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Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

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What’s It About?

Maud Horsham, now in her eighties, is sliding inexorably into the foggy pit of dementia.  Her daughter, her carer and a stationery store worth of sticky notes are all that’s keeping her from completely forgetting who she is.  Unfortunately none of these things can shed light on where her best friend Elizabeth has gone.  What she does remember, with near perfect clarity, is that time after the second World War when her older sister, Sukey, vanished without a trace.  The novel alternates between Maud’s muddled search for Elizabeth and the truth behind what happened to Sukey.

Should I read it?

Probably not.  Emma Healey does a brilliant job in realising a woman suffering from dementia.  However, the story involving young Maud and the disappearance of her older sister isn’t particularly engaging and not much of a mystery.  These scenes set in the past in the end weigh down the book’s stronger elements.

Having said that, a reviewer I respect, David Hebblethwaite, unreservedly loved the novel and ranked it as his top book of the year.  So, it might be worth reading a sample to see if the novel gets under your skin just like it did with David.

Representative Paragraph

Helen is Maud’s daughter.

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things—I know that—but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to kick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other and a wineglass starts to topple. Helen catches it.

Commentary

There’s no doubt that Emma Healey has done a remarkable job in realising the thought process of a woman suffering from dementia.  And not just because this is her first novel.  The deftness of her prose, the way Healey is able to keep the reader engaged as Maud’s mind stumbles and drifts from sentence to sentence, is indicative of an author in control of her craft.

Not everyone agrees though.  A couple of reviewers have found issue with the mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s disappearance, while others have noted that there’s something a little bit too literary, novelistic and unconvincing about Maud’s internal thoughts.

I don’t agree with these critiques.  Healey’s writing is more than just a series of well polished sentences and I never saw the whereabouts of Elizabeth as a mystery to be solved.  Rather the constant reminder that “Elizabeth Is Missing”, written on so many post it notes, plays into the novel’s key theme.  That memory is a strange and fragile thing; that we can remember the past with perfect clarity and yet completely forget the name of our daughter or best friend unless there’s someone or something to remind us.  As a portrayal of dementia it’s powerful, but as an exploration of memory it’s insightful and smart.  

My problem with the novel stems for those sections set in 1946 and the disappearance of Maud’s older sister.  Unlike the Elizabeth storyline, the question of where Sukey has gone, whether she’s run away with another man or has met a terrible fate, is most definitely framed as a mystery.  Unfortunately it’s not a very compelling one as there’s really only two suspects, Sukey’s husband Frank, who was the last person to see his wife alive, and Douglas, a lodger staying with Maud’s family who is besotted with her older sister.  It makes for dreary repetitive reading as guilt and suspicion, at least in the eyes of Young Maud, moves back and forth between the two men.  It’s also not helped by the fact that Young Maud doesn’t hold a candle to her older counterpart.  As a proto-Nancy Drew, she comes off as a little bland, a little beige.

If the novel was entirely about ageing Maud and her search for Elizabeth, if Healey had been able to sustain that voice for the length of the narrative, I would have fallen in love with Elizabeth Is Missing.  But as it stands, Healey sensitive portrayal of the tragedy that is dementia is undermined by a mystery plot that’s sadly dull and lacklustre.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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What’s It About?

Tragedy hits the Bradley family when Issy, the youngest child of four, dies from a bout of meningitis. The Bradley’s are Mormons and the strict religious principles of their faith rub against the need to grieve. The novel alternates its point of view between the father and mother, Ian and Claire Bradley and their three surviving children, Zippy, Alma and Jacob.

Should I read it?

Yes.  Absolutely.  The death of Issy happens on-screen – she wakes up one morning with flu-like symptoms and gradually gets worse – and some will find these scenes difficult to read.  I found them upsetting, but the quality of the writing and emotional intensity won me over.

Representative Paragraph

This from Ian’s perspective:

It had been a special moment.  He’d felt the reassuring warmth of the Spirit in his heart as they sang the simple words in honour of the sacrifices of their pioneer forebears.  The bunting on the tall ships flapped applause at them, and although they’d sung quietly, Ian’s heart filled with gratitude as he looked at the children and Claire.  They probably looked like an ordinary family standing on the dockside.  But they weren’t, they aren’t.  They’re an Eternal family, sealed to each other by the power and authority of the priesthood forever and ever.  Like the pioneers, they’ll be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of their beliefs and, like the pioneers, they won’t falter.

Commentary

My knowledge of Mormonism stems from two sources – Arthur Conan Doyles’ A Study in Scarlet (AKA the first Sherlock Holmes story) and the HBO Series’ Big Love.  While Conan Doyle taught me that Mormons are liars, kidnappers and murderers, the Big Love gave me an insight into polygamy and the Fundamentalist Mormons that still practice it.  Not exactly the most sympathetic of portrayals.

