Category Archives: American

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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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 Road – Cormac McCarthy

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I’d heard of The Road before I started reading it, mainly because it snagged the Pulitzer prize and also had a famous adaptation a few years ago (with Viggo Mortensen in the lead role), but I have to say, when I began, something threw me off. That something was the memory of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth – if you read my review, you’ll know that in McEwan’s book there was a character who was a writer. This writer actually wrote a book (er, in the book) called From the Somerset Levels, which was about a man and his daughter journeying across the horrible, post-apocalyptic wastelands of England and encountering all sorts of horror and cruelty on their way (it is also mentioned that we never find out their names). The Road is about a man and his son journeying across the horrible, post-apocalyptic wastelands of America and – funnily enough – we never find out their names. Coincidence? Well, probably, but a strange coincidence at that.

Because I didn’t enjoy Sweet Tooth that much (and the writer character in that book was pretty unbearable), I couldn’t help but feel as if my first impressions were tarnished somewhat. The Road is an extremely famous post-apocalyptic novel that’s considered to be a work of genius, so I did wonder why McEwan had chose to have a character write a book so similar – but who was copying who? I read that McEwan wrote a short story near the start of his career that had a similar storyline to From the Somerset Levels, and The Road wasn’t published until 2006. Hmm. I’m inclined to say that it’s a mighty coincidence – although perhaps the incredible reception The Road received inspired McEwan to revisit his own story.

But moving aside from Sweet ToothThe Road is – as I described – a dark, occasionally horrifying tale of courage and companionship in a broken world. Spoiler-free review, here. The man and the boy move across an America that’s coated in ash, with wild murderers and cannibals stalking the road they travel on. We don’t find out exactly what happened to make the world the terrifying place it’s become (I’m guessing some kind of nuclear war, or perhaps an effect of global warming), nor how long it’s been like that for, but it’s evidently a number of years – there are flashbacks that seem to indicate that the woman (the man’s wife, I assume, who is dead when the story starts) gave birth to a child during the early days who grew up to become the boy (and I’d hazard a guess that he’s around eight to ten years old, judging by his speech and mannerisms). There is some very jarring imagery that stays with you long after you close the book, and McCarthy creates a very real, very unnerving sense of horror – some of the imagery I still think back on and recoil, and I read it months ago. I’ve got to say, it doesn’t make me overly excited to watch the film…

Given that I’m working on my own post-apocalyptic novel right now, I read The Road with a slightly more critical eye than I would with many other books on this blog. At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t overly impressed. The Road kicks off with despair, horror, and desperation, which characters only too aware of their own mortality and living in fear every minute they’re awake. My own PA book, in comparison, tries to juggle the sense of fear and horror of a dystopian world with the optimism and good humour associated with humans who spend a lot of time together. Now, I am in no way trying to pretend that my book is anywhere NEAR the same league as The Road (crikey! It really is not) but throughout writing I was so aware of what a challenge it was to balance the terrors of a broken world with the hedonism and general naivety of the youth. It’s a different angle, but I couldn’t help thinking that maybe writing about constant fear and despair would be… well, the easy route to take? But as I moved through the book and the tension built up, it’s impossible to fault the skilful way it’s crafted.

For The Road is masterfully tense. Every now and then we are shown exactly what the man and his son are up against, and it’s very grim indeed. At any moment you expect them to be attacked, and at times when the man and the boy are briefly separated (the narrative follows the man’s point of view for the most part), you’re left chewing your nails until they’re reunited. It’s remarkable how easy it is to feel attached to these characters, particularly the boy, who had the right mix of wise insight given to him by his situation and the innocence and naivety of a child. With Viggo Mortensen taking on the role as the man, I was looking forward to feeling that same sense of attachment during the 2009 film, directed by John Hillcoat.

The Road movie image

I put off watching the film for a while, mainly because I knew it would be unbearably bleak, and it takes a lot to willingly watch a film you know will depress you. But when I got round to it, overall, I was impressed. Some of the more horrifying scenes in the novel were just as horrible (if not more so) in the film, although I was glad they cut out one particular image – I won’t say what it is, as that’s for you to discover, dear reader (lucky you!). My only criticism is that the film was perhaps a little too long, particularly when you consider that it’s a very short book, but Viggo Mortensen was naturally brilliant as the man, and Kodi Smit-McPhee put in a very good performance as the boy, too, which is no easy feat for a 13-year-old, considering the harrowing material to work with. In general, it’s a good adaptation of a bleak and beautiful book.

