Beloved is not easily accessible- the text makes you work to extract every bit of meaning and if you're not feeling up to that kind of heavy-going dec...moreBeloved is not easily accessible- the text makes you work to extract every bit of meaning and if you're not feeling up to that kind of heavy-going deconstruction, you're probably going to end up resenting it.
But that caveat noted, this is probably one of the most rewarding reads I've ever embarked on. I studied it as part of a university literature class that focused on post-colonial and revolutionary literature and I know most of my classmates really disliked it- but I loved it. I thought it was just magic.
Beloved is a Southern Gothic novel that tells the story of the outcast Sethe, a freed slave, attempting to reconstruct her life in the aftermath of slavery and a violent, disturbing personal tragedy. The story is told in a disjointed manner through the perspectives of a variety of characters surrounding the protagonist, including the eponymous ghost, Beloved herself. It mixes the supernatural, elements of voodoo culture and horror into a thoroughly researched history of slavery that starts in Africa and finishes in Ohio. The thread that pulls the reader through the story is an unknown sinister event lurking in Sethe's past, involving her deceased daughter, and the increasingly malevolent presence of the ghost haunting her house.
It's not difficult to see why some people find the disjointed, non-linear, stream-of-consciousness delivery of the story off-putting. But if you're patient with it you'll find a narrative that not only relays a history of slavery in America, but shows (rather than simply telling) how fractured and psychologically damaged its victims were. The delivery of the narrative is designed to reflect the collective state of mind of those whose voices tell the story. I think there's also an element of Morrison's trying to argue that the story of slavery is one of such horror and violence that it simply cannot be told in ordinary language, that it has it's own vocabulary- one that's different from the words used to describe the mundane.
I noticed another reviewer likened the narration to that of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury- a comparison which is spot on. Toni Morrison wrote her masters thesis on Faulkner and the southern gothic genre, so it's not surprising that she's borrowed many of his techniques. Like Faulkner, Morrison also crafts impressionist, poetic prose, which I thought was a delight to read. As with Benjy Compson's mentally handicapped narration in The Sound and the Fury, the difficulty you experience as a reader in decoding Sethe's fractured narrative highlights the plight of the victims of slavery and the difficulty they had in making their voices heard.
There's so much to discover in this book, layers upon layers that can be unpacked. If you feel like you're struggling, don't try to analyse every single clause- read on and just try to absorb the over all gist of the words, because this is the kind of book where the meaning will crystallise as you progress. My last piece of advice when reading Beloved would be to pack a box of tissues- the events depicted in the book are not for the faint-hearted. They are both disturbing and very, very sad, as you would expect of any story that attempted to chronicle such an awful part of human history.(less)
Birdsong chiefly follows the life of Stephen Wraysford, first as an English expatriot living in France and then in his subsequent struggle through the...moreBirdsong chiefly follows the life of Stephen Wraysford, first as an English expatriot living in France and then in his subsequent struggle through the brutality of the Western Front 1916-18. Wraysford's life is viewed through several shifting perspectives: the men under his command, his granddaughter investigating her family history from 1978 London, and of course from his own inner narrative.
At first I found the sudden narrative shifts a little disconcerting, but once I was able to locate Wraysford in each new context I found the plot was actually quite tightly written and always pulling the reader to discover more of Wraysford's life. Birdsong makes for an intense, oftentimes harrowing, read. I'm reasonably well versed in WWI history, but I was still quite shocked in parts by the sheer degradation of human life that Faulks depicts. This novel is a perfect example of how narrative can be far more effective at conveying history than mere statistics and bald facts.
There's a detailed development of themes here, too. Like most art forms concerned with war there's meditations on life and death and how brutality of war renders life utterly meaningless. There is also quite a bit of emphasis on the disjunction between the experiences of soldiers and civilians and how difficult it was for the former to resume the life of the latter. But what I really liked was that Faulks (if imperfectly) tries to steer the reader towards some kind of reconciliation of the horrors of events like the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, with somekind fo hope for humanity. As Wraysford searches for a reason to go on surviving machine guns and bombardments, Faulks is also trying to find a way in which he and the reader can understand the history of WWI and not be consumed in an existential vacuum. I think whether he succeeds is probably a very personal matter of interpretation, but I had sympathy with his depiction of the ongoing, cyclic flow of humanity and the way the modern world sort of carries the torch for our ancestors.