It’s likely that someone of the faith – assuming they read the book – is unlikely to be keen with Brays take on the religion. No longer a member of the Church she’s definitely critical with the way Mormon scripture and the community generally deals with death and grieving.  While some sadness is acceptable a good Mormon should feel joy that the person’s soul has been accepted into the Celestial Kingdom.  This is highlighted by Ian’s parents who, after hearing of the death of their granddaughter, decide not to come to the funeral as they feel their missionary work is more important.  Faith comes before family and there’s no room for true, debilitating grief.

And yet I never felt that Brays was sticking the boot in. The structural move of telling the story through the eyes of the Bradley family means we get a variety of perspectives on the faith. Claire, who converted so she could marry Ian, clearly and understandably is struggling to cope with the death of her daughter and what’s required of her as a good Mormon. Ian, on the other hand, while devastated by the loss, falls back on his faith. What unsettles him isn’t that God took his daughter at such a young age, but that his wife is incapable of seeing this is all part of God’s plan. And as a Bishop he’s bothered that his inability to help Claire will be viewed by the community as a failure.

The children’s perspective vary from the wide-eyed innocence of Jacob – heartbreakingly he believes he can resurrect his little sister – to Alma who is pissed that his faith and his father has put an end to a budding soccer career. In the middle their sister, Zippy, is trying to be a good Mormon though is struggling with her feelings toward a boy who is inching away from the faith.

All these perspectives draw a picture that while not particularly flattering never feels didactic. There’s not a single strawman to be seen, but rather beautifully rendered characters each dealing differently with the death of a loved one.  While the novel’s grief and intensity is raw and powerful, the true message here is that ultimately it’s the love of family that gives us the strength and the hope to continue on.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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… Phil Klay for Redeployment.

Very happy to be wrong about who would win the award.  My money was on Anthony Doerr.

As I stated in my review, the hype for Redeployment, which began in February 2014, is absolutely justified.  The collection features a number of powerful, confronting and at least one laugh out loud funny story that provide a unique perspective on the War in Iraq.  So congratulations to Phil Klay.  It’s also his first novel… so not a bad effort at all.

If you don’t trust my adoration of the book have a gander at Larry Nolen’s fine review.  It was his favourite on the shortlist.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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Apparently Costa makes fine coffee.  Also, apparently, they’re interested in promoting fine literature.  I can’t say much about their coffee because I don’t live in the UK, but I’m sure I’ll have a few things to say about the finalists of the First Novel and Novel awards.  Here are the shortlists for those two categories:

2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist

  • Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus)
  • Monique Roffey for House of Ashes (Simon and Schuster)
  • Ali Smith for How to be Both (Hamish Hamilton)
  • Colm Toibin for Nora Webster (Viking)

2014 Costa First Novel Award shortlist

  • Carys Bray for A Song for Issy Bradley (Hutchinson)
  • Mary Costello for Academy Street (Canongate)
  • Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing (Viking)
  • Simon Wroe for Chop Chop (Viking)

I’ve read the Mukherjee (which I liked) and the Smith (which I adored).  The novels by Toibin and Roffey are going to have to be extra special to knock the Smith off it’s very high pedestal.

I’m always excited by first novels, and from a quick skim of the four presented it looks like we have a varied bunch of books and voices.

Also, very nice to see the predominance of female writers on both lists.  Across all 20 books that were nominated the gender split was 50/50.  This is something that should be recognised and applauded.

So, roll on the books.  Except reviews to start appearing next week.

You can find the finalists in the other categories here.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

It’s a conversation or confession between two close friends – Zafar and an unnamed narrator – who haven’t seen each other in six years.  It’s about colonialism, class, the Global Financial Crisis, maths (especially Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem) and the Bangladesh War of Liberation circa 1971.  It has a non-linear structure and there are no talky marks for the dialogue.  It was a finalist for this years Goldsmith Prize (it didn’t win).

Should I read it?

No.  The stuff about colonialism and class and the Bangladeshi uprising is fascinating, insightful and thought provoking.  The same can’t be said for Rahman’s treatment of woman which is appalling and unfortunately overwhelms the novel’s good bits.

The Full Review For Those Who Have Read The Book.

In my round-up of the National Book Award finalists I noted the stylistic tendency of telling stories out of order.  Having just finished Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know I think I’ve found the most extreme example of this non-linear approach.

On the face of it the novel has a straight-forward premise.  The narrator – an investment banker who’s facing the end of his marriage and his career, the latter due to the global financial crisis – comes home to discover an old friend waiting for him.  Zafar, who like the unnamed narrator is of South Asian descent, is a math’s prodigy who disappeared under mysterious circumstances six years previously.  Now penniless and bedraggled, he has come back to America to confess where he has been.  Or so it seems.

