Hyperion – Dan Simmons

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I’d never heard of Hyperion until I hit the pub with a colleague and he told me it was one of his favourite books. True, I’ve only dipped my toe into the world of sci-fi literature, despite having a draw towards it in film and other mediums (and indeed, flirting with it in my own written fiction), so this wasn’t altogether surprising, but I was mildly intrigued based on what he said. I mentioned it to my dad – much more of a sci-fi geek – and he hadn’t heard of it either, but admitted it looked good. I might not have got round to reading it for a long time had the same work friend, Alex, not spontaneously bought me a copy in Waterstones one evening (so keen was he for me to read it). Another old uni chum who caught me on Goodreads promised me it would be brilliant.

Paradoxically, this made me sceptical. How often do books like this live up to their hype? Welp – no pun intended. Still, with a fresh copy I thought I’d check it out sooner rather than later – and to my surprise, it only took me a few days to storm through the c. 500-page novel. No spoilers ahead (yay!)

I’ve mentioned in the past that others tend to find fiction disturbing when I don’t (see: my sister’s reaction to A Clockwork Orange), but ‘disturbing’ is just not a term I tend to associate with literature. To me books are often moving, shocking, heartwarming, and exciting, yes, but never really disturbing – but sci-fi has a way of piercing me right to the bone in a way that no other genre does. I stand corrected – it’s probably the only genre that HAS always disturbed me a little, and in that sense every sci-fi book I’ve read has stayed with me – right from my early forays into Terry Pratchett as a child, to reading Jeff Noon’s Vurt as a teenager, to Under the Skin just a few months ago. Hyperion – the first proper, headfuck of a sci-fi book I’ve read in years – was no exception. Intensely captivating and disturbing in equal measure, it was easy to devour in less than a week, and I have no doubt it’s another that will stay with me for a long, long time.

The whole thing is heavy with literary references. The title takes its name from an abandoned poem by Keats (and Keats is mentioned frequently throughout the novel) and the plot is structured in the same vein as The Canterbury Tales – a phenomenally exciting starting point for a sci-fi epic. To sum up the plot without spoilers: it’s the eve of catastrophic war for the ‘Human Hegemony’, a colony occupying multiple planets and worlds long after the original human race has fled ‘Old Earth’ and mostly died out, and seven individuals are summoned for a pilgrimage to holy ground on the planet Hyperion. After journeying there, specifically to the ‘Time Tombs’, they will potentially meet the Shrike, a mysterious monster (‘part god, part killing machine’) who’s wreaking havoc on Hyperion and doesn’t abide by the same laws of space and time. None of them are outward supporters to the cult known as the Temple of the Shrike, and as a result they are all initially perplexed as to why they’re the ones who were summoned by them to undergo the journey. Still, does the Shrike have the power to save them from the war? Or will it destroy them? This isn’t known, and their separate stories reveal separate motivations for wanting to confront it.

Therein lies the Canterbury Tales structure – each of the pilgrims tells their own tale, in this case their previous encounters with Hyperion, while they pass across the planet on their way to the Time Tombs. In line with Chaucer they are referred to by occupation – the poet’s tale, the scholar’s tale, the soldier’s tale, etc – and each story occupies a significant chunk of the novel. There’s a hint at the start that one of them is an enemy spy, though no one is sure who, and indeed, once they begin telling their tales, it becomes undetectable for the reader. Our primary vessel for the plot (the ‘ear’ for the reader, so to speak) is the Consul, one of the pilgrims who is last to tell his story. I think his name’s unknown – it might have been mentioned but it’s funny how I don’t recall it.

As you’d expect from a sci-fi twist on an iconic Middle English set of stories, in this case spanning multiple worlds and technologies, it’s phenomenally imaginative. Like a lot of sci-fi I’ve read, it suffers a little from not quite managing the balance of over-explaining unfamiliar concepts to the audience (and therefore patronising them) vs. expecting an audience to be familiar with a lot of the alien terminology; it leans a little towards the latter, but this doesn’t feel like a criticism as such, and could be something only readers like myself pick up on – by which I mean, readers who aren’t very nerdy when it comes to space/AI. (Sorry, Alex!) The Shrike in particular must have particularly fun to write, particularly when it comes to its interactions with other characters, all of whom have totally unique experiences with it. Its power lies in its mystery, which is a pretty effective way of depicting a villain that’s genuinely terrifying (see: AlienJaws et al.).

The best books, for me, are ones that know what they’re doing. It’s very hard to explain this, but I respect books that weave together seemingly small and random events so that they connect and ultimately contain a huge amount of meaning – Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a great example, or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, or heck, even just the Harry Potter series. It’s an admirable trait in fiction and something I’d love to knowingly and successfully do in my own writing one day. Books written in this way suggest that the author did their research, took time to build a world or a universe, thought about the detail and foreshadowed significant events carefully, and it’s those books that you put down with a great sense of satisfaction. You can root it back to Greek mythology, renaissance poetry and chiastic structure or the like, but it’s surprisingly difficult – and therefore commendable – to write a book that feels genuinely well-crafted.

Its only major flaw is the fact it ends on a cliffhanger. After psyching up every character’s motivation, not seeing any of them actually reach the end their separate quests is a little frustrating, even if the ambiguous end is beautiful in its own way. Still, Alex informed me that it’s actually only half a book and the original was twice as long (with the second half turning into its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion) so I don’t feel like I can blame Simmons for the ending. Hyperion, its sequel and several short stories form what is known as the Hyperion Cantos (incidentally the name of a work the poet and pilgrim Martin Silenus is working on within the story), so I’ll be sure to check them all out at some point.

