilfully captures the neuroses of her characters, their inner turbulence, their self-doubts, their vanities and insecurities, making Ellen and Saskia vividly real: living, breathing people. Patrick, too, was a tangible, real character, caught between two women and seen only through their eyes - but Moriarty manages to both hide and reveal a great deal about Patrick's character, so that we recognise the obfuscation of the women's own perspectives and glimpse a more honest, less dramatic truth of him in the moments of clarity as when a fog clears.
Saskia narrates her portions of the story in first-person, while Ellen's side of the story is told in the third-person. This works effectively to not only ensure you never get confused or lost in whose story you're currently reading, but it enables us to get right inside Saskia's head as well as showcase Moriarty's enviable talent for creating distinct voices and personalities that clearly delineate the two women. Saskia slowly comes together for us in a visual way but it's not until Ellen sees her and knows her for who she really is (which client of hers she is, coming to therapy sessions under a false name) that we get to really see her. What's interesting about this is how clearly it shows how fragmented we are when it's just the inside of our own heads, as opposed to how solid we become when seen by other people. As if Saskia were just shards of a person, a broken mirror swept into a pile, a collection of troubled thoughts and old hurts with no real form of her own, until Ellen sees her - then she has form, substance, a body, an identity outside of herself.
I came to genuinely love Saskia, precisely because she is so human and so raw and honest with herself. She drifts between knowing what she's doing is wrong, feeling like she's become crazy and completely disengaged from reality, and obsessing over her unhealed hurts. She lost her mother, her only family member, and then just months later she loses Patrick - but not just him, she loses his son, Jack, too. Patrick's wife, Colleen, died only a year after having Jack, and it wasn't all that long after that that Saskia came into their lives. From Saskia's point of view, she and Patrick had been deeply in love and committed to each other. She lived with him and Jack and she was Jack's mother - she made him lunch, read to him, taught him games, and loved him. Saskia never saw the break-up coming, she had had no inkling that there was anything wrong, and she went into shock when it happened. When that passed days later, she found herself completely cut out of Patrick - and Jack's, lives. What really hurts her, as much if not more as losing Patrick, is losing Jack. How could she go from being his mother one day, to being pushed out of his life the next?
I remember waking up in Tammy's room five days [after the breakup] and realising it was Friday morning and that Jack had swimming lessons straight after school, and I always had to remember to pack his things the night before, and who would take him? [...] I had more flexibility than Patrick and I loved picking him up. I was Jack's mother. I didn't mind when I missed out on a promotion because I wasn't working full hours. That's what mothers do; they put their careers on hold for their children.
So I called Patrick, to remind him about swimming lessons, and that's when all this started: my habit. My "stalking" of my old life.
Because Patrick treated me like a stranger. As if Jack's swimming lessons were nothing to do with me, when just the week before, I'd been at swimming, helping Jack adjust his goggles, talking to his teacher about maybe moving him up a class, making arrangements with one of the other mothers for a play date with her son. "It's fine," Patrick had said. All irritable and put out. As if I was interfering. As if I'd never had anything to do with Jack. "We've got it all under control." The rage that swept through me was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I hated him. I still loved him. But I hated him. And ever since then it's been hard to tell the difference between the two. If I didn't hate him so intensely, maybe I would have been able to stop loving him. [p.252]
I found myself, like Ellen, yearning to understand Saskia, and the more I learned about her and what led to her stalking behaviour, her obsession, the more I felt sympathy for her. I couldn't condone it, and like many of the supporting cast in this story, my initial thought was "God, why can't she just move on?" But since when have humans ever been so straight forward? Moriarty probes deeply into Saskia's psyche, rendering her human and thus, understandable. What Saskia can't get over is being cut out of Patrick and Jack's lives, just because she was a girlfriend, not a wife. And Patrick never really understood that either, never considered letting her see Jack or spend time with him; never considered that Jack had now lost two mothers. Because he was a grieving widower, a man in mourning who hadn't worked through his own grief, his own loss, and he was a loving father who wanted to look after his son. It all makes perfect sense, and it's all so messy, and it's almost all a product of miscommunication or misunderstandings or no communication at all, as these things often are. You couldn't find more human characters than these.
