Review: Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry

They continued to cope, poorly, with the excretions and secretions of their stepfather’s body, moving from revulsion to pity to anger, and back to revulsion. They were bewildered, and indignant, that a human creature of blood and bone, so efficient in good health, could suddenly become so messy.  Neither Nariman’s age nor his previous illnesses had served to warn them. Sometimes they took it personally, as though their stepfather had reduced himself to this state to harass them. And by nightfall, the air was again fraught with tension, thick with reproaches spoken and silent. (p 68)

Nariman Vakeel is an elderly, retired English professor suffering from Parkinson’s Disease.  He lives in the family home — ironically named Chateau Felicity — with his middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy.  Nariman married their mother Yasmin when Jal and Coomy were children, after his family forbid him to marry his true love, Lucy.  He raised them along with a younger half-sister, Roxana.  Coomy is filled with resentment; everyone else walks on eggshells to avoid her bitterness.  Jal feigns obliviousness, tinkering with his hearing aid when tempers flare.

When Nariman falls while out on a walk, Jal and Coomy are quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of caring for him.  Coomy wastes no time tricking Roxana into taking him in.  Roxana and her family live in a smaller flat and struggle to make ends meet, but they are blessed with a more positive outlook on life. Even Roxana’s young sons take things in stride:

The balcony door framed the scene: nine-year-old happily feeding seventy-nine.

And then it struck her like a revelation — of what, she could not say.  Hidden by the screen of damp clothes, she watched, clutching Yezad’s shirt in her hands. She felt she was witnessing something almost sacred, and her eyes refused to relinquish the previous moment, for she knew instinctively that it would become a memory to cherish, to recall in difficult times when she needed strength. (p. 98)

But as weeks pass, the strain takes its toll on everyone.  Coomy takes dramatic steps to keep up the illusion she is unable to care for Nariman.  Jal is silently complicit.  Roxana tries, in vain, to stretch Yezad’s salary to cover the cost of Nariman’s medication.  And Yezad responds to the financial strain through a series of progressively destructive acts aimed at improving their financial situation.  Eventually they hit rock bottom in ways both inevitable and shocking, and are then faced with the challenge of rebuilding what they hold most dear.

I put off reading this book for some time, thinking it might strike too close to home.  My father has Parkinson’s, and last year a medical incident set in motion a series of events culminating in my parents’ long-overdue move to a continuous care retirement community.  Family Matters was indeed painful to read, although I could distance myself from it because the Vakeel family’s situation was very different from mine.  And yet there are valuable messages in this book about the importance of family, and living for today, that are still with me days after finishing the book.

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Review: The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose Novels is a 680-page omnibus of four works by Edward St. Aubyn, originally published between 1992 and 2005: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk.  A fifth novel, At Last, was published in 2012.  Each book covers a period in Patrick’s life, often only a day or two, spread out over four decades.

In Never Mind, Patrick is five years old and living in France with his British father and American mother.  This tightly written novella tells you all you need to know about David and Eleanor Melrose, and it’s not pretty.  David is an overbearing, sadistic man; Eleanor and Patrick are victims of his cruelty.  Towards the end of the novella, something unthinkable happens, and you know Patrick will be scarred for life.  In the following books you can see Patrick trying, mostly in vain, to move beyond this childhood trauma.  In Bad News, 22-year-old Patrick has taken to drugs and is constantly in search of his next hit.  By age 30, in Some Hope, he has given up drugs (or has he?), and is making an effort to address long-term psychological issues.

Have you seen the amazing “Up” documentary series?  Bear with me, there’s a point to this digression.  In the documentaries, director Michael Apted visits the same group of British-born people every 7 years, beginning at age 7 (the latest installment, 56 Up, was released in 2012 and will soon arrive in US cinemas — see it if you can).  The Patrick Melrose Novels share a similar premise, taken from the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  Like the documentaries, each novel gives us a glimpse into Patrick’s life at a point in time.  We know little about the intervening period.  But the events in Never Mind are like a thread woven through Patrick’s life, influencing everything he says and does, and the man he becomes.

By the time we get to Mother’s Milk, Patrick is 40, married, with children.  He’s a devoted father with stable employment.  You might think he’s living the dream, right?  Well, no.  Patrick’s aging mother has pretty much disinherited him by making increasingly irresponsible decisions about her estate.  Patrick’s well-being teeters on a precipice; not surprisingly, we see some backsliding into destructive behaviors.  The scars from Never Mind have never healed.

When I picked up this book my original intention was to read the first novella and return to the others later.  Instead I found myself drawn into Patrick’s story, despite the fact that nearly every character is unlikable in the extreme.  The writing is harsh and direct; St Aubyn doesn’t sugar coat the situation in any way.  It was all so unpleasant!  And yet something kept me coming back for the next installment, hoping to see Patrick in a better place with each passing decade.  I did have one quibble with the writing, however.  Mother’s Milk is told largely through the thoughts, words and deeds of Patrick’s very young sons.  Their voices didn’t ring true; I’ve never met a preschooler who could think or speak in such a sophisticated way.

