August 11th, 2011
ASIDE: I know I’m skipping #63 – I read Chester Brown’s Paying For It a couple of weeks ago but feel that it is a book best discussed in person. Also, I’m waiting for my RRHB to finish it too so we can discuss it before I actually pull all of my thoughts together. So, The Quarry. Of course, I always finish really big books really late at night. Even though I’m this-close to sleep, I always need to start another book. Generally, I pick something short. Damon Galgut’s The Quarry fit the bill — the entire book clocks in at 202 pages. Perfect for those moments in between epic reading undertakings.
But to dismiss Galgut’s work as simple or frothy just because of its size would be a mistake. He’s not an easy writer. He’s a succinct, sharp, unpunctuated writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the book doesn’t carry weight. Like I’ve mentioned in other reviews of his work, Galgut reminds me of Coetzee. They similar sparse prose and they use violence as a backdrop to open a much larger, richer conversation about the state of society.
As the novel opens, the main character who is never directly named (with the exception of the name he takes later on, which is not his own) hides from oncoming traffic in the vast outer territories of South Africa. And by “traffic,” I mean one car. When the next car rumbles to a stop, he’s forced out of hiding in a way, and offered a ride by a minister going far north to a small church to work. They share awkward conversation and drink the communal wine. And then, the man kills the minister. It’s quick, frighteningly violent, and utterly unnecessary — but it’s the crime that sets off the major action in the book (and I’m not spoiling it by writing it here, either, as it’s on the dust jacket). (more…)
August 9th, 2011
The year that Kiran Desai won the Booker Prize, I was working at Random House of Canada. She attended a party, that I think was thrown because it was the International Festival of Authors, and I remember thinking that she was both regal and beautiful — I was in awe. Normally, I don’t get starstruck by authors, especially ones where I have never read their work, but I was incredibly familiar with her mother’s writing (many courses in post-colonial literature and a slight obsession with Baumgarter’s Bombay), and found myself hovering around her trying to get a word in edgewise or at least shake her hand. Neither happened. I’m sad about that now, only because, years and years later, I have finally gotten around to finishing The Inheritance of Loss, and did not find it lacking in the least. In fact, it ultimately lives up to the image I have of Desai: tall, gracious, and utterly beautiful.
The Inheritance of Loss follows the lives of a select group of people living near the Kalimpong mountains. They are as cut off from the world around them as they are, ultimately, from themselves — their geography forming an incredible metaphor for the loss each character has in terms of self-awareness as the novel progresses. There’s the judge, Jemubhai Patel, who hides away in his decrepit, falling down house because he’s both determined and disabused by his own false societal notions (an Indian who aspires to be English, he feels cut-off from his own society and therefore physically removes himself from it), and his cook, whose son, Biju has escaped to America and is forever in search of an elusive green card — both men have been living together for decades upholding a false sense of classicism as the house, the world, and their archaic notions crumble down around them. (more…)
April 28th, 2011
Because we had been reading a lot of Can Lit in our book club, and a lot of short stories to boot, I put forth Chinua Achebe‘s Anthills of the Savannah as our April selection. Over the years, my post-colonial reading has declined dramatically, and it was one of the goals of having an Around the World in 52 Books challenge — to end up reading more non-Canadian fiction. Alas, it was probably a good thing that I decided to actually make dinner for The Vicious Circle Book Club, if only so they’d forgive me for choosing such a dense, complex novel.
It took me six tries just to get passed the first few chapters, and we decided as a club that once you got to page 40, the book became readable, and you were somewhat home free. With respect to construction, it’s the most post-modern novel I’ve read in a long time: perspective switches from first, to third, from character to character, and the narrative often circles around events, moving back and forth in time, just assuming the reader will keep up. Here’s where we bring out that old po-co staple — that a lot of African fiction follows more oral than narrative traditions, but I’m not sure I’d make the sweeping generalization that Achebe was setting out to prove that — maybe it more like he was trying to reflect the impossibility of telling a story, a straight forward, this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened, kind of story, when your world is in utter chaos.
