One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot

Life After LifeLife After Life
by Kate Atkinson

Way back when I was working for my student newspaper as the arts and books editor, I reviewed a short-story collection called Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson. It wasn’t her first book, but it was still early in her career. I loved it and vowed to pick up the novels she had previously written. But then more than 16 years passed and my only further Atkinson consumption was the TV series Case Histories starring Jason Isaacs as her character Jackson Brodie. Which was excellent.

In 2013 and 2014 everyone was talking about Life After Life. It won the Costa Novel Award and the admiration of all my favourite book bloggers. And I still didn’t read it until the brief period of snow that we had a few weeks back, which made a wintry book feel appropriate. And maybe that’s for the best. I really enjoyed this book, but I suspect it wouldn’t have stood up to the hype, for me at least.

I like the concept: Ursula is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm on 11 February 1910 and dies a few seconds later. She is born again and lives a few years before dying. The cycle keeps repeating: 11 February 1910, snowstorm, Ursula’s birth. However many years she lives, it all starts again at that same moment, same place.

“Ursula opened her milky eyes and seemed to fix her gaze on the weary snowdrop. Rock-a-bye baby, Sylvie crooned. How calm the house was. How deceptive that could be. One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot. ‘One must avoid dark thoughts at all costs,’ she said to Ursula.”

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There is a tax on success

by Min Jin Lee

This is an epic family saga spanning two countries and most of the twentieth century. It took some time to lure me in, but once in I really loved it.

Pachinko starts in Korea in 1910 – the year when Japan invaded and occupied the country. Lee briefly sketches the family background of the woman who is to become the heart of the book: Sunja. She is the only surviving child of a couple who run a small boardinghouse in a fishing village near Busan. Their tenants are mostly fishermen and their income is small, but their reputation is strong enough that even as times get tough in Korea, they manage to get by.

Sunja is poor, uneducated and plain-looking, and as such she doesn’t expect to marry, but circumstances conspire to match her with an educated man who wants to take her with him to Japan to build a new life, so in 1933 they emigrate. But in Osaka she discovers that there is a form of poverty that is far worse than the way she was raised – because it is based on and maintained by racism. No Japanese company will hire Koreans except for the lowest of menial tasks.

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Love should bestow sublimity

dark side of loveThe Dark Side of Love
by Rafik Schami
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I can’t remember where I first heard about this book but I do know it was on my birthday wishlist a few years back and I was surprised when I opened the parcel to find not a stack of three or four books, but one big fat book. It is epic in every sense of the word and I loved spending two weeks absorbed in it.

Rafik Schami writes in his afterword that ever since he was a 16-year-old boy in Syria, back in the 1960s, he had wanted to write a realistic Arab love story, but it took him 40-odd years to get it right. The result is a novel that looks at dozens of permutations of doomed romance against a backdrop of decades of Syrian history, though the bulk of the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Nagib looked askance at his daughter and smiled. ‘Why does love always have to imply possession?’ he asked, shaking his head…’You should love with composure…Love should bestow sublimity. It lets you give everything without losing anything. That’s its magic. But here people want a contract of marriage concluded in the presence of witnesses. Imagine, witnesses, as if it were some kind of crime…State and Church supervise the contract. That’s not love, it’s orders from a higher authority to increase and multiply.’ “

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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 start of her career

The Loving Spirit
by Daphne du Maurier

I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Unfortunately, a combination of bad planning and ill health means I’m a week late finishing this book but it does feel appropriate to have read the bulk of it at the seaside!

This was du Maurier’s debut, a love letter to Cornwall as much as a novel, but also an ambitious family saga. It covers four generations of the Coombe family, from 1830 to 1930. Each section concentrates on one family member, each of whom has inherited a wild streak, the “loving spirit” of the title. It starts with Janet, who wishes she had been born a boy so that she could go to sea and is never quite content with her devoted loving husband, for all that she does love him. Then there’s her middle son Joseph, the love of her life, the boy who really does run away to sea and have great adventures and lead women on while never loving any of them the way he loves his mother. Then there’s Joe’s oldest son Christopher who disappoints his father by not wanting to become a sailor, but with that old family restlessness ends up trying to make his fortune in London. And finally there’s Christopher’s youngest, Jennifer, a strong and independent woman determined to break away from her controlling mother and grandmother and return to the family’s roots in Cornwall.

It’s a beautifully written, warm, engaging book, but it does have its flaws. For the first two generations du Maurier has her characters speak in strong Cornish dialect, which added a certain country charm and “ye oldeness” I suppose but also smacked of condescension. Maybe that’s just me. The relationship between Janet and Joseph troubled me. I know that a mother and son can have a stronger bond than a husband and wife and there’s nothing wrong with that, but something about the obsessive quality du Maurier describes made this particular relationship a bit wrong. There were a lot of times when I felt that everything moved too fast, that there was too much sketching out what has happened while time passed and not enough current story. And I didn’t like how down on London du Maurier was, with absolutely nothing good to say about the capital, though at least she was kinder to Bristol when it got a brief mention.

But for all that I still greatly enjoyed the book. Each of the central characters was engaging and sympathetic and I did like the way the language of courtship developed from incredibly polite and formal to teasing sarcastic banter. The descriptions of the sea and Cornwall are so detailed and evocative that the town of Plyn was almost a character itself. In fact, while none of the love stories or deaths roused much emotion in me, the final homecoming to Plyn did bring a tear to my eye.

There’s a lot of what I would guess were du Maurier’s pet “issues” in this book. She clearly thinks country is better than city, especially for children. She doesn’t hold stock with prim and proper, preferring openness and honesty. She believes in children knowing the facts of life rather than it all being a frightening mystery. She believes in the strength of women, in them holding jobs and speaking their minds and having options beyond “wife and mother” if they want them. And she believes in good, honest, simple lives – hard work, loving family, friendly neighbours – rather than building fortunes or being fashionable. Which is all fine, though you might argue she presses the point home a little strong. Of the many many characters in this book the odd one who broke the general trend would have perhaps evened things out.

