January 31st, 2011
When I got the British/Irish/Scottish section of my shelves, the book that came up first was Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You. At the time, I couldn’t remember a) why I had this book in the first place or b) where it came from. Most of the books on my shelves are from various jobs I’ve had, things I’ve traded with friends at other publishers, blogger review copies, you get the idea. But this novel was a rarity, something I actually bought. I think I was trying to read all of the Orange Prize novels for some challenge I had invented for myself, or something.
Annnywaay, I was ultimately disappointed in this book, and found myself, more often than not, rolling my eyes at her prose and complaining, loudly, to my husband about how melodramatic and often nonsensical the book was as I was reading it yesterday while we were playing Scrabble on the iPad as the RRBB slept (you get a pattern here… a LOT of reading goes on while the RRBB sleeps these last few days). The story of a young girl evacuated from London at the start of the Second World War, The Very Thought of You simply tries too hard to capture the essence of the time and place. The novel opens promisingly — echoes of The Remains of the Day float through the book as it describes the fall of the house of Ashton, whose last remaining heir, Thomas, had just died leaving the house to the National Trust and its inevitable treasures up for auction.
Thomas, and his wife Elizabeth, opened their home to 80-odd boys and girls during the war. With his body destroyed by polio, and the remaining members of his family dead, Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, who is, natch, beautiful but damaged, find solace in children roaming the halls and playing outside while the war rages around them. Anna Sands, a quiet, contemplative child, misses her mother desperately but finds her way at Ashton Park. The girl gets drawn into the complex adult relationships between the Ashtons and the various other people embroiled in their unhappiness.
There are way, way too many characters in this book, and much of the narrative consists of awkward, cliched prose that melodramatically describes not only the failing relationship between the main characters, but also the multiple extra-marital affairs that seem to happen all over the place. No one is happily married in Alison’s novel, and it gets a bit tiresome after a while. The story could have been simpler, the prose more direct, and then I could actually understand its inclusion on the Orange Prize longlist last year.
The author does an exceptional job of getting into the mind of Anna as a child, but then falls down by dragging the reader through the rest of her life in a Titanic-like moment that feels very put upon as an ending. There’s no doubt that Alison has talent, but the novel suffers from a lack of true perspective, it tries too hard, which ends up meaning a lot of it just isn’t believable. There’s a point where too much tragedy between the pages simply becomes too much tragedy. I felt something similar when watching The Company Men last week at Stars and Strollers. Sometimes, the reader just needs a break from all awful things humans can do to one another, they need to actually love their partners, and someone, somewhere needs to find a bit of happiness, even if it’s only for a moment. I’m not saying that Alison’s characters don’t — I’m just saying that it’s all a bit overdone.
London during the war is a fascinating subject for me. One of my favourites to read about, and the idea of the novel works, as does its basic plot — but there were two secondary characters, Norton, a diplomat with whom Thomas Ashton worked, and his wife Peter, whose lives would have made for a far more interesting novel than the sappy “love gone wrong” and then “love lost forever” storyline occupied by the Ashtons, the two main adult characters. It’s a shame when one gets to the end of a book and all one has to say for it is, “well, I’m glad that’s done.” And considering the other Orange Prize nominees, including Barbara Kingsolver’s exceptional The Lacuna, I’m surprised that the panel included this book at all. However, despite Alison’s first novel jitters (overwritten sentences, the tendency to say something, then repeat it just in case the reader didn’t get it the first time, introducing bucketloads of characters that never appear again, the need to tell the WHOLE story), I’m curious to see how she matures as a writer. I’m sure her next novel will straighten out some of the above and what great exposure for an up-and-coming writer regardless of how I ended up feeling about the book.
June 21st, 2010
While I didn’t make the Orange Prize deadline, I’m still reading the short-list nominated books over the summer. I am glad, however, that weeks ago I managed to finish Kingsolver’s magnificent (and winning!) novel before the announcement took over the world that the prize belonged to her. I’m still going to read the other short-listed books (I’ve got them all now and might take them up to the cottage with me this weekend) but I’ve already made up my mind that this novel truly deserved the win.
