I like it here precisely because it is dull

The Needle's Eye

The Needle’s Eye
by Margaret Drabble

I liked this book, but it was only while discussing it at book club that I realised how much. And why. It’s certainly the kind of book that benefits from taking time to think about it afterward.

Before this was suggested for book club I had never read any Margaret Drabble and had no particular plans to read her. I think I had an idea that her books would be old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road. Well this novel is certainly in many ways of its time, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read with fascinating psychological complexity and insight.

The story – as far as there is one – begins at a London dinner party where unhappily married Simon Camish meets Rose Vassiliou, notorious for a scandal Simon can’t quite remember. They strike up an uneasy friendship, based on her asking Simon for gradually increasing favours, many of them related to the fact her ex-husband is sueing her for custody of their three children.

“He looked dreadful tonight, did Simon…She wondered whether he knew how miserable he looked – how offensively bored…it was pointless, worrying about someone like him, he would never tell anyone anything; in a way she rather resented the obduracy of his silence. Why didn’t he forget about it one day and just complain? Everyone else did.”

For a novel where not much happens, custody battle notwithstanding, there are lots of interesting ideas about feminism, class, charity, parenting; but most of all this novel has wonderfully complex characters. Simon and Rose in particular are sometimes lovable, sometimes dull, often frustrating and frequently contradictory – very realistically. However, this isn’t entirely a realistic novel. There’s a lot of symbolism and patterns of structure, not least references to the needle’s eye of the title.

“Impossible, really, to make one’s mind up about any other human person, even one’s own children, whose whole life had unrolled before one’s eyes, whose every influence was known: they were so contradictory, so inconstant, so confusing a mass of shifting characteristics.”

For instance, Simon and Rose’s lives have followed opposite trajectories. Born to a struggling working class family, Simon is the scholarship kid made good – he’s now a lawyer married to a rich woman, Julie – and he wears his background with both pride and shame. He wants to fit in and yet he despises the people he socialises with. Until Rose. She was born to a rich country estate and hit the headlines when she gave up her inheritance to marry a man her parents disapproved of, her ex-husband Christopher. She has a strong distaste for unearned money and so she chooses to live in a shabby working class neighbourhood, counting pennies to make ends meet and taking great pleasure in getting to know her genuinely poor neighbours. Yet it’s all a game of sorts, because she could easily earn more money, or get it from Christopher or her parents, and she has a second lump of inheritance due to her. Her poverty isn’t real and her reasons for choosing that life are stretched quite far from their honourable origin.

“I like it here precisely because it is dull…Oh, I know, people think it’s not real, they think it’s nonsense for me to sit here like I do, they think I’m playing. They tell me that everyone else round here is miserable…But they don’t know because they’ve never tried it.”

Simon shares this slightly misguided belief in sticking to a principle. His legal speciality is trade unions and he steadfastly stands by the union every time, even when he can clearly see that the union is in the wrong. Like Rose, he cannot separate the theoretical black-and-white ideal from the shades of grey of real life. Similarly, he cannot see the world through anyone else’s eyes, and finds it hard to marry his assumption that everyone is as bored and depressed as he is with the evidence before him. Rose seems to be the first person who manages to at least begin to break through to him just how different people can be.

“He sat there…and wondered whose fault it was, that he should spend so much time like this, with people he really deeply disliked, talking about things that bored him rigid. It would have been better if he could have felt that the others were enjoying themselves, but from every soul there seemed to him to rise a cry of mute anguish and lonely fear.”

Inevitably Simon begins to fall in love with Rose, but this isn’t the story of a torrid affair. If anything, it is the story of a friendship that awakens two people to some, though certainly not all, of their faults.

First published 1972 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

See also: “10 reasons to love Margaret Drabble” on For Books’ Sake

The reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors

The House of the Spirits

The House of the Spirits
by Isabel Allende
translated from Spanish by Magda Bogin

I had been meaning to read Isabel Allende for years, so I heartily encouraged this book-club choice. I knew absolutely nothing about it going in but I did know a little about the author and it was interesting how that coloured my reading, especially toward the end of the book.