See also: reviews on Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Next up in Discovering Daphne? The House on the Strand, to be discussed next Sunday.

First published in 1931 by William Heinemann.

Size matters

by Jeffrey Eugenides

I had a bit of a struggle with reading this summer and for some reason my response was to only pick out slim little books from the TBR. Why oh why did I forget how absorbing and satisfying a big chunkster is? Like this one, for example.

Eugenides has a new novel out this month, only the third of his career. While Middlesex may not be the biggest book on my shelves, it’s pretty big and I can easily believe that the combination of writing and research might have taken ten years (the gap between this and his first novel). Because this book is epic.

Ostensibly the story of Cal Stephanides, our narrator takes us back through three generations of family history, from Asia Minor to Detroit to Berlin. The heart of the story is summed up in its first line: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” So that title’s not about the English county then, just to clarify.

Raised as a girl, Calliope, it is not until her teens – unusually tall, flat-chested and with no sign of getting her period – that she is identified as a hermaphrodite. The journey from beautiful young girl in Detroit to confident but lonely man living in Berlin and telling us his life story is one that has to unravel slowly, because it’s a lot to take in.

This book probably isn’t for the prudish. Cal has been forced to be matter of fact about certain aspects of life, namely sex and genitalia. We hear all about the sex lives of his grandparents and parents, as well as Cal’s own experimental fumblings, because it is all relevant. There’s also a lot of talk about gender identity and body dysmorphia, which I found interesting and well told.

But it’s so much more than that. Cal’s grandparents are forced to flee their home in Greece when it is occupied by Turkey. They arrive at a cousin’s house in Detroit and do their best to assimilate. We follow the family through world wars and race riots, through the rise and fall of the American car industry, through Watergate and through hippy love and drugs. But we also follow the minutiae of an immigrant family, their daily ups and downs, their changing fortunes as they are alternately accepted and rejected by their adopted city.

It is a tremendous work. Eugenides has done his homework, but the only place that stands out is regarding hermaphroditism, which Cal is also learning about. The language is beautiful, educated but warm. The people are real and engaging – no-one is wholly good or bad. I thoroughly enjoyed the week I spent absorbed in this book and will try to stop being afraid of picking up a bigger book from the shelf.

First published in Great Britain in 2002 by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

See also: review by Ingrid on The Blue Bookcase.

The drama of revolution

The Glass-Blowers
by Daphne du Maurier

I love du Maurier but she was pretty prolific and sadly I think that her lesser known titles are, well, lesser works than the famous ones. At least, that’s been my experience so far. I enjoyed this book and its still better prose than some writers will manage at their peak, but like I’ll Never Be Young Again this wasn’t the captivating read I had hoped for.

An 18th century family saga of the Bussons and some du Mauriers, with an acknowledgement to people who helped the author do family history research, I am divining that this is loosely based on what du Maurier discovered about her ancestors, though how much of reality was used and how much made up I cannot tell. It is set in France just before and during the French Revolution and covers the politics and social upheaval of the time in some detail for a relatively slim volume. Du Maurier has her family of master glass-blowers thoroughly embroiled in the changing times, with family disputes over politics that at first seem minor becoming life-changing, even deadly, as the revolution progresses.

The story is told by the elderly Madame Sophie Duval née Busson to a long-lost nephew, so there are certain facts we learn early on out of order, such as when she last saw the brother whose son has now resurfaced. But for the most part it’s a linear narrative, starting with her parents’ marriage in 1747. In the early chapters it’s all about the hardworking industriousness of the Busson couple and to be honest I found it a little tedious being told what great people they were. Mme Busson, Sophie’s mother, is modern enough to want to learn alongside her husband how to run a glass-house but not so modern that she ever takes any interest in politics (unlike her children, later on). I found her very idealised as a character, but then I suppose the story is told from the perspective of a daughter who always idolised her so that does fit.

It all gets more interesting when the Bussons’ children start growing up and developing characters that are less perfect than their parents. There’s Robert the eldest son, with his love of frivolity, rich people and grand schemes. There’s Pierre, admirer of the philosophy of Rousseau, who wants to help those less fortunate than himself. There’s Michel who suffers from a terrible stammer and is an ardent republican. There’s Edmé the youngest daughter, tomboyish in her wish to put her country and socialist ideals before all else. And there’s Sophie, who for the most part simply wants to emulate her mother by running a glass-house with her husband and keeping out of politics. Except she doesn’t really keep out of it; for much of the book she comments on the political situation with a tone of “I know better” and I don’t just mean hindsight.

I don’t know a great deal about the French Revolution but I do think du Maurier has done an excellent job of combining facts, dates, names, etc with prose that evokes unease or suspicion or terror or heartbreak at the appropriate moments. I could completely believe in the riots borne out of a whisper campaign based on nothing at all. I could believe in the switches of allegiance based on the mood of the country and the limited evidence available.

However, the revolution is a big subject, as is a family saga, and this isn’t a big book. I enjoyed it but I think the content was squeezed in at the expense of any real description or insight. Some of the human drama is skipped past, such as the many couples in the book falling in love. But there are some moments when du Maurier uses brevity beautifully, such as the deaths of young children, which are handled with few words, but aching sadness.

Du Maurier was such an able writer that I will continue to read all her work that I can lay my hands on in the hope that I will find something that lives up to the promise of Rebecca. To which end I am hoping that nothing will come up to prevent me from taking part in the Discovering Daphne readalong hosted by Savidge Reads this October.

First published 1963 by Victor Gallancz.