January 4th, 2013
I have managed to finish my first book of the new year, JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. I know I am among the minority in that I have barely read Harry Potter (I read the first book, sort of, and half-read the second), but I have them all waiting for RRBB to get a bit older so I can read them aloud to him. But I did love the world she created, and I loved that it got kids of all ages reading, and so I was intrigued by her ‘adult’ novel.
So, the novel’s title refers to the sudden and obviously quite shocking death of Barry Fairbrother, a local parish counselor and all-round good fellow. The small town of Pagford reels from the man’s death–he was integral to the community and touched many around him. The story rolls out from this central event and introduces the massive cast of characters that populate Pagford–his opponents on the council, the young girls he was mentoring on a rowing team, his own family and friends. Regardless of whether or not they were intimates or casual acquaintances, Barry’s death has left a whole in the community that someone needs to plug.
Rowling is a master of both plot and circumstance. She knows how to build a story from the ground up–starting with a major event that gets everything rolling. Yet, I’m not sure this was a completely successful novel. It seems to sprawl like the suburbs, ramble along like the twisty streets and cul de sacs that stretch out regardless of city planning. There are too many characters, many of whom really don’t have any resonance within the story or serve to further the plot. It’s as if she’s so used to creating a magnificent, large, amazingly imaginative world (like Harry Potter) and can’t quite seem to figure out how to bring it down to size for just one book. The ending is rushed and there’s a lot of summarizing.
The Casual Vacancy is a rambling, sometimes incoherent, novel, and while I’m not saying Rowling is remotely an incoherent writer, just the opposite in fact, she’s an exacting, ridiculously engaging writer. There were moments when I felt like I was reading Coronation Street, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing–I love Coronation Street. My husband asked me if I thought that this book would have remotely been a success had Rowling not been responsible for the most successful children’s series, well, ever, and I didn’t know how to respond. I don’t know if it matters. I think she’s going to write and people are going to read her writing and the world is better for having her books in it.
The most interesting aspect of the novel, for me, was the discussion around class distinctions. The council wants to do away with The Fields, an area populated by poor, addicted individuals–Pagford’s upper middle class–and the housing estate plus drug treatment centre doesn’t fit with the ideal the council would like to uphold. It’s a basic story, but Rowling imbibes it with fresh perspective–sort of Fish Tank meets the middle classes–and that’s the part of the novel I liked the best. She reveals amazing contradictions within popular opinion about issues like addiction (“they should just get off the drugs!”), and presents an utterly human and completely tragic story about a young girl growing up around heroin, drug dealers, poverty and loss. There’s a bit too much shock and awe in the novel, though, I don’t know if you always need to make your point by being so exceptionally dramatic but I did enjoy The Casual Vacancy overall, and I can’t wait for RRBB to experience Harry Potter. Frankly, neither can I!
February 20th, 2012
When @em_ingram walked into my cube last week and told me that I absolutely had to read The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I took it to heart. Margot Livesay’s love letter to Jane Eyre, surprised and delighted me. It’s a familiar story, not just because of the latest filmed adaptation (which I thought was excellent), but because, like so many of these great novels, these stories are embedded in our collective reading consciousness. I’ve read a number of books that write back to Brontë, and I count Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea among one of my favourite novels, of all time.
Ten-year-old Gemma, an orphan now twice-over, finds herself shunted away to Claypoole, where she’s a “working girl,” scrubbing floors and dusting shelves for just to sustain her Annie-like existence and meagre education. But she’s strong willed and good of heart, and lands an au pair position in the Orkneys, where her fate is forever linked with that of her employer’s, Mr. Sinclair. As with the original book, morality and secrets are the enemy of love, and Gemma finds herself chased away, yet again, from yet another home. She lands not fifty miles from her awful aunt’s house, and must come to face the truth of her own existence, her own life’s story, before she can even consider whether or not she’d like to be married. Set after the Second World War, when Scotland itself must have been changing, where the men and the women who had been through the battles faced a different world when they returned, Gemma’s life opens up for her in ways that her predecessor, Jane, would have most likely reveled in.
