Review: Something to Answer for, by P.H. Newby

Something to Answer For takes place during the 1956 Suez Crisis.  This was one of those typically complicated political tangles, and one I knew little about.  The crisis involved military action by the British and French, in response to Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal (which in itself was a response to American actions taken when Egypt recognized the People’s Republic of China … and on and on …).

Jack Townrow walks into the middle of all this when his friend Elie Khoury’s widow writes to him requesting help to investigate her husband’s death and settle his affairs.  Against his better judgment he travels to Egypt.  En route he meets a Jewish man who accuses Townrow — or, rather, the British — of allowing the Holocaust to happen.  Townrow is aghast, certain the British government would have prevented genocide if they had known about it.  He is equally certain the British can only do good in Egypt.

Soon after his arrival, Townrow is attacked and forgets his identity, his nationality, and many other details.  He still tries hard to help Mrs. Khoury, although he questions whether Elie is really dead and sometimes goes off in search of him.  He falls for a young woman named Leah, but  evil and suspicion lurk around every corner, and it’s difficult for Townrow — and the reader — to tell who the “good guys” really are.

Townrow’s character appears to be a metaphor for the British Empire losing its colonial power, and I’m sure the events were still fresh in readers’ minds when this book was published in 1968.  But the metaphor didn’t work for me, I found the plot a bit surreal, and the book very difficult to follow.  It just wasn’t my thing.

Review: Postcards, by Annie Proulx

In 1944, Loyal Blood abruptly leaves his family’s farm in Vermont, under circumstances that are only vaguely described.  He heads west, working a variety of jobs: mining, archaeology, trapping, farming, and so on.  His parents Mink and Jewell continue working the farm with help from Loyal’s brother, Dub.  Life is grim.  Dub’s employment options are limited since he lost his arm in an accident.  Loyal and Dub’s teenage sister, Mernelle, longs for the day she can escape.  And Loyal’s self-imposed exile is no better.

Postcards is a portrait of a family, of farming, and of the American west in the mid-twentieth century.  Each of the Blood family members finds their path, but it’s not always a happy one. Some chapters were riveting, like when men became trapped in a mine, or when farmers banded together to fight a brush fire that threatened their livestock.  Most chapters open with the image of a postcard:  sometimes it’s a short note from Loyal to his family; at other times the correspondence is between unknown parties, but provides context or related plot details.  It’s an interesting device.

But while this book started strong, my interest flagged in the last 100 pages or so.  The events precipitating Loyal’s departure were never fully explained, making it difficult for me to understand why he refused to return home or even let his family know his current address.  Loyal’s endless roaming across the country bored me after a while.  Dub, Mernelle, and even Jewell had more interesting stories, which were not as fully developed.

Postcards was Annie Proulx’s debut novel; there are glimpses of the talent that later brought us The Shipping News, but a few flaws as well.

Review: Life & Times of Michael K, by J. M. Coetzee

Michael K was always a bit of an outcast.  He was born with a hare lip, and sent to a sort of institution during his school-age years.  His mother Anna worked as a domestic for a wealthy family, but when she became ill, Michael left his job as a gardener to care for her.  And when Anna expressed a desire to visit her birthplace in the countryside, Michael attempted to make her dream come true.  Government beaurocracy conspired against them, and they attempted to make the journey on foot.  Anna’s illness prevented her from completing the trip, leaving Michael to go it alone.

Much of this book describes Michael’s solitary journey, his attempts to live off the land, his experiences in various interment camps, and his difficulty dealing with mainstream society.  Michael’s appearance keeps people at a distance,  his naivete makes him vulnerable, and he is unable to function as part of a group.  He continually shuns food and shelter, preferring to live alone out in the open, surviving only on plants and grubs.

