Book review – Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler

Book review – Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler

Title – Back When We Were Grownups

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Anne Tyler

First published – 2001

Edition reviewed – 2002 (Vintage)

Enjoyment rating – 8/10

There are no spoilers in this review

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Review

The novel starts with the sentence, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

The woman is fifty-three-year-old Rebecca Davitch, and the whole novel is constructed around this opening sentence. Rebecca wants – needs, even – to know whether the insight is true, and, if it is, what she can do about it.

She seems to be a joyous and extroverted person. Her late husband, Joe Davitch, had owned a large and rather distinguished house that he used as the basis of a business hosting parties; all sorts of parties, from children’s birthday parties to wedding anniversary parties.

“I was very different as a young woman,” thinks Rebecca. “I was quiet and serious. That was the real me.” How had she become such an outgoing person?

Everything had changed when she jilted her studious fiancé in favour of a whirlwind romance leading to marriage to Joe. The novel’s plot is based on Rebecca’s efforts to understand this event. This is worked through carefully and with insight.

There aren’t any sub-plots as such, but Rebecca’s daily life constantly intrudes on her search for understanding and fulfilment. Such is the quality of the writing that every scene from Rebecca’s life tells us more about her character, and more about her true nature.

The novel concludes with a ‘set piece’ of writing, which is an absolute tour de force. It’s an inspired way of finishing the story of Rebecca’s quest. It takes place in the midst of a party (where else?) and it sets the emotional tone perfectly. It’s satisfying, it’s beautiful, and it’s moving. It’s marvellously crafted, and I admire the hell out of it!

Book Review – Started Early, Took My Dog

Book Review – Started Early, Took My Dog

Title – Started Early, Took My Dog

Genre – Crime fiction

Author – Kate Atkinson

Published – 2010

Enjoyment rating – 7/10

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This novel is a whodunit (indeed, a whodunexactlywhat), combined with a pursuit thriller and leavened with plenty of humour.

A whodunit requires a good plot, and this novel certainly ticks that box. There are numerous characters, and the mystery to be solved is how those figures were involved in a murder and a kidnapping. To make the mystery more difficult, these events took place some thirty years earlier. The novel is told with flashback as a means of revealing the characters and motivations of the principal actors. We know the outline of the solution from early on, but there’s plenty of satisfying detail to hold the interest.

In addition, there is a storyline set entirely in the present day. One of the principal characters, Tracy Waterhouse, was a rookie police officer at the time of the earlier crime; she was one of the officers attending the scene. In a not quite entirely unbelievable way Tracy acquires a small girl, and is then pursued both by those investigating the old crime and those trying to cover it up.

Just in case this isn’t enough for you, the novel is laced with plenty of humour. This is not humour that raises a quiet smirk; it’s laugh out loud stuff. I couldn’t help reading out the funniest bits to anyone who would listen.

The three strands of this novel were ample to pull me in and keep me reading, with the humour ensuring that I enjoyed what I read. The solving of the mystery involved some bloodshed, but this was set in the context of a fairly upbeat emotional resolution to the storylines. Even the obligatory nods in the direction of nihilism were faced down by the author’s fundamental optimism.

The novel has a substantial sub-plot involving an actress, Tilly, who has passed her prime. What does she add to the story? Her story collides with the main plot, but I’m not convinced that this is necessary. In retrospect, I realise I skim-read the passages in which she appeared.

I wasn’t completely happy with characterisation, either. Most of the characters were sketched in with little detail.

The main character (in terms of words devoted to him) is a private investigator named Jackson. Although the author supplies plausible motivations to drive his actions, I don’t find them convincing. I don’t really sympathise with him, either. I don’t wince when he gets beaten up.

Tracy Waterhouse, though, is a different matter. She engaged me from the start, with her laconic humour, and her plethora of little vices. There’s something immediately endearing about a person who regularly buys Thornton’s Viennese truffles as a treat. Her actions are highly unlikely and yet they feel believable, in part because her motivation is the desire to have a child.

She acquires a child, and what a child she is! Wonderfully idiosyncratic in the way of all children everywhere. I could believe in her, no trouble at all.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and it kept me reading which is the first requirement of a novel. Profound it is not. Entertaining it certainly is.

Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith

Book Review – NW by Zadie Smith

Title – NW

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Zadie Smith

Published – 2012

Enjoyment rating – 9/10

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This novel is a tour de force. It’s only a little over 300 pages long, but it took me a full week to complete even though I was reading several hours every day. I wanted to savour Zadie Smith’s writing, which had me hooked from the very first page.