Mother’s Milk was nominated for the 2006 Booker Prize, and because of that I nearly made the mistake of reading it as a standalone novel.  I don’t think you can appreciate it unless you’ve read the three previous books.  Perhaps the Booker judges were recognizing a body of work more than an individual novel?

Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

When Yun Ling Teoh retires from her career as an attorney and a judge, she returns to the Malaysian highlands, where she spent the years immediately following World War II.  Recently diagnosed with a degenerative memory disease, she wants to record her life’s memories before they disappear.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese camp; her sister died there.  After the war, Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, to learn the art of Japanese gardening and create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Yun Ling is filled with anger at the Japanese, and overcome with guilt over her sister’s death. Her time with Aritomo becomes a time of healing and spiritual renewal.

As readers we live in Yun Ling’s mind, moving seamlessly between present and past.  So seamlessly, in fact, that occasionally I had to back up and re-read pages to ground myself in the correct time period.  In the present day, Yun Ling is visited by a man researching Aritomo’s life and work.  This storyline, combined with Yun Ling’s memories of Malaysia during and after the war, convey the brutality of this period in a very powerful and emotional way.  But this is not “just” a wartime story. The Garden of Evening Mists is also about beauty and love, and the ability of both to persist through the most horrific circumstances.

I had looked forward to reading this book after it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize, and received several rave reviews on LibraryThing.  I was expecting a 5-star read, which is probably unfair.  The writing was beautiful and poetic, but it wasn’t “unputdownable,” and I always felt at a slight distance from the characters and the plot.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for those who like quiet, slow-paced, character-driven novels.

Review: The Keepers of Truth, by Michael Collins

Well, that was a waste of perfectly good reading time.  The Keepers of Truth starts out with a mystery:  a man disappears from a small midwestern town, and his ne’er-do-well do son is automatically a suspect.  Bill, a reporter for the local newspaper, is on the beat but for some reason doesn’t want to cover the investigation; instead he wants to write Really Great Prose about the meaning of life and how the crime is somehow representative of the sad decline of small towns and American industry in general.  Bill is a recent college graduate but comes across more like a 40-year-old suffering a mid-life crisis.  The other main characters are all various archetypes of the American white male.  Women are cast in subservient roles, primarily as waitresses or cheerleaders.  Their breasts fall out of their blouses and they reveal their underwear with alarming frequency.  Even the woman TV news reporter is objectified.

As if that weren’t enough, the story darts all over the place.  Bill is on the scene reporting the crime.  Bill pines after his former girlfriend.  Bill spends all night in a diner, several nights in a row (how does he go to work the next day?  Beats me).  Bill decides to prepare for law school again having failed the first time.  Bill pines after his girlfriend again.  Bill joins the police chief in rounding up rowdy high school students cruising the main drag.

All that in just over 80 pages.  By then I’d had enough.  The Keepers of Truth was nominated for the 2000 Booker Prize, competing against a field that included The Blind Assassin (which won), The Deposition of Father McGreevy, English Passengers, The Hiding Place, and When We Were Orphans.  Go read one of those instead.

(DNF)

Review: Dirt Music, by Tim Winton

Fishing is central to the western Australian village of White Point, driving the economy and shaping social order.  Jim Buckridge is the best fisherman around, which affords him “big man on campus” status.  His partner, Georgie Jutland, ended up in White Point after chucking a nursing career and a failed relationship.  Their relationship is fragile: Jim mourns his first wife Debbie, who died of cancer, but he refuses to talk about it.  His young sons see Georgie as the evil stepmother.  Georgie stays up into the wee hours, drowning her sorrows in vodka.  It’s not surprising, then, when she discovers Luther Fox poaching fish in the dark of night and ends up in bed with him.

Well, OK, that was kind of surprising.  The chemistry between Georgie and Lu wasn’t well-developed, and her relationship with Jim still had life in it (that is, until she slept with Lu).  But Luther was an interesting character, a man forever scarred by the sudden tragic loss of his entire family.  I felt sorry for him, and wanted him to find love and happiness with Georgie.  Thus Tim Winton sets up the central conflict, “what will Georgie do?” and takes the reader along on her quest.  Along the way, he reveals tiny details that flesh out each man’s past.  What exactly happened to Luther’s family?  Why is Jim such a badass?  Why won’t he talk about Debbie, and what does he really want from Georgie?  Winton also brings the Western Australian landscape to life.  As someone completely unfamiliar with the geography and the flora and fauna, I kept a map close at hand and found  images of animals, trees, and birds to visualize the scenery.