It’s a deliberate choice of the unnamed narrator not to provide us with a chronological order of his conversations with Zafar.  He admits this early on in the narrative saying,

I won’t deny that I have already altered his narrative, not the details of each episode, to be sure, nor the order in which things happened, but the order in which he recounted them.

While the narrator speculates that he’s re-ordered Zafar’s story so as to “put off the things that I myself fear to confront,” he concludes that as this is not a biography, but rather a “private and intimate connection between two people” then a chronological approach is not warranted.  But it becomes clear that both explanations are true.  After so many years apart, this three month conversation / confession / interrogation does bring the men closer.  But it’s a conversation that constantly circles and avoids the heart of the matter.

Zafar’s avoidance technique is to discuss a wide range of topics and move the narrative from place to place.  His story zips between Afghanistan, London, Paris, Islamabad, Bangladesh and New York.  In terms of topics he explores colonialism and post colonialism, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the GFC and the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971 (the year Rahman was born).  And throughout it all, Zafar constantly refers to scientific papers or thought experiments or just bits of trivia that sometimes reinforce whatever point his making and sometimes are just there because both Zafar (and Rahman) thought they were interesting.  For example, it never occurred to me that trees transform the carbon part of carbon dioxide into wood.  So, in a sense, wood comes out of thin air.  Neat, isn’t it.

As a number of reviewers have pointed out, knowledge, whether it’s knowledge about how trees grow of near genocidal slaughter of Bangladeshi’s in 1971, is a key theme of the novel. In particular the power dynamics that comes with knowing stuff. Personally I was less interested in the theme than what’s actually being discussed. Zafar’s deep exploration of class, colonialism and Bangladesh post 1971 is genuinely interesting.  While this is a novel I have deep reservations about, and I’ll get to those in a second, the random, near chaotic nature of the discussion between Zafar and the narrator means it’s never boring. One striking aspect was the cultural scars left by British colonialism, especially in terms of class.  Sparked by Zafar’s dissection of the ruling classes both in the UK and the sub continent, the narrator – who unlike Zafar comes from a place of privilege and wealth – makes the following observation:

My grandfather spoke diplomatically, but his message was clear enough. I was going to marry beneath me, and he thought that this could cause problems. I loved my grandfather, but as I looked at the old soldier sitting in the armchair, the titan of Pakistani industry, I saw a man whose homes were crawling with respectful servants, a man who couldn’t bear “all this queuing one has to do in London and New York.”… His suggestion that the success of my parents’ marriage was founded on something like shared class status did trouble me. I knew that other families would rather a child marry outside, marry a Westerner—which always meant white—than marry a Pakistani of lower class or birth. But weren’t they other families, not mine?

Rahman also critiques how post colonialism has effected his journey as a novelists.  At one point the unmanned narrator suggests that Zafar write down his story, about his life, about what happened in Bangladesh.  Zafar dismisses the idea saying sarcastically,

“You’re right.  What the world needs now is answers to all its questions about Bangladeshi history.  And it especially needs to hear these answers from me, an alien in his native land and interloper amongst his hosts, because I know so much about Bangladesh.  I’m a bloody authority, that’s what I am, a leading international luminary on the history of Bangladesh.”

And when the narrator follows this up with, “what about writing for a Western audience,” Zafar quotes Naipaul who said that:

“Indian literature written in English is astonishing because nowhere in history has a literature been produced that is written by one people about the same people but for another people to read, a literature sustained by a market abroad, the book readers of the West.”

It’s powerful stuff, partly because Rahman is shining the torch on his own endeavor and essentially questioning it’s worth and partly because it raises all sorts of questions about appropriation and this offensive notion of having to dumb down complex cultural and political issues to the very people who caused them in the first place.

However, it’s when Zafar eventually broaches the heart of the matter that the book falters.  Throughout the novel reference has been made to Zafar’s ex-fiance Emily Hampton-Wyvern.  As the hyphenated surname suggests, Emily comes from wealth and privilege.  Emily and Zafar become a couple after they’re introduced at a party by the narrator (though we later find out that Zafar was aware of Emily before they met).  Their relationship is strained from the outset.  Emily is aloof, detached from her emotions and often treats Zafar as a pet to show off to her friend rather than a real person.  Zafar also grows increasingly jealous as Emily spends more of her time with other people.  On a couple of occasions the narrator asks Zafar what he saw in Emily.  Zafar mentions something about being attracted to her surname and her position of privilege.  Oh, and the sex.  It’s all very unsatisfying.

Zafar’s confusion and frustration and jealousy comes to a head when he commits himself to psych award.  While there, Emily never visits.  Instead, she has a brief affair with the narrator, becomes pregnant, convinces Zafar, once he’s left the ward that the baby is his, and just as Zafar is becoming a bit starry eyed at the idea of being a father, she aborts the pregnancy.  Of course, Zafar and the narrator focus on the betrayal of the affair – that’s one of two revelation that this novel has been leading too.

