Joe Jacobs, a Jewish ex-refugee now turned poet, and his wife Isabel, a war correspondent, are holidaying in the south of France with their fourteen year old daughter, Nina. They have been joined by their old friends, Mitchell and Laura who run a failing souvenir shop near Kings Cross, London. One afternoon, they find a young, naked Kitty Finch swimming in the pool of their hired villa. Isabel, without consultation with the others, invites Kitty to stay and so begins the fragmentation of the group. Kitty’s penchant for naturalism, coupled with her mental health problems, breakdown the controlled order of those around her.
Whilst Kitty appears to be a very fragile character, her underlying determination shines through. ‘Swimming Home’ is the title of Kitty’s poem, a poem based on her thoughts that: ‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we'll all get home safely.’ She is so desperate for Joe to read it, that she’s deliberately tracked him down on holiday.
This is a story of the devastating effects of depression and how it ripples through family, friends and the community however the story is so subtly told that it lacks strength at times.
The theme of the story is great but the characters surrounding the main protagonist, Kitty, are too understanding and in this way the novel lacks a sense of reality. Having said that, it is interesting in the way in which Kitty is able to connect to the people around her and by drawing them out, she is able to show to them their own unbalance world. Her relationship with Joe is tragic in many senses of the word and can leave question marks as to the reality of this relationship.
Being selected as Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime also shows how quietly and subtly the subject matter has been dealt with, which in itself, may not be a good advert.
Alison OREilly 1/10/2012
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
A mixture of folklore, fantasy and life in the 21st century makes up the world of the central character, Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor living in a Balkan city with her grandparents. On her way to inoculate orphans across a new border, she hears of her grandfather’s death causing her to reflect on their past life together and in particular of the stories that he told her about ‘the deathless man’ and, of course, The Tiger’s Wife. She learns later that the stories her grandfather, who was also a doctor, told her were more factual than she’d first realised and that he was involved with both of these characters. The tiger had escaped from the zoo during a bomb raid and made its way to her grandfather’s village when he was a small boy where he witnessed the befriending of the tiger by the mute wife of the village butcher. The deathless man, a man who the grandfather witnessed as having been shot and drowned but never dies, appeared at various times throughout the grandfather’s life. Although Natalia was aware that her grandfather had cancer, and had a limited life expectancy, she was troubled that he’d made a journey that was far beyond his physical capability until she realised that he’d gone to settle an old score.
The story depicts a world steeped in superstition and war. It weaves constantly between fantasy and fact though focuses more on the grandfather’s stories and current myths than on Natalia’s current life, clearly showing how Balkan life is heavily influenced by superstition, even in today’s society. The narration begins beautifully by relating the beliefs held by Natalia’s grandmother of how the soul is left to wander after death. The story then moves quickly to highlight the mystery of why her grandfather had gone so far from home when terminally ill but then it slows down into a crawl. The Tiger’s Wife was the surprise winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction 2011, however with more editing it would have been less of a surprise.
Alison OReilly 31/3/2012
Great House by Nicole Krauss
This terrific book centres on the stories of five narrators, who are completely unrelated, but whose lives have been, or will be, influenced in someway by an overbearingly large desk.
Nadia begins the novel with her account of her life. She is a fairly successful writer living in New York and is introduced to Daniel Varsky, a Chilean poet, who asks Nadia to look after his desk whilst he returns to Chile. Daniel never returns but his desk serves as a memory that haunts Nadia for the rest of her life.
The narrative is then handed to Aaron, an elderly Israeli lawyer, who lives in Jerusalem and who’s wife has just died. Aaron is joined at his wife’s funeral by his youngest son, Dov, who has returned after many years of living in the UK. Aaron has never understood Dov as Dov, even as a young boy, was unable to communicate his feelings. Rarely do the two men speak to each other but their lives change forever when Nadia arrives in Jerusalem.