While I found some of the strings tying this novel to the other a bit flimsy, in the end, it didn’t matter because Gemma’s such a wonderful character in her own right. When she sets off to “find herself,” pushed to the brink by the choices forced upon her by both society and “good” morals, you root for her entirely, and that’s enough for me. Knowing the “other” Jane’s story so well becomes irrelevant by the end of the book, as if Livesay wrote herself out of it on purpose, if only to prove how far we’ve all come, to examine the roots of feminism, of free will, of delight in the power of learning, all of which, I’m sure, Brontë would have reveled in herself. Like Emma described it to me, this is a book for people who love books, and she’s not at all wrong.
February 5th, 2012
My copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die characterizes Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot as such: “This is a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of a book.” And while it’s not an untrue statement, it’s also a little dismissive of what I feel is the real, true accomplishment of this novella — Barnes’s complete ability to broadly reimagine the constructs of the “novel.” In a way, if you were reading critically, you could define the book in so many different ways: a post-modern collection speaking back to one of the greats of Western literature, Flaubert; a finely tuned, self-referential critique of the Ivory Tower nature of literary history and criticism; a highly personal story of a man (a doctor) relating so deeply to a story and characters (in Madame Bovary) that it allows him the space to come to terms with the state of his own life; and the more you read it, the more you see in it — that’s the utter brilliance of this work. (more…)
February 4th, 2012
Oh, Mo Hayder. I’ve told anyone who’ll listen that Mo Hayder is my favourite thriller writer. While, yes, sometimes there are gruesome aspects to her novels, but they are just so damn well written that even when the words make me cringe, I’m impressed by them. Hanging Hill is a standalone novel, written outside of her current series, The Walking Man books, and while there are familiar aspects to the story (a tough-as-nails cop; family conflict; great villains), this is one hell of a mystery.
First, let’s examine the set up: two sisters, recently reconciled, sit on a bench outside of a funeral. The reader (ahem, me) makes an assumption, it’s one you’re led right into like a fly to a sticky trap, about the funeral’s protagonist, if you will, and Hayder expertly unravels bits and pieces throughout the novel until you get to the shocker of an ending — and are stunned by its final pages. (more…)
December 19th, 2011
My reading life this year has been defined by my “discovery” of Julian Barnes. I think I’ve read four of his books over the last fourteen or so months, and honestly think he’s one of the finest novelists working in English today. The Sense of an Ending, his Booker-prize winning novella (because it’s really short, come on!), reminded me a little of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, both because it’s short, but mainly because they both have protagonists whose lives are defined by a fractured relationship that seems to drive an earthquake-sized fissure through their lives.
Tony’s an average man. Balding. Divorced. Retired. He has a good relationship with his ex-wife and his daughter. He travelled a bit in his youth. He held down a good job. He has a nice little condo. All in all, he has had a happy life. Perhaps not necessarily fulfilling in the way that you imagine, you romanticize, adulthood when you’re in the throes of the high points of your youth. While in school, Tony’s and his friends envelop Adrian into their fold — he’s charming, ridiculously intelligent, and soon becomes a favourite of both the teachers and students alike. He’s a young philosopher who dissects a fellow student’s suicide with a calm, exacting kind of matter reminiscent of some of the great existential minds, and when he goes off to study at Oxford or Cambridge (one of those high profile British universities anyway), it’s not surprising. He has that kind of energy that pulls people towards him, including, Tony’s first serious girlfriend.
Everyone knows memory isn’t anything close to the truth (the heroine of Before I Go To Sleep knows that better than anyone, I think). It’s selective and seductive — keeps the good (and the terrible; hell, don’t we all have those “stop your heart” moments where you look back and feel the utter ruin of a moment?) and reverberates the bad. And as Tony goes backwards, forwards, and in between, to piece together why said ex-girlfriend’s mother has left him not only money in her will but Adrian’s diary (and how did she get it in the first place?), the story slowly unravels into truth. And like the best of novels, like the best of writers, the story, the ending, is not at all what one would expect.