This was one of the most poignant and touching novels I've read in a long while, and despite the bleakness of the subject matter, there is something very satisfying about the way Faulks closes the circle and concludes his story. I would recommend it to any reader, particularly those with an interest in WWI or historical fiction, but caveat that you might need a strong stomach to make it through.(less)
Outer Dark (1968) is Cormac McCarthy's parable-like tale of a brother and sister each wandering the Appalachian trails around the turn of the century,...moreOuter Dark (1968) is Cormac McCarthy's parable-like tale of a brother and sister each wandering the Appalachian trails around the turn of the century, encountering the extremes of goodness and evil in their travels. The writing has all of McCarthy's hallmarks: a creeping foreboding and atmosphere of malevolence; visceral descriptions of man and environment, plots that concern those on the fringe of society, steep contrasts between innocence and savagery. For readers unfamiliar with McCarthy, the 'unjustness' of Outer Dark's narrative might seem quite jarring: McCarthy's protagonists often suffer cruelly in the hands of fate and the reader cannot rely upon punishment for evil-doers.
In many ways, Outer Dark might be considered McCarthy's first iteration of the ideas he later redeveloped in The Road. In this case he uses an historical Southern county as his backdrop rather than a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and the protagonists' goals are quite different, but the Hobbesian view of the human state of nature is very similar. Both novels are strongly characterised by a sense of impending violence created by unknown predators that exist far beyond the boundaries of civilised morality. These miscreants (inevitably men in McCarthy's world) hover just off the edge of the narrative, motivated by pure survivalism.
It's worth noting though, that some of the most chilling moments in Outer Dark take place in the context of society and under the auspices of community leaders. Whether you consider the case of the sheriff who leads a lynch mob for the hanging of two innocent, but unknown, farm hands, or the priest who counsels that it would be ungodly to throw a man of dubious guilt off a cliff, but quite acceptable to hang him, it would seem that McCarthy takes rather a dim view of so-called socially condoned morality too.
Outer Dark would probably make a good starting point for anyone wanting to make a first foray into McCarthy. It contains a broad selection of ideas that continue to reoccur in his writings over the next 40 years of his career.
Contrary to others that I've discussed this book with, I actually found the second half of the book more engaging than the first. I really enjoyed the...moreContrary to others that I've discussed this book with, I actually found the second half of the book more engaging than the first. I really enjoyed the political-historical content and the unfolding of Egyptian nationalism. For me, themes that had been latent but unexplored in the first half, really took root in the latter part and demonstrated the complexity of Soueif's narrative. The way she managed to tie so many threads together, using the parallel narratives but with a good dose of ambiguity, was really clever.(less)
At first glance, a murky historical drama/mystery peopled by some truly wacky villains determined to pin all of the world's woes on the Jewish peoples...moreAt first glance, a murky historical drama/mystery peopled by some truly wacky villains determined to pin all of the world's woes on the Jewish peoples. The plot lines are at times so outrageous as to seem absurd. But of course, this is an Umberto Eco novel, and there is a lot more going on in this story than is immediately obvious.
Firstly, its all meticulously researched and is broadly historically accurate, allowing for artistic streamlining of events and personages. To modern eyes, the blatant discrimination and racial hatred that drives the protagonist and underpins the forged documents at the centre of the plot seem almost ridiculous. But as history shows, they were ideas that became very widely disseminated and lead to millions of deaths through pogroms and the Holocaust. I rather liked that Eco doesnt actually labour this point- in fact, other than a short summary table of events in the appendix, there is no overt discussion of the consequences of 19th century anti-Semitism. It s a wise choice because frankly, its a well covered topic, and the glaring silence on the subject adds to the sinister malice of the protagonist.