The third narrator is Izzy, an American student who’s studying at Oxford. She tells how she falls in love with Yoav, who has a very close relationship – and some say too close - with his sister Leah. The two siblings spent their formative years travelling the world with their father, George Wiesz, an antiques dealer, which has made them both very insular.
The very kindly Arthur Bender enters the story. Arthur is married to another writer, a German Jew called Lotte Berg who arrived in Britain as a war refugee and who is incrediably secretive. Lotte, like Nadia, spends her life writing on the same massive and forbidding desk until one day Arthur returns home to find that Lotte has given the desk away to a stranger. Stunned, but knowing that Lotte doesn’t like to be questioned, Arthur doesn’t say too much. But it’s when Lotte begins to suffer from Alzheimer’s that she lets slip that she had given birth to a child after she arrived in Britain and had given the baby away for adoption. This sends Arthur reeling so after Lotte death, he begins to delve into her past life.
Finally the book leaves us with the narrative from George Wiesz who had spent his life tracking down antiques and artworks for those who had escaped the Nazis and had been forced to leave their treasured belongings behind. When George hears of the whereabouts of the desk, he sets his sights on procuring it.
The author, Nicole Krause, has used quite a diverse range of characters who are all involved in a mystery of some kind, whether directly or by association. Aaron is the strongest character with his forthright ways and grumpy attitude, whilst the other characters appear, at times, a little too docile except for George Wiesz who, as he quietly deals with the antiques, likes to control people’s minds.
This book is fascinating. The insight into Israeli life not only made the story more credible but was also a bit of an education. The book is called Great House in reference to the burning the Temple – great house – in Jerusalem and the Jewish belief that each Jewish soul can recall to mind a fragment of the Temple thereby enabling the reconstruction of the Temple again, albeit in a collective memory. The whole book is about memories and how feelings are provoked and relived by those memories which are often provoked by possessions. There are many twists and turns in the novel and the plot certainly gets your mind racing as you try to second guess the author’s plotline. But the plotline is not straight forward and warrants a second reading. But that doesn’t make it a bad book, in fact it’s quite ingenious and a refreshing exercise for the mind plus it has good filmatic potential.
Alison OReilly 31/3/2012
Pure by Andrew Miller
Set in Paris in 1785, Jean-Baptiste Barrate, an engineer from Normandy, is summoned to Versailles and is offered a commission to exhume the inhabitants of the very overcrowded, and now closed, cemetery of les Innocents in Paris. In doing so it is hoped that it will purify the stench that has been arising and permeating everything from people’s clothes, to the air and even the people’s breath who live in the local district.
Jean-Baptiste accepts the commission but not without some reservations. As a young man, in his late 20s, his experience of life, especially of people, is limited. He is confident of his trade but lacks the leadership of men so he relies heavily on his old friend, Lecoeur, and his new acquaintance, Armand de Saint-Méard.
Through a serious of dramas such as rape, suicide and physical attacks, the novel depicts life in Paris just before the Revolution. The characters are gently woven into the story, as is the acceptance of the conditions and the dramas that occur. Whilst set at the same time, there is little of this book that can be compared with the Tale of Two Cities
, other than they both describe life before the Revolution, however Miller’s characters are quieter and not so caricaturised as those of Dickens. There is never any hint of the impending Revolution, the story is told in the present tense and it leaves the future to what it will be. Nobody thinks that far ahead, they are all absorbed in their daily lives. Pure
is a story told very gently, although dramas happen, little about the book could be called dramatic. There are certainly elements of cause and effect but the effect is quiet. There are hardly any signs of remorse or retribution, just an acceptance of fate.