I remember thinking that it wasn't fair. If Patrick had been killed in a car accident, I would have been allowed to grieve for him for years. People would have sent me flowers and sympathy cards; they would have dropped off casseroles. I would have been allowed to keep his photos up, to talk about him, to remember the good times. But because he dumped me, because he was still alive, my sadness was considered undignified and pathetic. I wasn't being a proper feminist when I talked about how much I loved him. He stopped loving me, so therefore I had to stop loving him. Immediately. Chop, chop. Turn those silly feelings off right now. Your love is no longer reciprocated, so it is now foolish. [p.317]
There are so many psychological layers to this story. The hypnotherapy sessions were fascinating and gave me great insight into what hypnotherapy is and how it works; I loved reading those scenes. And I loved reading about Ellen. She was completely laid bare, but not in that way where you feel like the author is shoving everything at you with no subtlety. It went so well with Ellen's character, her personality, that her thoughts were open to us readers. I could recognise many of her thoughts, having had similar ones myself, or at least could recognise the realism and frankness in them. She was captured so perfectly, and it was fascinating watching her shift from this neat woman into someone who floundered trying to figure out who she really was.
It was true that she wasn't unhappy about Patrick being a widower. She quite liked the fact that it made things more complicated. It made her feel like she was part of the rich tapestry of life (and death). Also, it gave her a chance to demonstrate her professional skills. She imagined people saying to her, "Do you worry about his feelings for his wife?" and she'd say serenely, "No, actually, I don't." She would understand completely if he still had feelings for his wife. She would know instinctively when to draw back, when to let him grieve for her. [p.46]
She wasn't imagining it. Patrick was definitely talking more about Colleen since their engagement. In fact, she'd started keeping a tally in her head, and there had been at least one reference to Colleen every single day for the last week. [...] If Colleen had been an ordinary living ex-wife or ex-girlfriend, Ellen could have banned all further mentions of her, but as she was dead, and as it was perfectly understandable that having another child would be bringing back memories for Patrick of Jack's birth, and as Colleen was Jack's mother and he loved hearing stories about when his mother was pregnant with him, Ellen felt she not only had to listen politely, but she even had to encourage further revelations about the seemingly perfect Colleen by asking Patrick interested questions with a bright, loving, empathetic expression on her face.
Frankly, it was driving her bananas. [pp.242-3]
Watching Ellen unravel and lose her grip on the kind of person she thought she was, or wanted to be, wasn't exactly satisfying but it was rather riveting. She never came across as superior or uptight in the beginning, but she did seem to be a little too in control, in that way some people are that leaves you thinking that any little rock of the boat could be their undoing, emotionally.
While the story is focused on the characters, there are some plot developments, both in terms of Saskia-the-stalker, Ellen and Patrick's relationship, and Ellen's business. It's just enough to give it forward momentum, but it doesn't suffer from that problem some books have, of starting strong with an interesting premise only to snow-dive towards the end when it seems like the author didn't know where to take it and so threw in a big action climax like an abduction or a car accident or something of that nature, as if the lack of plot suddenly became something to renege on. There is a climax here, a culmination of events that coincides with that freakish, giant dust storm Sydney and other parts of the north-east coast experienced several years ago, but it's not melodramatic, and the ending is satisfying and rather beautiful.
I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially if you enjoy character-driven stories that really lay bare the human soul and all our frailties, our neuroses and the twisted ways our minds work sometimes. Ellen and Saskia are two strong protagonists, vastly different from each other and yet with several things in common, representing something older than this story, something intrinsic about women, about female friendships and the bonds women make, about how women deal with things emotionally and mentally, and how unforgiving we can be of each other. It was hard to say goodbye to them, at the end of this book, after sharing such a momentous chapter in their lives and coming to know them so deeply, like real people revealing their secret thoughts. A thoroughly compelling and beautifully told novel.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
If there's one thing I've come to count on, it's that Sophie Kinsella can make me laugh. Out loud. Numerous times. Not as easy as you'd think, for a bIf there's one thing I've come to count on, it's that Sophie Kinsella can make me laugh. Out loud. Numerous times. Not as easy as you'd think, for a book to do with me, but when a book can make me laugh, I treasure the moment as much as when a book makes me cry.
Lottie Graveney is thirty-three and finally - finally! - about to hear the proposal from her boyfriend Richard that she's been eagerly awaiting. He's been dropping lots of hints, and booked a table for lunch at their favourite Italian restaurant. She was so excited she even bought him an engagement ring. So when the question turns out to be regarding how to use his extra Air Miles before he goes to San Francisco for several weeks on business, Lottie is floored. She's so upset that Richard didn't propose - and doesn't look likely to ever do it - that she breaks up with him on the spot.
