Human Croquet

Human CroquetNear the beginning of this novel by Kate Atkinson, we learn the history of Fairfax Manor and the enigmatic Lady Mary Fairfax, who appeared naked one stormy night, became the bride of Sir Francis, and, years later, vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as she arrived. That was back in the late 16th century. Our storyteller, Isobel Fairfax, lives centuries later, in the 1960s, and she’s turning 16.

Isobel lives in a house built on the site of the old Fairfax Manor with her father, Gordon; her stepmother, Debbie; her aunt, Vinny; and her brother, Charles. Her mother, Eliza, disappeared almost as mysteriously as Lady Mary did, and Isobel has no memory of her. No one but Charles wants to talk about her, and she clings to bits and pieces of her that she finds around the house—a powder compact, a lone shoe.

But the mysteries aren’t limited to Isobel’s ancestors. She’s beginning to experience something strange herself. She’ll be walking along in the wood, only to find herself transported suddenly to the same wood, but different. Her brother Charles, with his interest in the paranormal, is fascinated:

‘Amazing,’ Charles says enviously when I tell him, ‘you must have been in a time warp.’ He makes it sound like a normal occurrence, like a trip to the seaside. He proceeds to interrogate me for the rest of the evening about the minutiae of this otherworld. ‘Did you smell anything? Rotten eggs? Static? Ozone?’ None of these unpleasant things, I answer irritably, only the scent of green grass and the bitter smell of hawthorn.

Perhaps it was some kind of cosmic April Fool’s joke? I’m only just sixteen and here I am already leaking madness like a sieve.

Isobel’s story is confused and confusing. She’s 16 and still trying to figure things out, which is difficult enough without time warps and mysterious appearances and disappearances. In fact, most of the drama in this book is not in the time travel, it’s in ordinary daily life, where abuse and abandonment happen every day. The story gets extremely dark, as Isobel faces down the dark sides of her family and neighbors. Tragedy begins to feel inevitable, like destiny.

The title, Human Croquet, refers to a party game in which people take on the role of croquet balls and wickets. The blindfolded “balls” are led through the “wickets” by the voice of the players. One of the characters mentions the game repeatedly, noting that you need lots of people to play. The novel is a little like that. There are lots of characters, getting led around by the plot, not seeing where they’re going, bumping up against each other, and being driven through each others’ lives. But is Isobel the blindfolded ball getting knocked around, or is she the player guiding the balls?

It is Isobel’s voice that keeps the story rollicking along. She’s a self-conscious storyteller from the start, telling the reader,

I am Isobel Fairfax. I am the alpha and omega of narrators (I am omniscient) and I know the beginning and the end. The beginning is the word and the end is silence. And in between are all the stories. This in one of mine.

Her voice throughout the novel is so distinct that you never forget that you’re in a story someone else is weaving. This is, for me, one of the pleasure of Kate Atkinson’s novels, especially her early ones. She writes great stories, but the voices in which those stories are told set them apart. And, sometimes, the style of the storytelling becomes essential to the plot. This is especially the case for Emotionally Weird, but is also true of this book to some degree.

Atkinson has played with the nature of reality and time and truth in other books, most especially Life After Life and A God in Ruins, and this book has a lot in common with both of those. However, this book has a saggy charm to it that I miss in the newer books. It’s not just Isobel’s voice that makes a difference, nor is it the sometimes preposterous turns of plot. I think what I enjoyed about this is the way it kept me off-kilter almost the whole way through. With Life After Life, the rules are clear early on. And with A God in Ruins, the rules are upended only in the final moments. In this book, the line between reality and unreality is always in question. Many of those questions are resolved in the end, but I think we’re still left to wonder what the truth of the story is.

Toward the end of the book, we get a new version of Fairfax Manor’s history, this one more banal and ordinary than the one that opened the book. But I don’t think it’s more true, although it may hew closer to the facts. Isobel is groping for a sort of emotional truth, something that draws out the essences of the people around her and their emotional connections. The facts might not be enough for that, although the facts inform those truths, sometimes in ways the croquet-ball characters aren’t even consciously aware of. This question of multiple truths has turned up in many other books, often as a last-minute revelatory gimmick. Atkinson does something similar here, but it doesn’t feel much like a gimmick to me. Partly, I think, it’s because she avoids offering just two opposing stories, a factual one and a fantastical one. Truth is too woolly to live in just two alternatives. Truth branches out in all kinds of directions, fact and fantasy together.