Coetzee’s spare prose often delivered compelling messages that made me stop and think:

He thought of the pumpkin leaves pushing through the earth. Tomorrow will be their last day, he thought: the day after that they will wilt, and the day after that they will die, while I am out here in the mountains. Perhaps if I started at sunrise and ran all day I would not be too late to save them, them and the other seeds that are going to die underground, though they do not know it, that are never going to see the light of day. There was a cord of tenderness that stretched from him to the patch of earth beside the dam and must be cut. It seemed to him that one could cut a cord like that only so many times before it would not grow again. (p. 65-66)

Even though it was all rather bleak, I was fascinated by Michael’s journey.

Review: Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

In May, 2010 J.G. Farrell’s Troubles won the “Lost Man Booker Prize.” The award brought renewed attention to this classic, first published in 1970.  I knew the novel was set around 1920, and dealt with the war between Sinn Fein/I.R.A. and British occupational forces in Ireland.  I enjoy historical fiction, and I read several glowing reviews, but unfortunately this book failed to live up to my expectations.

The story begins when Major Brendan Archer, recently discharged from the British army, travels to Ireland to reunite with his fiancee, Angela, whose father Edward owns The Majestic, a huge, decrepit hotel.  The Major isn’t quite sure how he became engaged to Angela, but all of her letters to him imply a commitment was made.  However, on arrival at The Majestic, Angela behaves strangely towards him, and is soon taken ill and confined to bed.  Meanwhile, Edward is attracted to Sarah Devlin, a young woman from town.  She is an obnoxious attention-seeker, and I never understood what he saw in her.  Later, Edward’s twin daughters Faith and Charity arrive on the scene.  Like most of the characters in Troubles, they are caricatures, but I also found them distasteful.

The book is satirical, and infused with dry wit which I really enjoyed:

They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.  The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings. (p. 7)

The story is long and sprawling, with several subplots and a number of fantastical events.  I could appreciate The Majestic as a metaphor for the decline of Empire, and the residents as stereotypes of the Anglo-Irish privileged classes.  But late in the novel there were several acts of senseless cruelty to animals, all described in the same “witty” style as the above quote, and that was the turning point in my opinion of this novel.  There was something about Troubles that appealed to me (I did, after all, read all 459 pages), and other aspects reminded me of magical realism, a genre I do not care for.

Many of my fellow readers have loved this book, but for some reason it just wasn’t for me.

Review: Tirra Lirra by the River, by Jessica Anderson

Nora Porteous returns to her childhood home after being away nearly 40 years.  Well into in her 70s, Nora is  somewhat frail.  The long journey from London to Sydney to northern Australia wears her out; she becomes ill and is cared for by neighbors who were children when she left.  As she moves in and out of sleep, she is flooded with memories:  first of her failed marriage, which was the impetus for leaving the country, and then of her childhood.  Her reminiscences are a way for the reader to get to know Nora.  As the story progresses, Nora retrieves bits and pieces that have long been suppressed, and a more complex portrait emerges.

Nora is the only surviving member of her family, and most of the people she knew as a child have either died or moved away.  She’s a bit crotchety and resents her need for caregivers, even though they also help fill her in on happenings during her absence.  She is treated by one of the town doctors, the son of a woman Nora had admired, but Nora discovers some shocking news about her death.  Nora’s convalescence is also an opportunity for healing and self-discovery, and eventually Nora accepts that she has entered another new phase in her life.

First published in 1978, this 140-page novella is quiet and contemplative, similar to more recent works like Tinkers and Gilead.

Review: The Elected Member, by Bernice Rubens

I didn’t expect to like this 1970 Booker Prize winner.  The early winners often don’t age well.  And the cover art is, well, goofy and amateurish.  And given the novel was published on the heels of the tumultuous 1960s, I expected drug addiction — one of the novel’s main themes — to be glorified and celebrated.