The sense, I think, that the title refers to the many ways that situations can end — death, obviously, break-ups, naturally, but also philosophically, that is, knowing how and when to say good-bye, to bring things to an end. There’s a moment, always, when one can go too far with something, hurt people, get hurt oneself, and Barnes explores this theme brilliantly. The narrator of the book, utterly fallible to human emotions, human mistakes, finally understands the complex nature of the situation, and the revel is everything you expect from a superior novelist. There are no cracks or fissures in this book. No stray words, no false pretences, no extraneous, well, anything. It’s not a lengthy or even as rich a novel as say Arthur and George, but the way it looks at moral questions, the way it builds character and suspense, remains engaging from start to finish. I know, in a way, that perhaps the Booker committee gave him the award as a kind of lifetime achievement situation, but, in the end, when a book is this good, does it really matter?
September 2nd, 2011
#66 – A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Truth be told, I loved this book like a high school crush, I couldn’t get enough of it. The tragedy of it felt a bit forced but the writing remained so fresh and inspiring all the way through that I forgave Moore for the melodrama. Her writing reminds me a little of Miriam Toews (I’m reading Irma Voth right now) and perhaps that’s why I ear-marked about 100 pages of phrases and thoughts that melted my heart as Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old university student who becomes a nanny only for the entire situation to go so magnificently awry in the most horrible of ways (no death, nothing gruesome, just sad), suffers through one of the most pivotal years of her life. The book is so, so sad, but that’s what makes it so, so good in my estimation.
#67 – Pulse by Julian Barnes
Personally, and I’ll take anyone to task, I think Barnes is one of the best short story writers working today. It’s an amazing little collection. I liked every story. I love Barnes. I don’t know what else to say. Well, except that the package — the cover art etc., is terrible. Truly.
#68 – Alone in the Classroom by Elizabeth Hay
My, when I started this book I raved and raved to my aunt that Elizabeth Hay was one of the best Canadian writers working today. The story of the young girl’s murder, the narrator’s amazingly intriguing aunt Connie, the setting (Ottawa and Saskatchewan), it all came together and gave me a reason to rip through the pages, and then half-way through the book, the whole thing sort of fell flat, like a ginger ale, really awesome when you first open it, then by the time you get to the bottom of the can, your teeth hurt and your whole mouth feels kind of fuzzy. It’s not her best novel, and that’s all I’m going to say at the moment because I am about to go and play some cards on my last night here at the cottage.
May 31st, 2011
I have spent three days this week at various doctors appointments and sitting waiting for blood work, and managed to read three books in five days. It’s almost like I’m breastfeeding at all hours again, only I’m not. Actually, it’s nothing like that at all. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Regardless, here are some short reviews of books I’ve read lately.
#44 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Allan Sillitoe
Sometimes, when you see the filmed version of a book first, it’s almost impossible not to replay the movie in your head as you read. In the case of Allan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, this was entirely the case. Luckily, both the book and the film are excellent, so I wasn’t disappointed by anything happening in my own head as I read. Sillitoe’s portrait of a young man, a working class, philandering, hard-drinking, impulse-driven, anti-hero remains captivating over 50 years since its publication. I found myself violently engrossed in the film, at times disgusted by Arthur Seaton’s behaviour, his attitude towards women, his own selfishness, and yet utterly thrilled by his voice, his hard-driving anger, and his youth.
Set in a working class section of Nottingham (and forgive me if it’s all working class; I am not familiar with the geography), Seaton works at a bicycle factory, where he gets paid by the piece. Work too fast, and you make too much money, the big bosses will come down on you; work too slow and it isn’t worth your while to get up in the morning. There’s a tender balance Seaton strikes between boredom, completely shutting off to the redundancy of his tasks and letting his mind wander (usually to the state of his love life, which is complex, and full of many married ladies). He served in the army but has no faith in it; he drinks not just because it’s the only thing to do but because it IS the thing to do; and all of his relationships with women are based on lying, cheating and his own awkward concepts of love. Yet, as a character, I couldn’t help but adore him — a prototypical bad boy when it still meant something to buck the system, and the dichotomy of the two parts of Seaton’s life: the Saturday nights spent drinking and with his hand up the shirt of his many married lovers; and the Sunday morning when he goes fishing and perhaps decides upon one girl, nicely contrast the tenor of life in England after the war. Everyone needing to find their footing, their voice, after the collective “pulling together” (Keep Calm and Carry On) as a universal decree. All in all, it’s an excellent novel. (Also exciting is that it’s on the 1001 Books list, whee!).
