May 9th, 2008
While I have to say that while much Andrei Makine’s IMPAC-shortlisted novel, The Woman Who Waited, exists somewhere between lyricism and imagination, much of the book suffers from slightly muddled storytelling. There’s also a quirk in his writing that slightly befuddled me: how sentences and dialogue simply trail off with an ellipsis… and then start up with a completely different thought. Maybe it’s an attempt for the author to force the story off the page? Maybe it’s a way for Makine to foreshadow the ambiguous nature of his main character, a Leningrad scholar to goes to a remote northern village and ends up falling in love with an equally ambiguous woman.
Annnnywaaay. There’s are fairy tale elements to the book that I quite enjoyed. Lots of deep, mysterious woods. Plenty of aging old crone-like women. Many figures appearing out of the mist. Goodly amounts of atmospheric hoarfrosty weather. The story goes like this: boy comes of age in an urban environment in Leningrad that’s slightly unsatisfying. Listless encounters with the opposite sex lead to drunken fumbling behind the curtain (literally and metaphorically) and our hero sets off to the north on an anthropological mission. He’s going to record and study the rituals of the women of Mirnoe, a tiny village obliterated by the Second World War, now populated almost entirely by diminishing families and widows. Among the elderly women lives a 46-year-old woman named Vera who has waited since she was 16 for her soldier to come home to her. He never arrived.
Our narrator becomes fascinated, even obsessed, with Vera, and a strange relationship burgeons between the two. He’s intrigued by her story and this drives him to follow her into the woods, to the railway station, into her house. But he’s young, foolish, and selfish, and as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that he’s incapable of telling her story, as much as he wants to. Ultimately, I think the book, more a novella than a full novel, is worth being read. The setting (which fulfills my Russia component for Around the World in 52 Books) is mysterious, enigmatic and ultimately the most interesting aspect of the novel. It’s a lovely little fable, and while so far it hasn’t blown me away like Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game, it was certainly worth the read.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I indulged in a little something special for myself starting this morning: Paul Quarrington’s The Ravine. I’m already over 50 pages in. Then I need to start kicking ass in terms of The Canadian Book Challenge, as I’ve got two months left to read 4 different provinces. Gack!
April 30th, 2008
Oh my, oh my, oh my, what a good book Rawi Hage has written. DeNiro’s Game is my favourite of the two IMPAC books I’ve read so far, and it’ll now become the benchmark to which I compare the rest of the shortlisted titles. It’s unconventional structure, it’s achingly lovely prose, and it’s heartbreaking moments all catapult together to form a book that rockets along like gunfire from beginning to end.
The story of Bassam and his friend George, two boys who grow up in war torn Beirut to become men who survive as the bombs drop and people fall out of their lives and into graves at an alarming speed. The two boys, now young men, find their way with guns tucked into their pants, who make a living in ways that are so foreign to me that I often had to close my eyes and take a deep breath, and do far too many drugs (who could blame them?). Set into three distinct parts, ‘Roma,’ (where things in Bassam’s imagination will still work out the way he hopes), ‘Beirut,’ (where life in a war zone becomes glaringly difficult), and ‘Paris,’ (where Bassam adapts to a different kind of life), the book remains riveting throughout.
For a first-time novelist, Hage’s prose-poetic style of writing is effective, repeating phrases, images and inspired metaphors litter the pages, and his characters are strongly drawn. I didn’t earmark as many pages as I thought I would, but I did find the following passage very moving:
Still I stood in the booth, looking with an empty gaze through the glass. I felt as if I could live inside of the book, feeling its borders, claiming it for myself. I pretended that I was talking on the phone, but all I wanted was to be in the booth. I wanted to stand there and watch every passerby, I wanted to justify my existence, and legitimize my foreign feet, and watch the people who passed and never bothered to look or wave.
If I have one teeny, tiny criticism, it might just be the overdone use of L’Etranger throughout the last third of the book. The parallels between the characters, sure, they’re there, but I felt like it was the only stereotypical, oh-yeah-I-guessed-it aspect to the book.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: You guessed it, just the jacket with a link back to Anansi (as pulled from their site), as I’m away from my camera this afternoon.
READING CHALLENGES: The second of my IMPAC books, Lebanon from Around the World in 52 Books, and if I were still needing to read Canada, the passing mention of Montreal (where the author resides now, I think) would have totally counted.