Brilliantly written, the description of the smell is so vivid that you can’t help but smell it yourself, and it is very cleverly crafted, the only possible criticism could come from Miller’s use of the metaphorical names of his characters: Jean-Baptiste (John the Baptist), the man who cleanses and purifies Paris. Héloïse Godard, (hell God) the local whore only who almost transforms to become a saint. Jean-Baptiste’s old friend Lecoeur (the heart) may be an inference to the Sacré-Cœur. Two other names that raise an eyebrow are Dr Guillotin and Armand de Saint-Méard. But if you can put that to one side and allow the author his bit of fun, then you’ll understand why this book won the Costa Coffee Best Novel of 2011. Alison OReilly 13/2/2012
Crooked letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
What a page-turner! But what else would you expect from the winner of the Golden Dagger 2011?
Set in the deep south of the USA, in Chabot, Mississippi where two men, Larry Ott and Silas ‘32’ Jones, are reunited for the first time since their schooldays. Ott had been an introverted child, hooked on horror books and unable to make friends whilst Jones was a far more confident, outgoing character who, after spending time away from Chabot to follow his dream of being a baseball star, returns some 20 years later as a police officer. But it’s when a young girl, Tina Rutherford, goes missing, that the two men are brought together again and the mysteries of two men’s past lives are slowly revealed. The story reflects on some of their childhood experiences, especially in regards to their difference in colour and upbringing; Silas Jones, a black boy living with his single mother in a dilapidated cabin whilst Larry Ott was a white child from a middle-class family. The boys were driven apart, firstly by their parents and then by the disappearance of a fellow student, Cindy Walker, who Larry is suspected of murdering. Not long after the disappearance of Cindy Walker, Silas left school for college but Larry, who dropped out of school, stayed in Chabot and spent the next 20 years being ostracised by the townsfolk.
Harper Lee, in his book To Kill a Mockingbird, really summed up life in the Deep South in 1930s and Franklin does the same for the 1980s onwards. Tom Franklin manages to carefully create a rural Mississippi atmosphere with credible characters, an intriguing storyline and he hits the dialogue on the head. The relationship between the two men ebbs and flows throughout the story and although the mystery of the two girls isn’t so difficult to solve, it’s the relationship between Larry and Silas that makes the story so gripping. It’s one of those books that when you’re not reading it, you’re thinking about it. Alison OReilly 13/2/2012
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
This is the story of inner-city life told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old Ghanaian immigrant, Harrison Opoku. Absorbed by his new life in south London, on Dell Farm Estate, and his quest to be the fastest runner at school, the story revolves around the murder of a boy, who Harri hardly knew, but when the police appeal for witnesses, Harri starts his own investigation. Accompanied by his friend, Dean, Harri begins to gather clues and unwittingly puts himself at risk.
At school, Harri is blissfully occupied with his first girlfriend, Poppy Morgan, and as to whether he has the right trainers to outrun his classmates. But it’s after school hours that life becomes more problematic. He is pushed into negotiating his way through peer pressure, coming to terms with his ignorance of south London culture and with the temporary separation from some of the family members.
Harri lives on the ninth story of a block of councilflats with his mother and older sister and has an aunt who visits regularly. All three women reluctantly, and inevitably, become involved with the violence and crime that permeate the estate, however Harri is totally unaware of how the three women are trying to hold onto their fragile dream for a better life to the one they had in Ghana. Meanwhile Harri’s father, younger sister and grandmother, who still live in Ghana, call regularly as they wait in hope of joining them in Britain in the near future.
Harri’s nonchalant approach, due to his naivety, towards his drug dealing/using neighbours; his Ghanaian slang – ‘asweh’ meaning ‘I swear’ and ‘hutious’ for ‘frightening’ - and his conversation with his English feral pigeon gives rise to some great humour. However, Harri’s childlike innocence, makes him unaware of some of the immediate dangers that surround him. Whilst he has already learnt a few tricks to survive an urban environment, the problems that surround him and his family are beyond his comprehension.
