Maybe it helped that I didn't read this the week it came out and by the time I got round to it I had heard so much negative stuff about it that I wasnMaybe it helped that I didn't read this the week it came out and by the time I got round to it I had heard so much negative stuff about it that I wasn't expecting much. But, despite a few reservations, I absolutely loved it. As always with Rowling, compelling storytelling meant I literally couldn't out it down once I'd got about a quarter of the way into it. It was also nice to see her being more overtly political (although her left-leaning perspective will come as no surprise to anyone who has noticed her approval of the Weasleys and her disapproval of the Dursleys in HP). An ambitious state-of-the-nation novel which deftly juggles multiple narrative strands and a broad cast of characters.
Yes, there's a bit too much swearing (especially at the beginning, where absolutely everyone seems to be effing and blinding, regardless of characterisation, but after the novel beds down, with the possible exception of Simon Price, who uses some swear words which sound contrived, any coarse language is convincingly in character). Yes, the narrative style is a bit clunky at times (but no more so than a lot of other published authors who don't get the same amount of flak as Rowling. We all know she's never going to be Proust, but nor is she rankly amateurish.)
But most of her characters were convincingly drawn. Many people have said they found them unlikeable - I liked most of them. I found myself understanding and empathising with Krystal, Andrew, Sukhvinder, Tess, Kay, Gaia...even with Colin, Samantha and Fats, although I didn't always approve of what they were doing. And, despite my reservations about it, I was genuinely moved by the ending.
I grew up on the edge of an estate much like the Fields and one of my pet peeves about modern fiction is that middle-class authors are often patronising and cringeably inaccurate when writing about working-class and underclass characters. For the most part, JK Rowling admirably avoids falling into this trap. Krystal, while perhaps a little over-sentimentalised and made a little too perfect, is drawn with depth and sympathy and the social forces that have made her life what it is are carefully charted. Nikki and her family, although only occasionally glimpsed, do give a counterexample of a non-dysfunctional estate family. And the character of Barry Fairbrother, although again a bit of a plaster saint, does show a product of the estate in a good light.
However, it did concern me that the ending reduced Krystal and Robbie to mere agents to affect a change in the lives of the middle-class characters - having argued against the exploitation and marginalisation of the underclass throughout the novel, with the ending it seemed that Rowling was quite happy to exploit and marginalise them herself, as she threw all her energy into exploring how the aftermath of events had made the middle-class characters better people.
What is more, I disliked Rowling's handling of Howard's and Shirley's characters. While I am no fan of the kinds of attitudes and politics that they represent, either, it did seem hypocritical that they were ridiculed for their material aspirations and their vulgarity. It is wrong for the Mollisons to ridicule and patronise those (like the inhabitants of the Fields)whom they consider to be beneath them, but it seems it is perfectly all right for the middle-class characters (and, by extension, the middle-class author herself)to ridicule and patronise the Mollisons for being vulgar and for daring to aspire to the kind of affluent lifestyle that e.g. the Jawandas and the Walls take for granted. By all means ridicule them for their malice, for their lack of compassion and true charity, for Howard's lechery, for Shirley's manipulativeness, but not for being uppity chavs who dare to aspire to social mobility. In fairness, Rowling did give some glimpses into the Mollisons' backstory to partially explain what had made them how they were (Shirley's shame at being sneered at for her promiscuous mother, Howard's own ability to work his way out of poverty and his simple lack of insight that not every other working-class person has the personality traits and advantages that allowed him to do this), but I felt she didn't take it far enough and the Mollisons remained almost as cartoonish as Petunia and Vernon.
So my biggest reservation about the novel is the suspicion that Rowling, as Simon suspects of Barry Fairbrother, slightly despises people who haven't gone to university.