This is both a family saga and the tale of a country over the span of 70 or so years, beginning at the start of the 20th century. The country is clearly Chile though it’s never named. The characters – beginning with Clara del Valle as the youngest child of a large, wealthy family – and their lives are described by two narrators, one of whose identity becomes clear early on and another whose identity is not revealed until the epilogue. The longest-lived character – and therefore in some ways the largest presence in the book – is Esteban Trueba, whom I found inscrutable. He’s not hugely likeable but he’s also not 100% bad; he has genuine complexity that makes him difficult to write off or ignore.

In fact, that’s true of all the characters, despite the many stories packed in here and the sometimes extreme views depicted, they remain believably human. The family is not a metaphor – they’re well-drawn characters with shades of grey and sometimes confused loyalties – but they do represent types of people in Chile to an extent – rich landowner, activist student, charitable middle class, etc.

“She was one of those people who are born for the greatness of a single love, for exaggerated hatred, for apocalyptic vengeance, and for the most sublime forms of heroism, but she was unable to shape her fate to the dimensions of her amorous vocation, so it was lived out as something flat and gray trapped between her mother’s sick room walls.”

In the beginning I found this book funny, charming and lovely, but then we get some shocking scenes – such as Esteban Trueba mistreating his farm tenants – that remind you that this is a book with a political agenda. Not that it’s rammed home at the cost of good storytelling, by any means, but I did find that the novel moved a little uneasily from family story with politics in the background to an overtly political story with the few remaining family members directly involved in the politics.

“She felt that everything was made of glass, as fragile as a sigh, and that the machine-gun fire and bombs of that unforgettable Tuesday had destroyed most of what she knew, and that all the rest had been smashed to pieces and spattered with blood.”

This book is an often-cited example of magical realism and it certainly starts with lots of magical/fantasy elements but they fade away until they’re only a memory of the surviving characters. Which I suppose forms part of the political message getting darker and more overt as the book goes on. But perhaps the magic is also part of the old way of life, which has been lost irretrievably.

“Childhood came to an end and she entered her youth within the walls of her house in a world of terrifying stories and calm silences. It was a world in which time was not marked by calendars or watches and objects had a life of their own, in which apparitions sat at the table and conversed with human beings, the past and future formed part of a single unit, and the reality of the present was a kaleidoscope of jumbled mirrors where everything and anything could happen.”

I did feel that the earlier politics was dealt with more subtly, with distance, whereas the later politics felt much more angry and personal. This reflects to some extent the characters who are the two narrators, but it also seemed a lot like Allende’s own anger, which would certainly be understandable. And the end section of the book is certainly gripping – probably the only section that truly is – but it felt like a very different novel, at times hardly even a novel but more an account of Chile in the 1970s.

We all agreed at book group that this novel is very readable, though it’s not one to rush through. And it is perhaps a little overlong – it could easily have been trimmed. But overall it’s enjoyable, and I am interested in reading more Allende.

La casa de los espíritus published 1982 by Plaza & Janés.
This translation published 1985 by Jonathan Cape/Alfred A Knopf.

Source: Waterstones Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen

The White Tiger

The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga

This book looked like a fun read that would be something a bit different, and that’s pretty much exactly what it was. I enjoyed it greatly but in the week since I finished it, it hasn’t really stayed with me.

The style is initially surprising and unusual. The story is written in the form of letters addressed to Chinese premier Wen Jiabao from Balram Halwai, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur from a very poor background. Balram wants to tell his life story, beginning with how he got the nickname White Tiger and up to how he is wanted by the police. Through this device, Adiga exposes the state of India, or his opinion of the state of India, at any rate. And it’s not a particularly favourable opinion.

“It is an ancient and venerated custom of people in my country to start a story by praying to a Higher Power. I guess, Your Excellency, that I too should start off by kissing some god’s arse. Which god’s arse, though? There are so many choices. See, the Muslims have one god. The Christians have three gods. And we Hindus have 36,000,000 gods…Bear with me, Mr Jiabao. This could take a while. How quickly do you think you could kiss 36,000,004 arses?”