#45 – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is one of my favourite American novelists. I adored Run, enjoyed Bel Canto, and had my heart broken over Truth & Beauty. But State of Wonder is in an entirely different class — if I had to find a comp, like someone (I can’t remember who) mentioned on Twitter, I’d too suggest Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. But, truly, the unbridled success of this novel lies in Patchett’s almost post-colonial “talking back” to Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. Now, I read Conrad’s book in first year university and haven’t revisited it since, so it’s hazy, to say the least in my memory. I recall more of Apocalypse Now than I do the novel itself but that doesn’t mean that I can’t theorize that Patchett set out to write back to Heart of Darkness, tackling not necessarily themes of colonialism and “going native” (shuddering to write that sentence) but more so the toll and cost of medical research takes from on our “modern” world.
When Dr. Marina Singh’s workmate and lab partner, Dr. Eckman, is pronounced dead in a far flung letter from Dr. Annick Swenson, a research doctor who has been in the field for almost decades developing and studying a very particular tribe in order to create a fertility drug that could revolutionize women’s reproductive health, she (Dr. Singh) is sent out to retrieve the true story and maybe, just maybe, bring both the body and a report of where the work actually is back to the company for whom they all work. Things go wrong for Marina right from the start — her suitcase is lost, her clothes taken by the Lakashi tribe when she arrives in camp, and soon every vestige of Western life has disappeared from around her. She wears her hair plaited by the Lakashi women, the only dress she has comes from them as well, and without sun protection, the half-Indian Marina’s skin bronzes so deeply that even she notices how different she looks than when at home suffering through a long, terrible Minnesota winter.
Classically trained as a OBGYN, Marina gave up her medical practice due to a terrible accident, and has been a pharmacologist ever since. Yet, once she finds Dr. Swenson (and the path that got her there was no less than difficult), her skills as a doctor are called upon — an in unclean, unhygienic and utterly disorganized (in terms of performing surgeries), and Marina’s life takes a turn in a direction she never imagined. The novel’s ending, both spectacular and breathtaking, has perfect pacing — I couldn’t put it down, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself reading and reading, any chance I could get, morning, deep into the night, just to find out what happens. And the last sentences, just like the amazing ones that end The Poisonwood Bible, stayed with me for days. Highly recommended; it’s perfect summer reading in my humble opinion.
#46 – Faith by Jennifer Haigh
I’m going to be honest — the subject matter of this novel remains difficult for many reasons — the church and its history/current struggle with pedophilia doesn’t necessarily equate “light,” “breezy” read. Yet, the tone and undercurrent of Jennifer Haigh’s novel, while neither light nor breezy, is both generous and kind, a difficult balance to achieve when discussing Catholic priests and the matter of faith in general. The narrator of the story, a self-proclaimed (at the beginning of the novel) modern-day “spinster,” Sheila McGann retells a story her half-brother Art, a priest who has found himself embroiled in a scandal that threatens not only his livelihood but also his life, and his core beliefs.