Stephen Kelman’s first book is like the lemon sorbet course of a grand meal. It sparkles in its originality; it awakens the readers’ palette. Being able to write from an immigrant boy’s perspective shows great talent. The story is both amusing and harrowing but told in a very effect way giving great insight into a life, that for many British people, is unimaginable. But this book is not just a work of fiction; it was inspired by the death of Damilola Taylor, the young black boy who was knifed to death on a south London council estate on 27November 2000. With that tragic death in mind, and Kelman’s own experience of growing up on a council estate, this book gives a real insight as to just how easily the knife-crime culture and peer-pressure from gangs have strolled into our schools and our lives.
Snowdrops by AD Miller
This confessional narrative of Nicholas Platts’ begins with the arrival of a snowdrop, a name used by Russians for a corpse that appears after the winter thaw. Nicholas, a British lawyer living in Moscow, works for a financial institution that is heavily involved with lending money to the Russian oil industry. These financial transactions generally sanitise the deals and operations, or as Nicholas’s colleague says, it puts ‘lipstick on a pig’. Nicholas, who is 38, becomes involved with two young and beautiful female Moscovites, Marsha and Katya, who introduce him to their aunt, Titiana Vladimirova. Nicholas falls for Marsha and she convinces him to help her aunt with the vast amount of Russian red tape in order for Titiana to move from her grace and favour flat in town to an apartment in a more rural setting. Although there are various indications that not all is what it seems, Nicholas constantly deceives himself by ignoring these warning signs.
AD Miller’s debut novel about the corruption in Moscow was well-deservedly short- listed for the Man Booker prize. The book is extremely well written. There are some brilliant phrases and it’s a very quick-paced novel that opens up a wealth of information about Russian life that is expertly weaved into the story. Written in the form of a letter, by Nicholas, to his future wife and it shows how an unremarkable man, living on his own in Moscow, is drawn into crime through self-deception. It is an extremely enjoyable read but there is a down side. The plot, which is potentially brilliant, is so well sign-posted that it’s irritating that the main character doesn’t see it – or doesn’t want to see it. Another problem with it is that the other characters are pretty stereotypical: the pretty girls, a devious Cossack, an old babuska. But whilst Nicholas does finally have an epiphany of his own weakness he still doesn’t have the fortitude to tell his future wife face-to-face hence this epistolary style of novel. This book is definitely worth reading but to be frank, if I were his future wife, I’d be taking the wedding dress back to the shop.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
An intriguing story based on unreliable memories and the unknown cause and effect of a person’s actions.
A two-part novella, the story begins in 1960s when Tony is a fourth year student whose life is entrenched with books and education. He and his two close friends, Colin and Alex, have developed an air of educational superiority until a new arrival, Adrian Finn, joins his class. Adrian clearly outsmarts the other three however the four of them become friends until they leave for different universities. It’s at university that Tony meets Veronica, his first real girlfriend. After an uncomfortable weekend at her parent’s home, due to his feelings of social inferiority, he returns to university and after many more difficult meetings with her, they finally split-up. A brief spell in America rids Tony of his memories of Veronica and distances him from his old school friends. On his return to England, he learns of Adrian’s death.
Fourty years later, Tony has settled down to retirement having led an unremarkably life punctuated with the birth of his daughter and an agreeable divorce. Everything is orderly and easy until one day he is pushed to examine his past life when a letter from a solicitor arrives informing him of the death of Veronica’s mother, Sarah, and the legacy of Adrian’s diary left to him in Sarah’s will.
Both Tony and Veronica cling true to character throughout the story, neither appear to have learnt from life’s experiences. Veronica, still unable to voice her true feelings or to impart knowledge in verbal communication, manages to lead a normally composed Tony into uncomfortable situations with her impulsive actions until he begins to unravel the facts and then slowly realises what has happened. It is a beautifully crafted book in which the reader is taken on a journey, via an unreliable narrative, of the growth of a smug teenager to the awakening of a mature man who finally faces up to the effects of his actions. It was never ‘if’ but always ‘when’ Julian Barnes would win the much coveted Man Booker Prize and in 2011 he did. Beautifully written with complex characters and a tight plot, makes this book a worthy winner.