April 19th, 2008
Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack explodes even before it starts. The first few pages describe a woman’s first-hand experience with a bomb in Tel Aviv. Her husband, the story’s narrator, Amin, is a surgeon at the local hospital, and it’s only after a long shift sorting through the casualties after the bomb that he finds out about his wife’s death. For Amin, though, this is just the beginning of the tragedy. It soon comes to light that it was Amin’s wife, Sihem, who wore the bomb that caused the blast. The revelation that his wife became a suicide bomber, a fanatic, someone so unlike the woman he thought he married, turns his life upside down.
Unconvinced that he’s heard even an inch of the full story, Amin turns his back on the entire life he’s built in Tel Aviv, pushed away by angry neighbours, by the pressures of a racially charged situation, he retraces his wife’s last steps. And as many know, when loved ones keep secrets, it’s never easy to learn the truth.
The Attack is a powerful novel, it cuts to the heart of the trouble in the Middle East and portrays a man unable to find himself, he turns his back on his own tribe only to find that it’s just as impossible to fit into the society he’s chosen. Despite the urgent nature of the narrative, the dialogue feels clunky to the point of didacticism. You get the feeling that Khadra’s writing a very important book, but on the whole I felt the novel missed a slight emotional edge. That said, I was utterly engrossed in the story from the very first, most excellent, sentence: “I don’t remember hearing an explosion.”
Amin’s journey is heartbreaking, difficult and, in some ways, unbearably pointless. It’s easy to criticize the awkward storytelling, but absolutely impossible to take the author’s motivation, if I can be so bold as to address it, to task. It’s a raw, honest book that wants to open up a discussion about the very real issues driving the conflict. In that sense, it’s terribly successful. And my criticism about the dialogue aside, there are some wonderful bits of prose in the book, and here’s just one of the many passages I marked:
The bottom’s no good for anybody. In this kind of implosion, if you don’t react very quickly, you lose control of absolutely everything. You become a spectator of your own collapse, and you don’t realize that the abyss is about to close over you forever.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Simply the book sitting on my desk, no biggie. I am excited about the fact that in a few weeks I’ll be back to taking pictures of the books in context at the cottage. Goodness, I miss the cottage.
READING CHALLENGES: I had The Swallows of Kabul on my Around the World in 52 Books last year and only managed to get halfway through the first third of the novel. This year, I had it back again, but am replacing it with The Attack. Because Yasmina Khadra (the nom de plume for Mohammed Moulessehoul) was born in Algeria, I’ll cross off that country, despite the fact that the novel takes place in the Middle East. It’s also the first of eight books in the IMPAC Challenge. I didn’t realize that The Swallows of Kabul was also nominated for the IMPAC, so it’s nice to see this book on the shortlist as well.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Until the packages from Amazon arrive with the rest of the books in the challenge, I’ll probably dive into a classic or finish Emma Donoghue’s latest, The Sealed Letter.
April 18th, 2008
Quinn left a comment on a book post a little while ago when I was asking for summer reading suggestions. He had a fabulous one, one that I’ve already started. Said he:
“dude! we can be on the pretend jury for the Impac prize and try to get through the 8 novels on this year’s shortlist in the next 2 months”.
Of course, I think this is a fab idea, considering that a) my all-time favourite book of last year, Out Stealing Horses, was an IMPAC winner, and b) it’s quite an international list, which means 52 Countries books as well. Also, I like that librarians all around the world nominate the books, even if a jury does do the final deliberations, and let’s not forget to mention it’s the richest literary prize in the whole damn world.
Here are the 8 shortlisted books for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award:
8. The Woman Who Waited by Andrei Makine
So there you have it, all eight titles, many of which I’m having a heck of a time getting in Canada. Right now I’ve started with The Attack (Quinn’s already one book ahead of me) and once my package arrives from Amazon.ca with The Speed of Light, The Woman Who Waited, and DeNiro’s Game, I’ll at least have half the titles I need. The rest I’m going to try to track down this weekend.
UPDATED TO ADD: Winterwood, Let It Be Morning, and Dreams of Speaking are coming from Amazon.co.uk. That just leaves one title, The Sweet and Simple Kind, that I can’t seem to buy anywhere.