In Africa, you feel primordial

leaving timeLeaving Time
by Jodi Picoult

I was eager to read this after sampling the prequel novella Larger Than Life. That told the story of Alice, an animal psychologist studying elephants in Africa. This novel picks up the story with Alice’s daughter Jenna.

Jenna is 13 and wants to find her mother, who went missing when she was 3. Her father is in an asylum and she now lives with her grandmother, who won’t talk about Alice. Jenna has secretly been investigating for a while, but now her summer vacation has arrived and she’s saved some money. She approaches two people for help: Serenity, a psychic, and Virgil, a private detective. Between them, they try to figure out what happened that night 10 years ago.

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Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant

The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Since discovering Didion last year, I have been eager to read more of her work, and where better to start than her famous memoir of the year following her husband’s death? Thankfully my book club agreed and we picked it for our February meeting.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would be very slow and contemplative, so I started it well ahead of book club. But actually I sped through it, I might almost call it gripping. The book starts with Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne dying of a sudden heart attack. But at the same time their daughter Quintana was in intensive care fighting pneumonia, so Didion couldn’t let herself fall apart or retreat into herself. She dealt with this odd delay in her grief by writing about it, then and there.

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”

This is very much a memoir of that specific year in Didion’s life, not of her life before. Nor is it about her husband, though obviously memories of him do feature, but only in relation to Didion experiencing them resurfacing, which often results in some of the book’s more moving moments. She will mention in a very matter-of-fact way that she can no longer drive down certain streets or let herself see certain landmarks because the memories they recall threaten to break her, and it is only when you think about what she has said that you realise how close to the edge she is.

“One day when I was talking on the telephone in the office I mindlessly turned the pages of the dictionary that he had always left open on the table by the desk. When I realized what I had done I was stricken: what word had he last looked up, what had he been thinking? By turning the pages had I lost the message?”

Because what’s interesting about this book is that although it is raw and honest, Didion’s emotions are processed in a very cerebral, intelligent way, so initially she seems a little cold or detached (which is no doubt partly shock), and it takes time to realise that this is a very emotional, hurt person, dealing with that pain the only way she can. As the book goes on, feelings come more to the fore, and some of the more recognisable signs of grief such as regrets and obsession over details emerge.

“What would I give to be able to discuss this with John? What would I give to be able to discuss anything with John? What would I give to be able to say one small thing that made him happy? What would that one that one small thing be? If I had said it in time would it have worked?”

The precarious health of Quintana does of course complicate the grieving process. It gives Didion something to focus on but also an excuse not to get back to “real life”. It’s also the aspect of the book that consolidated my sympathy for Didion, because while it may sound harsh, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Didion and her husband lived a very privileged life – they were famous, successful and well paid, with multiple homes and an intimate knowledge of the best hotels in many a city. I think this bald fact ran the risk of detracting from any sympathy I felt, but for the most part I was fully on Didion’s side, absorbed in her story.

I liked that I was able to recognise the style of Didion the novelist in this book, even though it was a very different beast. She makes use of quotes, repetition, research and fractions of thoughts, returns over and over to certain moments, in an otherwise linear narrative. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed The Last Thing He Wanted and will continue to check out her back catalogue.

First published 2005 by Alfred A Knopf/HarperCollins.

Source: Foyles Bristol.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

The person you thought you knew

The War of the Wives
by Tamar Cohen

I was intrigued by this book from the synopsis and I am left feeling very smug that I know myself well – because I loved it. It isn’t perfect but it is gripping and thought-provoking, and story and character are equally strong.

To save you even having to read the blurb, the tagline on the front of this book tells you all you need to know (when did books start having taglines? Is that a thing now?): “At your husband’s funeral you don’t expect to discover his other wife.” So it’s about grief, lies, family, bigamy, but also modern life in London and how change can make you realise what kind of person you are.

The storytelling is narrated alternately by the two wives, Selina and Lottie. Initially there’s a little bit of stereotyping. Selina is well off, uptight, a kept woman who keeps her very nice, very big house in Barnes in impeccable order and doesn’t check the price tag before buying yet another cashmere coat. She was married to Simon for 28 years, they have three children, aged 17 to 26, and while there’s not really any passion left she still loves her husband. She worries about ageing, her children’s choices of partner and why her youngest son insists on eating junk food.

Lottie is artistic, but illustrating children’s books isn’t making her a living so she also has a job she dislikes in a hotel. She lives in a flat in North London with her and Simon’s daughter Sadie, who is 16 and very difficult. She and Simon were married 17 years and they were still very passionate about each other, though they had money troubles and they fought a lot.