This was my pick for book club and from our discussion it looks like I thought there was more to it than the others did. There was a general feeling that the characters were a bit thin, and the overall tale a bit preachy and lacking in shades of grey (though I should note everyone found it funny and enjoyable). I must say I didn’t find it preachy but I’ll allow that it definitely had a message about class and poverty in India. And it’s certainly not subtle either – the humour is savage and the reality that is revealed is shocking.

Balram has a theory that the poor in India are in a chicken coop. Most of them accept this and stay within the bounds of the coop, but those who do try to escape are quickly shoved back in their place. It takes something extraordinary for anyone to escape the coop. He of course is one of the extraordinary (the only escapee we meet in this tale) but he freely accepts that the method he employed to escape is extreme.

“A rich man’s body is like a premium cotton pillow, white and soft and blank. Ours are different. My father’s spine was a knotted rope…cuts and nicks and scars, like little whip marks in his flesh, ran down his chest and waist, reaching down below his hipbones into his buttocks. The story of a poor man’s life is written on his body, in a sharp pen.”

Balram is a genuinely funny narrator. Since being told that he is as rare as a white tiger when he was the smartest kid in school, he has had ideas above his station. He’s also selfish, objecting to his grandmother’s repeated requests that he share his earnings with his family. He talks through his life, from working in a tea shop in a small village, to being a rich man’s driver in Delhi, to being a businessman in Bangalore. He reveals early on that he has done something shocking, so that most of the book is the answer to the question why and how.

“In the belief that the future of the world lies with the yellow man and the brown man now that our erstwhile master, the white-skinned man, has wasted himself through buggery, mobile phone usage and drug abuse, I offer to tell you, free of charge, the truth about Bangalore.”

This is not a book for those who want a subtle exploration of how modern India operates, or if you want a wide-reaching study of Indian society. It is a funny, easy-to-read, fast-paced window opened just a crack onto a version of reality. I genuinely enjoyed it and even learned a few things but I can’t say that it changed my view of the world or stunned me with its language. Not every book can do that.

Published 2008 by Atlantic Books.
Winner of the 2008 Booker Prize.

Source: A book swap.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

A parody of the writer

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter
by Mario Vargas Llosa
translated from Spanish by Helen R Lane

This was a book group choice and typically the meeting happened during the nasty cold snap we have had and I decided not to brave the freezing rain to attend. I did however have a brief Twitter chat about the book. Not quite the same but fun!

I knew pretty much nothing going into this book. I didn’t even read the blurb so the format came as a surprise. It’s the semi-autobiographical story (I learned that from Twitter; the copy of the book I had gave no indication) of Mario, a young man juggling a law degree, working full-time for a radio station in Lima, writing short stories and developing a relationship with an older woman (the Aunt Julia of the title, who is not strictly his aunt, but is always known as such). He largely manages this juggling act by never going to university and frequently skiving from his job, none of which seems to bother anyone nearly as much as him dating a 32-year-old divorcee.

(Incidentally this made me, having recently turned 32, feel pretty old. Not that I would dream of dating an 18-year-old, in fact that seems icky, but I do object to being considered old!)

Mario’s story is alternated with the radio serials written by Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter of the title. This isn’t made clear though, so the first time the story switched I was a bit thrown, especially when it descended into melodrama. Camacho himself is an enigmatic character, with a mysterious background and very high-strung artistic temperament, not to mention some unusual working methods. And his radio serials are a huge hit:

“When I asked them why they liked soap operas more than books, they protested: what nonsense, there was no comparison, books were culture and radio serials mere claptrap to help pass the time. But the truth of the matter was that they lived with their ears glued to the radio and that I’d never seen a one of them open a book.”

