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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Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Oryx and Crake

If you’ve never heard of Margaret Atwood, you’re missing out. Perhaps most famous for her dystopian fertility horror story The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood has long since proved she’s got a grip on writing literary masterpieces – and futuristic, terrifying, dystopian worlds while we’re at it. If you come across lists of sci-fi novel recommendations, more often than not Oryx and Crake has pride of place – in fact, that’s probably how I heard of it in the first place. And, of course, the Waterstones shop worker told me she liked it. One day I’ll buy a book that one of those shop workers hasn’t read, but I’m still waiting for that day.

I knew Oryx and Crake was going to be good (shortlisted for the Booker AND Orange Prize, not bad), but going from the blurb, I was slightly worried it would be one of thsoe odd, experimental, sci-fi works that takes a while to get your teeth into. You tell me:

‘Pigs might not fly but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and raccoons. A man, once called Jimmy, lives in a tree, wrapped in old bedsheets, now calls himself Snowman. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. And the green-eyed Children of Crake are, for some reason, his responsibility.’

Yeah, sounds pretty straightforward.

Thankfully, it was. The story was fairly clear from the start, bar the first chapter, which plunges you straight into ‘Snowman’s’ life – he’s recognisable to us, but his fellow humans seem to view him as something of a commodity, which was intriguing. The story is told through a mix of current events (so to speak) and flashbacks to Snowman’s (aka Jimmy’s) life, bringing the events to present day.

Jimmy’s the best protagonist I’ve read in a while. You despise him, love him, and, overall, pity him, all the way through his emotionally-starved childhood to the harrowing current events that unfold around him. It’s hard to tell how old he is when the book opens, but based on his life experiences I’d hazard a guess that he’s in his mid to late twenties. This is a spoilery review, but it’s a spoilery book (as are most books that open at the end).

The plot focuses on a world where gene experimentation is a common aspect of a futuristic, dystopian society, and one man – Crake – is left to run wild with his ideas. Jimmy grows up in an environment where animals are spliced together for human experimentation and, essentially, for fun. Crake (real name Glenn), his boyhood friend who matures into a genius, becomes so wrapped up in this that he eventually manufactures a new type of human – these, then, are the only ‘people’ left in the new world, who Jimmy refers to as the Crakers, or Children of Crake. The book is a Bildungsroman for Jimmy (and Crake, to a lesser extent), as we watch him grow into a world where commercialism is everything, women are prey to common and uncontrolled pornographic exploitation, and biological experimentation has been taken to the extreme. Of course, things don’t exactly improve when a plague wipes out civilisation.

You can probably guess who created the plague to (presumably) allow his self-created humans to thrive: Crake. Why he made Jimmy immune to the disease is unclear; he never properly explains it to his best friend, but his final lines to him – ‘I’m counting on you’ – seem to suggest he trusts Jimmy above everyone else to rebuild civilisation from the roots up. But why not himself? That, I hope, is something that may become clearer in the sequels. Is Crake a psychopath? It takes a certain amount of manic self-belief to believe you have the power to wipe out society and reconstruct it based on what you deem effective, and Crake shows little emotion about it (or about anything) throughout the novel. That said, the world he lives in is unpleasant. Even beyond the state interference, we are given hints as to exactly what the Earth has become. Global warming has left a huge proportion of the land underwater, and the weather seems overly freakish compared to now (there is a storm every afternoon, for example). If this is the catalyst for Crake’s Godlike plan, it’s disturbingly easy to see the logic behind it.

Considering Jimmy and Crake don’t spend that much time together after they leave high school (at least, until Jimmy goes to work for Crake), they have a remarkably captivating friendship. It’s helped, I suppose, by that uncertainty over whether or not they actually care for one another or rather are bonded by a sense of competition. This is heightened when Oryx comes into the equation; initially spotted as a child on a pornography website when the two of them were teenagers, they both develop lifelong obsessions with her until she makes an appearance in real life as Crake’s girlfriend (of a sort) and seduces Jimmy. It isn’t clear whether or not this was set up by Crake but Jimmy quickly falls in love and is desperate to prevent Crake from finding out. Of course, it’s suggested that he’s known all along (and it is part of his plan). Crake meets his own end by slitting Oryx’s throat in front of a gun-wielding Jimmy – it’s hard to believe he didn’t know what would happen as a result of that.

Oryx is not so interesting. She’s fairly non-descript in the book, and although we get a sense of her upbringing, we get no emotional depth from her; she seems virtually indifferent to what happened to her in her past. It was almost as if she didn’t need to be a fully fleshed out character but was simply there to be an object for both of the men to project their own, emotionally-stunted versions of love on to her. When a female writer writes these male-fantasy type women into novels I’m always surprised, but in this case I didn’t care too much. From what I know Atwood will focus on much more real and three-dimensional women in the sequel, so I’m looking forward to that.