The Prague Cemetery also sees Eco return to one of his favourite themes: the absurdities of conspiracy theories of history, only this time he flips many of the ideas presented in Foucault's Pendulum upside down. Instead of critiquing the faulty logic and credulity that inspires conspiracy theories, this time Eco is asking his readers to believe a story that sounds too absurd to be true: that a handful of individuals, though not necessarily working with a single purpose, managed to bring into existence a document that (some decades later) would have a defining impact on European politics in the 20th century. And performing a neat, multilayered trick, Eco's protagonist (echoing Belbo and Casaubon of Foucault's Pendulum) is hard at work falsifying his own Machiavellian historical conspiracy as fast as government secret service reps can buy them up. What starts as a politically expedient falsehood eventually morphs into 'the Truth' via an Orwellian-kind of doublethink.
There are plenty of other clever quirks and symmetries to this novel, as you would expect from Eco, which gives his books that feeling of a many layered intellectual puzzle. The unrepentant, dastardly amoral protagonist will probably leave some readers cold, but the ideas informing The Prague Cemetery are well worth your reading time.(less)
It seems somewhat paradoxical to label a book both as historical and speculative fiction- but in this case each seems equally relevant. Fatherland is...moreIt seems somewhat paradoxical to label a book both as historical and speculative fiction- but in this case each seems equally relevant. Fatherland is an extensively researched act of imagination that asks what 1960s German society and geopolitics would have looked like if the Allies had lost WW2? Xavier March, SS criminal investigator, general cynic and sufferer of pitbullish tenacity, acts as our window into a Berlin built to Albert Speer's blueprint and the intrigues of a state bureaucracy gone homicidally mad.
What starts as a just another body being fished out of the Havel by our detective protagonist rapidly escalates into an international cover-up of the greatest crime in history. However unlike most crime thrillers, any reader who has even an inkling of historical knowledge already knows where this cover-up leads and which parties were responsible. Rather than being a mystery that leaves you wanting to unfold the facts, this book morphs into a political whistleblowing thriller where the main tension in the plot is all about a lone powerless individual struggling to expose a totalitarian state to the world.
On the whole I found Harris's book a great page turner and hugely informative, in its own fictionalised way. But I did find myself feeling a bit let down by Harris's less than original analysis of the German nation's collective guilt and complicity in the Holocaust. He seems to posit a particularly Teutonic love of authority and the desire to protect one's own loved ones from the power of the state as key reasons so many people allowed themselves to be wilfully blind to the atrocities being carried out around them. Personally, I find these ideas less than compelling and pretty unsatisfactory. But then again- perhaps that is because there never will be satisfactory answers found for this extraordinary, terrible moment in human history.(less)
Generally I've found novels set in 19th century Australia pretty bland, but this was quirky, interesting and peopled by wonderfully realised character...moreGenerally I've found novels set in 19th century Australia pretty bland, but this was quirky, interesting and peopled by wonderfully realised characters. Carey works through themes as varied as faith, the emergence of natural sciences, love, the absurd, gender roles and colonialism as he weaves together the stories of his protagonists Oscar and Lucinda. I thought the plot was brilliantly original and contained some of the most vivid, memorable imagery that I can recall reading- Carey's description of Lucinda's glass church floating down the Bellingen river was a real high point!(less)
This is one of the most challenging books I've read and I vacillated between loving and hating it. So to be fair, I'd really like to give this 3.5 sta...moreThis is one of the most challenging books I've read and I vacillated between loving and hating it. So to be fair, I'd really like to give this 3.5 stars but it seemed worthy of rounding up, rather than down.
It became obvious very early on in the piece that this book would be very difficult because of my lack of background knowledge of the Reformation and papal intrigues. There is an enormous cast of characters, often bearing similar names (there's more Jans and Johans than you can poke a stick at). But my edition had a helpful appendix with portraits of the historical figures and that made the reading somewhat easier. Another difficulty I encountered was the ever shifting identity of the protagonist. We never learn the original or 'true' name of the hero of this book and keeping up with his aliases through the non-linear time shifts kept me on my toes.