Sheila returns to Boston to help her family in the time of crisis. Art, accused of an unspeakable act with a young boy, the grandson of the rectory’s housekeeper, with whom he has a parental-like relationship, shakes everyone to their cores. I know it’s a cliche — family comes upon tragedy, novel unravels whether or not the accusations are true — but Haigh has a gift for character, and while this novel remains very traditional in its narrative format, I was impressed at how she tackled the subject matter. Haigh never shies away from the difficult nature of it, and I like how faith as a concept remains interwoven throughout the narrative. Arthur has never questioned his calling. But, like anyone, it’s impossible to know when something might happen to rock your beliefs, earthquake-like, and send you reeling in another direction. Innocent, even naive, to the ways of the world, Art finds himself questioning everything he has ever known: the church, his ministry, the idea of love, when he comes to face to face with Kath, the mother of the young boy he is accused of abusing. It takes the entire novel to truly find out what happened. And no one is left unscathed, not even the reader. Faith is a novel that forces one to evaluate one’s own relationship to God, to the church, even if you’re a non-believer. It’s impossible to stand in judgment, of anyone’s life, and I think that is the eloquent point that Haigh makes throughout this book. It’s one that definitely got me thinking. And I’m a girl who got the majority of her religious schooling from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? when she was a child. Of course, I read more widely about religion in university. (I still remember sitting with a particularly obnoxious Religion major at Queen’s who honestly said to me, “You know, it’s not as if I’m totally obsessed with God or anything, I just think Jesus was a really cool guy.” Seriously. That was her take on her entire degree. Good grief.) Regardless, the kind of storytelling that Haigh purports in this novel usually drives me crazy (the retelling of a story when one could choose just to tell the damn story) but it’s subtly balances nicely with the seriousness of the subject matter and I don’t think she could have written it another way. By the end, I was a little heartbroken, which, for me, is always the sign of a very good novel indeed.
#47 – Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa
This is a Vicious Circle book club book, and I’m so pleased that I’ll get to discuss it with a great group of women. It’s a women’s novel (as you can see from the awful cover [I’m sorry but it really, really isn’t reflective of the book]) rather than dreamy chicklit as the cover suggests. I know what it’s going for — there’s a pair of siblings that the novel centres around, but the cover adds a layer of Hallmark Movie of the Week that dumbs down Zeppa’s sharp, instinctive and eager writing.
Told from multiple perspectives, the book follows three generations of Turner women, some blood, some married to blood, who each struggle with the idea of family, what it means to be a mother, and the difficult restrictions society, at different times over the last 50 years, for people of my gender. I fell particularly in love with Grace, a woman forced to leave her son behind to make a better life for herself in the city. Her strength, ability and the way she came into her own was particularly breathtaking. There’s a lot in the novel that isn’t necessarily fresh (troubled fathers, difficult women that seem cut from Lawrence, “women’s” troubles) but Zeppa finds a way in that is both refreshing and real — and I enjoyed this book immensely. I just have one tiny criticism — there’s a main character, Vera, a matriarchal figure, that we never hear from, she’s only portrayed through other people’s stories. I would have enjoyed knowing more about her point of view, her perspective, but I understand how too many voices could also ruin this novel. Regardless, it too is a perfect summer read. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?
April 4th, 2011
In the hands of a lesser writer, the meticulously researched, exceptionally complex story of this novel would have probably spiraled out of control. Such is not the case in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet where David Mitchell masterfully crafts an intricate look at life in a remote Japanese “exit” island (Dejima) at the turn of the 19th century. As a part of the Dutch East Indian Trading Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC), de Zoet arrives on Dejima with an honest heart and an even more moral eye. He has one job set out for him: to meticulously revise the company’s records to ensure they are correct and therefore stop the corruption. This job, however, proves difficult when it’s discovered that just about every rank and file of the men serving the VOC on Dejima, and even those tasked to clean up the corruption, are themselves corrupt.
If de Zoet is the moral heart of the book, then the soul of this novel is absolutely Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, who despite terrible odds, furthers her career despite both gender and class discrimination. De Zoet falls easily in love with Orito but his feelings are secondary to what she must endure when she’s taken captive by an evil Abbot and forced into servitude alongside numerous other women. The abuse of the women (each month a few women are chosen to receive the “gifts” of the monks [pregnancy] and then told absolute lies about what happens to their newborn children when they are immediately taken away post-birth) coupled with the maniacal, strange beliefs of the Abbot remain a fascinating thread within the novel.