While Winton was successful in drawing me into the story and it held my interest, it fell short of its potential.  Georgie’s character could have been developed more fully.  She was somewhat of a paradox: hard-edged and abrasive, but known for her caring and nursing skills.  Not the least bit concerned about fashion or makeup, and yet considered sexy.  It just didn’t add up.  Then, as the central conflict reached its climax, Winton placed his characters in a situation that struck me as far-fetched, and the resolution was just too neat to be believable.  Ah, well.

Review: Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

That’s how school children remember the fate of King Henry VIII’s six wives between 1509 and 1547.  Bring up the Bodies is set in 1535-36, when Henry is married to his second wife, Anne Boleyn.  Thomas Cromwell has risen from humble birth to a place as the King’s Master Secretary.  He engineered Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  But Anne has been unable to deliver Henry a son and heir, and Henry turns on Anne:

Henry beckons her to approach.  Beckons her till her face is close to his own. His voice low and vehement: ‘Why not geld me while you are at it? That would suit you, would it not, madam?’

Faces open in shock. The Boleyns have the sense to draw Anne backwards, backwards and away, Mistress Shelton and Jane Rochford flapping and tut-tutting, the whole Howard, Boleyn clan closing around her. Jane Seymour, alone of the ladies, does not move. She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on. (p. 175)

Cromwell knows what needs to be done, and that he must be the one to do it.  He carefully builds the case against Anne, whether that case be real or imagined.  Henry looks for loopholes in marriage law that would allow him to declare his marriage invalid.  But Cromwell finds a stronger case against Anne, one of adultery.  It’s never clear how true the allegations are; but just as Henry can twist marriage law, Cromwell can twist off-hand remarks and connect them into a pattern of escalating flirtation.  Before you know it several key people are arrested and locked up in the Tower of London to await their fate.

And yet Cromwell is such a likeable character.  He is assured and confident in his abilities and his standing at court, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his power.  He also knows he could use that power to have any woman he wants.  But at heart he is a family man, mourning his dead wife and children while nurturing his one remaining son and others he has mentored into adulthood.  And as things get tense at court, Cromwell knows that everything he has can be lost in an instant.  In Bring up the Bodies, he is successful.  History shows Cromwell died in 1540, after Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves.  And that will be the subject of Mantel’s last book in this trilogy, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Review: A Long Long Way, by Sebastian Barry

Willie Dunne enlists in the British Army right at the beginning of World War I, and joins the 16th Irish Division, one of two southern divisions supporting Home Rule.  Willie begins his service excited about supporting his country, but quickly faces the intense fear of daily living at the front.  His regiment is composed of local boys, all from the same region, sharing common beliefs. Included are some memorable characters, like his Sergeant-Major Christy Moran, and Father Buckley, who ministers to the regiment.  Their shared experience creates a bond of friendship, but even that is threatened by the stress of battle.

Barry’s writing is beautiful.  Early on, he sets the scene for the carnage to follow:

And all those boys of Europe born in those times, and thereabouts those times, Russian, French, Belgian, Serbian, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Italian, Prussian, German, Austrian, Turkish — and Canadian, Australian, American, Zulu, Gurkha, Cossack, and all the rest — their fate was written in a ferocious chapter of the book of life, certainly. Those millions of mothers and their million gallons of mothers’ milk, millions of instances of small-talk and baby-talk, beatings and kisses, ganseys and shoes, piled up in history in great ruined heaps with a loud and broken music, human stories told for nothing, for ashes, for deaths’ amusement, flung on the mighty scrapheap of souls, all those million boys in all their humours to be milled by the mill-stones of a coming war. (p. 4)

And, later, Barry describes the moments after a man has been court-martialed and shot, with echoes of the earlier passage:

The birds began to sing in the stand of trees behind the fallen body. It was as if he never had been. It was as if there never had been a proper reason for a life, as if all stories and pictures were a lie and a nonsense. It was as if blood were ashes and the song of a life was the only the painful tension of a baby’s cry. How his mother had loved him and rejoiced in his coming and fed him were hardly known. He seemed in that moment to leave no echo in the world. (p. 161)

Despite this superb prose, A Long Long Way was too much like other World War I novels I’ve read.  Think All Quiet on the Western Front, but with Irish soldiers, and the 1916 Easter Rising thrown in for good measure.  The soldiers begin as raw, enthusiastic recruits, until they see the horrors of battle.  Men are injured, left with lifelong scars or worse.  Other men are lost; friendships end in an instant.  Home leave is not the pleasant respite expected, but instead fraught with conflicting emotions.  And after a time, the protagonist and reader alike have to ask themselves, “what’s it all for?”

This is a well-written book, recommended if you’re new to war literature or interested specifically in the Irish war experience.

You may also be interested in my review of All Quiet on the Western Front.