On Goodreads, then: four stars from me. I’ve got a post-apocalyptic hangover.

[Coming next: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel]

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Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Catch-22-cover

I bought Joseph Heller’s famous novel from Waterstones in February, along with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I’ll review a bit later on). As I passed it through the till, the friendly shop worker nodded in satisfaction and said, ‘ah yes, two books everyone should have on their shelves.’ Now that I’ve read both, I think she was definitely on to something. (Spoiler-free review.)

Catch-22 is set during the Second World War. It was written in 1953 (published in 1961) so slightly retrospectively written, but I believe the intention was to create a satire that highlighted the ridiculousness surrounding some of the service requirements for those fighting in the war. It follows an air squadron based on the tiny island of Pianosa, although Heller mentions at the beginning that he took some creative licence with the setting; in real life the island is not nearly big enough to accommodate a military complex. The main character is Yossarian, a US army bombardier, but the plot zooms in and out on various characters throughout the novel, from the generals to the majors to the doctors to the prostitutes in nearby cities. Each chapter is titled with a different character’s name, indicating that they are the focus for that section of the book. There are a LOT of characters and without this clear structure it could be a lot more confusing than it was, particularly considering the plot doesn’t progress in chronological order, but Heller manages to balance the characterisation with the amount of story exposure each character got very nicely.

For me, it was one of those glorious instances when you’ve heard of a book and you know it’s famous but you know absolutely nothing about it, so you can read it from a fresh perspective. I didn’t expect anything from Catch-22, but one thing that took me surprise was just how side-splittingly funny it was. In fact I was often guffawing out loud while reading it on the morning commute, standing in a packed tube, which got me some strange looks. The whole thing revolves around paradoxes. Catch-22 is itself a paradox, referring to a rule in which the solution to a problem is rendered impossible by the very problem itself (there always being a ‘catch’). Describing something as a catch-22 has entered our vocabulary, which is a huge credit to Heller – certainly he must have been excited to hear it bandied around prior to his death in 1999. The main definition of Catch-22 in the novel revolves around a clause to escape military duty: a man does not have to fly dangerous missions if he is crazy, but acknowledging the danger means he is sane, therefore has to fly the missions. If he flies them anyway, he was probably crazy and didn’t have to, but he if complains that he cannot, he is deemed sane and therefore flies them. Essentially, there is no way to avoid flying the missions. Confusing yet astoundingly simple and definitely a no-win situation for those restricted by it. As the novel progresses, we discover more and more rules that fit the Catch-22 definition.

I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people – mainly young men, actually – consider it one of their favourite books. It seems to be the one iconic novel that everyone has read. It’s certainly a lot more accessible than a lot of the classics, with its rapid pace and witty dialogue, and it has a rich, interesting cast of characters (albeit mostly male). Upon its release, it became something of a cult novel for teenagers and college students, so perhaps it is a novel you read and fall in love with when you’re young – and, indeed, male. I had someone tell me recently that they consider One Hundred Years of Solitude a ‘boys’ book’ – I personally reckon this is complete bollocks, but I’ve started to feel aware of what kinds of book seem to be targeted towards men and what kinds towards women. In the 1960s this may have had an exclusively male readership, and it’s not hard to see why (it’s another spectacular failure of the Bechdel Test). There are very few female characters who are even given the virtue of a name; one of the principal female characters, for example, is known throughout as Nately’s Whore (Nately being one of the men in the squadron). That said, as a female reader, I didn’t feel alienated by the plot or characterisation (which just goes to show, yet again, that MEN AND WOMAN AREN’T ACTUALLY THAT DIFFERENT).