This is a terrific book, as Atkinson’s books always are. It’s also the last of her books I have left to read, so I now have to wait for more. Have you read any Atkinson? What are your favorites?

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 16 Comments

The Coroner’s Lunch

coroners lunchDr. Siri Paiboun shouldn’t really be a coroner. He’s served most of his life as a doctor for the Laotian people, and now, at the age of 72, he thought he’d be able to take a peaceful, if not ideal, retirement: one room and a shared bathroom in Vientiane, a little people-watching, lunch every day from the best kiosk in the city. He’s a communist only by convenience; something of a wry ne’er-do-well by nature.

But the new regime (new in 1976) has other ideas for Dr. Siri. The Party leaders make him a coroner — a job he has no training or inclination to do, and no materials to perform properly. They expect him to return safe verdicts in contentious cases: cardiac arrest, sir, cardiac arrest.

But Dr. Siri has had enough of safety. At his age, he has a lot of experience with human nature, and very little to lose. When he sees something strange in the death of a Party leader’s wife, and Vietnamese soldiers begin popping to the surface of a Laotian lake, he’s the only one unafraid to investigate and draw dangerous conclusions. He and his two assistants (a very appealing and funny pair) accept danger as long as it leads to the truth.

Colin Cotterill’s novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, is a lively evocation of the early days of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, when a practically crime-free communist regime competed with the Thai regime across the river. The plot is original enough, stemming as it does from some of the political complications of the time. The most interesting and unpredictable thing about it, to my mind, however, is the spiritual or supernatural element to the mystery. Dr. Siri has dreams in which he communicates with the recently dead. When he visits a Hmong village, they call him Yeh Ming, a thousand-year-old warrior, and he discovers he can speak fluent Hmong — a language he didn’t know he knew. Later, he has shamanistic visions that help him solve the mystery.

Normally, this kind of plot device wouldn’t appeal to me much. But years ago (maybe as many as 16 years ago) I read Anne Fadiman’s superb book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This is about a Hmong family whose spiritual beliefs about their daughter’s illness (epilepsy) are in direct conflict with the Western medicine her doctors are using to treat her. Fadiman gently, sensitively, and intelligently explores the huge cultural gap that separates Western beliefs about illness from Hmong (and more generally Eastern) beliefs. It’s a tremendously interesting and well-written book that I would recommend to anyone. It was published in 1998, but the girl’s family came to the United States in 1980 — just a few years after this mystery takes place in Laos. This extra piece of knowledge about the way spirituality is integrated with Laotian life made the book convincing and interesting to me, and pulled me into its path when it might otherwise have lost me.

There are so many detective series out there. This is one I didn’t know existed — I read it for my mystery book club, and I’m glad I did. If this tempts you at all, I’d recommend it.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

The Gap of Time

Gap of TimeAlthough I tend to grumble about any effort to “breathe new life” into classic texts that still have plenty of life in them, I’ve adored many such retellings, from West Side Story to Clueless. So I’ve been both excited and wary about the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which numerous popular and acclaimed authors will reimagine Shakespeare’s plays as novels. The series launched this month with Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time,  which she dubs a “cover version” of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

Winterson wisely gets the big moment out of the way early. The novel opens with Anthony Gonzales leaving an infant girl in a New Bohemia (New Orleans) hospital’s Babyhatch and then driving away, pursued by gangsters and getting rear-ended under a bridge we later learn is called Bear Bridge. So now we all know how she’ll take care of that most famous bit of stage direction. No need to wonder about it anymore.

The baby is immediately found by a man named Shep and his son Clo. Shep then makes the only decision that feels right:

We look at each other, her unsteady blue eyes finding my dark gaze. She lifts up one tiny hand, small as a flower, and touches the rough stubble of my face.

The cars come and the cars go between me and my crossing the street. The anonymous always-in-motion world. The baby and I stand still, and it’s as if she knows that a choice has to be made.

Or does it? The important things happen by chance. Only the rest gets planned.