The novel has two principal characters, Leah and Keisha/Natalie. By the end of the first page, Zadie Smith hasn’t told us this; all we know is that one of them has red hair, and a husband, Michel, whose politics differ from hers. What we have instead is dazzling description, a reference to Shakespeare, philosophy, politics and a terrible pun.

If the novel is about anything, it’s about the nature of friendship. Or the nature of love. Or the futility of life. Or a hymn to the tight-knit communities of London villages. Or a dissection of human motivations, in particular the urge to project a consistent narrative about one’s life. Or all of the above.

It is carefully constructed; very carefully indeed. One of the climactic events is foreshadowed at least twice, and yet it’s still a shocking surprise when it comes.

The principal characters are Leah Hanwell, daughter of Irish immigrants and her best friend Keisha who is BAME. We learn of their childhood friendship, and how it evolved from a chance dramatic event. We read how they approach life, Keisha even going so far as to change her name to Natalie to achieve her goal and become a highly paid lawyer. We see how their life-choices take them into quite different social worlds, and yet they retain their childhood friendship.

Men, their thoughts and needs, are not prominent; for example, Natalie’s husband, Frank, is more noticeable by his absences than by his presence. Even Leah’s husband Michel, who is written fairly sympathetically, is excluded from crucial actions by Leah, who decides and acts unilaterally.

The novel portrays men’s principal characteristic as desire for sex and respect. And the novel suggests an answer as to why respect is so important to the men of this community; it is because society, backed by the Establishment, doesn’t show them any. There is a very telling scene where a young man is smoking in a children’s play park. The women, with Natalie prominent, order him to stop; they overwhelm him with their criticism. It is no coincidence that Natalie is a lawyer – here, she symbolises the weight of the Establishment.

But it’s the two women and the constancy of their friendship that is the heart of this novel. Their affection isn’t romanticised; they argue, criticise, even steal, and it’s clear that in many ways they’re very different. And yet the bond is there, unbroken. The novel closes with Leah and Natalie doing something that is the adult equivalent of how they behaved together as teenagers, showing that despite the stress on their friendship, it remains solid.

I have to say, this novel enthralled me. It is so well written, and so thought provoking I’ve returned to it again and again.

Book Review – The Cleaner of Chartres

Book Review – The Cleaner of Chartres

Title – The Cleaner of Chartres

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Salley Vickers

Published – 2012

Rating 6/10

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I enjoyed this novel. It kept me turning the pages. The central character, Agnes Morel, caught my sympathy to the extent that I wanted to know how her story developed. The plot was intriguing, with a twist that took me by surprise.

The novel depicts human nature convincingly. There are good characters and bad characters, weak characters and strong characters, and they play out their roles in a satisfying manner. Skilful writing shows different facets of their personalities, and gives insights into how they became the people they are. Salley Vickers has a humane view of people, and this glows through the way she depicts her cast.

So, why only 6/10?

The problem I have with this book is that it constantly feels like an excellent novel trying to escape from the strait-jacket of one that is run-of-the-mill. It has flaws that reduced my pleasure as a reader.

For example, language. The very first line of the novel is, “The old town of Chartres, around which the modern town unaesthetically sprawls…”. Unaesthetically? Really? I nearly closed the book then and there.

Then the characters. I realised quite soon that I was struggling to remember who was who, so, when I had finished the novel, I counted how many significant characters there were. There were at least eighteen. When reading, I had to make a special effort to identify the characters as they appeared.

Having so many characters brings other problems too, one of which is the characters’ voices. Professor Jones’ voice caught something of the Welsh lilt, but I felt that the voices of most of the characters were inauthentic, or just plain dull.

The central character, Agnes Morel, is attractive. She’s also believable; but only just. Her wardrobe is a strange mix of shabby and glamorous, just as her intellect is a mixture of limited and unusually insightful. More than once she is referred to as a savant, which is fair enough. Her character requires a willing suspension of disbelief, and the writing is strong enough to maintain that.

The novel is written in a mix of contemporary and flash-back, and uses the third person universal point of view. The action takes place in four places, Chartres, Evreux, Le Mans and Rouen. Every chapter is headed with the location so we know where and when the action of the chapter is set. I occasionally found this confusing.

In summary, a good novel, one I could imagine reading again, one which had me thinking about what it is to be human, but a novel with irritating flaws. Definitely worth reading.

Book Review – Hallucinating Foucault

Book Review – Hallucinating Foucault

Title – Hallucinating Foucault

Genre – Literary Fiction

Author – Patricia Duncker

Published 1996

Rating 10/10

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Wow! Just – wow!