As Lottie's older sister, Fliss, knows all too well from past experience, Lottie has a habit of doing something rather rash and foolish after a break-up. Like the time she got a tattoo, and the time she joined a cult. Lottie's post-break-up wildness only lasts a few weeks, and then she comes crashing down to Earth and Fliss has to help her pick up the broken pieces and put her back together again. With their own parents long removed from the picture, Fliss has filled the mother role for Lottie for years now. Her own marriage, to the insufferable Daniel, is going through the divorce wringer, and the only good thing to come out of it is eight-year-old Noah, their son - whom Daniel isn't helping out with much. Fliss has her own issues, harbouring her resentments and hoarding her complaints against Daniel, and is slowly becoming the bitter woman she always wanted to avoid.
So when Lottie calls her up and tells her she's getting married to some guy called Ben whom she knew when she was eighteen and living the high life on a Greek island during her gap year, Fliss pulls out all the stops to prevent it. If she can just make Lottie wait, she'll wake up soon enough and realise it's not what she wants. The last thing Fliss wants to see is her sister in a situation like hers: battling a pompous idiot for divorce and custody of their child.
Fliss isn't alone in her goal: Ben's business partner Lorcan also wants to stop the foolishness and get Ben to pay attention to the company he inherited but which he mostly ignores. Lorcan's style is much more heavy-handed than Fliss's though, and before she realises the damage he's done, her sister has married a man she barely knows and flown off for her honeymoon on the same Greek island where they once had their "summer of love". Luckily, Fliss is the editor of a global travel magazine, and she knows people - including the hotel manager, whom she manages to coerce into making sure Lottie and Ben don't consummate their wedding before Fliss can get there and talk some sense into her sister. It will make getting an annulment all that easier.
Yet it's not only Lottie who is making a mistake: Fliss too is doing possibly fatal damage to her relationship with her sister by interfering and ruining her honeymoon. Things aren't going well for Lottie and Ben, though Lottie is ever the optimist and doesn't give up easily. Can their marriage work, or will she have to admit to her sister that she made a mistake - again?
More so than in any of Kinsella's previous books - the ones I've read, anyway, which is most of them - Wedding Night combines some heavier, more serious issues regarding relationships, denial, being misguided and in general facing up to yourself, with her trademark humour and flair for writing realistically flawed characters. It was very nicely balanced, neither too serious nor too silly, and created an extra layer of tension and made the story more meaningful overall.
This is largely thanks to Fliss (short for Felicity), who I found easy to relate to and sympathise with. She provides the saner voice, the voice of reason, the counter-balance to Lottie's rather ditzy naïveté. Fliss is your classic working mother going through a messy, prolonged divorce who's trying to give Noah the childhood every kid deserves, untainted by the contempt she feels for his father or the anger that takes over her at times. I certainly didn't agree with what she did to Lottie - or how - but she made it make sense, she provided the kind of justification that worked, and I felt her own sense of rising panic. It's clear that Lottie's doing something pretty stupid, but it's just as clear why - and we all need the chance to make mistakes and learn from them. So, since events are set in motion anyway, Wedding Night takes the opportunity to have a good laugh at the whole thing along the way.
Both female characters (and I'm sure the male ones too) are trademark Kinsella, just re-jigged so that they feel fresh and new and their own people. Fliss I loved, as I mentioned above, while Lottie was that classic well-meaning but short-sighted twit, not stupid but not really thinking things through either. She was more your Becky Bloomwood character. If the entire book had been told from Lottie's perspective, I don't know that I would have been able to finish it. Dividing the story between Lottie and Fliss - each telling their own chapters in first-person present-tense - ensured that I never got sick and tired of either of them: just as one begins to get on your nerves a bit, it switches to the other sister and you get a fresh voice and new laughs.
And I've mentioned this before, about Sophie Kinsella, but she is one of the only authors I've ever read who actually knows how to write in present tense properly. Present tense is becoming the new fad, I've noticed, especially in Young Adult fiction but also in adult fiction, and it's really annoying me - a) because it's not half as flexible or versatile a tense as past tense, thus limiting what you can do with it; and b) too many of those writers simply don't know how to use it and write as if they're still using past tense. If you want a really good example of how to use present tense, start with Wedding Night or another of Kinsella's, like Can You Keep a Secret? And no, I'm not about to stop going on about this, not until people stop using present tense or learn how to write with it properly!!