The second revelation is that Zafar raped Emily while they were both in Afghanistan in 2002.

There’s more then a misogynistic whiff to Zafar (and Rahman’s) treatment of Emily.  We only ever see Emily through Zafar’s eyes (and briefly the eyes of the narrator who knew her when they were young) and his description of a cold, aloof, calculating woman who is incapable of emotional engagement but is great in the sack actively dehumanizes her.  As Hannah Harris Green states in her lengthy, but excellent review of the novel for the LA Review of Books:

We are never given evidence that Emily has feelings or thoughts of any depth. She is introduced as almost a non-entity. The first time Zafar sees her, she is rehearsing the violin in a church, and he is struck by how profoundly she has failed to move him with her playing. Her main two emotional states seem to be envy and annoyance. She never smiles out of genuine feeling, only with some ulterior motive in mind. Zafar is smarter than she is, and she resents him for it. When they arrange to meet, she often shows up hours late.

I don’t believe Rahman is crass enough to want us to think that Emily deserved to be raped due to her betrayal.  But you can’t help but feel that way given how she’s been depicted, how we never get her side of the story and how in the last third of the novel she becomes the focus of Zafar’s hatred.  And yes, I get that in 1971 Bengali woman were dehumanized and sexually assaulted by Pakistani soldiers, and I get that Zafar is a product of this and I get the sad, tragic irony that a man appalled by what happened to his people would end up committing the same act to the woman he supposedly loved.  Yes, all those boxes were ticked.  But it doesn’t change the fact that Rahman asks us to focus on the perpetrator – Zafar – and not the victim.,  That there’s no room in his lengthy novel for the victim to be heard.

The title, In The Light of What We Know, suggests that we’re not going to be given the full story, that knowledge is going to be withheld.  But, in the case of Emily, its’ not so much that information has been held back but that there’s no attempt by Rahman or his characters to cast Emily as anything but a cipher, a vessel for some of the larger themes of the novel.  The real tragedy here is that a novel so brilliantly insightful about class and colonialism, is so appalling in its treatment of women.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review – Redeployment by Phil Klay

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Of the novels that were nominated for the National Book Award, Phil Klay’s Redeployment was the only one I was aware of.  My recognition of the book came from two sources: a February 2014 review from Michiko Kakutani who called the collection “gritty, unsparing and fiercely observed,” and an interview in March with Pamela Paul from Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast where Klay spoke intelligently about writing the book and his experiences as a Marine during the Iraq War.  Since then, Klay’s collection of war stories has been on my virtual bookshelf though I’ve never had the itch to read it.  In-spite of the hype, Kakutani’s review is one of many that has praised the collection, I couldn’t see how Redeployment was going to be anything more than a book that kept repeating the same two messages: War is Bad.  Killing people Fucks You Up.

Which just goes to show how narrow-minded and prejudiced I can be.

In actual fact, Klay achieves the remarkable feat of writing a collection of war stories that are not only not repetitive but somehow straddle the line between pro and anti-war sentiment.  The Killing people Fucks You Up message is evident throughout the collection, such as in stories like ‘After Action Report’ and ‘Prayer In The Furnace’ but it never feels gratuitous or manipulative.  There’s a distinct lack of sensationalism present.

Klay keeps the collection fresh by varying both the subjects and point of view characters.  We have stories told through the eyes of Marine who’ve just started their deployment (After Action Report) and those who are heading off home (Redeployment).  Marines whose jobs are to retrieve the dead from the battlefield (Bodies) and Marines who spend the war shouting insults to the insurgents aimed at pissing them off (Psychological Operations).  Then there’s the story told by a Chaplain who ministers to the men and their guilt (Prayer In The Furnace) and the bureaucrat who comes to Iraq thinking he’s going to make things better (Money As a Weapons System).  We even have a prose poem told mostly in military acronyms (OIF).

In a collection that features a number of magnificent stories, the two strongest pieces are ‘Prayer In The Furnace’ and ‘Money As a Weapons System’.

‘Prayer In The Furnace’ is narrated by a military chaplain stationed in Ramadi.  He becomes aware that one of the units he ministers too is falling apart due to recent losses.  The chaplain is disturbed that the Marines in this Unit have started to view everyone in Ramadi as an insurgent.