All of that is ok though, as long as you have the patience and willingness to concentrate on the very complex plot. What really brought down the rating for me was the pacing of the book. The narrative stops and starts very abruptly as it jumps back and forth across forty-odd years of tumultuous history. One minute the protagonist is in the thick of a pitched battle; the next, you have to wade through twenty pages of meditations on life and hardship taking place two or three years later. I suppose that is at least partly to do with the novel's being a collaboration between four authors, but I certainly would have enjoyed the reading much more (and probably completed it in much shorter time) if the suspense and action had been a little more consistent.
Now that my gripes are out of the way, there's plenty of reasons why it's still a great book. Firstly, the sheer ambition and scope of this book is fabulous. To cover such a huge swathe of complex history in one unified plot is an impressive achievement. And I learned so much about the history of the Catholic church and its challengers. What's more, even though the historical detail is exacting, the themes of challenging authority and dogma, money and power, rebellion, making wealth communal etc have a lot of relevance to the modern zeitgeist.
Another aspect that I paticularly enjoyed was the way the seemingly disparate elements of a sprawling narrative came together in the end. It was a great mystery, and bits of the plot that I never expected to be related came together and I was totally taken by surprise by the final 'reveal'. And even then, when all the players were unmasked it plot still took a few odd twists, and the reader is left with a kind of thoughtful, wryly hopeful resolution, rather than the usual neat, cliched ending of just desserts served to all.
I'd recommend this to anyone willing to take on a challenging read, with an interest in 16th century European history. If you like Umberto Eco's novels or the Showcase series The Borgias, there's a good chance you'll enjoy Q as well.(less)
This is the first Geraldine Brooks novel that I've read and I will probably read more. The plot of The People of the Book is surprisingly straightforw...moreThis is the first Geraldine Brooks novel that I've read and I will probably read more. The plot of The People of the Book is surprisingly straightforward- a simple framing narrative interspersed with short-stories that stretch back in to the past. Hannah Heath is an Australian conservator of rare manuscripts asked to assess the fictionalised Sarajevo Haggadah. As Hannah uses a mix of forensic science and good old fashioned academic research to reveal the physical history of the book, the passage of the book through 500 years of European history is detailed in vignettes of the lives of its custodians.
I didn't really know very much about the history of the Jewish people prior to WWII so this was a very informative read, even if it is a very fictionalised history. The manner in which the convivencia of 15th century Andalusia is brought to life is a real treat. I quite like that although the plight of the Jews is definitely in the foreground of this novel, it doesn't read like an apologist ode to centuries of persecution- it is certainly empathetic, but I think Brooks has tried to walk a more apolitical humanist line. I loved that Brooks is able to find the goodness and strength of humanity in even the most dire moments of our history.(less)
The rating I would really like to give for this book is 3.5 stars, but it seemed worthy of rounding up rather than down. The Snow Child is a whimsical...moreThe rating I would really like to give for this book is 3.5 stars, but it seemed worthy of rounding up rather than down. The Snow Child is a whimsical, touching tale that unites the spectacular setting of 1920s frontier Alaska and an old Russian folktale of a 'changeling' who comes to an old childless couple. I couldn't help but notice that this is very much a book about women, even though there are plenty of male characters throughout the pages of the book. The three women on whom the majority of the plot seems to turn are childless despairing Mabel, who's eyes provide the primary -viewpoint of the narration, no-nonsense Esther, the capable matriach of a family of unruly men, and of course, Faina, the mysterious snow child that appears to have grown out of the very wilderness itself. The bonds of family are the central theme of the book, as Mabel and her husband Jack struggle to come to terms with the difficulties inherent in loving a half-wild girl who refuses to be tamed and belongs more to the mountains and glaciers than she does to them.