It’s not perfect, of course: despite the rich opportunity to create seven very distinct characters, some of them bleed into each other a little too much – Father Hoyt, Sol Weintraub and Het Masteen to an extent could almost be interchangeable – and while it technically passes the Bechdel test, it could do with a few more complex women in the mix – but it’s very, very good, and for that reason I’ve found a new favourite. I don’t know if The Fall of Hyperion will prove to be as clever as I’m expecting, but it’ll make a pretty good holiday read either way.

So! Five stars on Goodreads. How do I persuade a colleague to buy me the sequel?

[Coming next: Life of Pi by Yann Martel]

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Us – David Nicholls

us

David Nicholls is perhaps best known for soppy fiction (or at least, soppier than the style I normally read). A good writer he is, but with funny, rom-com novels like Starter for Ten and smash hit One Day under his belt, I don’t think he ever had any pretence of implying he’s an author of literary fiction. Out of the two books I mentioned there it’s worth pointing out that I hated the latter – hate is a strong word, perhaps, but the way the plot zooms into a pair of people one day a year is clever in principle, but madly frustrating in practice. The highly anticipated film adaptation turned out to be a bit of a disaster, too, although this may be explained by the director casting American beauty Anne Hathaway as the dowdy, Yorkshire-born Emma (Hathaway can master a fairly RP English accent, but even the best British actresses have trouble with the Yorkshire drawl – it’s hardly a surprise Hathaway disappointed).

With that in mind, when the Man Booker longlist was announced and Nicholls’s funny, marriage-focused Us was on it, critics were surprised. But the judges were firm – the book was highly deserving, in their opinion. Still, I never planned to read it. In fact, it came to me as a result of rather contrived circumstances – I had an hour to kill in Starbucks and I’d just finished a book. Terrified of spending an hour with nothing to pass the time, I realised it was 6.59pm and Waterstones closed at 7, so I rushed in in a panic and picked up the first book I came across (Us was strategically placed by the door). I remember lamenting it a bit at the time because the hardback is absolutely massive, but the literary snob inside me thought, hey, it made the Booker longlist, it’s got to be some cop.

Wow – sometimes it feels like things happen for a reason.

Us is one of my favourite novels that I read in 2015. Told in first person narration from a man named Douglas Peterson, the book opens when his wife, Connie, wakes him up and announces she wants to leave him. With their only son about to depart off to university, the plot then flips between the present day, when Douglas desperately organises and drags his despairing wife and reluctant son on a tour around all the major European cities, and the past, when Douglas (a relatively dull, intellectual biochemist) meets and slowly falls in love with Connie (an artistic free spirit), as well as the way their marriage and parenthood progress. Spoilers ahead.

It had the typical, easy writing style I was expecting, but the mundanity of everyday life juxtaposed with the vivid description of European landmarks (and some tight artistic observations) made it captivating. I particularly felt very emotionally invested in Douglas’s relationship with his son, Albie, a rebellious 18-year-old who is struggling to connect his creative aspirations with who he feels his father expects him to be (intellectual and straight-laced, to say the least). This is given a whole other poignant level when we as readers eventually find out he was struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality, too. Some of Douglas’s interactions with Albie made me cry quite openly, and Nicholls writes in such a real, hard-hitting way about the struggle of parenthood (and the tragic emotion surrounding ‘cot deaths’) that immediately after finishing I felt a desperate desire to call my dad and tell him how much I love him.

Reviews were favourable. The only thing I noticed is that the Telegraph picked up on the slight implausibility of the Connie/Douglas relationship – even though she seems set on leaving him after the trip ends, in all aspects she still seems very much in love with him. The plot rather cruelly highlights the idea that some people are meant to be together, and others simply get in the way – Connie reconnects with an old boyfriend after splitting with Douglas, and Douglas wonders if he was just a blip in her lifetime, standing in the way of her destined love. The Telegraph review mentions how difficult it is to understand her mentality of wanting to leave Douglas when she so seems so loving and emotionally close with him, and I agreed to an extent, but I wonder if it’s because I haven’t been married and might be a bit too emotionally immature to understand it properly. I can certainly relate to (and observe constantly) the way two people bond, a bond that transcends a break-up – it’s difficult to let go of the intimacy and seems almost unnatural to cut off the familiarity when you’re forced to ‘break up’ with a person so bluntly.

Goodreads review: five stars, of course. This is a book that will stay with me for a while, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

[Coming next: Hyperion by Dan Simmons]

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The Rachel Papers – Martin Amis

RP

God, I’m a sucker for Martin Amis’s writing. I’ve only read three of his books, admittedly, but each one is packed full of a humour and easy wit that seems utterly effortless; The Rachel Papers immediately brought back memories of Money, though with a much more likeable protagonist this time around (well, in the sense that it’s easy to admire his youthful naivety – he’s a bit less tragic than Money‘s John Self). I bought this book for my sister initially as it looked like a good, tight read, and it went down well (naturally, she read it in about a day – if you can find a quicker reader than my sister Lou I’ll eat my hat). Spoilers below!

The Rachel Papers is the junior Amis’s debut, published when he was 24. It’s a young age to begin a literary career, but I’m sure his surname helped to open a few doors. I don’t want to imply that nepotism had too much of a hand, mind – Amis Jr. is an extremely talented writer in his own right. It’s interesting that the older Martin now deplores the style of his debut, though he admires the writing, and it’s easy to see why.