The book then moves back to London where a former bank executive named Leo is convinced that his wife MiMi is having an affair with his best friend Xeno. If you know the play, you know where this is going. And even if you don’t, you can probably guess. It starts with a Webcam and ends with assault and kidnapping. This part of the book is stressful and unpleasant. Leo’s anger is oppressive, and even (especially) those characters who love him have to walk on eggshells. But they don’t take his anger seriously, noting that “Leo is like a cartoon of somebody who’s unstable.” After the final, devastating outburst, they have no choice but to take him seriously. But soon, Leo and MiMi’s baby is gone, and any chance they had at making things right is gone.

Here, the story returns to New Bohemia, with Shep and Clo and the now grown-up Perdita. Their happiness, despite what some might consider sketchy surroundings, is a breath of fresh air. This is a world worth spending time in because it is so infused with love and affection. And the eventual joining of Shep’s world with Cleo’s kept me smiling until the end of the book. It’s very much like my reaction to seeing the original.

The plot itself is ridiculous, but to try to impose anything like realism on The Winter’s Tale would be silly. Instead, Winterson goes for an emotional realism in which the characters are locked in bad patterns or past mistakes and obsessions and must find a way out. And if the path out feels like a fairy tale, remember that this novel is based on a play in which a statue comes to life. Some plot elements seem odd, particularly the use of a video game Xeno developed, but the game is so crucial to the final payoff that I really didn’t mind.

Hogarth did well to launch this series with Winterson. One hesitation I have with the series is in the fact that so much of the pleasure of Shakespeare rests in his language. Straightforward prose would not be enough. But Winterson gives us her characters internal musings as well as bits of third-person narration that could just about stand alone:

And the world goes on regardless of joy or despair or one woman’s fortune or one man’s loss. And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and a lifetime to understand the change.

It’s not Shakespeare, but it feels Shakespearean. I loved it. I can only hope the others live up to it, but I’m not entirely convinced about some of the other planned retellings:

  • Margaret Atwood: The Tempest (perhaps)
  • Tracy Chevalier: Othello (I find Chevalier bland. I’d like someone more bloody and ruthless to take this on.)
  • Gillian Flynn: Hamlet (Interesting. She could make it dark and edgy, but will her prose be good enough?)
  • Howard Jacobson: The Merchant of Venice (I’ve never read Jacobson, but he’s a Jewish author, and probably only a Jewish author should take this on.)
  • Jo Nesbo: Macbeth (I’ve never read Nesbo, but a crime novelist could be right. I’d rather see someone who could play with the supernatural elements.)
  • Edward St Aubyn: King Lear (Never read St. Aubyn. No strong opinion.)
  • Anne Tyler: The Taming of the Shrew (Yawn. This one could have been great for Atwood, but she seems more interested in speculative fiction these days. I like speculative fiction, but I like Atwood’s realistic fiction better.)

I’d like to see some non-white authors included. What about Helen Oyeyemi? (Imagining her Macbeth gives me shivers, but Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline have potential.) Or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? Or Zadie Smith? They might make interesting work of the histories. Or Kazuo Ishiguro? I can imagine him doing Measure for Measure. But Sarah Waters could put a clever spin on that play as well. (Maybe too obvious a spin.)

Who would you choose to adapt Shakespeare?

I received an e-galley of The Gap of Time for review consideration via Edelweiss.

Posted in Fiction | 26 Comments

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

white woman on the green bicycleI had mixed feelings about Monique Roffey’s novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. It spans about fifty years, and tells the political history of Trinidad through the ups and downs of the relationship between a white expatriate couple, George and Sabine, who came to the island in the 1950s expecting to be there for a three-year appointment — and never left. The first half of the book is written in omniscient third person, and tells the end of the story: George, who loves Trinidad, has become a journalist specializing in the “big” interview, and he gets caught up, blustering and wielding power he doesn’t have, in trying to tell the story of the brutal beating of his housekeeper’s son. Sabine has never liked Trinidad: the heat, the insects, the racial inequality, the sense that she’s not wanted as a white person on the island. But George, deliberately oblivious and happy with his mediocrity, has refused to take Sabine and their children back to England. Here they all are: trapped in what Trinidad has made of them.

