Paused in an atmosphere of extraordinary pallor and thickness

outlineOutline
by Rachel Cusk

Though Cusk has written eight other books in-between, this new novel shares a lot in common with her first two books. There is a vagueness about it and a distinct lack of story, but there is also some beautiful writing.

The narrator is an English divorcee writer (a little autobiography peeking through perhaps?) who goes to Greece to teach a writing class for a week. That’s pretty much the whole story. She speaks with a series of people, some friends, some random strangers, and recounts their stories. She has a knack of getting people to open up to her but reveals very little about herself. And yet she does seem concerned with the truth and questions the honesty of those she speaks to.

The title appears to refer to the series of sketches of people’s lives that the narrator presents, but a quote from towards the end of the book suggests another reason:

“She began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her…a sense of who she now was.”

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Some had a whole epic, others just a verse

Song-of-AchillesSong of Achilles
by Madeline Miller

I must admit, when I started hearing about this book everywhere, it intimidated me. I mean, it’s based on The Iliad, which I know I should have read but haven’t because it’s always struck me as likely to be hardgoing. But then everyone was just so enthusiastic that I thought, well I might give it a go. And then Simon of Savidge Reads kindly arranged with the publishers to give some copies to his readers and I was one of the lucky winners. And oh man am I glad. Best book of this year so far, no question.

What Miller has done is to take a relatively minor character – Patroclus – and follow his life through his voice. From a quick scan of Wikipedia I think she has changed some details but broadly followed the original story, just filling in the gaps with her amazing imagination.

Miller completely brings it all to life. There is no question that you are in Ancient Greece, that life is tough and war is brewing, and let’s not forget that I am no fan of war stories, but the narrative that Miller weaves had me entranced from start to finish.

The story is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which begins as friendship between boys, with Patroclus learning what it means to get to know a demi-god:

“He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”

Miller’s innovation is to concentrate on the love story rather than the war and gods and adventuring, although that is all there as well. Apparently Plato considered the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to be the ideal of romantic love, though it wasn’t made explicit in The Iliad and the exact nature of their relationship has been debated for centuries. Well, Miller makes no bones about it. This book makes it 100% clear and explicit that they are gay lovers. And in the most beautiful, heartbreaking, “life depends on this love” type of way. It is achingly romantic but never mushy. Because these are manly men. I mean, Achilles is a half-god-half-man warrior of legendary fury and skill.

Which brings me to another aspect of the story I was apprehensive of: this is a world where life includes gods and fantasy creatures and prophecies and magic. Miller handles this brilliantly. The historical setting allows people to be uncertain of the truth about stories they have heard about gods etc but superstitious enough to just accept magic when it appears. This is a very human story but somehow magical as well. In every respect of that word:

“‘She says that there is strangeness among the gods, that they are fighting with each other, taking sides in the war. She fears that the gods have promised me fame, but not how much.’
“This was a new worry I had not considered. But of course: our stories had many characters. Great Perseus, or modest Peleus. Heracles or almost-forgotten Hylas. Some had a whole epic, others just a verse.”

I’m not sure I am successfully communicating the beauty of this book, so you will just have to read it for yourself:

“This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head.”

Handily, The Readers is running a new book club and this is the first book on the reading list, podcast due imminently. And if you’re interested in the review that sparked my interest, you can check it out on Savidge Reads, here.

First published 2011 by Bloomsbury. Paperback edition published 2012.
Winner of the Orange Prize 2012.

Size matters

Middlesex
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.