The plot follows 19-year-old Charles Highway, a man who is cultured, intelligent, and a bit of a prick, obsessed with women and sex. As the title might suggest, he is rereading his diary as the book progresses – a diary that documents the time in his life when he was about to turn 20 and pursuing a woman named Rachel. It’s supposedly autobiographical, which is an interesting way of reading it, as I couldn’t help reading Charles’s description of his relationship with his dad as Martin’s relationship with Kingsley (not that it was particularly descriptive). It seemed typical of one of those ‘privileged white boy’ autobiographical plots you see in a lot of modern literature, following the trials and tribulations of how a bright but lazy man can get into Oxford. Oh, first world problems…

It’s not really told in a chronological order but rather by way of the diary entries, with Charles commenting and reflecting on the particular excerpts he’s reading. There isn’t a lot of plot, either, with the story choosing to focus on the way Charles’s and Rachel’s relationship begins, then ends. Charles very naturally loses interest in Rachel, not for any particular reason – my sister Lou was fond of this realism, but I found it almost painful to read (in that it’s all too characteristic of how young, flaky men behave, I suppose). The compact nature of the novel suits the lack of plot – you don’t leave it wanting, nor does it feel dragged out, so it’s commendable for that alone (and maybe has a one-up on Money for that).

The blurb was obviously written by someone who’s never read it. Take a look:

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty. Rachel fits the bill perfectly and Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

Let’s break it down, shall we?

Charles Highway, a precociously intelligent and highly sexed teenager, is determined to sleep with an older woman before he turns twenty.

Well, no. He’s not particularly interested in sleeping with someone older. He does mention it in passing to a friend, at one point, and is quickly discouraged.

Rachel fits the bill perfectly

Eh? Does she? Even if he DID have particular interest in sleeping with someone older, Rachel has only got one month on him, and his reasons for pursuing her are far from how old she is – though again, once she turns 20, he does note, internally, very casually, that he got his older conquest after all. But again, this is hardly a plot point – you might as well put on the blurb that he looked at a blue teapot once, for all the narrative attention it gets.

Charles plans his seduction meticulously, sets the scene with infinite care – but it doesn’t come off quite as Charles expects…

What scene is carefully planned and doesn’t come off as he expects? He manages to sleep with her successfully time and time again; indeed she pretty much falls in love with him and HE ditches HER well before he turns 20. I feel like this blurb is suggesting there’s some kind of comedy scenario in the pipeline, but pushing aside any bullshitty metaphorical ‘scene’ you could argue for, this blurb is total nonsense. It reminds me a little bit of clickbait. What’s the literary version? Litbait? I can see the headline now: ‘Charles wants to seduce Rachel – you won’t BELIEVE what happened next!’

So – a respectable four stars on the old Goodreads. Disregard the blurb and check it out for what it is – it doesn’t disappoint.

[Coming next – Us by David Nicholls]

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The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

satanic verses

The Satanic Verses is the first Rushdie novel I read (but it wasn’t the last) – I was drawn to it by my own curiosity about the ‘Rushdie affair’, the period during the late 1980s and 1990s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a ‘fatwa’ on Salman Rushdie for writing it. For those unfamiliar with Islamic terms (like myself, until recently), this was essentially a plea for Muslims anywhere in the world to assassinate Rushdie and be richly rewarded for it. Despite the fact Rushdie lived in England at the time (and this is an astonishing violation of human rights in the UK), he was forced to go into hiding and undergo a severe regime of police protection for over a decade of his life. This was all I knew about it before I read it, so I assumed it was going to be pretty controversial – and I can’t turn away from a controversial book. Based on the general outcry I expected it to be pretty blasphemous, but I didn’t know how much, and the blurb confused me as it gave me the sense the novel was very much a work of fiction. But enough! I’ll go into all of that later in the review – let’s look at it on purely literary terms for a while. Be warned: this review contains spoilers.

I’ve always thought of Rushdie as a literary genius. He’s certainly a well-acclaimed writer, and his most famous novel Midnight’s Children not only won the Booker Prize the year it came out but was also voted ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993, meaning it was the best book to have won the Booker since the award’s inception (in the first 25 years), and again in the ‘Best of the Bookers’ competition in 2008, making it the best to win in the award’s first 40 years. A pretty astonishing achievement (and you know how obsessed I am with Booker winners). The Satanic Verses is his fourth novel (a few years after Midnight’s Children), and it was published during a high point of his life, when he was showered with literary acclaim.

It’s probably one of the most bizarre yet brilliant books I’ve ever read. Rushdie is renowned for his skill in writing magic realism, and indeed he intertwines fantasy and reality so well I was inclined to agree with Nadine Gordimer (one of my absolute favourite writers) and think of it as ‘a staggering achievement’. The book constantly changes up which character(s) we focus on but manages to completely avoid dragging; it has a quick pace and is compelling to the last page. The two protagonists are two Indian actors who fall to earth after a terrorist attack causes their plane to explode in mid-air. They land on an English beach (miraculously surviving) and become locked in a complicated battle of good vs evil – though you’re never sure which man is meant to represent good, and which evil.

It’s fairly obvious at first. The Bollywood movie star Gibreel Farishta lives up to his namesake and essentially becomes the archangel Gibreel (also known as Gabriel), appearing with a glowing halo around his head and visiting prophets from the past in his dreams (including ‘Mahound’, who is also recognisable under the name Muhammed) and causing those he meets to weep and worship him. Meanwhile, his adversary, Saladin Chamcha, metamorphoses into a goat-man, growing horns and becoming the physical embodiment of Satan (fortunately, only temporarily). He has a similar manipulative effect on those he meets, but of course, much less favourable. Almost instantly after they are found on the beach the two men become separated and quickly think of each other as enemies, despite being friends (or at least companions) during the terrorist attack.

Throughout the book, we are tensely waiting for them to be reunited. Even with the physical transformations the two men undergo, the lines are blurred. As a reader you’re meant to doubt Gibreel’s mind; at times he seems to become the angel but this occasionally proves to be part of his schizophrenia, and it is he in the end who you think of as the satanic character, morally, while Saladin Chamcha (who gets quite a hard time considering he’s the more likeable of the two) gets his redemption, even going back to his roots and becoming the good man.