I think Ivey's greatest achievement in the Snow Child is her portrayal of the majestic, pitiless wilderness of the Alaskan mountains. Every now and then Ivey would lure me into a false sense of security with descriptions of powdery glittering snow and the silent, shady spruce pine forest, and then she'd remind me that it's a wolf-eat-wolverine world where every species lives precariously and that there's a hard brutality in that kind of survival. Even the ethereal Faina with lichen woven in her white blonde hair and snowflakes on her cheeks is capable of squeezing the life out of a marten, or wrestling and then slitting the throat of a wild swan. Faina is the personification of that beautiful, at times savage, untamable landscape- and interestingly, whether one interprets that as a literal or metaphoric relationship is largely at the discretion of the reader, as Ivey witholds any explanation for the magical-realism elements of the story. (less)
The Shadow of the Wind is a great page-turning, edge of your seat kind of tale. But it's certainly not all thrill, no substance: it's got beautifully...moreThe Shadow of the Wind is a great page-turning, edge of your seat kind of tale. But it's certainly not all thrill, no substance: it's got beautifully sketched characters and a lot of insight into human nature which saves Zafon's novel from descending into melodrama.
I really enjoyed the way the city Barcelona itself became very much a character in the story, at times homely and familiar, at times mysterious and dangerous, and very much carrying the physical and psychological scars of years of civil war and Franco's fascist dictatorship. My edition also included a neat map of a recommended walking tour of Barcelona which would take readers through the areas that inspired Zafon. Readers who have travelled to Barcelona will be delighted by the prominent position the city occupies in the novel.
I think there are elements to this book that would appeal to a very broad readership- the plot's got lots of momentum so it's a pretty easy read; the characters are marvelous; lots of suspense, action, a bit of violence and a strong undercurrent of romance should appeal to both sexes. (less)
First and foremost, what impressed me the most about this novel is the extent of the research that must have gone into it. If you love history this bo...moreFirst and foremost, what impressed me the most about this novel is the extent of the research that must have gone into it. If you love history this book will probably appeal with its extremely detailed examination of the seedy underworld of Victorian London. Faber tells the stories of the servants, prositutes, drunkards, philanderers and impoverished that Dickens and Eliot couldn't. If you've ever wondered how single women living alone managed to do up their corsets, how a chamber pot was used, what laudanum was like etc. then this is the book for you.
I haven't given this more than three stars however, because of several issues I had with this book. Firstly, it is exceedingly long- at approx. 900 pages this is a real doorstop of a book, and I'm not sure the development of the plot necessarily warranted such length. The first half of the book dragged IMO, though the pace does pick up a good deal once Sugar is installed in the Rackham household.
Secondly, I don't like to be bashed over the head by the themes of the book. I think it's far more enjoyable to pick out and ponder the themes for oneself, but Faber frequently exaggerated the thematic links between characters and events with blunt and heavy-handed metaphors. It's a cumbersome way to write, and it assumes the reader is an idiot, unable to think these things through for themselves.
This is a really enjoyable, quick read. The pace of the story is such that it reads very much like a page turner and I found myself wanting to read on...moreThis is a really enjoyable, quick read. The pace of the story is such that it reads very much like a page turner and I found myself wanting to read on all the time. But dont let that make you think it's all plot and no concept. There is a lot of subtly included rumination on the nature of hope and despair in the face of enormous tragedy, as well as a lot of focus on the roles women played out in 17th century rural England. The ultimate conclusion came as something as a surprise to me- but the pleasant kind; the unconventional, ever-resilient, resourceful protagonist couldn't have had a more worthy ending to her tale.(less)
I scared myself silly reading this at 3am. Susan Hill does an excellent job of allowing her physical settings to build tension and a sense of the eeri...moreI scared myself silly reading this at 3am. Susan Hill does an excellent job of allowing her physical settings to build tension and a sense of the eerie. Though the ghostly incidents are indeed scary, they wouldn't be half as effective were it not for the potent unease created by the bleak, unfriendly marshes and the isolated house on its wind-blown island right in the middle of them. (less)
JG Farrell's Troubles is definitely one of the most unsual books I've read. In short, it follows the misadventures of ex-WWI-serviceman Major Archer w...moreJG Farrell's Troubles is definitely one of the most unsual books I've read. In short, it follows the misadventures of ex-WWI-serviceman Major Archer who is inadvertently drawn into the eccentric lives of the inhabitants of the formerly grand, but now decrepit, Majestic Hotel in Kilnalough, Ireland in 1920.