Despite the element of auto fiction, there are some clear literary allusions at work. The radio serials are ridiculous but Mario’s real life becomes as crazy and farcical as the radio scripts had been to begin with. And there are various types of writing for a living explored. Camacho writes his radio soaps at formidable speed, churning out ten different storylines. Mario and his assistant rewrite news stories for radio. Mario writes short stories that are never published (usually based on real-life stories he has been told, in a bit of symmetry with the origin of this novel) and he dreams about moving to Paris to live in a writer’s garret. Despite being snide about the radio serials he admires Camacho’s dedication to his art:

“How could he be, at one and the same time, a parody of the writer and the only person in Peru who, by virtue of the time he devoted to his craft and the works he produced, was worthy of that name? Were all those politicians, attorneys, professors who went by the names of poets, novelists, dramatists really writers, simply because, during brief parentheses in lives in which four fifths of their time was spent at activities having nothing to do with literature, they had produced one slim volume of verses or one niggardly collection of stories? Why should those persons who used literature as an ornament or a pretext have any more right to be considered real writers than Pedro Camacho, who lived only to write?”

I found the main character a little frustrating, as 18-year-olds are wont to be, and would have preferred to learn more about Aunt Julia and the scriptwriter, who both remain a little mysterious. In fact, the overall style is detached enough that I didn’t greatly care how things turned out, though I was entertained enough to keep reading,

There are a few other themes covered. Obviously, love, though it’s always love of an overblown teenage/soap opera kind. There is nothing moving or romantic about any of the love stories in this novel. Another is memory. Mario is telling his story from later in life, giving a lot of detail about some days that you could argue the average person just wouldn’t remember. And there’s a character who starts having memory problems, but they’re not dealt with particularly sensitively. Instead they’re the source of comedy, which I found uncomfortable.

That wasn’t the only uncomfortable subject for me. The book includes racism, sexism and religious bigotry and, while they’re not passed off as acceptable views, they are used for humorous value. When I went back and read the blurb on the back of my copy it calls this a “comic novel” and I would argue that it is neither, though it has elements of both.

I found this a very slow read but at no point was it a struggle, I always felt I was enjoying it, so I would probably read Llosa again. What potentially interests me more, though, is that Julia Urquida, the “Aunt Julia” of the title, wrote her own memoir of her relationship with Llosa called What Little Vargas Didn’t Say. It sounds brilliantly bitter from that title!

La tia Julia y el escribidor published 1977. English translation first published in the USA in 1982 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Source: Bought secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.

See also: Mario Vargas Llosa discusses Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter on World Book Club.

For shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories was picked by my book group. The title gives a clue to its overarching themes and I had an inkling that Munro was well known for her short stories, but otherwise I didn’t know what to expect. I have an idea that she is a bit of a national treasure in Canada so apologies for my cluelessness.

The stories all deal with relationships, of all kinds – couples, siblings, extended family, friends, acquaintances; even the brief relationships established with strangers under certain circumstances. There is nothing fantastical, or showy, or even hugely eventful (though things do happen that with another writer at the helm could be dramatic, or melodramatic). Munro’s style is quiet, understated, acutely observed but not in the biting, sarcastic manner of many a younger writer. She is generous to her characters, reserving judgement even as she reveals their flaws.

All of which sounds like this could be a light, fluffy read, but it most definitely is not. There is a slightly melancholic air about the stories, a sense of disappointment and disenchantment. Lovers cheat and/or break up, people get sick, people die, people lose touch. But it’s not all downbeat. There are small pleasures, small hopes, moments of pure love:

“Her heart had been dry, and she had considered it might always be so. And now such a warm commotion, such busy love.”

Every story stands up to scrutiny; in fact they are almost certainly improved by it. At book club we all had different favourites and all enthused about each other’s choices. We did all have reservations about the first story, from which the collection takes its title. While clever and interesting, it did not have the everyday feel of the other stories. It starts with a woman arranging to ship furniture across Canada, then tells us who she is and why she is doing it, then continues her story, but it skips perspective several times, zooming in on a character for a few pages at a time. At 54 pages it is the longest story in the book and possibly the most experimental. It certainly intrigued me but also frustrated me, which was actually a reaction I had a few times.