The book is focused on immigration and the migrant’s place in a new world, something close, no doubt, to Rushdie’s heart. Both Gibreel and Saladin are men who have moved from India to England, Gibreel still with ties to his former country (though with an absent faith, having lost it during his first near-death experience), while Saladin has lived in England for a long time and has forced himself to adopt the English way of life as quickly as possible. He sees himself as the opposite of his Indian father, whom he detests – at least until the end of the novel, when he reconnects with him in a touching way that mirrors Rushdie’s own relationship with his father. Generally speaking the book seems to denote the problems of apostasy, which Gibreel suffers harder from and – spoiler alert – causes him to eventually commit suicide. With that overall message, I was surprised to see it being taken as a blasphemous work.

Yet it caused one of the most famous literary controversies in history.

rushdie affair

Rushdie published the novel in 1988, and it was met with both literary acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Booker) and general uproar from the Muslim community. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini put the fatwa on him, and Rushdie’s life was turned upside down. On the surface it seemed to be an issue of Islam vs the western world (or rather, the western way of thinking), and everyone on Rushdie’s side of the issue was similarly targeted: his publishers, editors, book-sellers, entire bookshops (some were bombed in Britain), journalists who defended him on the telly – anyone affiliated, essentially. Public book-burnings were hosted, with effigies of Rushdie as Satan being burnt down (pictured above); there’s quite a moving bit in Rushdie’s memoir when he explains having to try to explain the horrifying image to his son, who saw footage of the event on TV. I write this at a time when Islam vs free speech is a narrative that populates a lot of the media, too, what with the coverage ISIS is receiving, and some even described the Satanic Verses backlash as the ‘prologue’ to this kind of extremism. Rushdie was forced into hiding for nine years, with the British government deploying security teams to protect him. To this day the fatwa is still in place (now that Khomeini has died it cannot be lifted), and although some might say Rushdie’s life has considerably improved, supposedly every year on 14 February (the day the fatwa was issued) he receives what he describes as a Valentine’s card from Iran, reminding him of it. (NB: Believe it or not, I hadn’t realised the date when I published this blog post – happy, erm, anniversary, Salman.)

Yet the burning thought I had when I finished the book was: what’s the fuss about? It’s tricky to identify exactly what is offensive in the novel, for while there are derogatory comments made about Mahound and Islam, thay are spoken through the mouths of corrupt and dislikeable characters – the bad guys, essentially. I thought Islam was painted in a good light, but perhaps the Islamic world feared that such a high-profile writer going into such extensive detail for a western audience would exacerbate tension between the two ways of thinking. Rushdie believes he was more of a scapegoat, thrust into the drama as Khomeini needed to safe face after making political mistakes, and the book came along as the perfect distraction: something to unite the Islamic world in Khomeini’s favour. This I gleaned from Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Rushdie’s lengthy autobiography published in 2012 that describes the fallout and his own movements and protection following the fatwa, as well as the political situation of the country on the whole.

In the worst years Rushdie spent a lot of time hopping from house to house, desperately trying to remain undercover and protect his loved ones while retaining his dignity and standing up for what he believed in, thankfully aided by generous friends. Some of the houses he borrowed, some he rented, but either way it was impossible for him to live a normal life and painfully difficult to stay in touch with his loved ones, particularly his young son, which read as the most difficult compromise he had to make. Alongside that he struggled to keep his career as a writer and to get The Satanic Verses published in paperback, which he saw as essential to the cause. It’s difficult to think of him as the tough, dislikeable man the tabloids presented him as when he had such a large flock of friends ready to help him in his time of need, with some huge names across the literary world supporting him (I got a big fangirl-y reading the memoir). In his extraordinary circumstances he showed a huge amount of courage, coping with the backlash while standing by the universal right for free speech, and that comes across in spades throughout the memoir.

Back to the book, then: four stars from me. It’s not quite Midnight’s Children (we’ll get to that one later) but it’s possibly one of the best books I read in 2015, and an excellent introduction to who is now one of my favourite authors.

[Coming next: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis]

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Beloved – Toni Morrison

toni-morrison-beloved

Toni Morrison is kind of a big shot. Beloved is perhaps her most famous novel, earning her the Pulitzer prize and undoubtedly contributing to the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to make her 1993’s Literature laureate – just six years after it was published. The novel is considered to be one of the strongest depictions of the African-American struggle in the United States during the period of slavery, and is a creepy, gothic, dramatic fiction in its own right (not that you’d know it from the typically reductive ‘female writer’ book cover; a flower, dying? Really?) but beyond that, I knew virtually nothing about it. Be warned – this review contains spoilers.

The plot follows Sethe, a former slave and single mother who lives in a house known as 124, a place she inhabited after escaping her life in slavery. Originally she lived there with her mother-in-law and group of children, but since her mother-in-law died and her two sons ran away, Sethe is left only with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver – and the malicious spirit of the baby girl she murdered herself 20 years ago. The story begins when a man she knew in her time as a slave arrives at the house, Paul D, who drives away the spirit and begins to implement a family structure in the absence of Sethe’s vanished husband. However, just as he succeeds, a young woman appears who coincidentlly shares the name of Sethe’s murdered daughter – Beloved – and is generally believed to be a revenant of her. As Sethe and Denver welcome ‘Beloved’ into the family home, their small chance at familial bliss is threatened by the newcomer’s intentions.

Perhaps the most persistent question I had throughout the novel was: what drove Sethe to murder her baby girl? She is not presented as a dangerous, insane or unloving mother throughout the novel, and for a long while I was mystified. Yet Sethe not only killed Beloved but attempted to murder all of her children at the same time, including a very young Denver, and would have succeeded were it not for an intervention. It was only when I researched the novel did I unravel the reasoning; Morrison was inspired by the story of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garner, an African-American slave who notoriously killed her two-year-old daughter instead of allowing her to grow up into a world of slavery. It’s probably no coincidence that the surname of the slave masters and thus the slaves in the novel is Garner. The dark reasoning behind this is dwelt on later in the book; Morrison details how slavery corrupts them and leaves them permanently ‘dirty’ – by killing her children before they have a chance to be sucked into this world, she prays her children can retain their purity and not be tarnished by the influence of white people. Yet there was a supernatural element to it, too: when Sethe is discovered with a dead child, trying to murder her other children, it is described as being almost ritualistic, and her eyes have gone completely black, with no whites visible.