Set in the fictional West African nation, Kangon, three old school friends, Sam, Chris and Ikem, Western-educated men living among the upper echelons of society, must redefine their relationships now that Sam has become His Excellency — the country’s dictator. As Chris, one of the main characters says, “I have thought of all of this as a game that began innocently enough and then went suddenly strange and poisonous.” As the rest of the novel unravels, the story is strong: Sam wants to stay in power, and even though there’s an uprising “in the north” against him (which is a product of deep misunderstanding and miscommunication), lifelong friends Chris and Ikem, now the Minister for Information and the editor of the national newspaper respectively, bear the brunt of Sam’s fall from grace and are fired, forced into hiding and fighting for their lives.
Because characters are “witnesses,” the novel changes form on the drop of a hat — you can be in the first person with Chris in a meeting, then be reading some whimsical treatise by Ikem, listening to Beatrice, Chris’s girlfriend, speak pidgin English with Elewa, Ikem’s girlfriend, and then be in the middle of some strange scene involving non-doctors and other visiting dignitaries from all of their time in London. Structurally, narratively, the novel makes little sense, but the story is so powerful and the writing so excellent that instead of writing the book off as “bad” per se, I spent a long time trying to unravel why Achebe chose to tell it this way.
There are moments of pure grief in this novel. Acts of senseless violence, struggles that seem utterly relevant now, especially in light of what’s happening in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. There’s also an element of futility to the story, and the strength, the power in the continuation of life comes from the female characters. This was not something that went unnoticed by our book club — we all really loved the character of Beatrice, and I even went so far as to suggest that I probably would have found the novel easier if the entire book was written from her point of view. But easy isn’t the point, life itself isn’t easy, and living in a nation that’s having violent growing pains isn’t a story that can be told in traditional ways. In a sense, Achebe’s novel proves that our “canon,” the Western tradition, isn’t necessarily up to scratch when it comes to the complex and difficult “isms” surrounding the characters in this novel. I could think about it for weeks and not unpack it completely. And, if I were still in school, I think I’d be very happy to write a long, complex paper about it.
What’s Up Next: I’m devouring The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It’s delicious and delightful and utterly engaging. I’m almost through and I only started last night! And then I’ve got a long list of library books AND a beautiful friend who knows me so well sent me Roddy Doyle’s latest book of short stories — I couldn’t resist, I’ve already read the first 5 pages and can’t wait to read the rest. I adore him. So, I’ve abandoned Off the Shelf for now, but only because I needed a break. I was reading far, far too many mediocre books (with the exception of Julian Barnes, natch) and needed a breather. But I will go back. I am determined to read every single damn book that’s perched there, just to say that I did. Stubborn, yes. I know.
March 4th, 2011
When tackling this whole “off the shelf” challenge I have consigned myself to this year, I’ve been judging books by their page length, which, in my reading world, translates to how long it’ll take me to get through it. In the Time of the Butterflies, from start to finish, clocks in at 324 pages. That’s about three hours for me — so maybe a day and a half in baby time. But GOOD GRIEF this book took me forever to read because I just couldn’t get into it.
While I have no doubt it’s an important novel — the weight of the language, the heavy-handed metaphors and sentences dripping with meaning, tells me as much — and the history that forms its central plot, the murder of the Mirabel sisters in the Dominican by the ruthless dictator Trujillo, is actually really fascinating. But the book does not, in my mind, “[make] a haunting statement about the human cost of political oppression.”
In a way, this is women’s history. The novel centres around the 4 sisters and their daily lives — their marriages, the birth of their children, and it’s a domestic novel for the most part. And all the while, the four sisters are charging forward with a revolution. I just wish there was more revolution in the book and less meandering. I wanted to know more about the revolution and less about ribbons. I know that’s probably quite sexist of me, that the fact that these were women revolutionaries challenging the male-established dictatorship means the novel should necessarily include discussions of the domestic, but it slowed down the action to a crawl. And by telling the story from all four of the sisters’ points of view, Alvarez manages to disjoint the narrative so completely that you only get a fraction of each of their lives. Personally, I would have preferred the novel centre around Mirabel, the most dynamic and active of the four sisters. But, I didn’t write this book.