The story itself is fantastically wacky. Some sections are rooted in realism and others descend very quickly into absurdity, which I suspect was part of Heller’s satirical intentions. The horror of war is contrasted with the hilarity of the situation, which is just the kind of mash-up I’m rather fond of, as strange as that sounds. That said, towards the end the horror becomes more prevalent, although I won’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. There is a lot of emphasis on how the individual reacts to the war. Yossarian often ponders the point of being in the war in the first place and the effect that he is having on it. I’ve always believed that soldiers are remarkably selfless people (which explains why I blubber so much at any World War One memorial) but the message came across fairly clearly in Catch-22. Who is the real enemy? Yossarian wants to live, and if his superiors are preventing him from opting out until he dies, then in his eyes, that makes them the enemy, not the Germans. He questions the very idea of dying for your country and how much of a difference it makes overall, and despite what could be seen as quite a selfish attitude, it’s easy to sympathise with him. Again, I don’t want to go into the ending because I don’t want this to be a spoiler-laden blog post, but it has a very different outlook to the beginning.

So, on to the famous film, released in 1970 and directed by Mike Nichols.

catch22

It took me a little while to get into the film, I must say. The sound of the planes in the background is draining, and the early scenes aren’t overly gripping. Yossarian, too, seemed badly cast and hysterical. I don’t doubt that Alan Arkin is a fantastic actor (looking a bit like Robert Downey Jr in his youth), but at 36, he just had a stoic look about him that didn’t suit the young (28), fun-loving Yossarian I had imagined from the book. That said, I warmed to him as the film progressed, and it started to feel like a fairly faithful adaptation.

It’s not a short book, so it must have been tricky to adapt, and indeed at times the film felt almost a little too short (116 minutes in total); it didn’t seem like many of the characters were given their due screentime. The film had a lot of the book’s humour, but some of the more drawn-out, surreally comedic scenes had to be cut down, which took away from that slightly. One scene in particular which had me in stitches in the book was when Yossarian is expected to pose as a dying bombardier named Harvey, who has died days before his family have travelled to visit him. As Yossarian lies in bed, the family lament how different he looks and therefore how ill he must be, and call him both Harvey and Yossarian in their conversation. The whole scene is ridiculous, but in the film, it has been stripped back so much it becomes a little tiresome and loses some of its impact. That said, visualising some of the more disturbing scenes had a much more powerful effect in the film than it had in the book.

The film, like the book, doesn’t portray women well. The nurses dressed in ridiculously provocative outfits, their cleavages bursting out of their uniforms, and the nudity seemed a little gratuitous (though it was nice to see a full 70s bush on screen, as opposed to the pre-pubescent wax look we expect to see today!). But overall, it was a good effort and a film I enjoyed much more than I expected to. Not a patch on the book, but not many movie adaptations are, of course.

[EDIT: iconic director Mike Nichols died yesterday (20/11/14), so this seems like a fitting time to honour his work. Catch-22 wasn’t his most famous work, but it’s certainly up there with the greats on his filmography.]

So, my Goodreads review: five stars. I consider it a new favourite; it was thoughtful, provocative, and downright hilarious throughout. If you haven’t read it yet, get on to it, pronto.

[Coming next: The Road by Cormac McCarthy]

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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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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 1

I’ve got to be honest here – I’m not sure I like American fiction. I don’t really know what it is about it, but it doesn’t hit me the same way fiction from other countries does. That really isn’t a reflection on all American literature, and I’m probably generalising vastly, so take that with a pinch of salt. It might be that I can’t relate to the language and slang the same way I can to British fiction, or it might be that I’m reading the wrong kind – either way, I was less impressed than I thought I would be with Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that could be a reason why.

I’ve been long familiar with the storyline of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, partly because of the multi-Oscar-winning film produced by a young Michael Douglas, and partly because it’s just one of those stories that’s talked about for its ending and its entire plot, not just the premise. If you don’t know the outcome and would like to avoid spoilers, I recommend you avoid this blog post as I’m not quite sure how to discuss the book without discussing the ending. In fact, it didn’t feel like much happened in it UNTIL the ending, and even that felt a bit rushed. So if you know the ending or don’t mind finding it out, let’s take a look at the book itself.

