Let me first make a confession. I am one of the very very few people in the western world who has never seen the film. I am, of course, aware of the f...moreLet me first make a confession. I am one of the very very few people in the western world who has never seen the film. I am, of course, aware of the film, and even have an Audrey Hepburn box set which includes it but have, for some reason or other, never got around to watching it. My excuse is that I grew up in soviet Russia where western cinematography was hard to come by until I was a teenager.
The outcome is that I went into the book with pretty much no expectations, other than an iconic image of Audrey Hepburn in a black shift and pearls with her wide bambi eyes and that elusive joie de vivre which comes across even in a photograph at the back of my mind and some vague idea that this might be something along the lines of the Audrey Hepburn films I have seen, which are Sabrina and Roman Holiday. Well, for all I know the movie may well be, but the book certainly was not that.
The first shocker was that Holly Golightly is, in fact, blond. She is a blond glamorous foul mouthed vacuous slutty emotionally damaged 18 year old setting the social scene in WWII New York on fire. A quintessential manic pixie dream girl, "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" (as defined by film critic Nathan Rabin, according to wiki).
It was, perhaps thanks to the very limited length of this novella that Holly manages to stay just on the right side of fascinating without tipping over into irritating too much. She is exactly the kind of character that I would normally despise but there is just enough broken doll air to her to keep her on the darker side of the MPDG spectrum and keep me interested.
To add to the fun, the narrator is a total creep who doesn't think twice about rifling through the garbage of a woman he barely knows and generally stalking her about the place and there is this disturbing backdrop of paedo-eroticism with all these old-er men constantly perving after Holly.(less)
Ten strangers arrive on a private island just off the coast of Devon invited by a mysterious host, a dark secret is revealed about each of the guests...moreTen strangers arrive on a private island just off the coast of Devon invited by a mysterious host, a dark secret is revealed about each of the guests at the first dinner and one by one each is killed off following a children's rhyme about ten little indian boys which starts with "Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine..." and ends with "...and then there were none" of the title.
This was a little too murder by numbers for my taste. I couldn't believe in the story because life is never so neat. I did enjoy trying to guess who the murderer was but at no point could I imagine this as a real situation and, as a result, I could never fully invest myself in the story. It felt more like a puzzle than a book. (less)
This is a story of Sethe, a former slave at Sweet Home in Kentucky. Sethe lives at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati with her daughter Denver. Having e...moreThis is a story of Sethe, a former slave at Sweet Home in Kentucky. Sethe lives at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati with her daughter Denver. Having escaped from Sweet Home while heavily pregnant with Denver, Sethe knows nothing about the fate of her husband, Halle. Halle's mother, Baby Suggs, holy, who was Sethe's destination during the escape, is dead, having, effectively, given up on life. Sethe's two sons have run away and 124 is haunted by the ghost of Sethe's baby daughter. Unnamed. Whose gravestone merely reads "Beloved".
I can see why this won the Pulitzer prize. I really do. This book was horrific in so many different ways. And beautiful. Heartbreakingly so at several points, though it is certainly not pretty. Based on real events, there was not even a hint of a sob story or emotional manipulation. As horrific as the events in the book are, I don't feel like this was written to elicit horrified gasps.
There is an underlying sadness, almost numbness, to the narrative. It is vague and unclear and confusing with its erratic spotlight approach to plot development, dizzyingly abrupt changes in narrative perspective (to the point that at times you are not sure who is talking or that the perspective has changed) and magical realism elements. All of these distance the reader from the characters and their reality. At least, for me, this wasn't quite the visceral experience I was expecting. After all, Morrison is writing about one of the most heinous crimes human beings have ever committed against other human beings. So, perhaps, it should be visceral and raw and devastating. Intellectually, this was there. It asked all the right questions and said all the right things. I had a number of little lightbulb moments of thinking this is it, this is exactly it. But on the emotional level I found it very hard to connect to.
I also wish we found out what happened to Amy. (less)
Have you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love the...moreHave you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love them and I inevitably got suckered into helping her, on occasion. It was engrossing but not straight away. It was a bit frustrating and tedious to begin with, and then all of a sudden you'd find that several hours have passed and you've forgotten to eat but you can't stop, you just need to find that one next piece. This is what the experience of reading this book reminded me of. Completing a jigsaw puzzle, except without the helpful picture that is usually provided with a jigsaw to tell you where the various pieces are supposed to fit, so instead you see the picture emerging very slowly bit by bit and you are not quite sure how the various pieces fit together until the very end.