Speaking of … the book is kicking off a trilogy. Oryx and Crake ends on a cliffhanger, but from what I’ve heard the next book doesn’t continue this plot but instead flashes back in time and looks at the same set of events through different characters’ eyes. This suggests that the controlled, dystopian world isn’t entirely left behind, which is intriguing – there are a few loose ends to be tied up (what happened to Jimmy’s mother, for example). I can’t wait.

This gets the full five stars from me; I could hardly put it down. Bring on The Year of the Flood.

[Coming next: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin]

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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – Hilary Mantel

the-assassination-of-margaret-thatcher

Ah, the continuing success of Hilary Mantel. No doubt desperate to capitalise on the anticipation for her third Cromwell novel, Macmillan released a book of her short stories in 2014, with a similar book cover to Wolf Hall et al. Judging by the list of the stories’ origins at the back of the book, it appears that the only original story written specifically for this collection was the eponymous piece, the controversially-titled ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’. I’m not normally the biggest fan of short story collections – Nadine Gordimer being the exception – but I had very good things about this one, and the friendly Waterstones worker (damn it! They always get me!) talked me into it at the till. I mean, I hardly expected to be disappointed.

That said … I’m not sure it lived up to the hype. In fact, in realising what I disliked about these stories, I realised what I loved the most about her Cromwell novels: that they’re not autobiographical at all. Sure, like any writer she would have poured her wisdom and emotional experience into her fictional Cromwell, but there was no possible way I could have read it and thought, ‘well, this all sounds a bit too familiar.’ I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it in this blog before (probably), but I have a particular dislike for writers whose writing is obviously autobiographical, in that it just seems unimaginative. I’m well used to studying authors at great length and making note of every tiny habit and tic in their writing so I can waffle on in essays (or, well, blog posts). I like forgetting that they’re there.

I don’t know for sure, but I felt there were many autobiographical elements in TAoMT, which weakened it slightly. Of course, Mantel is such a good writer it’s almost obscene – no argument there. Yet what puts me off short stories is that they often follow a pattern of good writing and weak plots, without sufficient time (or pages) to really lead a story to its natural end. They always seem to end too soon. Was the potentially autobiographical element obstructive, here? Perhaps. The first story – ‘Sorry to Disturb’ – follows a woman living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in the 1980s – like Mantel – married but childless, and on medication for a condition – like Mantel – and obviously a talented author – like Mantel. Given that the name of the author isn’t mentioned and she is reading from and and commenting on a diary she wrote at the time, this story could be entirely based on fact. Mantel did publish memoirs about this particular time of life, so for all I know, this might have been an excerpt. Whilst the sexual and cultural politics makes for an engaging plot, the story fizzles out before it goes anywhere, exactly like it might do in real life – and perhaps exactly how it DID go down in real life. But it’s important for stories to be realistic, right? I’m not so sure, and it’s a struggle for me to justify why that is.

The second story, ‘Comma’, is the same, following two children in Derbyshire (judging by the dialect) – again, potentially autobiographical. In ‘Comma’ the children experience something so bizarre they cannot make sense of it, in the general way that children see something odd and can’t rationalise it in their heads, which was pretty frustrating for me. Mantel (or her narrator? Or Mantel?) never did make sense of the unique phenomenon but I, as a reader, needed that closure.

Some stories felt a lot more poignant than others. ‘The Heart Fails Without Warning’ was a lot stronger than ‘Offences Against the Person’. My favourite was the very small story ‘The Long QT’, where a man laments on the sudden death of his wife as a result of her stumbling in on him with another woman – it’s a lot more humorous than it sounds. I also felt close to ‘Terminus’, given my familiarity with Waterloo train station, and I can easily relate to that sickening panic of thinking you’ve seen your dead parent. The standout story is ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, which is exactly what it says on the tin – set in the 1980s, a bystander is taken hostage in their own flat while a sniper plans an execution of Margaret Thatcher as she leaves a nearby private hospital. Perhaps not exactly what it says on the tin; this is a fictional attempt, after all, and the ending is left suitably vague. The overall book? Worth a read, but perhaps not one of the most memorable collections I’ll ever come across.

Goodreads, then: four stars. I would have given the stories themselves only three but the brilliant writing and astonishing visual detail bumped it up. Come on, Mantel, we need more Cromwell!

[Coming next: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood]

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