It is almost certainly a good thing to find yourself shouting (on the inside) at a character for their actions – it shows both that you have been drawn into the story and that you find the character believable – how else could you presume to think they would act in a certain way? And Munro definitely populates her stories with believable people. She deftly, in just a few lines, tells you what you need to know and yet sometimes the whole story will be a gradual revealing of a person’s character:

“She looked both frail and hardy, like a daisy on a long stalk.”

Brilliantly, you could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens. Those mundane details of everyday life that Munro picks out can seem so inconsequential, yet at the same time you realise that the characters’ concerns are often the same as your own so-called disasters. It is difficult balancing guilt at having moved away from family and the need to build your own independent life and it is galling when someone plays on your guilt.

This is one of many examples where Munro seems to take a side, only to give sympathetic ear to the other side of the debate later on, often in another story. To balance the unwanted family guest, there’s a very sick man who could really do with his family making the effort to visit. That, incidentally, comes in the final and for me most emotionally engaging story, “The bear came over the mountain”.

I am beginning to realise how very much there is to say about these stories and that I already want to re-read some of them. At first I was not impressed and even on immediately finishing the book I felt that it had all been a bit old-fashioned, too much about marriage with most of the wives staying at home and having babies. But the more I reflect the more I see how well Munro has captured the realities of a certain kind of life that is familiar to most of us in the western world. None of her characters is hugely rich or desperately poor. Those who face hardship have support. These are the most middling of ordinary lives, and that is why they ring so true and say so much:

“And yet – an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.”

Published 2001 by Alfred A Knopf in the US, Chatto & Windus in the UK.

What’s in a name

Possession
by AS Byatt

This was a re-read that I sadly ended up rushing through because it was for book club and I didn’t give myself enough time. It’s a wonderful book, as literary as they come yet immensely readable.

The story begins with Roland, a postgrad scholar of the eminent (and fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, discovering long-hidden drafts of a love letter from Ash to a mystery woman. This is a potentially huge discovery, Ash having been assumed to be a dull, happily married type.

Thus begins the unravelling of great secrets, but Roland is jealous of his discovery and does not tell his university supervisor or his girlfriend Val. Instead he turns to a complete stranger, fellow academic Maud, because he suspects that the subject of her studies, minor Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, was also the subject of Ash’s letter.

Between letters, diaries, academic texts, poems and good old-fashioned third-person narrative, there are a lot of switches in style and voice in this book, yet it never feels as though that is the case. Similarly, like the poems being studied for clues, this text is packed full of allusions and references, but it doesn’t feel overly clever or difficult.

In some ways this book is very much a product of its time. It was written in the 1980s and Byatt gently satirises the times. Roland is emasculated by Val’s stronger earning power and neither of them ever says what they mean. Maud is surrounded by feminists who seem obsessed with lesbianism and anti-men sentiments. The shadow of AIDS looms large over thoughts of sex. But this is all subtly kept in the background.

At book club we discussed how you can read this book at many different levels. There is the surface level where it’s a romance/mystery/drama and is fun and enjoyable without requiring any background knowledge. There’s the satire on academia, particularly 1980s academia. And there’s the literary novel, referencing mainly Victorian poetry but also older texts such as Shakespeare and Ovid and I’m sure plenty more that I didn’t spot. The character names are carefully chosen for the literary allusions that they have. And at all these levels it works, works very well, without ever seeming to show off.

I’m told that The Children’s Book is another excellent Byatt read, and that just happens to be on my TBR (a kind Christmas present), so I expect to be breaking that out soon.

First published 1990 by Chatto & Windus.
Winner of the 1990 Booker Prize.

C is for…?

C
by Tom McCarthy

This is another book club read that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise and I’m a little annoyed that in the end I missed the book club meeting about it due to illness, as I think I would have got a lot more from the book by discussing it. As it was, I must admit that it fell a little flat for me.

One of the many review quotes on the book’s cover calls it “admirable for an unashamed literary ambition” and, well, it certainly does scream its literariness but I’m not sure how admirable that is. Although the narration is third person, it follows quite closely the thought processes of its main character Serge, frequently combining stream of consciousness with mechanical or scientific detail in a manner that I found hard to follow and frankly dull. There were so many allusions to science, myth or literature that you could create a very long reading list to interpret the nuances of C.