There are so many characters in this novel that to recount what happens to all of them, or to truly give justice to Mitchell’s mammoth undertaking (the attention to historical detail; the fascinating intersection of the two different cultures; the actual events that propel the narrative forward), would be impossible in a blog review. What I would like to say, though, is that the historical detail never gets in the way of the story — it doesn’t insert itself like an awkward metaphor. Instead, it provides a rich, robust backdrop to a time and place that isn’t exploitative. It felt very timely, given the recent, tragic, and devastating events unfolding in Japan, to be reading a book that I felt was extremely respectful of both its culture and heritage. Perhaps I’m wrong, but with nothing to compare it to, I’m going to go with my gut instinct and commend Mitchell for allowing this reader into a world she had never had any idea even existed.
I kept imagining writing rich and robust essays about this book while reading — applying all kinds of post-colonial analysis to both Mitchell’s narrative structure (fairly straightforward but by placing “Jacob de Zoet” in the title one would assume he’s the “main” character so it’s interesting to note how little of the book actually revolves around him) and to the failed attack by the British that propels the novel to its conclusion. All in all, it’s a deep, meaty novel that deserves all of the accolades (Commonweath Writer’s Prize regional win, Booker nom, tonnes of “best of” lists from last year). It was completely worth the $1.80 that I had to pay in late fees upon returning it to the library this afternoon.
READING CHALLENGES: Because Mitchell is British, I can’t count this towards Around the World in 52 Books. Sometimes, I think I should revise the challenge to include the actual settings of the novels instead of just the nationality of the authors but I’ve done it this way for so long that I don’t want to change it up now just to include more books. And I’ve absolutely abandoned my shelves for the moment. I have way too many library books and publishers titles to get through over the next few weeks. It’s actually a relief because I was getting bored, bored, bored of my shelves — despite how very dedicated I am to getting through as many of the books as possible this year. Right now I’m halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and I have a lot to say about it…plus a little to rant about EPL & its movie adaptation.
March 7th, 2011
My bookish love affair with Julian Barnes continues, and I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, The Lemon Table. It’s funny, a lot of the criticisms that I leveled against Sarah Selecky’s work — mainly its use of the second person, a story in epistolary format, and general the “twee-ness” of much of the stories — can be set against this collection as well. Barnes uses the second person, which normally makes me crazy; he has a story that’s all letters from a kooky old lady to himself, wherein the self-referential nature of it all would usually enrage me; and the last piece could be described as microfiction with no “real” plot per se but a selection of descriptions that come together to tell the tale of an egotistical composer. All of the above normally have me throwing the book against the wall and giving up in exasperation. But gracious, these stories are excellent.
The last story, “The Silence” tells me that lemons are a symbol of death in Chinese culture — I’m not sure how reliable the narrator is in this last piece, so I am not going to take that verbatim. But it does give the reader and understanding of the general theme that pervades the entire collection. Musings on the ends of lives, on divorce, on death, on widows and the children left behind, on relationships that could have been but never were — and I imagined ‘table’ more of tableau — of that terrible acting exercise where your teacher yells “hold” and everyone freezes in whatever position they landed upon.
It’s a terrific collection, cohesive even though none of the stories are linked; rich in language and metaphor; paced brilliantly and truly honest in its interpretation of the human condition. In a way, these stories reminded me of Alice Munro, only there’s a little bit more sex and bad language, especially in “Appetite,” which like her story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” deals with the tragic and debilitating affects of Alzheimer’s. Both Barnes and Munro have a distinct talent when it comes to creating characters and situations that highlight the slightly awkward and sometimes terrible aspects of human nature. In this, the stories feel real, they feel relevant, and they feel complete, but not overwritten.
On the whole, I can’t get over the immense breadth of Barnes’s talent for creating characters that cross decades, even centuries, are so wholly different in voice, and are so utterly believable (even when he writes from a woman’s perspective). In the epistolary story, entitled, “Knowing French,” a spunky pensioner sends the author Julian Barnes a number of letters, each progressively more familiar, with little gems of humour and slices of life: “What I was trying to say about Daphne [a fellow “inmate” at her home] is that she was always someone who looked forward, almost never back. This probably seems not much of a feat to you, but I promise it gets harder.”