First published in 1994, I think this book suffers a little from the trappings of the time — long-winded and overly descriptive, I’m reminded of the Seinfeld episode where Elaine goes to see The English Patient (let me just state, for the record, that I loved both the book and the film), rolling her eyes the entire time in boredom. At least I think that’s what happened — I think that might be the only episode of Seinfeld that I’ve actually seen from start to finish. Annnywaay, she just doesn’t get what the big deal is, and I feel that way about this novel. It’s a national bestseller, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and blah de blah, accolades and great blurbs. Yet the book failed to keep my interest and over and over again I found myself not wanting to finish. It was written at a time when long, flowery sentences and the cult of Gabriel Garcia Marquez was going strong. And the importance of the novel, the politics, the very real struggle, the incredibly tragic murder of these four women, gets lost within the precious nature of the prose, the inevitable storytelling that never seems to actually tell a story but circle around it, planting pretty flowery sentences along the way.
Overall, I was disappointed, and found myself just wanted to get to the end, to see how they die — and then, of course, it all happens off stage, which made me furious. They died violently, brutally, unnecessarily, and Alvarez should have had the bravery to write it. Instead, the book simply stops and then switches perspective again, heads back into its dreary narrative and tries to cover it up by describing their dead bodies as the remaining sister, Dede, identifies them. There’s no power to this narrative; the power is in the truth of the events themselves, and Alvarez coasts along because of it. I know it’s harsh but, again, books should stand the test of time, prose shouldn’t feel dated, and a story of such importance should actually read that way, and not hold itself up on some bronzed pedestal.
February 14th, 2011
Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time remains a novel about endings throughout its elegant telling of Arvid’s final days with his mother, who is dying of stomach cancer. Yet, it’s also a novel of disillusion, of abandon and of deep discontent. At 37, Arvid’s on the cusp of being divorced, and has never truly quite found his place in the world — if my mother were still alive, she would tell me this is a typical novel of someone suffering from “middle child syndrome.” Something she referenced quite often, in jest, when referring to her place in her own family.
Unable to face the fact that his wife, partner, of the last 15 years no longer wants or needs him, Arvid reverts into childish behaviour, following his mother to their summer cabin in Jutland after discovering she’s dying. Interspersed with the awkward and complex time he spends with his mother away from their father and the life they had both known for almost 40 years in Oslo, Arvid’s erratic actions are explored in context of his earlier life — when he was an ardent communist, a factory worker, a member of the peuple — and how his convictions, as well as his strong beliefs, are also changing in lieu of both his age and where he is in his life. There’s a lovely passage near the end of the novel that explains, perhaps, in part, his reluctance to let go of his marriage, of his beliefs, of his relationship with his mother despite the fact that each of these things are willfully being taken away from him:
…but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant that you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.
In a way, Petterson’s novel explores the death of communism itself through this character — in his own disillusionment with the fact that it didn’t succeed in Russia, that the wall came down in them middle of the action, and that Arvid has worked for many years, not as a proletariat, but in a lovely bookstore — something that has made him extremely happy. Yet, he can’t let his party platform go, he feels guilt over his own disillusionment with the politics, with his own failure to move forward beyond his university beliefs.
His complex relationship with his mother also underlines all of his actions. When he tells her he won’t be going back to the university because he wants to become a full-time communist, she slaps him — a gesture of frustration over his childish ways, of his inability to fully command his life in an adult way, of never being quite “old enough” but always being “too old” in her eyes.