I was wrong on all counts.  Well, not about the cover art, because there’s no arguing with that one.  But the goofy artwork belied an intense novel with surprising emotional depth.  Norman Zweck is a 41-year-old London barrister, struck down in his prime because of his addiction.  His father, a Rabbi, makes the difficult decision to have Norman committed for treatment.  But this is not the familiar addiction recovery story.  Rather, it’s about the complex family environment that caused both Norman’s downfall and a series of interconnected traumas with his parents and siblings.

Take, for example, Norman’s sister Bella, who is only one year younger but still wears short white socks like a little girl, obsessively hoarding them and making sure they are folded symmetrically.  Or Rabbi Zweck, a kind-hearted man who always wanted the best for his son, but behaves like an innocent bystander because he doesn’t want to acknowledge reality and understand his role in making Norman who he is.  Or Norman’s boyhood friend David, whose impact has lasting and disastrous consequences.

And then there’s poor Norman, sent to a mental hospital to be treated for addiction.  At first I thought that may have simply been representative of the time period, and marveled at how far we’ve come in understanding and curing addictions.  But over time, as the real story emerged, it became clearer that Norman was both addicted and mentally ill.  The ending brings some closure, but leaves many questions unanswered; overall, a poignant and very well-written novel.

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Review: The Boy Next Door, by Irene Sabatini

Set in post-colonial Zimbabwe, The Boy Next Door is the story of Lindiwe Bishop, a quiet 14-year-old girl of mixed race.  She and her family live in what was previously an all-white suburb.  Ian McKenzie, the boy in the title, is a few years older, of British (white) descent, and when the story opens, has just been arrested for setting his stepmother on fire.  Despite, or perhaps because of, parental warnings, Lindiwe is fascinated by Ian.  When he is cleared of charges and returns home after serving a reduced sentence, the two strike up a clandestine friendship.

As we follow Lindiwe and Ian over more than a decade, the focus is on their relationship, set against a backdrop of a country crumbling under Robert Mugabe’s dictatorial rule.  Ian and Lindiwe’s relationship is complex, compounded by the racial tensions prevalent across the country and an intricate set of relationships between and within their families.  As the two mature, they become more aware of family secrets that have shaped their lives.  Ian struggled with demons resulting from his unstable home life.  And I felt Lindiwe’s pain every time she discovered a truth about her past, and every time she returned to her home town of Bulawayo, only to find it even worse off than the last time.   They made an unlikely couple; most of the time their relationship seemed unhealthy, and yet they would never have survived the political unrest without one another.

So much of the story revolves around these secrets, it is difficult to write a review that does justice to this book.  Irene Sabatini reveals the truth in tiny fragments, like a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.  I’m not even sure I caught everything, and even after rereading a specific section several times, there’s still one aspect that remains unexplained.  This is exactly the effect I think Sabatini was trying to create, and it makes for a gripping and emotional read.  This is an impressive debut novel, and I hope to see more from Irene Sabatini.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 2

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Review: Tinkers, by Paul Harding

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. (p. 18)

Tinkers is about George Crosby’s final days.  Lying in bed in the front room of his house, surrounded by family, he takes a mental journey through his life, as well as his father’s.  His thoughts meander in a mostly slow and meditative way.  The prose is richly descriptive and even dreamlike in places:

The afternoon became warm, and with the warmth the first bees appeared, and each little bee settled in a yellow cup and took suck like  newborn. Howard stopped Prince Edward, even though he was behind in his rounds, and gave the mule a carrot and stepped into the field full of flowers and bees, who seemed not to mind his presence in the least, who seemed, in fact, in their spring thrall, to be unaware of his presence at all.  Howard closed his eyes and inhaled. He smelled cold water and cold, intrepid green.  Those early flowers smelled like cold water. Their fragrance was not the still perfume of high summer; it was the mineral smell of cold, raw green.  (p. 60)

Throughout his adult life, George carefully concealed the scars left by his father’s abandonment.  On his deathbed it all comes back to him, but he also begins to see that paternal abandonment, while manifested in different forms, goes back at least two generations.  At 80, George has broken the cycle.  And he has inherited a more positive, useful quality:  that of a “tinker.”  George’s father sold goods to country folk and handled all manner of small repairs along the way.  George repairs clocks, and his memories are interrupted by excerpts from an 1870s clock repair manual.