As you’d expect, the lines between the living and dead are very much blurred, which is a typical trait of magic realism. Beyond the fantasy, there’s a very real, human story at play. I haven’t read another novel with comparable tension between mother and daughter; having had a close relationship with my own late mum I struggled to envision a distant relationship between Sethe and Denver (particularly as, as pathetic as it sounds, Sethe’s physical description is quite close to my mum’s), but given Sethe’s past actions it’s not exactly surprising that Denver would stay wary around her.

When Beloved ‘returns’ she is a fully fledged adult, much as she would have been had she lived. I’ve read some reviews that imply it’s ambiguous as to whether or not she is in fact Sethe’s daughter, back from the dead – I thought it clear that she was, particularly when she drops hints to Denver, but critics seem to find it an issue for debate. An interpretation I read is that Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is there to represent separated families – this adult Beloved lost her parents, whilst Sethe lost her daughter, so they turn to each other to try to rebuild something they both lost. This is speculated in the novel, too – a secondary character believes that Beloved is in fact a random woman who escaped from captivity.

Am I convinced? Not so much. Beloved’s disappearance at the end is pretty fantastical, as is her entire final scene (the women of the village gather to drive Beloved away and see their own younger selves looking back at them; Beloved is described as having exploded). Plus, the adult Beloved has the scar on her neck from when Sethe sawed it as a baby. To me, Beloved’s a revenant, all right.

Predictably important themes in the book are memory and past trauma. Sethe and her husband are both haunted by a scenario in which Sethe was attacked while pregnant and had her milk ‘stolen from her’ by white men, not long before she attempted to murder all her children; this incident contributes to the theme of the breakdown of the mother/child relationship, as that milk was not theirs to take. Given that a strong theme in the novel is the dehumanising effect of slavery, this was a particularly stark example of the entitlement the whites felt over the blacks, and was horrifying to read.

There’s a fairly famous film adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey, but with poor reviews I didn’t feel inclined to watch it, even though a young Thandie Newton plays Beloved, which would be interesting to see. Still, I think for the time being I’ll let the story stay in my memory as it is on the page, not the screen. So, four stars from me – a truly shocking, haunting, and altogether compelling read. Not one to be missed.

[Coming next: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie]

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The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

flood

Yippee! It wasn’t long after I finished Oryx and Crake before I got my hands on The Year of the Flood – the second instalment in Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. Published six years after Oryx and Crake, it seemed Atwood felt there was a little more backstory to be explored in Jimmy and Crake’s surreal world, so, as I was expecting, the story jumped back to the beginning. Instead of focusing on Jimmy again, The Year of the Flood tells the life stories of two women: Toby, a woman raised in the ‘pleeblands’ (the bottom of the pile, so to speak) and trapped as a sex worker before joining a vegan and naturalistic cult, the God’s Gardeners, and Ren, a much younger woman who joins the same cult as a child and grows up happily within it, before leaving with her emotionally distant mother and eventually turning to sex work herself. Sounds pretty dark, and parts of it were. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, and I knew that the story would eventually line up to that; not quite a continuation, but giving the pivotal scene at the end of Oryx and Crake a little more context.

Overall, it’s a closer look at the dystopian world Jimmy, Crake and Oryx were born and grew up in. As the two protagonists of the book are female, it provides an interesting insight into how women are treated in such a world, which isn’t given too much attention in Oryx and Crake, what with the plot mostly following Jimmy’s point of view. Plus, Jimmy had the privilege of growing up in a world where his parents were well-off and worked within the structure of the government; in TYotF we see what it’s like for those on the other side, how the poor living in the pleeblands cope and how they gain relief in a seedy and dystopian world. At times, the two women’s stories were quite horrifying – particularly Toby’s. I found myself getting quite upset by it, which is credit to Atwood, who paints a very real, very sympathetic picture.

Some of the characters who pop up in passing in Oryx and Crake are given their due backstory here. The best example is Amanda Payne, first introduced in Oryx and Crake as an artsy girlfriend Jimmy lived with briefly after graduating from university, here much more a significant character: Ren’s best friend who also joins the Gardeners as a young girl. We also learn much more about the ‘police force’ that popped up in Oryx and Crake: a sinister and corrupt entity. In O&C we remember them hounding Jimmy for information about his mother, resorting to rather perverse methods to gain information from him – he accepted this rather matter-of-factly, but admittedly he and Crake were integrated with them, living in the ‘Compounds’ with the government, scientisits, and general leaders of the dystopian society. As I had hoped for, The Year of the Flood goes into a little more detail about where Jimmy’s mother actually went (though, it turns out, it’s nowhere of any particular importance).

The problem with books like this is that once you spend so long identifying with particular characters it becomes difficult to connect with the situation through the eyes of different individuals. I found myself missing Jimmy and Crake almost painfully, particularly Jimmy. They do pop up in the story a fair bit as the book progresses, but we never see too much or see the world through Jimmy’s perspective again. The plot gave me a better sense of their age: the ‘Flood’ (what the Gardeners name the apocalypse) is described to take place in Year 25, coincidentally the age of Ren and Amanda, which would make Jimmy and Crake around 27 or 28 when society breaks down (I was on the right lines after all).