I first read this novel about twenty years ago. I was impressed, yes, and some images stayed with me, but I remember feeling uncomfortable and slightly bemused.

In retrospect, I can see why that was; for all sorts of reasons I lacked the emotional generosity to respond authentically to a challenging love story – for, at its heart, ‘Hallucinating Foucault’ is a love story.

It’s a simple, linear narrative, the quest of a young scholar to find and free Paul Michel, the writer whose works have enthralled him.

Or is it?

The quest story lies nestled in a story of old passions; the passion of a man for his first love; the passion of an artist for his art; the passionate need of a writer for his ideal reader. By the time we reach the last page we can see a monumental structure, solid as concrete, against which the hapless scholar has been mercilessly broken. We can make out seductive whispers, just below the threshold of audibility, blaming Fate and denying human responsibility, even as they admit human agency.

We never learn the name of the scholar. It is as though he exists only in relation to Paul Michel. And yet, we care. I cared passionately for him. I shuddered with trepidation as the inevitable denouement approached. I wept at his destruction.

Few books have moved me like this one. Few books have given me such delight by the sheer quality of their writing.

Read this novel for its superlative writing. Read this novel for its insights into human love and life. But, above all, read this novel for pleasure; it’s a delight.

Normal People – a review

Normal People – a review

Author – Sally Rooney

Genre – Literary fiction

Rating – 9/10

This is an outstanding novel that explores the redemptive power of human love.

Marianne and Connell live in a provincial town in Ireland, and have known each other since childhood. Connell is popular; captain of the school football team, and with good social skills. Marianne is unpopular, derided for her looks, her dress sense and her refusal to conform to the social norms of her peers. Connell is poor; Marianne is well off. Both are extremely intelligent.

In their last year at school, they feel a powerful sexual attraction to each other, and make love. The experience reaches a level of intimacy that startles them both – but they conceal this. As far as the world knows they are casual friends.

Although by the time they go to university they have ‘split up’, the attraction is as strong as it ever was. They struggle against it, forming sexual relationships with other partners, but there is always that spark when they meet.  

Gradually we are led to understand how each of them is damaged. Can their relationship survive this? Can it, indeed, save them? For salvation is what they need; the stakes couldn’t be higher. If they get this wrong, they can never fulfil their potential; they will shrivel and die as individuals.

I found the novel gripping. Having read it once, I admired it so much that I read it again intending to learn from it. Lo and behold, I was about three pages in and the story took control again, and I just read it for pleasure. It really is that good!

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

Review – Magic Seeds by V S Naipaul

I feel very tentative about reviewing this novel by V S Naipaul – he is, after all, a Nobel laureate, and I have no qualifications other than a love of the world of ideas and the writing of several novels that nobody wishes to publish.
The trouble is, I don’t like the book. I finished reading it, but the further through it I read, the more I was having to grit my teeth.
There are several reasons why.

First and foremost, this is a nihilistic book. It decries human aspiration and emphasises its futility. Only one character achieves his life’s goal, and that goal could be said to be bizarre: the character is an Afro-Caribbean man whose ambition is to have a perfectly white grand-daughter that he can acknowledge publicly. And he is a minor character.

The second reason I dislike the book is that it has a lack of credible emotions. The most glaring examples occur when the protagonist, Willie, is a member of a Maoist cadre in India. On one occasion he is present when his colleague blows out the brains of a man believed to have been an informant. Does Willie feel doubt? Guilt? Fear? Satisfaction? The author doesn’t tell us, doesn’t even hint. On the second occasion, he shoots dead a villager for no reason other than to terrorise the remaining villagers. Once again there is no emotion. Later on in the text, being an accessory to the first death fetches Willie a 10 year prison sentence. Does he think about the person who was killed? Not at all.
I can understand the emotionless killings in the nihilist context of the book. They could be said to be a metaphor for the lack of any value to a human life. One can imagine a psychopath being unemotional about the killings. The trouble is that later on in the novel Naipaul describes sexual relationships between men and women. In these, too, there is a lack of emotion – indeed, the only real emotion described is embarrassment.

The third thing I really dislike about the novel is the politics described towards the end. The poor are described in terms that are disparaging; they are viewed through the lens of far-right politics. This upsets me – but it’s also a flaw in the novel because it’s not true. Not merely is it not true, it neglects the genuine social progress that has been made during the period in which the novel is set – progress that in many cases arises from those who live in social housing who are so denigrated by the novel.

In the world that I see around me, people love, people hate, people feel. Love, especially family love, can work miracles. I don’t find any of that in this book.