I was a bit apprehensive about the structure to begin with. All this book within a book within a book nonsense just sounded too convoluted and I didn't expect to enjoy the experience. There are, in fact, at least 5 different narrative strands interwoven in this book. There is the story of Iris and Laura Chase, two sisters growing up at the beginning of the 20th century between the two world wars as told by 83 year old Iris. Then there are descriptions of Iris' present life. I was quite surprised by those. I didn't expect to enjoy descriptions of day to day goings on of an old woman, attempting to do laundry, walking to the cemetery and the doughnut shop and reading the scribbles on the walls of public lavatories, yet I did end up enjoying them a great deal because those passages are so dry, so self-deprecatingly hilarious and reveal so much about Iris as a person. There are also extracts from Laura Chase's novel "The Blind Assassin", published posthumously and describing an affair between two lovers meeting in secret and, within that novel, the lurid fantasy/science-fiction story set on planet Zycron, told by the hero to the heroine, of a blind assassin and a mute sacrificial virgin who fall in love. And finally, there are extracts from obituaries and various other newspaper articles concerning the newsworthy events in Iris' life.
I am still ambivalent about whether this complicated structure works better than a more simple straightforward narrative would have. I did find the story a bit too fractured at times but, perhaps, this is a story that can only be told in this way. Perhaps, that's what gives it its punch. We essentially end at about the same place we start. The narrative is circular and the circle is used as a symbol:
"She’s the round O, the zero at the bone. A space that defines itself by not being there at all. That’s why they can’t reach her, lay a finger on her. That’s why they can’t pin anything on her. She has such a good smile, but she doesn’t stand behind it."
The story that Iris tells is the circle of rock and mountains that she imagines surrounding her, the round dome of the fake sky that suffocates her.
The writing is exquisite. I truly believe that this may well be the most beautifully written book I have read, ever. Atwood has an amazing ability to say something really profound in very few words. This is not a book to be raced through just to find out what happens. Don't expect to be able to finish it quickly, you need a bit of patience, time to pause and to think to truly appreciate this book. There were so many passages that I read and re-read so many times just for the sheer pleasure of reading them. And every so often you come across a paragraph that is so startlingly beautiful, it is almost painful.
"Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear."
"There’s a lipstick heart on the cement, surrounding four initials. An L connects them: L for Loves. Only those concerned would know whose initials they are—that they’ve been here, that they’ve done this. Proclaiming love, withholding the particulars. Outside the heart, four other letters, like the four points of the compass:
F U C K
The word torn apart, splayed open: the implacable topography of sex."
"When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more. Older, then. Sometimes I see an older woman who might look like the grandmother I never knew, or like my own mother, if she’d managed to reach this age. But sometimes I see instead the young girl’s face I once spent so much time rearranging and deploring, drowned and floating just beneath my present face, which seems—especially in the afternoons, with the light on a slant—so loose and transparent I could peel it off like a stocking."
"The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. This is why they have bidets."
"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too - leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back."
I could go on and on and on.
And then there was Iris. She is so drily amusing and snarky, just the kind of character I usually love. Yet she is so flawed and frustrating at the same time. She seems spineless, she accepts and crumbles. There is no resistance, no spine. Yet, perhaps, this is really a strength rather than a weakness. The strength of grass which bends to the wind and survives where trees are uprooted and destroyed by the hurricane. Does s/he who survives the longest win? Can subsequent actions truly atone for choices and mistakes made? I wonder whether my inability to forgive Iris has to do with the fact that I saw too much of myself in her or the opposite. I don't know. I was never faced with her choices. I would like to think that I would have had the backbone to stand up not just for the people I love but for myself and my own dignity. But would I really? I have pretty much always done what has been expected of me and I do quite often choose the path of least resistance. The only difference is that I grew up in a different time and environment and things that were and are expected of me are quite different to those that were expected of Iris and Laura. When the hero of the Blind Assassin, the novel written by Laura Chase, asks the heroine to leave her home (not quite with him but to wait for him) and she responds with "But I wouldn’t have any money… Where would I live? In some rented room, all by myself?", it is quite easy for me to despise her. But would my own response really have been any different given the same upbringing and social environment? In the end, I don't think Iris really needs our forgiveness. Atonement through the act of writing is not, in my view, what this book is about. It is much more complex than that.
Overall this was a very contemplative and melancholy read. Not easy or quick but very rewarding. A book to fall in love with, word by word and sentence by sentence. Beautifully written, with complex interesting characters, engaging plot and some interesting explorations of the writing process and the motivation behind setting pen to paper. Not for everyone, perhaps, but it is going straight to my favourites shelf. I intend to re-read it when I have a bit more time on my hands as I think it is one of those books that needs to be read more than once. I expect I may even enjoy the second reading more, as I already know what is going to happen and can appreciate the little clues and significant details much better. (less)