The novel follows the story of Serge’s life, starting with his birth, and it’s a reasonably interesting life. Born in 1898 to a deaf mother and a father who is both an inventor and principal of a school for the deaf (in which sign language is banned), in the early section there is a certain amount of comedy, sadly lacking later on. Serge’s name itself is pronounced in the French manner by his mother (“sairj”, which he prefers) and the English way by his father (“surge”, like electricity, a running theme) who is a brusque, difficult but enthusiastic and highly animated man. Serge has an older sister, Sophie, who he is devoted to, though as they get older he worries that she is so much cleverer than he. She performs chemistry experiments from an early age, is generously indulged by her father and cannily uses her little brother without him realising he is being manipulated.

From well-to-do English countryside, the action moves to a spa town near Dresden, where Serge has been sent to be healed of a digestive disorder; then to the First World War, during which Serge serves as a frontline aeroplane radio operator; then to post-war London, where Serge half-heartedly studies architecture while becoming increasingly embroiled in drug culture and addiction; then finally to Egypt, where Serge is sent without him ever really being clear what he is supposed to be doing. They’re very different locations and situations but what ties it all together is radio and Serge’s obsession with it.

Serge’s father, at the start of the novel, is building one of the first wireless stations. It becomes the favourite hobby of teenage Serge to listen in on conversations in Morse code and this feeds directly into his wartime employment. Between injury, illness and drug-taking he is often delirious or otherwise in an altered state of mind and at those times his thought patterns become electricity- or Morse-like, rearranging the world he sees into waves and patterns.

Serge is a very believable, multi-faceted character, but he is a little cold for my liking, though there are reasons for him being that way. I thought the depiction of him as a soldier and just after the war was particularly well done, the stand out moment being when someone begins to sympathise with what he must have been through in the war and how hard that must have been and he replies, “But I liked the war.” It’s actually an ambiguous statement, because Serge spent much of the war and a lot of the time since so drug-addled he has no handle on reality, but he thinks he really means it.

It’s not a book to read if you’re easily annoyed by little rich boys getting out of scrapes through a combination of money and knowing the right people. Or indeed if you want to know exactly what is happening and have every question answered (there are a few recurring details that I expected to come to something but never did, plus there’s all the need for interpretation). But neither of those applies to me usually, so I can only conclude that it was the writing style itself that put me off. It was certainly at times beautiful and evocative, but far too often I found myself skimming long passages through boredom, and I definitely wasn’t engrossed.

First published in 2010 by Jonathan Cape. Paperback published 2011 by Vintage.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010.

Under the skin

Norwegian Wood
by Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin

This is the book that turned Murakami from successful author to superstar and sent him running into hiding in the US. It’s certainly a more “straightforward”, accessible narrative than he is generally known for, but it is still undeniably, brilliantly him.

Toru tells us the story of his student days in Tokyo, from 1968 to 1970, and the friends and lovers who mattered to him and even changed him in those formative years. Against a backdrop of free love, student protests and Beatles songs, we learn how Toru’s best friend Kizuki killed himself when they were 17. A year later, completely by chance, Toru bumps into Naoko who had been Kizuki’s girlfriend since they were small children. Unsure of what to say to each other but united by their grief that holds them apart from the rest of the world, they start spending time together. Toru falls headlong in love with Naoko even while he knows she can never love him.

While Naoko’s difficulty in dealing with life gets worse and worse, Toru meets another woman, one who could not be more different. Where Naoko is delicate, feminine and non-communicative, Midori is a blaze of talkative modernity, with short hair and a tendency to get way-too-open about sex. She also has a boyfriend, albeit one Toru never meets, just as she never meets Naoko.