The book opens with a fairly typical “memoir”-type first section. A young boy, terrorized by howler monkeys on an island just off the coast of Mexico, lives with his mother in a tumble down estate with a sort of stepfather. It’s here that Harrison, born to a Mexican mother and an American father, finds his first lacuna, a hidden pool, which becomes significant later in life. The lacuna — literally and metaphorically — figures heavily in the novel, and not just because of the title. Harrison himself is a lacuna, keeping his inner life, his feelings, his sexuality, hidden except for the prime few who know the right times to dive in and avoid the tides.
The novel changes in tone after the first section, written by Harrison as memoir (he becomes a fiction writer as a career) and then we’re invited into reading about the rest of his life through private journals he left in the care of his secretary, Violet Brown. Interspersed with the journals are newspaper articles, transcripts and all kinds of other ephemera, which encourage you to scavenge, in a way, for the story. Harrison remains a mystery until the end, and the ending of this novel is magical — it’s totally worth the little bit of time it takes to get into the story, and Kingsolver’s masterly way of incorporating real characters into her fiction never suffers from what I like to call The Forrest Gump Affliction. It’s inherent and real in terms of the story, which comes from excellent research (one would imagine) and a keen sense of how a novel should work.
It’s one of my favourite books for the year, hands down.
May 19th, 2010
I finished Attica Locke’s debut novel last week. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the best of the best of women’s writing for the year (as judging from its Orange Prize shortlisted status). Yet, that said, there’s something about commercial fiction writing that I admire. The way the plots drive forward ceaselessly, the way the action never seems to stop, and the muddled way the somewhat damaged protagonists always seem to figure it out in the end. Locke’s narrative reminds me a little of a Dennis Lehane novel — she’s got the same strong characters, the same driving storylines, and the same gift with both prose, and I really enjoyed her main character, Jay Porter.
The gist of the book is as follows: Jay Porter’s a black lawyer in Houston. It’s 1981, and he just can’t get his practice off the ground. He’s not a bad lawyer — he’s just attracting the wrong kind of clients. Making it on your own isn’t easy and money is beyond tight. Also, Jay and his wife Bernie are about six weeks away from having a baby. The timing couldn’t be worse for him to get wrapped up in a case that he, literally, saves from drowning.
Yet, when on a romantic boat ride with his wife to celebrate her birthday, they hear shots in the distance. Then, a splash in the water, and screams for help. Soon, Jay’s jumped overboard, swimming, diving, then rescuing a white woman who looks to have obviously been attacked. When they drop her off in front of the police station, Jay and Bernie think that’s the end of it — only it’s just the beginning and this one incident will soon change his life in ways he never expected.
Jay finds himself embroiled in a case that involves a lot of crooked people. It digs up his past, makes him face certain demons, and even puts his life in danger. And here’s where the novel kind of broke down for me — there were a lot of cliched, “car on the railway tracks against a running train” moments in the novel. Locke’s a screenwriter, and so you can see why she’d fall back into certain cinematic touch points, but I didn’t find those aspects of the story believable. To me, car chases and railroad crossings are the stuff of films, not real life, and I found it hard to swallow when Jay was in these precarious situations.
Interspersed with this case that just won’t let him out of its clutches, Jay becomes involved with a situation with his father (a Reverend) and some of his constituents. There’s a labour dispute that has its heart in the desegregation of the stevedore unions, and when a young boy is violently attacked for no reason, the situation heats up. So, now, Jay has two unsolvable situations on his hands: an ever-increasing case with the almost-drowned woman; and the union dispute that could lead to a lawsuit.
How Locke wrote with the difficult parts of the story that had to do with race relations, the south, and the complex issues of labour surrounding integrating the unions that deal with the docks was incredible. Those part of the novel sang for me — the setting, the politics, the very nature of Jay’s own troubles with the law before he set himself to rights — the writing was sharp, the relationships taut, and the book felt wholly original. It’s a shame that there couldn’t have been more of that and less of the played-out gunshots and car chases.