As the plot progressed, I lost interest in the two protagonists quite considerably. They seemed rather generic: I didn’t get a sense of much emotion out of them compared to how interesting Jimmy was in Oryx and Crake. Their portrayal also bothered me; Atwood is praised for successfully using the opportunity to flesh out female characters after their rather 2D representation in O&C, but the women here seem to have little character scope beyond their relationships with men – particularly Ren, who is shoehorned in as one of Jimmy’s old girlfriends. This felt VERY tacked on: Ren is supposedly a childhood friend of Jimmy’s and then a teenage girlfriend, but there is no mention of her in O&C (or if there is, it is very much in passing, with none of Jimmy’s teenage conquests having any particularly importance). This obvious inclusion is worsened by Jimmy supposedly suffering from his failed teenage romance throughout his life – we know this from what his other girlfriends tell Ren (including Amanda) – which makes little sense when we know what a cad Jimmy is with women in O&C (though, to be fair, Ren suspects he is simply lying to them all).

Despite being frustrated by how pathetically attached Ren was to Jimmy, it was somehow painfully accurate, too; I recognised the heartache Ren experienced a little too well, which might have been what turned me off it. As humans, do we have a willingness to avoid closure from a relationship, and is that one of the more pathetic aspects of our nature? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s why I hated it so much. We want to see literary our protagonists glossily strong and shameless, not suffering from the same damaged pride and pathetic pining we all do.

I got to the end very impatiently to reach the closing scene of Oryx and Crake, just so Jimmy could come back into the story properly (and, with any luck, we might go pack into his POV). We end on the same cliffhanger as O&C. So, Goodreads: four stars (not as good as Oryx and Crake, but very enjoyable nonetheless). How will it all conclude in MaddAddam? You’ll have to wait and see.

[Coming next: Beloved by Toni Morrison]

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North cover

I read this at around Christmastime last year; it’s an Australian novel that won the 2014 Booker, so it was on the gift list, of course. Got to admit, I’d never heard of Flanagan before I read this. I have since attempted one of his earlier books, which was so overwritten I couldn’t stomach it. So how come The Narrow Road to the Deep North caused such a stir? I confess: I had a bit of a love / hate relationship with this one, particularly with the cheesy writing – it was only when I got to the end did I realise what a powerful impact it had had on me, and I noticed how bloody miserable I was to finish it.

The plot follows Dorrigo Evans, a surgeon who becomes a Prisoner of War on one of the infamous Burma death railways in 1943. The story is not told chronologically but instead opens on Dorrigo as an old man, reflecting on his life. There is a lot of detail about his experience in the POW camp, with flashbacks to Evans’s earlier life and romance with his uncle’s young wife. Flanagan supposedly based the war plot points on his own father’s experience as a Japanese POW and wrote the novel as a tribute to him, which added an element of authenticity to the very jarring scenes (unfortunately, Flanagan’s dad died before the book was published). It was these sections, in particular, that were intensely moving, powerfully written and evocative, and also what drew me to Dorrigo as a protagonist – probably one of the best I’ve come across (for reasons I can’t put my finger on).

It’s a shame, then, that we had to endure the dodgy romance running alongside it. Dorrigo’s affair with his uncle’s wife Amy was occasionally so overdone it made me cringe, reading like bad erotica; it’s probably no accident that it made it into the shortlist for the Bad Sex Awards 2014 (though, to be honest, to be shortlisted for both the Booker and the Bad Sex Awards for the same book is an achievement any author with half a sense of humour would be proud of). At times the romance WAS written well – particularly in the early days, when both Dorrigo and Amy are torn between paralysing sexual tension and the implications of acting on it – but as the plot continued, it got worse and worse. Thankfully, these questionable areas were compensated by the quality of the POW camp sections, which were often so absorbing it was hard to put the novel down.

I’m unsure what it was about Dorrigo Evans that made him such a captivating protagonist. I certainly didn’t connect with him at the beginning, when we see him struggling under the weight of being a revered war hero (a title he doesn’t think he deserves), and being unfaithful to his wife. He is a flawed protagonist, but as the book progresses, it’s hard to dispute how much he did for his fellow prisoners in their terrible circumstances, using a combination of highly refined surgical skills, courage, and, well, common decency. After emerging from the camp, Dorrigo seems to find more fulfilment in suffering and trauma, which is perhaps an inevitable post-war attitude. His significant relationship with Amy happened prior to his time in the Burma death railway, and it made me wonder if the relationship would have had as much meaning had he found her afterwards. Indeed, they do cross paths years later, but neither choose to speak to the other – too much has passed since their affiar. Dorrigo is by no means the exclusive focus of the novel; Flanagan inhabits the minds of everyone involved, from fellow prisoners to Japanese officers, exploring the mind and mentality behind each individual.

It’s probably fairly morbid of me but I connected to Dorrigo the most during the times when he was suffering. There was one powerful instance in the camp when he is ordered to confirm a certain number of men are fit for work (read: fit for exhausting labour) when, in fact, the majority of men can barely stand up. As he haggles with the numbers, he is forced to hold up an ill man whilst being repeatedly slapped in the face for downright insisting (with his Hippocratic Oath in mind, no doubt) that the men’s health be protected. He’s concentrating so hard on standing upright, on keeping his weight balanced, on holding the man while feeling the painful blows again and again – it’s a shocking scene, and it’s easy for the reader to very intensely connect with Dorrigo.

The plot contained the occasional twist or surprise, but generally the structure meant you were expecting most of what was to come, and in that way it became a little more painful, perhaps. By the end I was a little bit obsessed with it. I strongly recall that moment of finishing it – at my sister’s house, which must have been close to a year ago – and feeling a great sense of despair, which, despite my horrendously long reading list, is a feeling I don’t have very often.

So, on Goodreads, it got four stars. Not the full five, owing to the dodgy romance, but you can be sure this is one story that will stay with me for a while.