“What do we do?” Haupert was saying to the loose assembly of 2nd Platoon members. “We come here, we say, We’ll give you electricity. If you work with us. We’ll fix your sewage system. If you work with us. We’ll provide you security. If you work with us. But no better friend, no worse enemy. If you fuck with us, you will live in shit. And they’re like, Okay, we’ll live in shit.” He pointed off to the direction of the city, then swatted with his hand, as if at an insect. “Fuck them,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the chaplain abhors the idea that each Iraqi is the enemy, and he suggests to the men that maybe they should start seeing the humanity in the people they are here to protect.  This doesn’t go done well with his congregants, not because each Marine is an evil killing machine, but because fighting in an enclosed environment like the streets of Ramadi means that bad shit will happen.  You can follow standard operating procedure and civilians will still die.  It’s confronting stuff, both for the chaplain and the reader.  And while it does beg the question that not sending men to war means they don’t need to deal with impossible moral situations, the power of the story comes from the self-awareness that these Marines exhibit, this understanding that war might make you insane, that you might hate every Iraqi, but that doesn’t mean you become a monster.

‘Money As A Weapons System’ not only provides the collection with a story from a perspective other than a marine or army personnel, it’s also laugh out loud funny.  The narrator is a US State Official sent to Iraq with the mission statement of making lives better for the people.  His plan is to get a water treatment plant, that’s been lying fallow for some time, up and running.  But he’s immediately faced with the reality of internal politics (the water treatment plan will help a Sunni community which angers the Shi’ite residents) and external politics (pleasing an influential congressman who’d rather see photos of the kids playing baseball in the equipment he donated).  It’s mind-boggling stuff, incompetent and hilarious and most disturbing of all very likely reflective of what actually happened on the ground.

The story also has some corker lines:

Nobody wants to do a year in Iraq and come back with nothing but stories about the soft-serve ice-cream machine at the embassy cafeteria.

some well observed and funny dialogue

“Why do they call you the Professor?” I asked him.
“Because I was a professor,” he said, taking off his glasses and rubbing them as if to emphasize the point, “before you came and destroyed this country.”
We were getting off to an awkward start. “You know,” I said, “when this all started I opposed the war. . . .”
“You have baked Iraq like a cake,” he said, “and given it to Iran to eat.”

and the sort of cynical perspective that’s funny because it’s true.

Bob folded his arms and looked me over. He pointed to the opposite wall, where we had a poster outlining the LOEs. “Give someone a job. That’s economic improvement. Give women a job. That’s women’s empowerment. Give a widow a job. That’s aiding disenfranchised populations. Three LOEs in one project. Widow projects are gold. With the council supporting it, we can say it’s an Iraqi-led project. And it’ll cost under twenty-five thousand dollars, so the funding will sail through.”

The hype given to Redeployment is warranted.  Klay expertly guides us through the Iraqi conflict providing us with viewpoints and perspectives that provide a variety of insights into the make-up of this terrible conflict.  It didn’t change my feelings towards the Iraq war, I still think it was misguided and a complete waste of life and potential, but due to Phil Klay I now have a greater appreciation of what the war meant and still means for those who experienced it.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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Rabih Alameddine’s National Book Award nominated novel, An Unnecessary Woman, begins with a beguiling opening sentence:

You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn’t help my concentration.

Blue hair and two glasses of wine hints at comedy shenanigans and New York style neuroses.  What we get, though, is a cynical and at times heartbreaking novel of a woman, now 72 years old, who lives an almost hermit like existence in an apartment in Beirut.  From a young age Aaliyah fell in love with all things literature, and while this activity wasn’t viewed kindly by her family, she obtained a low paying job at a bookstore near her apartment.  With the store now closed, Aaliyah maintains her sanity by translating novels from great European writers into Arabic.

Like LilaAn Unnecessary Woman shifts without hesitation or warning between Aaliyah’s current situation and her early life in Beirut.  It’s clear from the outset that she’s always been an outsider.  Her love of books and language puts her at odds with a culture that expects woman to marry and bear children at a young age.  Aliyah does marry but her husband, while not abusive, isn’t the most agreeable man and their divorce further isolates Aaliyah from her family and her community.

However, Aaliyah isn’t entirely alone.  Through her ex-husband’s family, she meets Hannah, her “almost sister in law” and only friend.  It’s Hannah who convinces one of her relatives to employ Aaliyah in his bookstore.  And it’s through the bookstore that Aaliyah meets Ahmad, a boy who holds the same fascination for literature that she does.  Unfortunately both relationships end in tragedy.  Hannah commits suicide and Ahmad essentially becomes a torturer for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

As a result of Hannah’s death, coupled with the coming of the Lebanese civil war and constant pressure from her family to leave her relatively large apartment, books become Aaliyah’s

milk and honey. I made myself feel better by reciting jejune statements like “Books are the air I breathe,” or, worse, “Life is meaningless without literature,” all in a weak attempt to avoid the fact that I found the world inexplicable and impenetrable. Compared to the complexity of understanding grief, reading Foucault or Blanchot is like perusing a children’s picture book.

Aaliyah’s near religious obsession for the written word allows Alameddine to both celebrate literature (not just the Western cannon) while using it as a metaphor for her isolation.  This is underlined by Aaliyah’s translations of great European novels into Arabic.  What’s striking and key to her state of mind is that at the conclusion of a project she stores the translation away “in a box and the box in the bathroom.”