Regardless, once I picked this novel up, I didn’t put it down — I wasn’t sidetracked by other books (read The Lacuna and the new Stieg Larsson). Locke’s a real talent and I hope she continues to publish in this vein. I’d be happy to see what Jay Porter gets himself mixed up in next. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed he stays away from the railroad tracks in any future books.
May 7th, 2010
As a part of the “The Orange Prize is Definitely the New Black” challenge that we started over at the work blog, I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, last weekend. And then couldn’t put it down. For days. On end. Now, that’s saying something for a giant hulking 650-page tome about Thomas Cromwell, of all people. Mantel’s certainly not the first, nor the last, to dramatize the Tudor period in literature. The lives and wives of Henry VIII have been immortalized, studied, fictionalized and melo-dramatized for our modern age — movies, TV series, novels abound about Katherine, Anne, Jane, etc., to the point of overkill. I reached my Henry VIII peak after seeing about three episodes of the current series The Tudors on the Ceeb a couple of years ago, and it all felt wrong, wrong, wrong. First off, and I know it’s me being far too literal, but as attractive as Jonathan Rhys Meyers might be, he’s just not Henry VIII material — and neither, for that matter, is Eric Bana — not in looks, countenance or bearing. I mean, can’t Hollywood even get the hair colour right?
Annnywaaay, like most history, pop culture weeds out the most salacious aspects and runs with them, and it’s not like the Tudors were lacking in dramatic moments that would work well in terms of adaptations, but it all started to feel a bit tired. I mean really tired. Like The Other Boleyn Girl might just be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen kind of tired. So when Mantel’s novel won the Booker, I kind of thought to myself, “Really, another novelization of the Tudors? Really?”
How wrong I was.
While this is a novel very much about the Tudors, it’s from the perspective of an outsider. Someone who came from nothing to make something of himself, who used his very sharp mind to control people and situations to his benefit, and not necessarily with the ulterior motives that tend to drive most characters in historical fiction (sex, greed, lust). But what I really, really enjoyed is that this novel didn’t focus entirely on the melodrama, it’s actually devoid almost completely of it, and instead turns its focus to relationships of all kinds and how life functioned for these characters at this epic moment in time. It’s not about the romance between Henry and Anne and what it means for love and betrayal; it’s about how the romance between Henry and Anne changed everything — and the man who not only made most of these changes possible, but who also participated in creating the whole background of the time period, was Thomas Cromwell.
The novel starts off with a young Thomas getting the stuffing knocked out of him by his brute of a father Walter. Soon, he takes off into the great big world to make a name for himself, and when the story picks up again, he’s done just that — found himself a position working for / serving Cardinal Wolsey, and when that turns sour, for the king himself. Politics, or political machinations rather, take centre stage in this novel. It’s about maneuvering situations more than anything, about how to be a man, and how to teach his children to be good in life, but it’s also about power — finding it, taking it, destroying it — and all the ways it contributes to the ups and downs of the Tudor court.
It’s hard to describe the novel as anything other than engrossing. I found myself totally sucked in and read the first 300 pages in just over a day — sometimes the narrative’s a bit muddled (Mantel uses a lot of pronouns and the “he’s” get all mixed up sometimes. I just decided that if I was remotely confused that the “he” in question was Cromwell and that seemed to work for me) and the book’s unquestionably dense — but I couldn’t put it down. When I gave my copy away mid-read to a friend (I had another at work; we’d save on mail that way), and decided to finish the McEwan novel that I’d started, I found myself longing to know what was going to happen next to Cromwell. Would he convince More to change his mind? Would he ever find a second wife? Would these ghosts ever stop appearing in front of him? Who would he marry his son off to (we didn’t get that far; it must be in the second book).
ALL of these questions are answered in history, yet I longed for Mantel’s perspective. I loved how she would add rich description to scenes, sum everything up with a brilliant sentence, and keep my interest in her novel far passed my bed time. This book? Definitely better than TV.
WHAT’S NEXT. I’ve started Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising. That’s #2 of the Orange Prize nominated books. Will I make the June 9th deadline, probably not. But maybe…