And then, in an amazing story about misguided and unrequited love, “The Story of Mats Israelson,” he writes, “Barbro Lindwall was not convinced of her feelings for Anders Boden until she recognized that she would now spend the rest of her life with her husband.”
And then my last favourite line from the book, it’s from the last story, the microfiction-like one about the egocentric, aging, and silent-for-years composer: “Geese would be beautiful if cranes didn’t exist.”
I can’t stop. I earmarked a half-dozen, maybe more, pages, and kept putting the book down on my chest just to savour particular passages. In “The Things You Know,” two elderly widows sit down for a terribly polite breakfast once a month and what comes out of their mouths is completely different from the thoughts in their heads: the resentment towards one another only palpable as a fork stabs an egg or a waiter brings hot water instead of a purely fresh pot of tea — it was actually one of my favourites among an already rich collection.
Overall, now I think I want to read every single book Julian Barnes has ever written. It’ll be a challenge to find books this good on my shelves as I continue through them. Thankfully, I’ve got a few books from publishers to get through before I get back to my challenge. I need a bit of a break from the pressure of the 300-odd titles staring at me day after day from my desk chair.
February 27th, 2011
Oh, Julian Barnes, how I adored Arthur & George. From its opening pages right up until the end, it’s a complex mix of the fictional and the historical, a comment on colonialism/literature, and a rollicking good adventure. The novel even encouraged me to download The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to my iPad (it’s on the 1001 Books list anyway). I’m not quite sure how to alphabetize my ebooks into my reading yet so it might remain unread for some time, but I digress.
Told from either man’s changing perspectives, with a few odd other characters thrown in, the novel brings to life to exceptionally interesting characters: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, among others and George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half Parsee solicitor wrongly accused of a number of heinous crimes.
Doyle’s a larger than life character — both in the book and in his own mind, to a degree. He’s the prototype for the colonial British man: athletic, sharp, intelligent, opinionated, moral, and just (to his own sense of duty and accomplishment, if that makes any sense — we might question his upstanding “Britishness” under a post-colonial analysis and discover his beliefs lacking a broader, more realized context) and his confidence spills over every page. He marries a lovely woman because he should; and then promptly falls in love with someone else (but never acts upon his feelings in anyway that could be considered ungentlemanly). He strives to clear George Edalji’s name because it’s the right thing to do but doesn’t believe in the suffrage of women. And it’s these contradictions that make him such a fascinating character caught within Barnes’s rollicking story.
George Edalji, a firm believer in truth with a capital “T” finds himself in quite a pickle when the local constabulary arrests him for mutilating animals and sending horrible, harmful prank letters to his own family. George, a solicitor by trade, firmly believes in the good, just righteousness of the legal system. It will save him. What he doesn’t count on is the racism that feeds the decision to imprison him. Even when further animals end up mutilated, there’s a “viable” explanation as per why George is still guilty of the crimes.When Sir Arthur reads about his case in an obscure newspaper, he sets his mind upon clearing George’s name and helping him seek restitution for both his wrongful conviction and his imprisonment.
Even though their lives and personalities couldn’t be more different, when they finally meet, their actions — Doyle’s “investigation” and subsequent attacks in the press and George Edalji’s further insistence of his innocence — challenged and then changed the existing legal system. But it is the personal lives of both men that keep the narrative from feeling dry and/or crisp. Barnes remains rich in his description of their lives, their wants, their needs, their loves (or lack thereof in the case of Edalji). He’s also careful to keep a narrative distance. While we feel and know the racism behind George’s conviction — the staunch way that George himself refuses to believe it had any part in his troubles, how George firmly believes (and was brought up to be) himself to be an Englishman first, remains a fascinating part of his character. Goodness, I enjoyed this novel — its pacing, the characters, the setting, the “investigation,” — all of it. It was a bright and welcome change — to race through a book that you felt was somewhat flawless in terms of its prose and presentation.
I’ve never read any other Julian Barnes. I’m glad there is at least one other on my shelf that will be tackled the next time I reach the British section. It shouldn’t take me too long. I can’t believe that after finishing In the Time of Butterflies, I’ll be back reading Austen again — the last on my shelves.