I first heard about Tinkers when it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and I couldn’t wait to read it.  This type of book is typically right up my street.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.  I just couldn’t get into the rhythm.  Maybe it was my mood.  Or perhaps it was because I kept comparing it to two other books I loved, which explore similar themes: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home.  Whatever the reason, and despite the beautiful writing, something about Tinkers fell short for me.

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Review: The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna is a brilliantly crafted novel, part historical fiction and part political statement.   Its protagonist is Harrison Shepherd, an American-born author who spent his childhood in Mexico, and most of his adult life in the United States.  As a young boy in Mexico, Harrison spent hours in the sea, exploring underwater wildlife and la lacuna:  “Not a cave exactly but an opening, like a mouth, that swallows things. … It goes into the belly of the world. (p. 35)”  He later found work as a secretary and cook for the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and became acquainted with Leon Trotsky who lived with them during part of his exile.

The book is presented as a compilation of Shepherd’s diaries, kept religiously almost since he could write.  Shepherd’s stenographer Violet Brown transcribed the diaries after his death.  And in this labor of love the English definition of lacuna applies:

The notebook that burned, then. People who make a study of old documents have a name for this very kind of thing, a missing piece. A lacuna, it’s called.  The hole in the story, and this one is truly missing still … (p. 112)

Shepherd became a famous author, writing adventure and romance novels set in Mexico.  He was unmarried, and somewhat of a recluse, emotionally scarred by certain events in his life.  In the late 1940s he found himself under FBI scrutiny, after they discovered his previous association with Trotsky.   Kingsolver writes convincingly about the growing hysteria in the country during the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee:

“Whenever I hear this kind of thing,” he said, “a person speaking about constitutional rights, free speech, and so forth, I think, ‘How can he be such a sap?  Now I can be sure that man is a Red.’  A word to the wise, Mr. Shepherd. We just do not hear a real American speaking in that manner.” (p. 443)

While the story dealt directly with McCarthyism, I don’t think Kingsolver was only writing about that era, over half a century ago.  The second half of The Lacuna reminded me of the years immediately following September 11, 2001: the prevailing American public opinion, and resulting public policy.  This was a clever way for Kingsolver to express her own political views.   And at the same time, she wrote a complex story with likable characters and a conclusion that tied a number of elements together in a most satisfying way.

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Review: How Late it Was, how Late by James Kelman

This Booker Prize-winning novel is unusual, to say the least.  Sammy is a small-time shoplifter who gets busted one morning after a weekend drinking binge, most of which he doesn’t remember.  And somehow he’s completely lost his sight.  The story is told entirely in a lower-class Scottish dialect, and it takes a while to get into the language and the cadence:

There wasnay much he could do, there wasnay really much he could do at all. No the now anyway. Nayn of it was down to him. It would be soon enough but no the fucking now. So fuck it, get on with yer life. Sammy had turned back onto his side, he wished he could fall asleep.  But the trouble with sleep is ya cannay just fucking.  (p. 29)

Got that?  How about 374 pages of it, with no chapter breaks?  When I started reading, I thought I would really dislike this book because of the dialect and the almost continuous use of the f-word.  But after a while, I realized that Sammy sounded just like Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, and he had kind of grown on me.  Sammy first finds himself first in jail, and when he is let go and returns home, discovers his girlfriend has left him.  Because of his new disability, everything about daily living is a challenge.  But there’s humor in his story, too, most notably in the ridiculous bureaucracy he encounters when attempting to register for disability benefits.  Sammy’s life has been a hard one, lived mostly on the streets and in pubs, and it becomes clear that he is his own worst enemy, remaining just a step away from complete self-destruction.

I’m not sure I would recommend this book, but in an odd way it wasn’t bad.

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