Review: Carry me Down, by M.J. Hyland

Creating an effective child narrator is a difficult task.  Whatever their age, they need to be credible.  If the child’s speech sounds too old for their age, or they handle situations that are overly complex or physically impossible, that’s not credible.   Carry me Down is narrated by 10-year-old John Egan, and while his speech and inner thoughts sounded about right, his actions didn’t always ring true for me and this significantly affected my impressions of this book.

Early in the novel, John becomes physically ill after catching one of his parents in a lie.  Over time he uncovers more lies, first with similar results but later he is able to detect lies without getting sick.  John becomes convinced he has a special gift for lie detection, and obsesses about getting into the Guinness Book of World Records.  John is a bit of a loner and a social misfit at school, and using his “gift” doesn’t help much.  Meanwhile, there is a lot of dysfunctional behavior between his mother, father, and grandmother.  John’s father is out of work, and they have been forced to live in grandmother’s house.  John’s mother is an emotional train wreck with unpredictable mood swings.  The reader has to interpret events through John’s lens, but he doesn’t understand half of what’s going on.  Some gaps are easier to fill in than others. Eventually John’s lie detection escalates to a level that leads to family crisis.

M. J. Hyland describes John as very tall for his age, and implies his physical maturation is taking place earlier than normal.  But how “abnormal” is he?  Some characters were put off by his size; others dismissed it as a minor detail.  I also found it difficult to decide whether John was a misfit because he had superior intelligence, or because he was emotionally disturbed.  John seems to ignore his height, which would be unusual for a child wanting to fit in at school.  And yet late in the novel, he uses his size to gain an advantage in a frightening way.  This was the most significant credibility gap in his character, but there were many other minor situations that didn’t seem like the behavior of a 10-year-old.

The story of John’s unraveling family held my interest, especially because so much was left to conjecture.  But I’ve read a lot of “dysfunctional family novels,” and they need to bring something new and fresh for me to really enjoy them.  In this case, too much revolved around John’s character, and once he had lost credibility my enthusiasm for this novel waned.

Review: Homestead, by Rosina Lippi

There’s a surprising amount of depth and meaning in this slim novel, that builds slowly and quietly through each of its 12 chapters.  The story is set in a remote region of the Austrian alps, and told in the voices of women from 1909 to 1977, who managed life, love, and family on their rural homestead.

Life was hard: subsistence farming, few “modern conveniences,” limited educational opportunities, and a clear but restrictive definition of a woman’s role.  Most women made do and were happy; some worked hard to escape.  In the opening chapter, Anna, a young mother, receives a mysterious postcard which appears to be from a long lost lover.  The post-mistress makes sure everyone knows about it, causing much gossip.  Anna imagines the writer and his lifestyle and composes an elaborate reply, which she later abbreviated to a simple acknowledgement and apology, because his card has been misdirected.  As this unfolds, the reader is also introduced to Anna’s husband and children, characters who will figure prominently in later chapters.

In a rural area such as this, everyone seems to be related to everyone else.  Thankfully Rosina Lippi included clan charts showing the genealogy of each homestead.  While careful study of these while reading reveals small spoilers, I found them invaluable to keep track of generations and relationships.

Every one of these women was amazing, in their capacity for physical labor, and their commitment to families and to one another.  Each chapter reveals details about those who came before, some of which were closely guarded family secrets.  This provided the depth I mentioned before, and usually sent me off to re-read earlier chapters, taking new facts into account.  When I reached the end, I felt like I had an incredibly rich tapestry in my hands, and I stood back to admire Lippi’s achievement.

Review: The Accidental, by Ali Smith

Eve and Michael Smart, and their children Magnus and Astrid, rent a house in Norfolk for the summer, hoping to escape the stress of everyday London life.  One day a young woman named Amber appears on their doorstep, and everyone is so caught up in their own cares, each assumes she is known to one of the others.  Astrid thinks she’s a friend of Eve’s; Eve thinks she’s one of Michael’s university students, etc.  Amber stays for dinner, and spends the night, albeit in her car.  Time passes and before you know it, Amber is firmly entrenched in their lives.  She’s a dubious role model and mentor to 12-year-old Amber, the object of 17-year-old Magnus’ passion, and the one woman Michael wants but can’t manage to seduce.  Amber also becomes privy to several deep family secrets, some shared with her directly and others obtained through her powers of reason.