The second half of the book is told from Sabine’s point of view. Perhaps as a response to her own powerlessness and voicelessness, Sabine becomes deeply interested in the postcolonial political movement on Trinidad. Sabine’s interest, like George’s “interviews,” functions as a kind of newsreel of Trinidad’s history. We see real-life figures like former Prime Minister Patrick Manning, the calypso king the Mighty Sparrow, the Soca Warriors (when Trinidad qualified for the FIFA World Cup) and great cricketer Brian Lara through their heat-wavering eyes. Most of all, we see the powerful, enigmatic “father of a nation,” Eric Williams. Sabine, like so many others on that island, is deeply drawn to Williams: his ideas and ideals, his “University of Woodford Square” where he preaches that colonialism was finished in his country, his charisma, his new political party. And she is also repelled, understanding that this movement is not at all for her or about her, and may not even leave her safe. Sabine is torn. She understands some of her complicity in the poverty and social problems of Trinidad:

I was white. White in a country where this was to be implicated, complicated, and, whatever way I tried to square it, guilty. Genocide. Slavery. Indenture. Colonialism—big words which were linked to crimes so hideous no manner of punishment was adequate.

But she continues to take part in all those systems, nonetheless: the Country Club with the color bar, the house where she has running water but her servants up the hill do not. She’s fascinated by Eric Williams and writes him hundreds of letters telling him what he should do, but she only sends one. Is this the action of someone who truly desires change? I wonder.

This book’s language is rich with description and dialect: it speaks and sings and shimmies. But the character complexity leaves something to be desired. George and Sabine’s servants, Venus and Lucy, never reveal themselves very far; they are a mystery to the very end. Why? Because they’re Trinidadian? Because they’re poor? Because of the language barrier, or the things they know that Sabine doesn’t? George and Sabine themselves represent the opposing postcolonial sentiments of greed and guilt, wrapped around each other in a profoundly sexual relationship without much mutual understanding. Sabine is left with her confusion and resentment, and a life spent in service of something she neither desires nor deserves.

As I read this book, I kept thinking of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, her long essay about Antigua’s British colonial legacy. Having read that made it feel strange (though no less “authentic” in its own way) to see Trinidad through the eyes of George and Sabine. I want a sequel to this book, with the same title, written in the voices of Venus and Lucy. Then we might get some answers to some of this complicated book’s complicated questions, spoken and unspoken.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Castle of Crossed Destinies

castle of crossed destiniesA little while ago, I took part in the summer re-reading of John Crowley’s Little, Big. One of the things I said about it was that it is a story made of stories: children’s books, myths, fairy stories, Shakespeare, George MacDonald, Aesop are all intertwined in the story of the Drinkwater family. Tom’s posts on Wuthering Expectations told me that not only was I missing lots of the references, but that I hadn’t even begun to read stories made of stories: he mentioned in particular Italo Calvino’s 1973 book (novel? not really) The Castle of Crossed Destinies, to which there is actually a reference in Little, Big. So, of course, I read it.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies begins with a castle in the heart of a dark forest, where a group of men and women have met by chance. All of them have lost their voices, and the only way they can communicate about the ordeals that have brought them there is by laying down the cards of a tarot pack, the meaning of which is reconstructed by the narrator. We hear in this way a series of stories, some of which are stories we already know (Parsifal, Lear, Oedipus) and some of which are new, or at least they seemed new to me. The second half of the book is very similar, but takes place in a tavern — a tavern that is mysteriously also the castle, as the castle was mysteriously also a tavern — where the guests have lost their voices. They use a different Tarot pack to tell their stories, but the results are the same: stories, all the possible stories in the world, contained in those mysterious cards.

This book explores the construction of meaning from the very first lines.

I crossed a rattling drawbridge. I slipped from my saddle in a dark courtyard. Silent grooms took my horse. I was breathless, hardly able to stand on my legs; after entering the forest I had faced so many trials, encounters, apparitions, duels, that I could no longer order my actions or my thoughts.

What orders our actions and our thoughts but narrative? We can’t know our thoughts until we tell them. Robbed of his voice, the narrator is disordered until he’s given a structure — the Tarot — to construct layers of meaning. The book itself is a narrative (Calvino, the author, creating the castle/ tavern), and that narrative creates a set of narratives (through the narrator and the Tarot, which Calvino says he actually used and laid out to see what stories he could recognize.) How many times would he have laid it out before Toad Hall appeared, or Narnia, or the Great Gatsby? And, of course, the narrator tells us about the characters in the Tarot; and we, the readers, react. This author/ narrator/ character/ reader relationship continues to shift each time the Tarot is shuffled and laid out again, but (as in Little, Big) it’s all part of the same larger story of the castle/ tavern/ Castle of Crossed Destinies — there’s no getting outside the story.