This is a highly entertaining storyline that doesn't feel all that predictable as you're reading it because Lottie is something of a wild card and even Fliss is a surprisingly resourceful woman, and you never know what she's going to pull out of her bag. Literally, like when she makes a hot air balloon for her son's class project in the carpark because Daniel hadn't passed on the letter about it, and she uses a gift box as the basket and a condom for the balloon. Very funny scene. Nice to know that I can still laugh at condom jokes.
The other things I found myself laughing aloud at were the ridiculous but very funny ways the hotel manages to keep Lottie and Ben from having sex. It became so exaggerated, with the butler and the assistant butler constantly popping up and dogging their steps, and the horde of workers scratching their heads and arguing over how to remove two single beds when the suite should have had a giant king size bed, and many other antics. It's a farce, no doubt about it, but Lottie and Ben are so caught up in themselves - and, to a lesser degree, each other - and so incredibly horny, that they don't see it as anything other than over-zealous employees, incompetent contractors and so on. The hotel staff never go far enough to have to a formal complaint against them, they just over-do the normal services. To say that I laughed out loud several times is high praise, especially because I was half afraid the whole plot and all the shenanigans were going to really irritate me, not amuse me.
To balance Lottie's silliness, Ben's childishness, and Fliss's over-protectiveness, we have Lorcan. He's a tall, dark, serious man, a lawyer by profession who's been putting all his energy into saving his friend's paper company without realising how much Ben resents him for it - and how much farther Ben runs when Lorcan tries to rein him in. He, too, has an important life lesson to learn. He comes across as serious and grumpy, and he is a bit grumpy, but his sense of humour - irony, possibly dead-pan - comes across at just the right times. All the characters are flawed, all are struggling with certain aspects of life that come with growing up, and they all require a bit of work (some more than others) to get us on their side and liking them. They're realistic, in that way.
Wedding Night reads like a romantic comedy, and I see a movie adaptation coming in the near future: it's perfectly cinematic and the right kind of story for the big screen. Its humour is nicely countered by its life messages, and the only part that disappointed me was the ending. It was an ending straight out of Hollywood, where the characters have their big confessional in as public a place as you can think of - a device I absolutely loathe but which is really common in Hollywood rom-coms anytime there's any kind of deception involved. But still, it is a satisfying way to end things. I will also say that I found it a bit long, too long for the story it contains, and while there were many times when I found the sisters' internal monologues highly entertaining, there were others when I thought they could be trimmed a bit. Oh and boy do the British drink a lot!!
A very entertaining read that doesn't require anything of you except to sit back and enjoy, Wedding Night is a silly, flirtatious story of sisterly love and trying to recapture the magic of youth, with just that little bit of meaningful eyebrow-raising to make it grounded - almost as if Kinsella were aiming to transition away from Chick-lit and into Fiction and wanted to test the waters. Not my favourite of Kinsella's books, but a good read when you're in the right mood....more
Don Tillman is a thirty-nine-year-old genetics researcher and professor at the university in Melbourne. He's fit, a non-smoker, and super smart. But hDon Tillman is a thirty-nine-year-old genetics researcher and professor at the university in Melbourne. He's fit, a non-smoker, and super smart. But he's still single. This is what he refers to as the Wife Problem. Then he hits upon a way of weeding out all the women in the area and finding one who's actually compatible without having to meet them all: a questionnaire. The Wife Project is his own name for it, and the survey he creates certainly filters out the undesirables. That is, pretty much every woman who fills it out. But Don is learning a lot, like how looking for a non-drinker because he intends to quit drinking isn't such a good idea after all. His friend Gene, the head of the psychology department whose own pet project is sleeping with a woman from every country in the world (he keeps track with a giant wall map in his office), and Gene's wife Claudia, a clinical psychologist, give him advice, and Gene takes on the task of working through the online dating applicants (clearly looking to push more pins into his map).
When Rosie Jarman walks into Don's office one day and says she was sent by Gene, Don figures Gene thinks she's a good candidate for the Wife Project, and promptly asks her out to dinner. Except she's no good at all. She's a bar tender, she smokes, she arrives late and she's a vegetarian: all instant disqualifications. She's also the most beautiful woman Don's ever seen, but that's not enough for the Wife Project, it's the answers to the questionnaire that matter. But they get along well and become friends, of a sort. Rosie tells him about how before her mother died when Rosie was twelve, she told her Phil, her dad, wasn't her father at all, that her father must have been one of the men she slept with at her graduation - because Rosie has brown eyes and both her mother and Phil have blue eyes. After all, her mother was a doctor, she should know.