The story is told through the eyes of a seemingly mute and deaf half-‘Indian’ (Native American) Chief who is a patient in a mental institution held under the oppressive regime of a matriarchal nurse. He’s not actually deaf, or he wouldn’t have much of a story to tell, but everyone believes he is and so he spends his days being ignored and never saying a word. One day, a swaggering, fun-loving man is admitted, feigning madness to gain entry and cause trouble, aiming to rouse the patients into a rebellion. Throughout the relatively short novel, McMurphy (the rebel patient) witnesses what life is like under the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched and aspires to overthrow her. McMurphy is our protagonist, but we all know how it ends – McMurphy’s spirit is crushed and he eventually receives a lobotomy, a neurosurgical procedure that seems to virtually wipe the personality from the person receiving it.

I know what I expected here: steady mental decline, the nurse coming down with an iron fist, McMurphy getting gradually more powerless as the psychology of dictatorship comes into play. If that’s what was in the novel, I feel like I missed it. Throughout the vast majority of the story, McMurphy only endures very minor setbacks, and at times when you think his personality is beginning to change, he comes through stronger than ever. In fact, only in the last fifty pages or so does it feel like there is any story at all, and McMurphy’s punishment comes around so quickly and seems so out of character that it’s difficult to follow – not exactly the unstable rebellion I was expecting. Nurse Ratched did not have the threatening presence I thought she would have, although her damaging effect on the other patients was clear.

The novel is a classic, so I can’t help but doubt my own perception as a reader by disliking it or not feeling the emotions that I expected to feel. On Goodreads (and we know how much I love Goodreads!) it has an average star rating of 4.16, which is exceptionally good compared to many other average ratings. If I cast my eye over the reviews, everyone seems to have taken from it what I so desperately wanted to – the anguish upon reading about an individual’s struggle against the system. McMurphy is hailed as one of the best characters in literature (he certainly is a character and a half, so I’ll accept that). But finishing it feels a bit like when you read a novel at school and would scratch your head and say ‘huh?’ while your teacher waxed lyrical about how it was one of the most important novels of its era. You know the feeling. As an English Literature grad and a lover of books I refuse to accept that it’s just me being dumb, and missing the subtleties at work.

I was also pretty irked by the constant grammatical errors, which apparently made it through the editing process (and, I presume, were considered so integral to the original novel that they were never corrected in later editions). Kesey commonly uses ‘could of’ / ‘should of’ / ‘would of’ etc. in his narration (a lot of people defend grammar errors in fiction when they are being said by characters, which is understandable, but I don’t think ‘could of’ is a worthy exception, given that ‘could of’ and ‘could’ve’ sound virtually the same – which is why the error exists in the first place, I expect). I’ve never seen grammatical errors in a book before, and it made me very uncomfortable to find so many in a Penguin edition of a classic piece of literature.

This all sounds very negative, but I do consider it a good book, just not a great one. I liked the writing style very much, with Chief Bromden’s reflections on his past with his Native American father beautifully written, but I suppose I needed to see it on screen to truly appreciate it. With that in mind, let’s look now at the aforementioned Oscar-winning movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 4

The film actually redeemed the book slightly, in my eyes. It was a pretty good film all round, and a very faithful adaptation to boot (although Kesey notoriously hated it). Jack Nicholson was perfect in the role of McMurphy and in many ways carried the film on his shoulders, but I think that all of the patients were well-cast and shone in their roles, making each character unique and convincing while trapped in the asylum. The only character I felt was badly-cast was Nurse Ratched – Louise Fletcher did bring an icy presence to the role, but it didn’t feel right for the character, somehow. Her soft voice and slight frame made the ‘Big Nurse’ seem more like an exasperated worker who was sympathetic to her patients’ needs, not the tyrannical dictator who knew how to psychologically play each man from the novel. Without the narration from Chief Bromden, it was difficult to see exactly how she was affecting them. I noticed that the film did the editing that the book needed – the dramatic events taking place at the end of the novel happened much, much sooner in the film and were spaced out well. Without the need for everything to be in Bromden’s eyes, we learnt much more about McMurphy’s state of mind and, crucially, the psychological torture he underwent (such as the electro-shock therapy).

So, to finish with: my Goodreads review. Sorry, Ken, but I gave this one three stars – a respectable rating, but nothing incredible. I think my expectations were just too high on this one.

[Coming next: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton]

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