This rich, complex relationship, as are many situations between mothers and sons, underlines everything that Arvid does in life. He can’t seem to get her attention in the same way as his other three brothers, one of whom died tragically. She tells her best friend, Hansen, that he’s not entirely a grown up, and this is tragically reflected in his actions towards the end of the novel when it becomes glaringly apparent that she won’t live much longer. And still, Arvid’s almost selfish ways impinge upon the way his mother chooses to live out the end of her life — it’s his divorce, his troubles, his lack of understanding why his world falls apart around him, that is the most tragic aspect of the novel.
Yet, Arvid’s unhappiness, his inability to truly move beyond the earlier parts of his life that have consistently defined him, even loosely, remain grounded in a very real, very cognizant sense of place within the novel. Petterson dutifully explains Arvid’s routes, where he walks, how he drives, the churning of the sea as he crosses the passage to his mother’s summer home. All of the very real places one goes in one’s life — the train to work, the roads the flat sits above, the myriad of things that happens on the way somewhere (a man having a fit, a neighbour on a bicycle). To force the reader to realize, I think, in a way, that even if Arvid can’t come to terms with his life, like the passage above illustrates, his life simply goes on anyway, even if your wife doesn’t love you anymore, even if your mother is dying, even if the wall comes down.
Overall, it’s a brilliant novel, it sort of reminded me of Mothers and Sons, even though those were short stories, in the exploration of the relationship — but it’s more a book about a mid-life crisis, not your typical “bucket list” bullsh*t, but a very real crisis of consciousness when everything that you once stood for, that you felt worth saving, that you felt worth protecting, has changed and you haven’t. And you simply can’t understand why the you that was the same last week isn’t quite right for this one.
It certainly makes you think.
READING CHALLENGES: I already have a Norwegian entry for 52 Books, and I didn’t even take this off the shelf, so that’s zip for the reading challenges. But yay! to #15, I guess?
February 2nd, 2011
Purple Hibiscus is an assured and impressive debut from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: what a difference between it and the other first novel that I just finished reading, The Very Thought of You. There are none of the first novel jitters in Adichie’s work: the plot and pacing are excellent; the story crescendos at exactly the right moment, her prose is bright, lively and interesting; and, layers upon layers of fascinating observations exist between the essence of “family” and the breakdown of the “state” as Nigeria becomes subjected to a military coup.
Kambili and her brother Jaja, along with their mother, Beatrice, live in constant fear of their father, Eugene, a complex, difficult and deeply religious man. His Catholic faith sustains him, but it also represses his family, creates a power vacuum, and ultimately results in some of the most gut-wrenching violence (not related to a crime novel) I’ve read in a long, long time. Eugene rules his household with an iron fist, one clasped entirely to a rosary, and when his wife or children stray — whether it’s to talk to or see their “heathen” grandfather or to not become first in their class — the consequences are dire. The children, aged 15 and 17, live in constant fear of their father’s fists, his belt, his whip, and there’s no telling exactly what will set him off. Set against his rigid rules and regulations, Kambili and her brother find a few weeks of freedom when they go to visit their aunt, Eugene’s sister, Ifeoma. The time they spend with her changes them forever.
The backdrop of the family drama is set against a military coup happening in Nigeria. It’s fascinating that Eugene, so brave (he runs a newspaper as well as owns a number of factories that make food) in his intentions to resist the powers of the regime. He refuses to bribe the police officers, sends his newspaper editor into hiding, and remains incredible generous to the people who work for him. Yet, when it comes to his family, he simply can not see that subjecting them to the extreme Catholic values that he believes, in his heart, will save his and their souls, through the violence and an extreme restriction of their basic human rights echoes the very nature of dictatorship. I think this dichotomy, for me, strikes a cord that resonates throughout the entire novel.
Kambili can’t speak without stuttering, doesn’t smile, lives in constant fear of her father’s punishment, but she also loves him, as a daughter would. Her father’s violence whether it’s towards her, her brother or her mother, is simply another facet of everyday life. In a sense, I think this is why her voice feels so much younger than 15 — she’s suspended in a strange, awkward childhood, and only begins to blossom when she stays with her aunt and sees how normal teenage girls act. Kambili’s a lovely character — bright, intense, open, honest — and when you feel her father’s blows upon her back, you want to cry out for her to run away, to fight back, and when she finally does, it’s a revelation.
