Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

The Little Friend

Happy World Book Day! It seemed appropriate to write a blog post today in honour of the occasion, although unfortunately this review might not be as positive as I’d like. I got The Little Friend as yet another Christmas present – this one from my dad, again. I hadn’t heard of Donna Tartt before but she’s an American writer who seems to publish her books ten years apart, leaving readers with a real sense of anticipation. In particular, The Secret History was renowned, so I was optimistic that this award-winning book (published in 2002) would be a nice addition to my bookshelf. I’ll mention now that this review does contain spoilers, but if you DO read this entire blog post,  I don’t think you’ll come out overly keen to pick it up.

To sum up. Harriet, our protagonist, is a precocious and steely twelve-year-old girl, living in a small town in Mississippi in what I assume is the 1970s, going by the pop culture references. When she was a baby, her older brother, nine-year-old Robin, beloved by all, was found hanging from a tree in the front garden. The general consensus was that he was murdered, and the circumstances were suspicious – Harriet and her older sister Allison were in the garden, too (Allison being around four years old at the time), the family was nearby, and he only disappeared for a moment. The incident shouldn’t have happened to all intents and purposes and as a result, the entire Cleve family (consisting generally of a matriarchy of Harriet’s grandmother and her sisters) refuse to reflect on the memory. Harriet, however, grows up curious – and at age twelve, sets about finding exactly what happened on that day and who she can punish as a result.

It’s a promising concept, and the blurb suggests a dark and menacing plot. The first chapter of the book is tense and well-written, and you go in feeling that if handled well, the book will be unforgettable. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. For an extremely long book (well over 500 pages), very little happens, and whilst the writing can be mesmerising at times, at other points it drags and removes any suspense or interest from a scene by slowing the pace so significantly. None of the characters are particularly likeable, Harriet probably the least so – I can’t think of one point in the book where she is actually happy. In any situation she’s in, she seems to find flaws, which doesn’t pass for great character development in my eyes and quickly becomes tedious. She has mild whims that seem downright ridiculous – throughout the first two thirds of the novel she seems obsessed with catching a poisonous snake (and there are enough of them around) and develops a strange interest in a junkie redneck family, one of whom she thinks is responsible for Robin’s death. Her motivations are barely explained, but she is fixated nonetheless. Alongside the narrative focusing on her life, we are also given an insight into said redneck family’s lives, the Ratliffs, who spend the vast majority of their time dangerously high. Unfortunately the dreamy sequences in these particular sections of the narrative are little relief from Harriet’s life.

Then there’s the fact that – spoiler alert – we never actually find out how Robin dies. The book seems to abandon this promising concept very early on, and it’s only mentioned again once or twice. I wouldn’t particularly mind (after all, it’s not unrealistic for a murderer never to be caught) but the way Tartt emphasises how IMPOSSIBLE it would have been to have murdered the child, given that he was surrounded by family and in the comfort of his own garden, ensures that you’re waiting for some kind of explanation. Without that, the book descends into fantasy – there’s no way that actually would have happened, therefore I refuse to accept it in a novel that’s intended to be realistic. I’m not entirely sure why Tartt included it at all – it would have been much more interesting to imply that Robin was suicidal (and still have Harriet obsessed with finding a culprit regardless) but nope. No explanation. Nada.

This leads on to another of my major qualms with the novel, how death was handled. While Tartt’s description of grief was beautifully poignant and really hit home, the deaths in the novel (or lack thereof) all felt contrived. Throughout the novel, various characters (and generally the bad guys) are victim to dangerous circumstances – an old woman is bitten by a huge, poisonous cobra, one man is shot in the head and then in the neck, another man who cannot swim is left to drown in a water tank. Despite these circumstances, they all survive. Similarly, right at the end of the novel, Harriet faces a scenario where she is forcibly drowned by another character, but she seems to miraculously pull through, too – somehow developing epilepsy (?!) in the process. The only character who actually dies (not including Robin) is one of Harriet’s great-aunts, which would have been tragic had we had enough character description to actually care who she was.

And of course… the title. Who ‘the little friend’ is is anyone’s guess. I presume from the book cover that it might be referencing a snake, but given that there a large number of snakes in the novel (and none of them bear any particular relevance to the central themes or plot), I’m not sure which one it’s referring to. In fact the original book cover seems to feature what looks like a doll’s head, so that blows my theory out of the water. It’s as if Tartt submitted the manuscript without a title, and the publishers just called it the first thing that came into their heads.