Don takes on a new project that makes him completely forget all the other ones: the Father Project. As a geneticist, he knows the foolproof way of solving the mystery is to test the DNA of the men in Rosie's mother's graduating class. That's a lot of men. But together they concoct schemes to lift harmless samples of DNA from them and unethically run it through the powerful computers at the university. Strangely, Don finds himself enjoying the time spent with Rosie and the Father Project much more than his own Wife Project, and he's learning some new life lessons, like how much fun it is to eat a meal on the balcony, or exploring New York City. He makes friends with strangers he meets while in Rosie's company, and gradually realises that being with Rosie makes him a different man, a better man even.
Could his survey, designed to find his perfect mate, be a failure because it doesn't take into consideration human emotions? Yet, Don doesn't feel love. He's always believed himself incapable of the feeling. And yet, while he can't pretend that he cares about the characters in classic romantic movies - which he watches for research - he realises that he does care about Rosie.
This is a wonderful, delightful story of two very different people connecting in surprising ways and bringing out the best in each other. We see the world through Don's eyes as he narrates with complete deadpan irony, not even realising how humorous he is because he possibly has a touch of Asperger's - though the doctors have never been able to settle on any one diagnosis - and doesn't seem to have a sense of humour at all. There's a whole other layer to the world going on between Don's sentences, which we see but that he doesn't, that really fleshes this story out and adds that heightened sense of realism that really makes The Rosie Project ring true.
It's also a sweet, funny, insightful novel. Originally written as a screenplay, you can certainly picture it cinematically in your head. It'll make a great movie - for it will surely be turned into one now that it's had such success as a book. Don Tillman is often described as "quirky" but I didn't find him quirky in the slightest. He's many things but not what I think of when I think of quirky. There's something both strange and comforting about him. He's awkward and inept in social situations, often saying the wrong things and not even realising it - that would be so refreshing! He's genuine and caring even when he doesn't realise it, like going to buy Claudia a scarf in New York City, and wanting to help Rosie find her father in the first place. His reasoning for things might be less sentimental and vague than most of us, but he's no cold, dead fish. His Asperger's - if he does indeed have it (it's a very broad range) - gives him almost an excuse to say things in a bald, honest way, without sugar-coating or showing tact. I actually found it really refreshing and freeing to have Don call it like he sees is. I rather wish we were all a little less P.C. - mostly because I've been known to say things and then realise how it must have sounded, judging by the sudden stiffening of people and the looks on their faces.
The Rosie Project is, in a way, a celebration of individuality and being a bit different. It's not just Don, though he's obviously different: it's Rosie too. She stands out in her own way, a bit wild, certainly unconventional - though in a more "acceptable" way. At its heart, this book tackles the pervasive social and cultural ideology around the notion of what's "normal" and acceptable. Don spends most of his life worrying about where he fits in, and is very conscious and aware of the kinds of things he gets "wrong", and what his social weaknesses are. When he's with Rosie he relaxes and stops trying so hard, and it's then that his social ineptitude actually disappears a bit and he just becomes Don. But it's clear that we have very distinct ideas of what "normal" is, and Don and Rosie learn to embrace oddity, rather than be ashamed or embarrassed by it.
Structurally, the story works around the plot of finding out who Rosie's father is. It's quite obvious from the beginning that Phil really is her father - making her ruined relationship with him absolutely tragic. But as a way for Don and Rosie to spend more time together and to create a fun investigative plot, it's highly entertaining. Like when, in just days, Don learns how to make hundreds of cocktails so he and Rosie can wait tables at the reunion for her mother's graduating class, and Don becomes the star of the hour with his knowledge and gets a job offer by the owner of the clubhouse. There are other amusing encounters as they work through the list of men who graduated alongside Rosie' mother, but the Father Project is mostly a means by which we learn more about Don and Rosie, and they learn more about each other.
Full of amusing and astute details, believable characters and an engaging, fun storyline, The Rosie Project is the perfect summer read - or anytime read, really - when you are in the mood to be entertained but also emotionally and mentally engaged. This wasn't as fluffy as you might expect, though how much you get from it in terms of themes and underlying social critiques is up to the individual reader. Either way, I absolutely loved it, it gave me a good laugh and also made me feel sentimental (not something I feel very often); it is sweet and satisfying but never self-indulgent or melodramatic. It's an honest story, told honestly by one of the most bracingly honest men you'll meet in fiction, and you can't help but want a happy ending for Don and Rosie....more
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