I realize that I’ve probably made this book sound boring or pedantic. It’s anything but. Each story is a little confusing miracle, magically appearing out of nowhere but the weird enchantment of the cards. Each story is a character’s story, weaving that living rope that ties the book, the author, the narrator, and you — the reader — together. The stories are tragic and funny and odd and wild and whimsical. What I really want to say is, Come on, it’s Calvino! It’s always worth reading! But this way-station in the midst of the dark forest is certainly worth a stop overnight.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 14 Comments

Faithful Place

faithful placeI read Tana French’s first novel of Dublin’s Murder Squad, In the Woods, two years ago. Her novels aren’t a series, but they’re linked: a character from In the Woods, Cassie Maddox, is the point-of-view character in her second novel, The Likeness, and a character from The Likeness, Frank Mackey, takes over the narration in her third novel, Faithful Place. This connection through characters gives the books some continuity even though they’re not otherwise linked, and we get all the benefits of stand-alone mysteries and many of the benefits of a series as well. French’s mysteries are terrific: well-written, with plots that are interesting but not over-elaborate. But the best thing about them is the characterization. She has a great deal of insight into human relationships, and the ways in which they crack and fall apart under pressure; this is really what drives her novels and makes them gripping to read. Faithful Place was no exception, and indeed maybe the best one I’ve read so far.

19-year-old Frank Mackey was planning to leave Dublin with Rosie Daly. They were deeply in love, at escape velocity, ready to leave their dysfunctional families and the prison that was their part of the city: Faithful Place, in the Liberties. But on that dark night, Rosie never showed up at the abandoned house where they were supposed to meet. Frank found a note she’d left, saying she couldn’t abandon her family, and he left for England alone with a broken heart.

Two decades later, Frank is in the undercover squad, divorced, with a small daughter, Holly. He’s never looked back to his past, and he’s not in touch with his family; he has enough trouble navigating the tricky shoals of custody. But a call from his sister shatters that fragile peace. In that abandoned house, someone has found a suitcase, with Rosie Daly’s clothes, birth certificate, and the ferry tickets she was supposed to use to go to England with Frank. For the first time in twenty years, Frank has to return to Faithful Place, to find out what really happened to Rosie Daly — and what happened to the family that made him what he is.

This is a tricky kind of murder mystery to write: the cold case. Tana French does it perfectly, with a mix of Frank’s memories about the past — about Rosie, especially, to help us understand what a lively, vibrant, sexy, sweet girl she was — and scenes from the present, to help us see what both Frank and Faithful Place have twisted into over time. Frank’s family is a horror of abuse and lies and unchecked alcoholism and bigotry and manipulation: he has protected his daughter from ever meeting them, and when he discovers that his ex-wife thought Holly had “a right” to know the Mackeys, his fury is so towering that we begin to understand his fierce desire to escape with Rosie as a teenager.

One of the questions this novel addresses is whether anyone can change over time. The past is brought up so forcefully to Frank that he almost can’t acknowledge the possibility that Faithful Place could change. He sees it as a time capsule, though he has changed a great deal during his time away. But the place and its inhabitants drag on him, too, and he finds himself lying and manipulating, drinking and shouting, when he spends too much time there. How can he act as an agent of the law, when he’s so close to the case himself? How can he work for the police, when no one in Faithful Place trusts the police? Does he really trust the police himself (and is that why he went into undercover work)? You can see why I like French’s mysteries: they are complicated and real. Even Frank’s ex-wife is a real character instead of a caricature, wary and distanced but still caring. And I ought to say that, while this plot sounds (and often is) quite grim, the book is far from humorless. Frank has a sense of humor and perspective on himself and his situation that makes him wryly attractive and intelligent — much appreciated in this world of deeply depressed detectives.