Now, despite all this raging criticism, my dad didn’t pick up this book at random. Aside from the fact Donna Tartt is fairly revered, the book is showered with praise. It won the WH Smith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (which we now know as the Women’s Prize for Fiction), and the reviews on the front, back, and first page of the book are glowing. Yet again, one of those baffling scenarios where a book is critically acclaimed but while you’re reading it, you’re just not sure why. Cue the reader identity crisis (is it me? Am I just too thick to get it?). But it’s true that not everyone has to love every book in the world, no matter how many critics fawn all over it. And I think I’ve highlighted enough of the problems prevalent in the text to feel confident about my own sense of judgement. As far as I can tell, there is no film or television adaptation, so I can’t compare it to see how well it measures up.

So, Goodreads review. Technically my Goodreads reviews says three stars, because I do feel like there was enough decent writing in it to deem it better than average, but I think I’m more inclined to give it two stars based on the disappointing plot. We’ll say two and a half, for good measure. Sorry, Donna – I’m sure I’ll read The Secret History one day, but this is not one I’ll be revisiting.

[Coming next: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]

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Stoner – John Williams

Stoner

Stoner is the kind of book that has been around for decades but no one has really noticed it until now. It was Waterstones’s Book of the Year in 2013, despite being originally published in 1965 (and Williams himself dying in 1994). It was another Christmas present that I devoured not long after reading The Luminaries – compared to the vast length and steady pace of The LuminariesStoner seemed to whizz by in a flash. It’s only around 200 pages long and is essentially a detailed biography of an unremarkable man named William Stoner.

I would aim to avoid spoilers here but there aren’t really any spoilers to give. On the first page of the book we are given a quick summary of Stoner’s life and death – where he grew up, where he went to university, his career, and his death – before the book plunges into a more detailed account. With that in mind, as a reader you never expect anything radical or remarkable to happen, and nothing ever really does. From a young age Stoner lives a life full of awkward encounters and few friends, seemingly unable to really connect with anyone on an emotional level – at least, not until later in the novel. He has a respectable career as a professor and academic, but doesn’t really make much of a mark on the university he works at, much less the world. In short, his life is fairly bland, if not downright disheartening at times. As I read this book I was constantly thinking, ‘but why? Isn’t fiction supposed to be escapism? Shouldn’t there be drama, and fun, and twists and turns?’ But I think it’s a novel you don’t really appreciate until you’ve finished it, and can reflect back on what you’ve read.

Stoner lived the life many of us will live – completely ordinary, satisfying but maybe slightly disappointing, unhappily married (unfortunately), and ending in a slow and fairly undramatic death. We often turn to fiction, whether it be on the page or on the screen, to escape from that monotony, but there’s something fairly poignant about seeing it written down so simply. It helps that the writing style is beautiful. It’s virtually perfect – concise, elegant, and fairly uplifting, despite the subject matter. A review on my edition of the book from the Sunday Express reads: ‘What rescues the novel from being unbearably sad is Williams’s gift for emotional precision’, and I fully agree. Indeed, Stoner has what looks on the surface like a rather miserable life, but it’s his own quiet contemplation and satisfaction that makes it seem ordinary, instead of depressing. The book effectively takes a normal life and turns it into something quite extraordinary by the virtue of reflection. The description of Stoner’s death is particularly fascinating, especially as the author of course couldn’t know EXACTLY what it felt like.

From what I know there is no adaptation, but I do think it would make quite a nice onscreen story. True, the producers might have to apply some dramatic licence to make it appeal to the masses, as the story itself is quite straightforward, but I think with the right director and the right cast it could become its own artistic piece that would complement the book nicely, particularly as the plot delves carefully into the politics of a work environment and the emotions and compromises of many different types of relationship. I don’t know whether Williams sold the rights or not, but if so, with the book coming into public consciousness so recently, it might be something to look out for in the upcoming years. All that said, perhaps it is just one of those works that should stay on the page to be truly appreciated.

Goodreads review, then: Stoner gets four stars. Without the dramatic plot I can’t say I enjoyed it enough to give it the full five, but I still think it was a strong enough book to be deemed excellent, not just good. William Stoner had little lasting impact on his fictional world, but in real life, I suspect we won’t forget his name so easily.

[Coming next: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt]

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The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Luminaries

The Luminaries is probably the most recently-published book I’ve read so far (2013) and it really came into my consciousness when it was shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – arguably THE most important literary award in the UK, Commonwealth, and Ireland. If a book’s shortlisted for that, you know it’s going to be a good’un. Catton was hotly-tipped to win by the bookies, and her win would break two Booker records: at 832 pages, it would be the longest novel to ever scoop the prize, and at 28, Catton would be the youngest ever winner. Given the furore surrounding the novel, it was unsurprising, then, that the vast Luminaries emerged from the impressive and diverse shortlist as the winner.