There’s so much to love about this novel, the setting, the way Adichie uses traditional language, the explanations of food, of their daily lives, and the rich landscape soiled, in a way, by the corruption that’s all around. Violence, at home or by the state, is an everyday part of life, yet Kambili can still see the beauty in a simple, special purple hibiscus. It’s an impressive thing to not have your spirit broken — something I admire intensely about this book, and something that I strive for in my own everyday life. And even when things are truly, truly horrible, there’s still a goodness in Kambili that can’t be broken, scarred maybe, but even those find a way to heal eventually.
READING CHALLENGES: Around the World (Nigeria) and Off the Shelf.
WHAT’S NEXT: I’m on “A” from my 1001 Books shelf, so I started reading Emma this morning. I love that I have spread out the Austen to read in my lifetime. I would be sad if I had already read them all. I’m exited I still have three to go.
January 23rd, 2011
My Zombie Survival Guide daily calendar tells me that a motorcycle is the best way to flee an infested area, which could be problematic for me as I have never driven a motorcycle in my life. Oh well. That has absolutely nothing to do with Alexander McCall Smith’s Blue Shoes and Happiness, which is the seventh book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series with Mma Ramotswe and her cast of likable characters. The calendar makes me laugh, that’s all.
It’s a breezy, delightful series, and I’m actually reading In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (#8) at the moment and expect to be finished it today, they’re such quick books to get through. I had three of the series on my shelves, one I had already read, and so I decided just to power through the other two. I love how Mma Ramotswe isn’t a traditional detective, while she may be traditionally built, and how the cases do not involve bloody murder of the Mo Hayder kind (although I do adore Ms. Hayder) but are instead more like moral lessons. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved but they are generally addressed through common sense and communication, traditional Botswana (I think?) values, and the essence of good for the sake of being good, no ulterior motives:
Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.
My thoughts exactly. A good cup of tea, a warm muffin, and a comfy chair and most problems can at least be mulled over, if not completely solved. In Mma Ramotswe’s case, she drinks her beloved bush tea, in my case, it’s decaf earl grey with the milk poured in first (and I couldn’t give a toss what Christopher Hitchens would say about that — it was the way my British grandmother taught me to drink tea and it tastes the best when the hot water scalds the milk, it just does). The point being that it is in the drinking of the tea that humanity comes together, not the making of the tea, although I would agree with Hitchens that finding a decent cup of tea in America isn’t easy.
Annnywaaay, I’m off topic, entirely with this post, rambling on about zombies and Christopher Hitchens. There’s not a lot to say about these novels, just that I adore them, adore the characters and can’t wait for the TV show to come back on, because it’s delightful too. What’s also nice is that McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, which puts him on the map in terms of my Around the World in 52 Books, and the African settings of these books always make me want to travel to that continent, just to experience life in a different way. So I’ve knocked off a couple of challenges with two short novels, and haven’t quite decided what my shelves will bring forth next in terms of what I’m in the mood to read.
December 20th, 2010
When I was babbling on about all of the Scandinavian mysteries I’ve been reading lately, Melanie, over at Indextrious Reader, tweeted about her favourite, Karin Fossum. So I scanned my shelves and happily discovered I had an Inspector Sejer mystery, Calling Out For You! at the ready. I might as well call this my Mystery Christmas for all novels in this genre I’ve been reading, and I’m pleased that I can cross Norway off my Around the World in 52 Books challenge with Fossum as well, and the translation by Charlotte Barslund is one of the better that I’ve read — far less clunky than all of The Girl With novels and, on the whole, Fossum’s a much more skillful novelist than Camilla Lackberg.