Aaliyah provides a number of rationalizations as to why her work ends up in the maid’s bathroom.  She argues that to translate a Russian novel, for example, she’s required to rely on English and French translations of the same work.  A copy of a copy is never the same quality.  At a more cynical and bitter level she states that,

My translation activity is useless. Yet I persist. The world goes on whether I do what I do. Whether we find Walter Benjamin’s lost suitcase, civilization will march forward and backward, people will trot the globe, wars will rage, lunches will be served. Whether anyone reads Pessoa. None of this art business is of any consequence. It is mere folly.

These observations are as much a commentary on her work as they are on her life as and this bitter sense of fatalism pervades the novel making it difficult to feel any sympathy for Aaliyah. But then she’s not asking for our sympathy.  She’s a 72 year old woman who has spent the last 42 years actively withdrawing from everything around her.

And maybe if Aaliyah lived in America or Australia, she could disappear forever.  But she lives in Beirut a city that’s constantly on the verge of a new Civil War or an incursion from Israel.  And if it’s not Palestinian fighters kicking down her door, it’s her half brother trying to dump Aaliyah’s ailing mother in her apartment.  This all culminates in a devastating moment where a burst water pipe threatens to destroy Aaliyah’s hard work.

Throughout these intrusions, Aaliyah’s finds assistance from an unlikely source, her landlord Fadia and Fadia’s two girlfriends who also live in the apartment block.  This relationship between the four woman, which grows slowly but gradually, thankfully undercuts much of Aaliyah’s bitterness, giving the novel a much needed sense of humour and heart.

I was critical of Marilynne Robinson for not giving her main protagonist, Lila, the opportunity to make a choice – to stay in Gilead or to leave.  Alameddine does not make the same mistake.  In a scene that earns its emotional impact, Aaliyah, as a result of the incident with the water pipe, makes a fundamental decision in how she intends to approach her translations in the future.  In the context of world history and the goings on of everyday life in the city of Beirut, it’s a choice of little consequence.  Mere folly you might say.  And yet for Aaliyah it is the entire world.  It’s an almost sentimental ending to a novel that considers what it truly means to have a meaningful life, to be a necessary person.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

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Lila is the third novel in a trilogy of books that began with Gilead and was followed by Home. The previous two novels were lavished with awards, nominations and appeared in best of lists in their respective years. So it’s probably no surprise that Lila has also been honored with a nomination on the National Book Award shortlist. It’s also clear that Robinson is much loved by critics, if the laudatory reviews are anything to go by. I’d never heard of her, but given the subject matter of her books, set in hard-scrabble Iowa with a Calvinistic bent, I can see why her name might not be familiar to anyone outside of the States.

Lila acts as a prequel to Gilead, so it can be read without reference to the other two novels. That said, if you’ve read Gilead (I haven’t) you’ll know that Lila was Reverend John Ames’ second wife. Ames’ first wife and child died tragically forty years previously, and Ames is resigned to dying alone when Lila literally stumbles into his life. This book, then, fleshes out Lila’s character, providing us insight into her early life while exploring her relationship with the Reverend and the people of Gilead.

The first time we meet Lila, she is four years old, has no name and seems to spend her day under a table in a shack somewhere in Midwest America. A woman named Dolly feels pity for the little girl dressed in rags and steals her away. What follows is a hard, at times miserable existence, that involves joining up with a ‘family’ of drifters who work on farms and sleep out in the fields and finally ending up in a whorehouse where Lila cooks and cleans rather than service the patrons.  Along the way, Dolly makes sure that Lila learns her number and letters while protecting the both of them with a wicked knife.

Walking into Gilead, on her way to California (or anywhere that’s no a whorehouse in St Louis) Lila reflects on the following:

She asked Doll one time, What are we, then? and Doll had said, We’re just folks. But Lila could tell that wasn’t true, that there was more to it anyway. Why this shame? No one had ever really explained it to her, and she could never explain it to herself. Thou wast cast out in the open field. All right. That was none of her doing. She had worked herself tough and ugly for nothing more than to stay alive, and she wasn’t so sure she saw the point of that. Why did she care what people thought. She was nothing to them, they were nothing to her. There really was not a soul on earth she should be worrying about at all. Especially not that preacher. Doll would be glad to see her no matter what. Ugly old Doll. Who had said to her, Live. Not once, but every time she washed and mended for her, mothered her as if she were a child someone could want. Lila remembered more than she ever let on.