This is my third Tana French mystery and my favorite so far (despite having thoroughly enjoyed the first two.) I can’t wait to read Broken Harbor. Have you read her work? What do you think?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 17 Comments

Tipping the Velvet

Tipping the velvetAlthough I’ve read and enjoyed all of Sarah Waters’s other books and consider her one of my favorite authors, I went into Tipping the Velvet with low-ish expectations. Not many people seem to list this as their favorite Waters novel, and I figured that her first novel would be the one where she was still figuring out how to be a novelist. I was wrong. It’s excellent, and although it doesn’t surpass The Little Stranger and Fingersmith in my estimation, it comes close.

Set in the late 19th century, Tipping the Velvet is the story of Nancy King, a young woman from Whistable who has spent her first 18 years helping in the kitchen in her family’s oyster parlor. She has a sweetheart and expects nothing more than to marry and stay in Whistable. That changes when she sees Kitty Butler dressed as a man and singing in a music hall. Without even realizing that a woman could fall in love with another woman, Nancy falls in love. Kitty seems to return the feeling, and when Nancy decides to accompany her to London as she attempts to launch a career there, the two couldn’t be happier.

Their happiness only grows when Nancy ends up joining the act, enjoying the feeling of men’s suits and the attention of her fans but Kitty’s love most of all. The happiness doesn’t last, and soon Nancy is on her own, friendless and lacking family and doing whatever she can think of to survive. For the next few years, she lives in squalor and in luxury and has to figure out how she can love truly and honestly.

When I was reading this, I kept remembering how much I disliked Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, which seemed to revel in degradation and filth. That book struck me as looking down on the Victorians for their prudish attitudes about sex and excrement. Waters is just as explicit as Faber, perhaps even more explicit when it comes to sex. (It’s been a long time, so I don’t remember the details from Faber.) But I never got the sense that she was writing from a feeling of superiority. Nancy writes about what happens to her not to be titillating but because she needs to tell her story.

Nancy herself is not entirely likable. She is at times remarkably selfish. Her selfishness, in fact, nearly leads to her undoing. When people make her life difficult, she lets them go. She prefers the easy path, the comfortable one. But her selfishness also gives her strength because it makes her unwilling to live any more of a lie than she has to. Her goal is to be who she is and enjoy whatever pleasures she can have, and as a lesbian in the 19th century, her path cannot be easy. Waters places Nancy in different quarters of lesbian society of the time and lets us see many different ways that these women lived, sometimes even fairly openly. But full openness is nearly impossible for Nancy, and she’s vulnerable to abuse and tremendous pain.

Although much of Nancy’s suffering is specific to her place and time, the pain (and pleasure) of growing up and figuring yourself out transcends place and time. Nancy’s choices, regarding who to love and how to live, are colored by her time, but everyone has to figure these things out. For me, the best moments of the book occur when Nancy realizes her own guilt, not for her sexuality, but for her selfishness. That, to me, is the most profound journey of self-discovery in the book. That’s what makes this book so great.

And now that I’ve read all of Sarah Waters’s books, I’m going to be waiting even more impatiently for her next one. It can’t come soon enough!

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 16 Comments

Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights

Two YearsOne thousand and one nights. That’s how long the war between our world and fairyland, the world of the jinn, lasted. But roots of the war go back 1,001 years, when Dunia, a female jinn (or jinnia), fell in love with a man named Ibn Rushd. Their descendants–part human and part jinn and totally unaware of their own origins–form an army against the jinn who enter our world when the barriers between our world and the jinn’s fairyland break down.

That sounds straightforward enough, but Salman Rushdie does not tell this story in a straightforward way. This is a story in which two central characters are dead men debating God versus reason and whether the war between the worlds will drive them to belief or unbelief. So there’s a philosophical element to the action. The story’s narrator is speaking from long after the war, and the known history is fragmented. Most of the characters feel like characters from myth, rather than full-bodied, complex people. We’re told of their feelings and motivations in the moment, but we don’t get to see deeply into their souls. We learn what’s necessary to the story, but not much more.

Rushdie’s style of storytelling takes tremendous skill, and the way the threads come together in the end is close to breathtaking, but the style kept me at a distance from a story that would normally grip me. It reminded me of why I so often love novels that put flesh on myths and fairy tales. I may enjoy the originals for what they are, but I’d rather spend time with a book like Thorn or The King Must Die than a book that gives me people who are little more than semi-human objects moved around to suit the story. A few of Rushdie’s characters come close to feeling real, but I wanted to know all of them better than I did. The gardener who suddenly levitates, Mr. Geronimo, is one example. And the vengeful Teresa Saca, who became so important to the book’s conclusion, deserved more of a story than she got.