Calling Out For You! (the exclamation point seems a bit, well, tedious) finds Inspector Sejer solving a heinous crime involving the brutal murder of an Indian woman, the newlywed wife of a middle-aged farm equipment salesmen who was truly looking forward to welcoming his wife to his country, his home. Gunder Jomann, quiet, reserved, lonely, takes the biggest risk of his entire life and simply decides to go to India. Upon his return, the very day his new wife Poona was set to arrive, his only sister ends up in a terrible car accident and he can’t collect her from the airport. Tragedy ensues — Poona doesn’t arrive. Instead, she’s found bludgeoned to death in a field outside of town.
Fossum’s careful not to lead you entirely in the right or wrong direction. There’s a mystery to the mystery — who actually killed Poona and why — that’s inferred but not entirely delineated by the end of the novel. It’s a character-driven book, you feel emotionally connected to the Gunder, the distraught, decent man who ultimately suffers unspeakable tragedy. And the detective work is straightforward, simple, to the point. There isn’t the driving plot that you’d find in the The Girl With books, but that’s okay, there’s a decency to Fossum’s characters that’s very real. Setting doesn’t play as an important part in this book the other mysteries I’ve read by authors from this part of the world (that was the only thing I truly enjoyed about The Ice Princess). But you get the small-town, everyone-knows-everyone, feeling throughout the novel, which always contributes to the shocking nature of the crime.
I flew through this novel, primarily because I truly, honestly wanted to know who did it — and it was VERY hard not to cheat. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve read the last page of the book sometimes even before the first and it’s an especially hard habit to break with mysteries. I don’t want to spoil it but then I absolutely just have to know. In this case, I managed to be patient, but mainly because it was such an easy read, and didn’t take too long to get to the end. Any longer and I wouldn’t have been able to stand it.
READING CHALLENGES: Around the World in 52 Books and The Off The Shelf Challenge. Two birds with one book, yet again.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I can’t decide: AS Byatt or Dennis Lehane. I suppose it’ll be up to what concentration levels I can manage this evening upon retiring for the long, long night as the RRBB eats, sleeps, eats, sleeps, eats, sleeps.
December 7th, 2010
I am of mixed mind when it comes to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. On the one hand, it’s an interesting novel that deals with important political issues; on the other hand, overall, I didn’t find the novel entirely plausible. Cleave has definite talent writing characters in voices that are atypical — female characters that read well, but there’s just something that rings false. I felt especially this way about Little Bee herself, that she was perhaps a bit too precocious for her age, but when you factor in what she’d been through (horrific, awful events in her home country of Nigeria; unspeakable violence and two years in a detention centre in England after stowing away in a boat), maybe it’s not so inconceivable that she would be wise beyond her years. Yet, it all didn’t sit quite right with me.
So, the plot of the novel revolves around two women, the aforementioned Little Bee, an asylum-seeking refugee from Nigeria who was subjected to an horrific experience of seeing her entire family destroyed by oil men; and Sarah, the wife of Andrew, a couple who met Little Bee on a beach on a fateful day that would change their lives forever. When Little Bee is finally released from the detention centre after spending two years essentially in jail as the British government evaluates her refugee claim, the only people she knows are Andrew and Sarah, and so she makes her way to them, which sets in motion a series of events that have tragic consequences.
And it’s not just the plot that felt forced but the relationship between the two women was awkward in many ways. I kept comparing the novel in my head to Dave Eggers’s What is the What, and to Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, both novels that have protagonists that go through unspeakable horrors, but both of these novels just pull it all together in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel as though the situations are jammed in just to make a point. Granted, it’s an important point — or an important book — and you can’t fault Cleave for his research or how hard he worked to create the voice of Little Bee. But how he chose to wrap her story within that of Sarah’s and how their lives are intertwined just doesn’t work. Further, there’s a fairytale element to the penultimate action that rang false and the end of the novel was quite flat compared to how hard he had worked to set up the situation from the start of the book. I didn’t believe the drama — and this book is ALL about dramatic situations that forever change people’s lives.
Overall, as much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I am not at all sure what I think or how I feel about it. I want to like it A LOT because I believe strongly in fiction that pushes the boundaries and tells important, political stories. But in a way, I don’t think they should be shoehorned in when they don’t fit the characters or the voice that’s actually telling the story. I wanted more for Little Bee — and I wanted more from the book. But maybe I’ll feel differently if/when I think about it some more.
Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. It’s a chunky, chunky book so I probably won’t finish it in a day but we’ll see how many hours my RRBB spends awake tonight.
READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge — I think I’ve had this book on my TBR pile ever since it came out almost two years ago. Also, Chris Cleave is British, so that counts too for Around the World in 52 Books — he can be England.
November 30th, 2010
Trying to read more books published by NYRB remains one of the never-ending “should-do’s” on my reading life. I admire just about everything about the publishers: the packages they create, the books they choose to publish, the authors they choose, and the quality of the writing. Yet, I never seem to get around to reading, well, ANY of them. So, I was pleased when our book club, The Vicious Circle, picked Tove Jansson’s The True Believer as a monthly pick.
Tove Jansson was born in Helsinki, and she was an illustrator as well as an author. She grew up spending the summers on the Gulf of Finland, in a small fishing cabin, and the setting of The True Deceiver seems absolutely informed by the time she spent in that kind of an environment. The setting is stark, snow-filled, cold, and austere. The novel opens, “It was an ordinary dark winter morning, and snow was still falling.” The darkness isn’t frightening, it’s not meant to create the Let the Right One In kind of environment, it’s a fact of life, a season to get through — life still goes on, groceries need to be delivered, dogs need to be walked, boats need to built. I like how Jansson creates the setting, it informs and layers the story but it doesn’t overwhelm the novel.
The story revolves around two women who live in the small village. A strange, awkward girl named Katri Kling who lives above the general store with her brother, Mats (whom everyone thinks is simple but is truly just quiet and introverted). And Anna Aemelin, a relatively wealthy (as compared to the people in the rest of the village) children’s artist who is a bit of a recluse. From the beginning of the novel Katri has a plan — she wants to gain an “in” with Anna, she has a very specific, calculated plan to ingratiate herself into her life, and nothing will stop her from getting her way. The entire village thinks the girl is strange. She has a gift with numbers and with honesty, and so many people come to her for problems: is so-and-so cheating on me, was I charged too much by the grocer, is blah-de-blah taking advantage — the villagers are ashamed to ask for Katri’s help but they continually do it. With this premise, she begins to be helpful to Anna. There’s just one difference, Anna didn’t ask for Katri’s help, and doesn’t necessarily want it. She lives in her own kind of blissful ignorance, like the dark of winter, Anna closes herself up in her house, illustrates her woodland characters, idealizes the childish way she has of creating a world in the undergrowth of the forest, and wishes she could do it differently, but change isn’t something that comes naturally to Anna.
Eventually, Katri and her brother move in with Anna, into her house. Gossip starts. But as with anyone who sets out with a plan, things go astray. And the spareness, the sparsity of Jansson’s prose nicely echoes the setting. Her words are cruel when they need to be, sparingly kind in places, but always clean, if that makes any sense — she’s an incredibly clean, crisp writer, she sort of writes like the snow itself, cold, but melts when the temperature reaches a certain point. The title refers, naturally, to Katri, but it’s also pointedly about Anna, as well — deception when it comes to yourself, deception concerning another person, they are both themes that run from beginning to end. What’s simple doesn’t always seem so, and telling the truth, and then recognizing the truth about yourself, both happen to these characters by the end. Overall, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this novel, I read it quickly, in every spare moment I had, and I do have them these days, not necessarily to write long blog posts, but to read at 2 AM when the RRBB is breastfeeding. It’s very easy to balance a book on The Breast Friend, let me tell you, as long as it’s a teeny paperback. I’m having a little more trouble with my giant hardcover copy of The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell.
Also, Jansson was born in Finland, which means I can use this book for the Around the World in 52 Days challenge I do every year. I am sure I have managed about six weeks in total, but, still, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Finnish author before. And I am sure I would read more of her books in a heartbeat considering how much I loved this one.