And in those thoughts exits the paradox that haunts Lila.  She knows, intellectually, that the struggles she faced were not of her making.  That if not for Doll she would have died under that table.  And yet she can’t wipe away the shame that stains her soul.  In meeting and falling in love with Revered Ames’ Lila will attempt to answer and resolve that paradox by asking a man of scripture why God would allow neglect and abandonment and suffering to exist for those who don’t deserve it.  It’s an old canard – why do bad things happen to good people – but some of the best moments in the novel are when Ames’ struggles to answer the question in the context of his own beliefs.

Because Lila deals with these issues for the length of the novel. and because Robinson refuses to offer up easy answers, I found Lila to be tough going.  I could appreciate the beautiful writing, I can acknowledge the deft and skillful way that Robinson deals with a number of complicated issues about existence and meaning and suffering, but at the end of it all I found myself detached from Lila and her experience.  I stopped caring.  Which is harsh but true.

Throughout the reading experience my mind kept going back to Flannery O’Connor and her collection of short fiction, A Good Man Is Hard To Find.  Thanks to Dave Hoskin, I read this powerful book for an earlier episode of Shooting The Poo.  O’Connor, who was born in Georgia but has connection to Iowa through its Writer’s Workshop (which Robinson is also an alumni of).  While I don’t have the academic nous to adequately compare the two writers, I found O’Connor’s treatment of similar issues such as poverty and neglect, told through a Catholic, rather than Calvinist, lens to be the more engaging and relevant.  I know it’s not fair to compare short fiction to a novel, but O’Connor had the ability to punch you in the gut and make you wince as terrible things happen to her characters while asking the same questions as to why God has allowed this to happen.

In comparison, Robinson’s novel is repetitive, lacking that O’Connor gut punch.  Lila constantly doubts herself, doubts her love for the Reverend, doubts his love for her (though she’s never really given reason to do so, even after she provides him with some details of her ‘sordid’ background) and doubts whether she can ever be free of the stain of her past:

I am baptized, I am married, I am Lila Dahl, and Lila Ames. I don’t know what else I should want. Except for the shame to be gone, and it ain’t. I’m in a strange house with a man who can’t even figure out how to talk to me. Anything I could do around here has been done already. If I say something ignorant or crazy he’ll start thinking, Old men can be foolish. He’s thought it already. He’ll ask me to leave and no one will blame him. I won’t blame him. Marriage was supposed to put an end to these miseries. But now whatever happens everybody will know. She saw him standing in the parlor with his beautiful old head bowed down on his beautiful old chest. She thought, He sure better be praying. And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret.

Aside from all this self-doubt having a whiff of the Fallen Woman narrative, the repetition meant that I never felt like the novel was progressing thematically.  And I believe that all this self-doubt robs Lila of an interesting narrative choice.  Does she stay in Gilead as a woman who has come to terms with her past, who has found redemption in her faith, in her husband and in her child, or does she leave Gilead because, unfortunately, it’s all too much to bear?  The ending of the novel implies that she has made a choice, that’s she decided to stay.  But her reasoning is less about her finding peace and more about her newborn child.

Having said that this is a layered and times breathtakingly beautiful novel.  If you’ve read Gilead and Home I’m sure the book and Lila’s journey will have resonance.  Unfortunately, I can’t come along for the ride.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

TinkerMond

Since its publication, Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See has, for the most part, received adulation and praise from readers and critics.  The novel has been described as textured, intricate, mythic and haunting with Amanda Vaill of the Washington Post describing the book as “enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears.”  This adoration has further been reinforced with the novel’s appearance on the shortlist for the National Book Award.

While I agree that the writing is gorgeous, and appreciate the book’s almost fairytale quality, unlike most of the critics I never completely engaged with the novel.  Or more accurately, I was engaged with the first half of the book but gradually found my interest waning.

Before I can explain why, I need to provide some context.  All The Light We Cannot See is set during World War 2 and alternates between Marie Laure, a blind girl who escapes Paris with her father during the Nazi invasion and Werner Jutta, a German orphan whose expertise with all things electronic catches the eye of a member of the Nazi party.  The book skips around in time, starting in 1944 just as Saint Malo is about to bombed by allied forces and then drifting back to the mid 30s and the childhood of Marie and Werner.

Also introduced in these early sections is the Sea of Flame, a precious diamond worth “five Eiffel Towers” that may also be cursed.  As the Germans advance on Paris, the Museum holding the Sea of Flame manufactures three facsimiles of the precious jewel.  These copies and the real diamond are then sent from Paris.  One of the couriers is Marie’s father and it comes as no surprise to the reader which version of the diamond he is protecting.  The subsequent search for the Sea of Flame by Nazi treasure hunter Von Rumpel, tasked to collect and value the jewels of Europe, drives the plot of the novel.  But really, at its heart, The Light We Cannot See is a story about abbreviated childhoods and how love and beauty and a sense of wonder can shine a light on the darkest moments.