Just read this for the second time and found it as unputdownable as the first time. The compulsive quality of a mystery novel (with added interest froJust read this for the second time and found it as unputdownable as the first time. The compulsive quality of a mystery novel (with added interest from the fact that the "mystery" is the real life one of the gaps in Bruegel's life and art) but with the witty, carefully constructed prose of a heavyweight writer and clever parallels between art and the lives of the central characters....more
A dark, witty delight - Gothic fantasy with its tongue firmly in its cheek, but not in a clever-clever Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett sort of way. I haA dark, witty delight - Gothic fantasy with its tongue firmly in its cheek, but not in a clever-clever Douglas Adams/Terry Pratchett sort of way. I have this theory that writers whose day job is being a painter write books with a special, instantly recognisable quality that's impossible to put into words. Mervyn Peake and GK Chesterton are the two main pillars on which this theory rests....more
**spoiler alert** I found this utterly unputdownable. A compelling mystery story (although, I must concede, I guessed the main twist very early on), b**spoiler alert** I found this utterly unputdownable. A compelling mystery story (although, I must concede, I guessed the main twist very early on), but it also explores a number of topical themes, such as the fashion for genealogy, the looming abolition of the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, the ethics of medical research and knowingly passing on hereditary medical conditions...and, like all good books, it raises questions about its themes, rather than trying to provide answers. Complex, clever, well-plotted, with real depth and great characterisation....more
In my opinion this is hands down the best book Waugh ever wrote and one of my favourite novels by anyone, ever. The characterisation is deeper and theIn my opinion this is hands down the best book Waugh ever wrote and one of my favourite novels by anyone, ever. The characterisation is deeper and the plot more substantial than in Waugh's earlier satires, but it's still got the anarchic, juvenile (in a good way) and (oddly, given that his books always have a strong moral message)deliciously amoral humour of his earlier works and he hasn't yet fallen into the stuffy, po-faced ponderousness of Brideshead Revisited.
I've just reread A Handful of Dust after about a 15-20 year gap and the power of the macabre plot twists still gets me. Even though I know what's coming, there's a punch to the solar plexus as Tony Last's life careers out of control in the most cruel and unusual ways and the ending still shocks and disturbs me.
Waugh was perhaps a little too scarred by the end of his first marriage when he wrote this - Tony is implausibly nice and Brenda too much of an unfeeling bitch. I feel a bit as if I'm listening to someone's very biased and self-pitying account of their own relationship break-up (which,in essence, I probably am).
That aside, though, I don't think I can find anything about this book to criticise. Sharply observed dialogue, judicious use of symbolism (the highly droll vicar who hasn't updated his sermons since he preached in India and who still talks about being surrounded by ravening animals and separated from one's loved one reeks of symbolism on at least two levels), laugh-out-loud set pieces and a dark and complex plot almost worthy of Hardy.
Waugh paints a terrible picture of a decadent and brittle world where marriage and children are held cheap and infidelity is a popular game and where even the decent people put their trust in the wrong things (dying traditions, religion which is more a reassuringly familiar ritual than a living faith with real relevance to anyone's life). While I don't share Waugh's religious faith or worldview, I can't help but be moved by this....more
As with the Blood Doctor, she takes the current fad for genealogy as her starting point for a sweeping multi-generatioPossibly Rendell's finest, IMO.
As with the Blood Doctor, she takes the current fad for genealogy as her starting point for a sweeping multi-generational epic about secrets and lies, the nature of family, identity and its reinvention. A thumpingly good mystery novel that also explores serious themes in a complex fashion.
Downsides: it's never a good idea to write about a community to which you don't belong and I imagine RR/BV may be guilty of patronising stereotypes. Can't say anymore without giving the plot away.
And my absolute pet peeve, which happens quite a lot in RR's work, hot girl likes hot guy, but ends up with nerdy but loyal guy, because it's apparently OK for guys to be attracted by hotness, but selfish, shallow and immature when girls are, and so female character settling for Ugly Boy is supposed to be "character development"....more
A thumping good read. Not as good on rereads, but for Victorian sensationalism, primal communion with the landscape, acute social commentary and someA thumping good read. Not as good on rereads, but for Victorian sensationalism, primal communion with the landscape, acute social commentary and some of the most nail-biting end-of-chapter cliffhangers in the history of fiction, Hardy's your man....more