The trouble with this book is that I wanted more of it, even though there’s a lot of story here already. It’s jammed with characters and with events and with ideas, but it’s such a short book that few of these elements have time to breathe. With so much going on, there wasn’t enough to make me care. It’s a myth without flesh and bone. Give me that, too, and This pretty good book could be remarkable.

I received an advance copy of this book for review consideration through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 14 Comments

The Sound of Waves: A #Diversiverse Review

Sound of wavesA couple of months ago, James wrote about how much fun it can be to just take a book off the library shelf, without knowing anything about it. I had that post in mind on a recent library visit when I was pondering what I might read for Aarti’s #Diversiverse event. So I wandered through the stacks, looking for a non-white author whose work I knew nothing about, and my eye fell on the bold type on the spine of The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima and translated by Meredith Weatherby. It turns out that Mishima was a notable Japanese writer from the post-War period. But he and his work were entirely new to me. So how did this little experiment go? The results were mixed.

The Sounds of Waves is set on the small island of Uta-Jima, where the men make a living fishing and the women dive for pearls. An 18-year-old boy named Shinji is walking home from a day of fishing when he spots a girl he’d never seen before:

Her forehead was moist with sweat and her cheeks glowed. A cold west wind was blowing briskly, but the girl seemed to enjoy it, turning her work-flushed face into the wind and letting her hair stream out behind her. She was wearing a sleeveless, cotton-padded jacket, women’s work pants gathered at the ankles, and a pair of soiled work-gloves. The healthy color of her skin was no different from that of the other island girls, but there was something refreshing about the cast of her eyes, something serene about her eyebrows. The girl’s eyes were turned intently toward the sky over the sea to the west. There a crimson spot of sun was sinking between piles of blackening clouds.

The girl, it turns out, is Hatsue, daughter of Teru Miyata, the island’s most prosperous fisherman. She’d been sent away years ago, but Teru brought her back after the death of his only son, with the hope of bringing a good husband into the family to carry on his name. A girl like her seems beyond Shinji’s modest dreams, but dream of her he does. And soon, she begins to long for Shinji, too.

One thing Mishima does exceptionally well is describe the unsettling feelings that come with young, unexpected love. Their romance is both erotic and innocent, their feelings natural and forbidden. And they don’t quite know what to do with them. They’re curious about each other’s bodies, but they don’t want to bring disgrace on their families or themselves by going further than they believe is right. But the feelings are there, and they’re strong. At times, Shinji’s obsession with Hatsue’s breasts makes for uncomfortable reading that treads close to objectification, but it’s clear that he respects her as a person (although he doesn’t know her all that well yet). His feelings aren’t in his control, but his actions are, and he treats her with respect.

The trouble for the couple comes when others in the village notice their attraction and start talking about it. Hatsue’s father attempts to bring an end to the romance, but the couple continues to find ways to communicate. They can’t help themselves. But, like their feelings, their futures aren’t in their control. Others will have to be brought around if they’re ever going to be together.

One thing that interests me about this story is the value of what one character calls “get-up-and-go.” The characters’ environment conveys the message that the world is bigger than they are. Mishima writes extensively about the natural world that surrounds them and that controls their livelihood. And much of the action takes place in the shadow of a shrine to the god of the sea, whose good will the villagers depend on. Yet in the end, it’s industriousness that matters. Hard work will win the day. At least that’s what Shinji believes, right up until the end. The novel’s ending appears to endorse Shinji’s view of his own power, but the tension is there. I’m not sure Mishima would spend so much time on nature and the shrine if he meant to nullify their power in the end.

Still, I wonder if he’s trying to illustrate a time of transition from the old ways to the new. One of the concerns of the island people is that their children are moving away. Times are changing, and the book’s old-fashioned style sometimes feels elegiac. Maybe Shinji’s “get up and go” will be more important in this new world.