It’s all very strange, because she’s not particularly likeable.  You’d think one of the parents would kick her out, but every member of the family is so locked inside their own head that no one understands the effect she’s having on them collectively.  As Amber inserts herself into the family, she shares remarkably little about herself, and yet manages to get everyone else to let their guard down.  Each family member has the chance to tell their version of the story, taking turns as narrator, which enables the reader to get just as deep into each person’s psyche as Amber does.  Ali Smith used very different writing styles and techniques for each character, underscoring the differences between family members.  On the other hand, Amber’s chapters are decidedly sparse, so as readers our understanding of her is just as limited as the family’s.

I was initially intrigued by Smith’s quirky writing, but eventually tired of it.  The story seemed about equal parts positive and creepy.  Only when the family returns to London does the full impact of Amber’s visit become clear, and the whole thing struck me as quite creepy indeed.  And while this book gave me some interesting thoughts to ponder, I was left wishing some of the family relationships and related themes were further developed.

Review: Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

I knew this book would become one of my favorites almost immediately.  In just a few pages, I was completely immersed in the story, and found myself picking up the book anytime I had a minute to spare.  And it’s unusual for a book to bring real, honest-to-goodness tears to my eyes, but this one most certainly did.

The Song of Achilles provides back story to one aspect of the Trojan War: the relationship between Achilles and his close friend, Patroclus.  As author Madeline Miller wrote in her Reader’s Guide,

I found myself particularly moved by his [Achilles’] desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. Patroclus is no more than a minor character in the Iliad, yet Achilles mourns him with a shocking intensity, unlike anything else in the entire work.  Why?  Who is this man whose death could undo the mighty Achilles?

Achilles is a mythological figure, son of the goddess Thetis, a sea-nymph, and the mortal Peleus.  At the age of 9, he hand-picks the exiled prince Patroclus as his constant companion.  Patroclus gains status and privilege, and as the boys grow their relationship strengthens into  love.  Thetis is displeased and tries to separate them, but their love is too powerful.  When armies are assembled to do battle with Troy, Patroclus is there at Achilles’ side.  Achilles has known for years that he will become the Greeks’ greatest warrior; the siege of Troy is his chance to shine.  But there are other prophecies that weigh heavily on Achilles and Patroclus, not to mention the reader.

Madeline Miller breathes such life and emotion into her characters.  Thetis is frightening; King Agamemnon is arrogant and cold-hearted; Odysseus is crafty.  Achilles is beautiful, and the love between him and Patroclus is simultaneously intense and sweet. It’s heartbreaking to watch the prophecies be fulfilled, and yet Miller offers an ingenious denouement that is wholly satisfying.

This 2012 Orange Prize winner is my best book of the year so far.

Review: Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris

I could make this my shortest review ever, just by saying I loved this novel from start to finish, and if you haven’t read it, you should.  I don’t want to tell you too much more about it, because its magic is in the storytelling.

But I’ll give you a little teaser …

Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir, specifically the story of her relationship with the artist Ned Gillespie and his family.  Most of the novel is set in Glasgow from 1888-1890.  Harriet met Ned quite by chance while visiting the first International Exhibition, in 1888.  One thing led to another, and her relationships with Ned, his wife Annie, and their two young daughters grew.  When tragedy struck the family, Harriet was right in the thick of it.  But not necessarily in a good way.

Every so often the story is interrupted with a chapter narrated by Harriet in 1933, when she is 80 years old and living in London.  These segments show us a different Harriet, perhaps the one she became after the tragedy, but more likely the Harriet she’s been all her life.

Which made me wonder: what really happened in 1888?  Then I would read on, looking for the “real Harriet” in her version of events, but still not completely sure who the “real Harriet” really was.  Does that make sense? Of course not — but that’s the fun of reading Gillespie and I.  There are so many twists, turns, and nuances that keep you guessing long after you’ve turned the last page.  And I suspect there are as many interpretations of events as there are readers — just get your hands on a copy and enjoy the magic.

Review: Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept through the southern United States, and became the sixth strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.  Salvage the Bones describes the life of one poor, rural family during 12 days before, during, and after the disaster.  The narrator, 15-year-old Esch, lives in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi with her father and brothers Randall (17), Skeetah (16), and Junior (8).  Their mother died after Junior’s difficult birth, and their father has lived in an alcoholic fug ever since.  Randall spends most of his time playing basketball with friends, hoping to go to a special camp the family really can’t afford.  Skeetah cares for his dog, China, and her litter of puppies.  China is a trained fighting dog; Skeetah hopes her puppies command a high price — perhaps enough to pay for Randall’s basketball camp.