A large chunk of the start of this novel was a short story in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, which I read quite recently, and this threw me at first. The language is beautiful, the characters so very detailed and real, the setting vividly alive but as Naoko and Toru held themselves apart, so I found myself at arm’s length from the story – observing rather than drawn in. It was really only with the introduction of Midori that this book came to life for me. I really loved her character. She is no more “ordinary” or run-of-the-mill than Toru or Naoko, but she has a joy and spirit that uplifted the story, even when terrible things were happening.

While there’s no surrealism or magical story twists here, what there is plenty of is Murakami’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of people and everyday life. Even when nothing much is happening, I was thoroughly enjoying every word. A simple description of daily life in a student dorm could have me laughing out loud, a casual conversation over a noodle lunch have me grinning in recognition. But there is also a lot of pain – the ordinary pain of growing up and facing adulthood plus the added pain of death, loss, unrequited love, psychological trauma. It’s a beautiful and moving story.

First published as Noruwei no mori in 1987 by Kodansha Ltd, Tokyo.
This translation published 2000 by the Harvill Press.

Back to the classics

The Time Machine
by H G Wells

The Time Machine

This is one of those greatly revered classics that made people look on with admiration while I was reading it, but actually isn’t a particularly hard read. It’s also not the most engaging, but it is full of Big Ideas.

And that’s both its strength and its weakness: this is an intellectual exercise more than it is a piece of entertainment. Wells was a scientist and drew on new exciting ideas in science to create a vision of the future that in its time would have been shocking, provocative, beyond credible and startlingly different from anything else, whereas now the science is widely known and accepted, what is left is a slightly bald political parable.

Somehow I came to this without really knowing the story. I mean, I’ve seen and read references to it (both Family Guy and Futurama have episodes devoted to this story) but I hadn’t seen any of the film versions or read a synopsis so some of it was a surprise to me.

The Time Traveller (as he is known throughout the book) has gathered together a meeting of London intellectuals to tell them about his new invention, the Time Machine. When they don’t believe him, he tells them to come back a week later when he will have seen the future, and it is his account of this trip to the future that forms the bulk of the novella. The format is slightly odd, in that an unnamed (indeed, un-anything) first person narrator attends these two meetings and records them in a manner somewhere between a journalist and a scientist, so that it’s fairly dry but with the occasional interjection of emotion.

The first thing that struck me was that this isn’t that familiar narrative of jumping a few years at a time into humanity’s future, finishing with a quick trip to the end of the world. The Time Traveller jumps straight beyond the human race as we know it, to the year 802,701 AD, and most of the story is set in that one time (though there are a couple of further jumps forward). In this future, human beings have evolved into two distinct species – the gentle, childlike, darkness-fearing Eloi and the ominous, monstrous-looking, light-fearing Morlocks. The Time Traveller can only conjecture how these races came to be and recounts more than one theory that he subsequently rejected upon further observation.

This means that we cannot necessarily trust the Time Traveller’s interpretation, and indeed his descriptions are a little sparse. Can we be sure that these creatures are all that human-like? When he acquires a female Eloi companion he tells us that she is called Weena and she is really the only character to have a name, almost as if he is trying a little too hard to humanise her.

Without being shocked by the conceit of suggesting that mankind might one day evolve, the political allegory seems a little heavy-handed. Wells paints an extreme end to the widening gap between rich and poor, with the idle rich becoming the Eloi and the industrial working class becoming the Morlocks. There is also an interesting point about both having lost the need for intellectual capacity, because “Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I will admit I was more scientifically interested in the descriptions of the further future, with geological timescales having passed, where Wells describes not only an ice age but also changes to the Sun, the Earth’s orbit, various stars, the Moon, tides, even other planets in our solar system. He was building on recent discoveries in physics and this description was no doubt just as revolutionary (and possibly just as provocative) as his evolved humanoids, but it is also beautiful. The story of the Eloi and the Morlocks is essentially a sad one but the continuation of Earth through immense changes in the solar system is somehow uplifting and inspirational.

As a story, I was a little disappointed in The Time Machine – I didn’t find it engaging, the characters are deliberately insubstantial and many of the ideas no longer appear original or daring. However, it is still a clever, inventive take on the travellers’ accounts that it is built on.