The writing is bloody brilliant, of course…

The Owl on the Pergola – journal 190511

Mallick_Ghat_Flower_Market,_Kolkata_03

There is a sense of satisfaction and (let’s be honest) relief at having completed and printed out the first draft of my latest novel, “The Owl on the Pergola”. The manuscript is now with my most trusted reader for her verdict – fingers crossed. The first couple of chapters have elicited the comment ‘Colourful’ which is encouraging as far as it goes. The photograph shows one of the locations in which the novel is set, so colourful is probably fair!

I’ve enjoyed living with the characters day by day for the last six months, and, while I shall still be working with them as I edit the book, it won’t be in quite the same way. You see, I now know how the novel ends – yes, that’s right, I honestly didn’t know how it would end until I wrote the last page! Even if editing changes the story appreciably, I shall never again walk beside the characters as they discover who they are and what they can achieve. I shall miss that.

A milestone reached!

I have at last finished the first draft of my latest novel. The first 50,000 words were finished under the stimulus of NaNoWriMo – thank you to everyone who supports that endeavour, and to Gabi who was my writing buddy. It’s taken me since then to write the next 60,000 words, giving me a completed manuscript of 112,000 words. The working title is “The Owl on the Pergola”

Now the hard work starts – the editing!

The dove on the pergola - Holi 180731

The Owl on the Pergola

The novel is a work of literary fiction that tells the story of a young Indian woman who grows up in a very poor rural community, and moves to Kolkata when she is 16 years old. She is luckier than most, having an aptitude for study and a wealthy aunt who is prepared to sponsor her through higher education. However, she has to contend with an obsessive stalker who eventually turns violent, and with the ubiquitous prejudice that a woman’s place is in the home, serving her husband and his family. Will she have to choose between the man she loves and the academic career that she desires?

NaNoWriMo – The Dove on the Pergola

NaNoWriMo

The dove on the pergola - Holi 180731

For those of you who haven’t come across this before, “NaNoWriMo” is the (rather ugly) contraction of National Novel Writing Month, which is the (slightly misleading) title of an international writing event. The idea of the event is that you write a novel during the month of November. To qualify as a winner, you have to complete 50,000 words in 30 days. And that’s tough.

Now, in my writing CV I can claim to have completed 2 novels and half-completed a third. Additionally, at the end of October I had the plot and some reasonable research for a fourth. I was struggling, though, getting bogged down in the detail. I was also spending much writing time and creative effort on writing flash fiction, which is fun, but if that’s all you do it’s like trying to survive solely on candy.

So I thought I’d give NaNoWriMo my best shot.

The first thing I realised was that I had to write the novel. The words had to go into the text. If I didn’t average 1670 words each and every day, I wasn’t going to succeed.

What did this mean in practice?

It meant:

  • Stop plotting – you’ve got word count to meet.
  • Stop researching – you’ve got word count to meet. (Hack for this – put in a provisional word/phrase in red, so that it’s easy to check in a subsequent edit of the draft)
  • Strictly limited time for editing.

Forcing myself to stick to this was really difficult, especially restraining my urge to edit!

What do I have at the end? 16 chapters – 53,000 words – of a rather badly written novel, “The Dove on the Pergola”.

Would I have this without NaNoWriMo? Definitely not. Would I have even one well-written chapter? Almost certainly not.

So, what would I have?

A lot of detailed notes and a maze of plotting getting in the way of writing…

And, to my surprise, the simple act of writing has clarified the plot and grown the characters. So, as well as 16 chapters written, I have a pretty clear idea of what I need to write to complete the novel.

I’m going to continue with similar intensity until the first draft of the novel is complete (going to allow myself Sundays off, though). Then I’m going to leave the manuscript for a short time while I work out a plan to edit it, a plan which will set targets for achievement that will limit the time I spend editing. (NaNoWriMo have an editing programme in the New Year, I believe, and I’m going to check it out).

Then I’m going to edit the manuscript, sticking to those targets, until I have a completely edited text. At that point, and not before, I shall print out the novel, and invite my trusted reader to give me her honest and unvarnished opinion… (Judgement Day!)

Was I a winner? Yes, I was – but the big win is having completed those precious 16 chapters that are going to be the basis of my novel. And maybe an even bigger win is that I now have a better understanding of how I need to work in future.

So thank you to the genius who came up with NaNoWriMo!

And a special thank you to Gabi, for being my writing buddy during the month. Those emails gave a precious extra boost to morale when it could have flagged!

It was a great and productive experience!