Esch watches all the men from a distance, and escapes into her mythology book.  Esch dreams of a better life, but she’s also just discovered she is pregnant.  The father is Randall’s friend Manny, who uses Esch for sex.  Esch has a history of casual sexual encounters, but to her, Manny is different and she hopes that one day he’ll take her seriously.

The first few chapters paint a vivid picture of life in Bois Sauvage, and the great divide between black families like Esch’s and the more affluent whites. This divide is illustrated most dramatically through dog fighting, which provides a way to make money, but wins and losses also establish social status within the community.  The dog fighting scenes are horrific and have put many people off reading this book.  I can’t say I blame them.  And yet, I was struck by Skeetah’s love for China, the sacrifices he made for her well-being, and the courageous acts he performed on her behalf.

Soon there are reports of a big storm in the gulf.  Esch’s father tries to prepare, even as the reports begin to show something really big is on the way.  I grew more apprehensive with each passing day, and I found the scenes describing the storm and its aftermath quite emotional and intense.  Everything changed in the space of a few hours:

there is nothing but mangled wood and steel in a great pile, and suddenly there is a great split between now and then, and I wonder where in the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it. (p. 251)

Jesmyn Ward writes from experience.  In a short essay at the end of the book, she describes living through Katrina when it ripped through Delisle, Mississippi.  The emotional impact of surviving a tragedy permeates this well-written and moving novel.

Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

On her fifth wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne goes missing.  A neighbor calls her husband Nick, to report the front door wide open and the cat out on the lawn.  Nick rushes home from work, and inside the house he finds signs of a struggle.  Police and detectives arrive and begin their investigation by questioning Nick.  This seemed like a perfectly natural way to gather the first facts, but then Nick, as narrator, something that sent chills down my spine: “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just starting.”

Why did he lie?  Which of his statements were true, and which false?  Did Nick have a role in Amy’s disappearance?  This is just the beginning of an intense, fast-paced thriller.  Nick and Amy tell their story in alternating chapters.  Amy’s chapters are diary excerpts beginning several years earlier, when she first met Nick.  She describes their romance, their marriage, and the circumstances that caused them to move from New York City to Nick’s hometown in Missouri.  Meanwhile, Nick’s chapters describe the investigation and more recent events in his life with Amy.  By the time the two narratives converge, the reader has a complete picture of their marriage.  Or do they?

Whenever I thought I was onto something important about Amy’s disappearance, Gillian Flynn would take the plot in a dramatically new direction.  Previous facts were shown to be fiction.  Mysterious clues were explained, and seemingly normal events suddenly appeared suspicious.  There’s not much that can be said about Gone Girl without revealing critical plot details.  Suffice to say this story of a troubled marriage, and the psychological drama between the couple, is a page-turner that will keep you guessing from start to finish.

Review: The Sleeping Beauty, by Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth novel is unusual, in that it has a male protagonist.  Vinny Tumulty is a fifty-ish man living under the thumb of his domineering mother.  He has a large number of women friends, having been unable to muster the passion required to turn friendship into romance.  In the opening pages, Vinny has come to the aid of his recently widowed friend Isabella, who lives in the aptly named seaside town of Seething.  Early on, Taylor makes sure we know Vinny is not one to learn from his mistakes:

 

Nearing fifty, Vinny felt more than ever the sweet disappointments only a romantic knows, whose very desires invite frustration; … Past and future to him were the realities; the present dull, meaningless, only significant if, as now, going back along the sands, he could say to himself: ‘Later on, I shall remember.’ To link his favourite tenses in such a phrase was to him the exhalation of romance, and the fact that such phrases had preceded all his disappointments, heralded all the counterfeit and treachery he had worked or suffered, could not detract from its magic. He disdained to learn from so drab a teacher as Experience. (p.22)

While visiting Isabella, Vinny spies the young and beautiful Emily, the “sleeping beauty” of the title.  He makes a point of meeting her, and is smitten.  Emily lives a reclusive life with her sister Rose, who runs an inn.  Emily’s primary responsibility is caring for Rose’s daughter, Philly, who suffers from developmental disabilities and will likely never live independently. Rose is repressed and insecure, resenting her sister’s good looks while being “obsessed by sex as only those who fear it can be.”  As Vinny and Emily’s relationship develops she becomes increasingly agitated and resentful.  But Vinny has a secret in his past, that threatens his plans for wedded bliss with Emily.  As he is trying to defuse the situation, others are trying to bring it to light.