First published 1895.

Future terrors

The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood

My immediate reaction on finishing this book was “Oh wow” (in fact, I think I tweeted exactly that). I am so grateful to my book club for getting me to read it and suspect it will be a book to come back to, time and again.

This is an amazing, intense, important story that is also gripping and immensely readable. Atwood cleverly dripfeeds information about what exactly is going on, which makes it a little difficult to describe without any plot spoilers, and because of this I’m extra glad I was able to have a book club discussion about it.

The book’s title and the Bible quote at the start of it (Genesis 30:1–3) make reasonably clear at least one element of the story, even if the details are only slowly filled in. The society in which this book is set, the Republic of Gilead, designates certain women as handmaids and their sole purpose is to bear children. A handmaid is assigned to a married couple who have been unable, for whatever reason, to have children themselves. The handmaid is stripped of her former name and must wear a uniform that immediately identifies her role and hides her body and face, as well as obscuring her view of the world. It is a curiously old-fashioned situation in what appears to be a near-future North American setting. But it is of course far more complicated than just this and has its reasons for being as it is.

One other thing that is clear from the start is that there is a great fear of the state, via hidden spies or cameras or just loyal citizens willing to speak up about any trangressions of the many rules. One of these rules is that handmaids may not read or write at all, a rule so strictly enforced that the heroine obsesses over one written word that she sees every day. This society places a lot of emphasis on role and status, with the privileged as well as the less so immediately marked out by their clothing. It is a terrifying vision of a totalitarian state (and not just because of the reading and writing thing) partly because as you trace the steps that were taken to create it, it is conceivable that it or something similar could happen. As the narrator says in a prayer:

“If they have to die, let it be fast. You might even provide a Heaven for them. We need You for that. Hell we can make for ourselves.”

But it’s not at all a difficult or even challenging read because its narrator is so engaging and real. The handmaid of the title never reveals her former name, but between documenting her life as a handmaid she reminisces about life before and through that we learn about the background of the current regime as well as about her. It is her job, as a handmaid, to be a vessel and no more and as a narrator she is also a vessel for revealing an exercise in science fiction, but she is also an ordinary, relatable human facing extraordinary circumstances (to us, anyway). She vacillates between embarrassment of and admiration for her mother. She is trying desperately to survive, no matter what it takes, and yet contemplates methods of suicide. She has a fondness for flowers and word games.

Though by no means a comedy, there is a certain wit to Atwood’s writing. Even in the loneliest moments when the world is cold, a small detail seen or heard or remembered will be warm, familiar even.

****Spoiler warning – you might want to skip this paragraph if you’ve not read the book ****

This book was first published in 1985 and to an extent it reveals the fears and preoccupations of its time. Gilead might be described as a fundamentalist state, making it a crime to follow any other than the state religion. The world has suffered as a result of chemicals in the water supply and nuclear reactor meltdowns. There has been an AIDS epidemic and there have been riots over abortion. The same book written now might choose slightly different background events than these, though they are all, of course, still relevant.

****End of spoiler****

At book club we discussed how this future vision is not only possible but could almost be said to be happening in certain strict Islamic states. Indeed, in the decade before this book’s publication Iran suddenly went from being a modern, egalitarian place to a totalitarian, fundamentalist country with women suddenly driven out of higher education and most jobs, suddenly forced to dress and behave differently.

“Women” really is the key word. Though not militantly so, this is a feminist text. It is the story of men either choosing to or being complicit in the subjugation of women. Because we see the world through the handmaid’s eyes, we never really learn much about the lives of men in the Republic of Gilead, but from what we do see their lives are not nearly so bad as for women.

This is not the first Atwood I have read but it is probably the best. It definitely makes me want to read more of her work, particularly any that fall into the speculative/science fiction category.

First published by McClelland and Stewart in 1985.
Winner of the 1985 Governor General’s Award and the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Nominated for the 1986 Nebula Award, the 1986 Booker Prize and the 1987 Prometheus Award.

See also: review by Connie at The Blue Bookcase.