I noted at the beginning of the review that this book was a mixed bag, although I haven’t had much that’s negative to say. It’s a skillfully rendered story that hints at some deeper ideas. I could appreciate that about it. But even as I appreciated the skill in it, I wasn’t all that interested in it a lot of the time. The spare prose style, while readable, was sometimes dull and stilted. And because of that, I couldn’t fully engage with the story. It was a perfectly OK book, not one I’m sorry that I read, but I don’t know that I would have finished if it had been much longer.

DiversiverseI read this book for the A More Diverse Universe event, hosted by Aarti at Booklust from October 4-17. Read more posts and share your own contribution at her blog.


Posted in Fiction | 11 Comments

The Italian

Italian It’s easy to make fun of the heroines of Ann Radcliffe’s novels, with their tendency to faint at the slightest moment of stress. But, as I noted when I read The Romance of the Forestthis fainting does not necessarily mean weakness. Her women can show great moral and personal strength as they face down evil. That was certainly true in The Romance of the Forest, and it’s also true in her 1797 novel, The Italian, about the ill-fated romance between Ellena Rosalba and Vincentio di Vivaldi. (Both of them are Italian. As the introduction by E. J. Clery notes, the novel is full of Italians, making the singular Italian of the title a little odd.)

Ellena and Vivaldi fall in love almost at first sight, but a shadowy figure warns Vivaldi not to pursue her. More important, his parents are against the match, and the orphaned Ellena is uneasy about marrying into a family where she will not be accepted. The two makes their plans anyway, but then Ellena is kidnapped and Vivaldi has to figure out what happened to her. Could his mother’s confessor, the sinister Father Schedoni, be behind it? And is Schedoni connected to the monkish stranger who’s been warning Vivaldi not to woo Ellena?

Ellena, meanwhile, has been taken to a convent, where she will be forced to take a vow and become a nun. Here, we see her great strength of character, when she refuses to make any vow that isn’t wholly sincere. Ellena appears to have no choice, but she chooses to take what little choice she has and stand firm in it. In a way, her lack of choice in whom to marry and how to live represents that lack of choice many women faced in her day, and her refusal to go along with it shows even greater strength when seen in that light. Her initial refusal to accept Vivaldi’s proposal is similar in that she will not accept a marriage where she is looked down on. She will have her self-respect, even if it’s all she has. Plus, she only fainted about half a dozen times in the book, often for very good reasons.

But Ellena is not really the center of the book. Its real focus is the wicked Father Schedoni. He is a master manipulator, able to convince a respectable woman that murder is actually a moral choice. He’s able to use the mechanisms of the church, including the Inquisition (!) to get his way, and his way is the way of evil. Radcliffe allows his the occasional fit of conscience, however, as in this moment of reflection:

He threw himself into a chair, and remained for a considerable time motionless, and lost in thought, yet the emotions of his mind were violent and contradictory. At the very instant when his heart reproached him with the crime he had meditated, he regretted the ambitious views he must relinquish if he failed to perpetrate it, and regarded himself with some degree of contempt for having hitherto hesitated on the subject. He considered the character of his own mind with astonishment, for circumstances had drawn forth traits, of which, till now, he had no suspicion, He knew not by what doctrine to explain the inconsistencies, the contradictions, he experienced, and, perhaps, it was not one of the least that in these moments of direful and conflicting passions, his reason could still look down upon their operations, and lead him to a cool, though brief examination of his own nature. But the subtlety of self-love still eluded his enquiries, and he did not detect that pride was even at this instant of self-examination, and of critical import, the master-spring of his mind. In the earliest down of his character this passion had displayed its predominancy, whenever occasion permitted, and its influence had led to some of the chief events of his life.

As the plot twists, Schedoni (and the reader) has reason to revisit these questions of conscience and whether it is possible for him to be a good man or whether ultimately his pride will always control him.

The plot is filled with twists, some of them obvious and some totally surprising. One in particular completely astonished me, and it made me read on with excitement right at the point when I feared I was losing interest in the story altogether. At times, I thought the plot was unnecessarily tangled, but I could imagine readers in Radcliffe’s day taking great joy in trying to untangle it all. And I think Radcliffe is aware that her twists can get out of control. At least twice in the novel, she has people sharing a meandering story that seems to wander far from the plot, leaving their interlocutor frustrated at the impossibility of getting a straight answer. Her stories wander, too, and that’s part of the fun. Just where will she take her characters next?

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 6 Comments