[Coming next: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood]

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The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

the miniaturist

Jessie Burton had a good year in 2014. I mean, she’s probably still having a good time, sure, but to publish your debut and have it shoot to Waterstones’ Book of the Year in the same twelve-month period must be pretty exciting. I got hold of the book after seeing it in pride of place in Waterstones, and what a treat it was; be warned, spoilers ahead.

The novel is set in Amsterdam in the 1600s and follows 18-year-old protagonist Nella Brandt (née Oortman) as she prepares for a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. At the start of the book she moves into his home, but, much to her displeasure, joins his cutting sister Marin and two uninterested servants, Corneila and Otto. Poor Nella’s having a bad time. She doesn’t know her husband ahead of their marriage – it was arranged for his wealth, and he’s much older – and, understandably, she is fairly miserable at first, in a house she feels unwelcome in. Johannes pays her little to no attention, with the exception giving her a grand wedding gift: an enormous miniature (or dollhouse) of their house. Nella comforts herself by ordering figurines and furniture from a miniaturist, who, as you may have worked out already, turns out to be pretty important.

As Nella makes her first order she soon discovers that the creations that arrive are not only spookily accurate – supernaturally so – but also, in some cases, prophetic. From time to time she sees a blonde woman watching her before disappearing into crowds, or often thin air, and Nella comes to the conclusion that this must be the miniaturist, with an insight on Nella’s life that is entirely unprecedented.

What holds the novel together is the writing. It’s beautiful and original, with Burton creating imagery in an effortless way. The novel is full of surprises and keeps you on your toes, though the biggest twist is rather obvious from the get-go: Johannes, despite being a fairly kind and affectionate man, won’t touch his arranged wife or consummate their marriage, which is pretty mystifying for Nella – until she walks in on him with another man. With sodomy being illegal and punishable by death at the time, she has to conceal his secret along with the others in the household, three people she warms to in spite of the setbacks they endure (something the miniaturist is constantly hinting at, if not directly causing).

A lot of the book circulates around the miniaturist; she herself is spooky, gothic and downright compelling – at least at first. Unfortunately, the pay off is poor. I had expected her to be paranormal or perhaps non-existent, but her backstory is simple and, in a word, underwhelming. I would also have liked to have seen more of her as a prophetess. There’s an eerie section of the book where a figurine of Johannes’ spurned male lover is cast out of the window and Nella retrieves it, preceding a dramatic showdown where the man himself breaks into their home and torments them. I wanted this to be a taste of what was to come; I wanted to see more of the figurines as voodoo dolls, not just bits of wood to spook Nella.

The small, well-developed cast of characters and swift plot meant I was guaranteed a pleasurable read whenever I picked it up. Still, I was disappointed it didn’t develop into something more. There was a lot of untapped potential there, but perhaps it could have easily turned into something cheesy and altogether predictable had Burton gone down that route. I’ve noticed there are a few criticisms of the novel that say Nella grew in maturity a little too easily and become much more clever (and business-savvy) than her situation would rightly allow. I can’t speak for the business side, but I didn’t find her rapid maturity unrealistic. Nella is chucked in at the deep as soon as the book opens, and that kind of thing can make or break a person. I relate to that, so while Nella’s quick ascension from miserable young bride to head of the household (protecting the family’s political and financial interests) is not as believable as it might have been, it’s not the worst flaw I’ve spotted in a novel.

A small treat for me: my sister invited me to a talk in London where two authors, two publishers and an agent were speaking about the fiction industry on the whole – with Burton on the panel. It was similar to a Hay talk, in that the authors spoke about the creations of their books respectively and how they found the overall experience. It was pretty special to greet Burton during the drinks and nibbles after the talk and to tell her how much I liked the book – plus, her advice was inspiring. Give it a few years and I hope to be on a panel like that – hopefully not there to discuss the worst ever plummet in book sales.

Goodreads review: four stars. One knocked off the full five for the way it rapidly fizzled out, but otherwise, a pretty perfect book.

[Coming next: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan]

 

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Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah

So Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is kind of a big shot. I’d say there were three things that propelled her towards becoming a household name: her bestseller Half of a Yellow Sun; her famous TED talk on feminism; and the fact global superstar Beyonce chose to play out an extract from said talk in her own 2014 anthem, Flawless. I mean, a lot of people (myself included) can now quote that speech off the top of their heads thanks to the exposure from Flawless (‘we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller…’ etc) and Beyonce has been known to write it out in full behind her during her live performances, particularly the closing line of the extract: ‘feminist: a person who believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes’. You can’t pay for that kind of exposure. I often wonder what Adichie thinks of the rather extreme spotlight, but her publishers are surely rubbing their hands in glee; last year they released a small book of feminist essays penned by Adichie that flew off the shelves.

On reading Americanah, my initial reaction was to compare it to We Need New Names. There are clear similarities between the two novels; in both, a female protagonist is escaping from an African country rife with political tension and moving to the USA to study abroad, observing American life (and African-American life) from an outsider’s perspective. In fact, Americanah kind of filled the hole I had left from We Need New Names; in the latter I felt the book ended too soon, I wanted to know more about the protagonist’s life in the States. Americanah successfully fleshed that out for me (though, obviously, in the eyes of a different character).

Americanah follows two characters through the course of their lives: Ifemelu, the main protagonist, and her childhood sweetheart, Obinze. Both born and raised in Nigeria, they grow up together and part ways to explore separate countries – Ifemelu heading the USA, Obinze going to the UK. As a result of their background and the colour of their skin, they both face alienation in their respective countries, but have vastly different racial experiences on either side of the pond. In the US, Ifemelu is dealing with the stigma and consequences of living as a racial outsider in America, where social segregation is still very much in place, while Obinze is living in a state of paranoia as an illegal immigrant in England, struggling for money and with the constant fear of being discovered and deported back to Nigeria.