The Sleeping Beauty is a richly layered story with several sub-plots that could easily have been short stories or novels in their own right.  There is of course Rose, who is alone even though she is surrounded by others.  A bevy of middle-aged women give comic relief through their past-times and attitudes.  Isabella’s son, Laurence, is a moody character study and his romance with a girl in town runs along in parallel to Vinny & Emily, providing contrast as well as depth.  These threads become intertwined as Vinny becomes further involved with Emily, and the book appears to be heading towards a dramatic conclusion.  However, the ending left a lot unanswered for me.  This is characteristic of Taylor, who doesn’t go in for high drama, and as with her earlier work it has kept me reflecting on The Sleeping Beauty long after I turned the last page.

Review: None to Accompany Me, by Nadine Gordimer

Set in barely post-apartheid South Africa, this is primarily the story of Vera Stark, who has spent her career working for a legal foundation as an advocate for housing rights.  Her longevity makes her an unofficial executive director, and she commands tremendous respect.  While Vera and her work are at the center of this book, it is also a moving portrait of two marriages.  Vera is a strong woman, and fiercely independent.  Her husband Ben needs her more than she needs him.  Vera’s past figures heavily in her present, and in her relationship with Ben.  Vera and Ben have very liberal views about race, and are long-time friends with a black South African couple, Sibongile (Sally) and Didymus Maqoma.  Sally and Didy have only recently returned from exile, and in a surprise turn of events Sally is elected to an important post, and Didy finds himself on the sidelines.

Several threads run concurrently through this book.  One of Vera’s black colleagues, Oupa, shows the reader a different layer of black society from that of Didy and Sally, and presents one of the more moving parts of the novel.  Vera and Ben’s adult children have relationships and challenges of their own, and intersect with the parents’ lives in interesting ways.  Sally and Didy’s daughter Mpho is a teenager, causing her parents angst as she comes of age.  And then there’s Vera and Ben, whose relationship appears unshakable, but is actually threatened by a number of forces.

Nadine Gordimer also has a lot to say about the political structure taking shape in her country at the time of publication (1994), and its effect on everyday people.  I suspect there were nuances in the text that went completely over my head.  Deeper knowledge would have helped me appreciate the political context underpinning this study of characters and relationships.

Review: A Game of Hide and Seek, by Elizabeth Taylor

Harriet and Vesey grew up together as playmates and friends.  One summer while caring for Vesey’s cousins, they realize their affection has blossomed into something more:

‘I cannot put down what happened this evening,’ she wrote mysteriously. ‘Nor is there any need, for I shall remember all my life.’ And, although she was so mysterious, she was right. Much in those diaries would puzzle her when she turned their pages in middle age, old age; many allusions would be meaningless; week after week would seem to have been wiped away; but that one entry, so proudly cryptic, would always evoke the evening in the woods, the shadows, the layers of leaves shutting out the sky, the bronze mosses at the of the trees, the floating sound their voices had, and that explosive, echoing cry of the cuckoo. (p.21-22)

But Vesey goes off to Oxford and Harriet remains at home.  She picks up tidbits of news from his aunt and uncle, but they lose touch and eventually Harriet makes her own way.   She finds a job in a gown shop, marries Charles, a respected business man, and they have a daughter, Betsy.  Harriet thinks of Vesey often, but for the most part she is a reasonably happy wife and mother.

Until one day, nearly 20 years later, when Harriet and Vesey run into each other at a dance.  Dancing with Vesey, Harriet is overcome with memories and emotion. They do not see each other often — Vesey is in the theatre, and travels around the country — but they exchange letters and find reasons to meet anytime he is nearby.  Charles feels Harriet’s distance, but can neither draw her out nor express his own feelings.  The strain rubs off on Betsy, too.  Even though Harriet sees how differently people respond to her, she desperately wants to believe they’re fine.  It’s just her, responding differently to them.

Taylor’s writing is exquisite.  The story unfolds very slowly, with the rich observational detail Taylor is known for.  And it’s emotionally intense as well. In the first part, the reader feels the pain of young love — we want Harriet and Vesey to accept the love they feel for each other, and live happily ever after.  We feel pain in the awkwardness of their parting, and the pain returns when they meet again in middle age.  By that time, I had come to appreciate her marriage to Charles.  I was caught up in Harriet’s dilemma, simultaneously wishing for things that might have been, and wanting to maintain the comfort and security of her family life.  The ending is ambiguous, and yet felt completely right.

In her biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman called this “Elizabeth’s most flawless, most nearly perfect novel.”   I couldn’t agree more.