And for the first half of the novel, the character work and the plot is matched perfectly with the lyrical writing. This is especially the case as Marie and Werner discover the world around them. For Marie it’s coming to terms with her blindness:

Her hands move ceaselessly, gathering, probing, testing. The breast feathers of a stuffed and mounted chickadee are impossibly soft, its beak as sharp as a needle. The pollen at the tips of tulip anthers is not so much powder as it is tiny balls of oil. To really touch something, she is learning—the bark of a sycamore tree in the gardens; a pinned stag beetle in the Department of Etymology; the exquisitely polished interior of a scallop shell in Dr. Geffard’s workshop—is to love it.

For Werner it’s falling in love with science and radio:

The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism; there’s a pause and a peal of static, as though a record is being flipped, and then he enthuses about coal. [...]  Time slows.  The attic disappears.  Jutta disappears.  Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?

However, as the novel progressed my cynicism and prejudice started to kick in.  This can partly be attributed to Von Rumpel’s search for the Sea of Flames.  With Marie’s father imprisoned by the Nazi’s she’s becomes the caretaker of the diamond.  Because we know she has the real McCoy it’s inevitable that Von Rumpel and her path will cross.  By the time Von Rumpel arrives in Saint Malo in 1944, the place is about to be bombed and he has gone from a suave Christoph Waltz-type to an over the top villain who believes the diamond can cure his cancer.  It all gets a bit predictable and by the numbers as crazy Von Rumpel hunts for Marie in her Great Uncle’s large house.  And with Werner somewhere in the background, it ends exactly as expected.

But predictability aside, my biggest problem with the novel can be leveled at Werner’s story.  After he catches the eye of the Nazi party member, Werner is sent to the National Political Institutes of Education, a boarding school where young boys are taught to be good Nazis.  He befriends a boy named Frederick whose slight frame and odd love of birds makes him an outlier among the other boys.  (It’s implied that Frederick only got in the school because his father is high up in the Nazi party).  Werner tries to protect Frederick, but the inevitable happens and Frederick is bashed senseless and forced to return home with a brain injury.  Soon after Werner – who is still only 16 – is sent to the front lines so he can use his expertise in radio to triangulate the broadcasts of partisans.

At no point throughout the events described does Werner grow beyond that boy fascinated with radio and science.  Oh he has doubts and concerns, the treatment of Frederick bothers him, but it doesn’t seem to change him.  He neither rebels against the system or becomes a fully fledged Nazi.  He just is.  A young man who understands radio and broadcast wavelengths.

I wanted Werner to get dirt under his fingernails.  I wanted him to either run off and be a partisan or swallow Nazi propaganda whole.  But it’s clear that this is not the story Doerr is interested in telling.  In an excellent interview with Jill Owen’s from Powell’s Books, Doerr states,

I wanted the reader to get to the point where he or she is actually cheering for Werner’s first find in Russia when they track down that resistance transmission and Volkheimer goes ahead and kills those people. I wanted that to be a very morally complicated moment for the reader when they’re saying, I want Werner to succeed here, but I understand what that success entails, which is murder.

The fact that Doerr expects us to be cheering for Werner leads me to believe that for him Werner never grows up, he’s always the boy who discovers radio for the first time who we cheer as proud parents when he achieves something special.

But my prejudice tells me that Werner, for all his good intentions and the fact that he had very little choice in the matter, is still a Nazi who aided and abetted in the killing of partisans and civilians.  And so for me the situation is not morally complicated.  I stopped feeling any sympathy for Werner once he became a Nazi.

I’m not arguing that Werner should be transformed into a foaming at the mouth villain who constantly goes on about racial purity.  We have Von Rumpel for that.  I’m arguing that given what he sees and what he does, we need to do more than cheer for Werner as his character progresses through the novel.  If anything we should feel a sense of tragedy that an innocent life has been twisted toward such evil.  But for the meeting between Marie and Werner to have any impact we still have to love them equally, we still have to be cheering them on.  And so Werner is stuck in amber, a boy who just wanted to understand science and play with radio.  A boy who seems magically protected from the vileness of Nazi propaganda.

Yes, I grant that I seem to be asking for a different book than what was intended.  And it’s hard to blame the author for following his vision and not mine.  And yet I can’t get that sour taste out of my mouth, the feeling that for all its gorgeous prose and thematic richness, All The Light We Cannot See is a contrived novel where at least one of the characters has been stuck on pause to provide for a particular effect.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

National Book Awards Finalists for Fiction

TinkerMond

The National Book Award finalists have been announced. They are:

  • Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press/ Grove/Atlantic)
  • Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner/ Simon & Schuster)
  • Phil Klay, Redeployment (The Penguin Press/ Penguin Group (USA))
  • Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Alfred A. Knopf/ Random House)
  • Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

I intend to read the four novels and a short story collection over the next two weeks. Other than the Doerr, they’re all less than 100,000 words so I should be able to fit them in. Expect reviews over the coming days.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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