It was interesting to read that there wasn’t the same racial disapproval in the UK as there was in the USA – though I was half-expecting that, to be honest. Ifemelu has a white boyfriend for a section of the book and I found it fascinating to read how her fictional American friends reacted to an interracial couple; this is something I find interesting in real life, too (forgive me for my vast generalisation of both Americans and Brits). Take a recent, well-publicised example: Robert Pattinson got engaged to talented singer FKA Twigs, yet many of his American fans commented in disbelief that he had the audacity to marry a ‘black chick’, as if it’s something surprising or shocking; I don’t feel you see the same reaction to interracial couples in the UK, particularly speaking as a child of an interracial couple myself. I found it utterly perplexing, in Pattinson’s case.

But back to the book. By and large, it was a huge insight on how black people are treated in Western white-dominated countries, whether they are born into that country or not. As I probably implied, I enjoyed the satire of America, but felt particularly thoughtful about my own country, England. At times, the racial comments felt a little too obvious. Often they were woven into her characters’ lives, at other times the book would write out great explanatory chunks of Ifemelu’s blog about her own racial experiences, which felt a bit too stark for me. Yet Adichie addresses the idea of racial commentary always needing to be ‘subtle’, arguing (through a character who is a writer) that all too often black writers are accused of not being subtle enough in fiction, when in real life, it’s anything but. I find it hard to write about this book and comment on her messages without sounding like the kind of character she is mocking: an entitled white person making basic assumptions on race without truly experiencing it. I want to say it changed my frame of mind – I truly think it did – but I don’t know how patronising that sounds.

Alongside the general commentary, there is a very charming love story between the two characters; I often wondered if it was semi-autobiographical. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book, but I thoroughly recommend reading it. Lupita Nyong’o (Oscar-winning star of 12 Years a Slave) supposedly obtained the rights of produce and star in an adaptation, so I look forward to that immensely. On Goodreads, it got five stars from me. Beautifully written, thoughtful and captivating – what more do you need?

[Coming next: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton]

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We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

We

Yes! I knew I’d get round to reading this one eventually. As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, when it comes to dystopian fiction, I always think of there being the big three – this one, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. People tend to be more familiar with the latter two than We, but it can take credit for both – Orwell admits he was directly inspired by We, and whilst Huxley denied his own connection with the novel, Orwell reckoned he must have been lying.

We is a fairly short book, only a little over 150 pages – more of a novella, really. As you might have guessed, it’s set in a future dystopian society where humans have been trained to work as machine-like cogs and no longer have privacy, freedom, or creative responses to anything. Our narrator, D-503, seems fairly content with his life as a mathematician who gets his own emotional fulfilment from the beauty of logic and numbers. Yes, D-503 is his name – in his world citizens are no longer granted names but are instead labelled with letters and numbers (consonants for men, vowels for women). D is the builder of a space shuttle called the INTEGRAL, a vehicle designed to spread their regime across the universe. He lives in an environment devoid of any privacy; the residents live in glass walls, only allowed to lower the blinds when they’re having pre-approved sex with pre-approved partners (like Brave New World, sex is carefully controlled and natural reproduction is prohibited). There are also figures who watch over assigned individuals who D thinks of as ‘guardian angels’ – it’s obvious that this kind of constant surveillance was the precursor to Orwell’s ode to CCTV, although Zamyatin wouldn’t have been familiar with that kind of invasive technology in 1921.

We is presented as D-503’s written records of his life, as if he is writing a journal of everything that happens to him. His fictional audience is the extraterrestial presence that the INTEGRAL might come into contact with, or future readers who might not be familiar with his society (would that be us, then?) so he explains various bits of terminology along the way. I’m not always a fan of the diary method of writing stories (do the narrators really remember that much detail, every line of dialogue, to jot down in a journal?) but it worked well enough in We.

As mentioned, D is happy with his life – until he meets I-330, a woman who seems to naturally rebel against the oppressive environment and who causes D to experience an emotion very close to love. This is a typical dystopian idea, being liberated through love – in fact I-330 reminded me very much of Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s Julia, the classic rebel below the waist. Like others from the Big Three and sci-fi works in general, it had a spooky knack of predicting future technologies and developments – in this case, space travel. I had to remind myself that it was written in the 1920s, such was the foresight behind it. It was perhaps ripe for more action, in my opinion; there’s a very tense scene when one of D’s watchers suspects him of writing about illegal exploits (which is exactly what he’s doing, of course), and he has to quickly write a fake memoir that is snatched out of his hands, while he sits on his own records to avoid them being discovered (the only way he can hide them in his glass world). I wished there were more moments like that, and perhaps more of D-503’s realisation and acceptance of his own rebellion.

Why do dystopian novels use themes like love and human connection to liberate their characters from oppressive worlds? Is it because it’s such a strong theme for readers to identify with? We connect with the characters when they want to rebel – particularly as, reading about their lives from an outsider’s perspective, we feel horrified by the world they live in. Yet other forms of love – familial love, for example – are not often touched upon. Although come to think of it, out of the Big Three it’s really only Nineteen Eighty-Four that doesn’t focus on that. Brave New World has Linda’s love for her son, John, and in turn John’s own desire to find his biological father, and We has O-90 defying the regime with her desire to conceive a child, in particular one with the man she loves (D). Yet romantic love is often given precedence as the main cause of rebellion; maybe it’s just slightly more compelling to read about.

Like Brave New World, the rigid society in We filled me with the same unsettling uncertainty whether or not this kind of society would, in fact, be more productive at protecting ourselves as a species and protecting the planet. Perhaps it wasn’t QUITE as attractive (if that’s the right word?) as Brave New World‘s society, but it was pretty close. Once again, it brings up the age-old question of freedom vs. security. You can’t have both, so which do you want? It’s this message that, again and again, draws me to dystopian fiction – and crops in real life all too often.

Goodreads: five stars. Glad to have ticked the Big Three off my list.

[Coming next: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie]

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