At first blush this novel comes across as an imaginative, nutty portrayal of the British ruling gentry in Ireland as they slide into irrelevance and decay, intransigently refusing to acknowledge the civil uprising taking place before their very eyes. In a Mervyn Peake-ish kind of way they are all quite mad. However beneath the amusing battiness of the old women who won't leave the hotel, the hoard of felines who have colonised the upper storeys, pianos falling through crumbling ceilings etc, there is a gradual development of uneasy goings-on. Farrell uses two mechanisms to engender a sense of impending violence. Firstly, liberal use of stylised newspaper clippings of the escalating violence between the Black and Tans and the Sinn Fein are the only veiw the narrator offers of the Ireland that exists beyond the perimeters of the Majestic; secondly, a series of minor but increasingly threatening or macabre interactions within the hotel reflect the unseen violence without. This violence, which for most of the novel seems more latent than real, culminates abruptly as the British government contemplates an exit strategy from Ireland and the hotel's inhabitants finally prepare to disband.
There are a couple of detractions though, in my view. I thought the length was a bit excessive and there seemed to be a few plot lines that were left hanging or awkwardly terminated. The plot is steeped in political symbolism however, so maybe I've not fully grasped the inticacies of Farrell's metaphor? Another thing that made the reading process drag a bit was my inability to emotionally 'latch on' to the protagonist. I suspect Farrell was so busy layering metaphors and maintaining that quaintly absurd narrative tone that any development of pathos for his protagonist was left by the wayside. The only people that might seem worthy of our sympathy (the starving children in the hedgerows, the tenant farmers who have to steal back their crops, the reclusive fiancee Angela) only ever appear on the periphery of the story.(less)
Morgenstern's debut novel is a great fairytale- evocative, richly imaginative and packed with wonderfully eccentric, creative feats of magic. If I...more3/ 5
Morgenstern's debut novel is a great fairytale- evocative, richly imaginative and packed with wonderfully eccentric, creative feats of magic. If I had to describe it in as few words as possible it might go something like, 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel sans-literariness, crossed with light fantastic romance'. The story begins with a pretty good premise- two illusionists unknowingly pitted against each other in a kind of metaphysical magic competition- and it's easy to fall into Morgenstern's beautifully realised Cirque des Reves.
However, without giving away spoilers, in some ways the intriguing premise, for all its ability to draw the reader in, is also sort of the downfall of the plot. It kind of stitches everything up and I thought in many ways the plot points became inevitable, and there were few surprises. My only other complaint is the way Morgenstern's wondrous world does seem a little superficial. Though the circus acts are brought to life in minute detail and are terribly imaginative, I never felt like I ever really got to get inside the heads of any of the characters, to really know what makes them tick, or understand their motivations in anything but the broadest of senses.
A lovely fun read, that might make you a little teary at the end, but ultimately lacking on the characterisation front and in the neatness of the conclusion. Read it on a holiday when you want a break from higher-brow stuff.(less)
I'm quite a fan of fragrances and perfume and have been to a few of the traditional French perfumeries, Fragonard, Grasse etc, and really really wante...moreI'm quite a fan of fragrances and perfume and have been to a few of the traditional French perfumeries, Fragonard, Grasse etc, and really really wanted to enjoy this book. As it turned out it was an entertaining read, but not as exciting as I had hoped. The research that had been put into the history and manufacture of early perfumes was really interesting, but I wasn't terribly gripped by the narrative. I think I might have preferred Perfume if it had either been more chilling and spooky, or if there had been even the tiniest basis of sympathy for Grenouille. I did really like the ending though- there was a great grim poetic irony to it.(less)