With that in mind, The Luminaries was at the top of my Christmas list – and Tez (my dear dad) didn’t disappoint. I began reading the book on Christmas day and was hooked from the start, finishing it in early January. Despite my initial reservations, it ended up being one of the best books I’ve read in years – and I can’t help but compare every book I’ve read since to its elegant prose and storytelling. I’ll mention now that this review doesn’t contain any spoilers (the plot is so tightly woven it would take me a while to give you any), so read on if you fancy giving it a go.

The Luminaries, set amidst the gold rush of New Zealand in the 1860s, opens with a Scottish man accidentally interrupting a private meeting of twelve different men in the lounge room of a hotel. The men have gathered to discuss three suspicious events that took place two weeks ago; a drunk hermit was found dead in his home, a prostitute tried to take her life, and a wealthy man completely vanished. As the meeting (and the novel) progresses, we learn about each of the twelve men and what story they have that connects them together in the mystery, ultimately revealing important information that explains what happened on that fateful night.

A twist to the entire premise is that Catton, a budding astrologer, charted the positions of the stars and constellations on these particular dates and wraps the story around what was happening in the sky. Certain characters represent certain star signs and others represent planets, so when a certain planet moved into a star sign, the two associating characters have some significant relationship or development with one another. At the beginning of the novel we are given a character chart and each section of the book is preluded with a map of the positions, detailing which planets were in which star signs at the time. I initially didn’t follow this too closely as I’m fairly clueless about astrology, and not knowing doesn’t affect the storyline at all, but I think if I was to go back and reread I’d love to pay closer attention to that structural decision.

Catton mimics a Victorian writing style throughout the novel, which initially felt a bit pretentious and difficult to read, but I soon fell in love with it. She has said in interviews that one thing she’s fed up of discussing is her age and her gender, but when you read the novel you can’t help but feel where the critics’ surprise is coming from – it just doesn’t seem like it was written like a 28-year-old woman. It might be the Victorian style she adopted, but something about the prose and the characters feels as if the omniscient narrator and author of the novel is an older man. I should mention that I don’t mean that in the stereotypical sense (e.g. women write about kittens and fairies while men write about serious topics – as a young, female, feminist writer, that couldn’t be further from the truth) but I did study the subtle, fine details between men and women’s writing during my degree and some books do feel more male-written or female-written than others, for reasons I can never put my thumb on.

I suppose I do have a small issue with how the women were portrayed in the novel, which might be influencing why I think it doesn’t feel like a woman wrote it. There are only two of them among a principal cast of around fifteen or so men, and both of them are fairly cliché – the victimised ‘whore’ who is beloved by almost everyone (I hesitate to use the term ‘Mary Sue’ but it gives you the idea), and the buxom, red-haired temptress who plots and brings men to their knees. I don’t know if this was a purposeful decision styled in the vein of literature from the period or if it was done subconsciously, but both women feel under-developed in contrast to the other characters, and you get the sense that without their physical beauty they would be fairly unremarkable – something you can’t say for most of the men. But that’s really a minor point, compared to the overall effect of the novel, which is amazingly readable considering its length.

The Luminaries doesn’t have a film or television adaptation yet, but Catton has supposedly sold the rights to HBO so we’re bound to expect a series within the next few years. It’s well-suited to television due to its complex cast and each character having a different story to tell – I can see entire episodes focusing on one or two characters, the next episode focusing on another two, and so on, particularly as much of the novel takes place on the same day (and the dates are very significant). If it’s done well it should be a very entertaining show, though I’m not sure how they could prolong it out over more than one season. Catton said in an interview that when she was writing it, she had a cast of actors that she would refer to pictures of for inspiration (including James McAvoy, Richard E. Grant, and Mark Williams) so presumably that would be the dream cast. Even though the characters in the novel have different origins (Scottish, English, French, and Australian, to name a few) I noticed that she was mainly indicating British actors, and to be honest I’m not sure if New Zealand has a flourishing television industry, so I’ll be interested to see what the nationality and the accents of the cast are.

So, Goodreads review: another five stars from me. I promise I am actually a bit more discerning with a lot of the books I read, but most of the ones I’ve blogged about so far have been fantastic and fully deserving of the five stars. Thank the lord for good books!

[Coming next: Stoner by John Williams]

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