Cohen takes as her structure the five stages of grief. So the wives’ hatred of each other and what Simon did really comes to the fore in the “Anger” section. And the book inevitably wraps things up in the “Acceptance” section. Which was where, looking back, I feel a little disappointment. A lot of mysteries turn out to have been red herrings, which I should have seen coming when a potential major storyline just didn’t go anywhere. But what this does is keep the focus on the families, which is definitely Cohen’s strength. That and her fantastic turn of phrase that can combine urbanity and sentiment in clever, often comic, ways:

“I know how you can think you know someone, really know someone, only to find the person you thought you knew turns out to be a hollow timber structure with someone entirely different inside – a plastic wheelie bin of a someone.”

I liked the depiction of the children through their mothers’ eyes. I liked the way the women developed from the stereotypes they saw each other as being into complex, interesting characters. I liked the ultra-current setting – not just Twitter and Facebook but also preparations for the London 2012 Olympics – but I do worry that it will date the book quickly. I suppose that’s a decision the writer and her editor have already made.

The main flaw, I would say, are the prologue and epilogue, which is a shame because they are the first and last impressions. I found the epilogue especially jarring and completely lost my hold on the fictional world I had until then been enjoying thoroughly. But the rest of the book is good enough to forgive the slight lapse.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Publishers.

The silence that anaesthetises shame

The Light Between Oceans
by M L Stedman

This is a beautifully written account of people facing terrible circumstances and decisions. It didn’t move me the way I thought it would (or should) but it got me thinking about love, in all its forms. I can see why this debut novel has already attracted a lot of interest.

The story is set in Western Australia in the 1920s, primarily on a tiny island far off the coast occupied only by the lighthouse keeper and his family. After serving in World War I, Tom is looking for a quiet, useful life when he signs up to “the lights”. He expects to live out his days alone and has accepted that when, on shore leave in the small town of Partageuse, he meets Isabel. She is young, sparkling, headstrong and quick to fall in love.

Izzy has to persuade Tom that she can deal with the life on the island. Shore leave is every three years, with the only other contact with people being a quarterly supply boat. In emergencies a signal can be sent out but otherwise they are quite alone with the lighthouse, cottage, vegetable patch, chickens and goats, at the forefront of every weather front and surrounded by the tempestuous meeting point of two oceans. It is a tough life but Izzy seems up to the task.

The novel begins with the pivotal event before going back to fill in all these details. One day a boat washes up on the island containing a dead body and a crying baby. Izzy has just lost her third child in stillbirth and is out of her mind with grief. The baby appears like a gift from God. But they can’t possibly keep it and not report it, can they?

The story explores grief, truth, lies and choices, sometimes slightly too obviously but at other times very effectively: “History is that which is agreed upon by mutual consent. That’s how life goes on – protected by the silence that anaesthetises shame.”

It’s a hugely emotional story quietly told. I actually thought it was written by a man until I read Stedman’s bio because it is largely viewed from Tom’s perspective. He is stoic, dependable and brave – essentially a good man – where Izzy is impetuous, subject to mood swings and bears grudges. Perhaps this perspective prevented the story from becoming melodramatic or schmaltzy, which is some achievement considering the subject matter, but it also distanced me enough from events that I was not moved by things that I think should have moved me. I should have cried reading this story, or at least come close, but I did not. In fact at times I found it too slow, though it picked up a lot in the third act.

The characters are very well created and I was eager to know what would happen to them. I liked how Tom turned to his duty, becoming more efficient, more clean and tidy, when life got hard. But the best part was the setting. The descriptions of the sea and the weather are stunning: “There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger”. Beautiful.

This book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 26 April 2012 by Doubleday, an imprint of Transworld Books.

At the end

A Single Man
by Christopher Isherwood

This is probably a book I should have saved for 30 or so years, because it’s difficult to sympathise with a meditation on old age when you’re fairly far from being old. I’ll have to read it again later in life to see if my reaction is any different.

I picked this up because Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is one of the best books I have ever read. This was written much later in his life and it shows. The characterisation is much improved (which is odd seeing as both have strong elements of autobiography) but the atmosphere is very different. The similarly self-involved lead characters have rather different lives about which to obsess.

The single man of the title is George, an Englishman living in California, teaching literature, approaching old age and trying not to think too much about his dead gay lover Jim. He has distractions – the noisy neighbourhood children, the eclectic ever-so-young students and a few friends – but invariably his mind returns to Jim.

In the manner of Ulysses this book covers one day in George’s life in great detail, including his morning bowel movement, a drunken romp and a, er, act of self-pleasure. In fact, I’m sure if I went back and looked carefully I’d find more similarities – the detailed routes of each journey that George takes, for instance. But (thankfully?) this book is 160 pages, not 600, and it sticks to just the one writing style.

Like George himself, the tone is slightly sad, romantic, angry, bitter, occasionally hopeful and eventually accepting. George has his faults – some bizarre notions about women, for instance – but overall he is a sweet, intelligent man trying to grow old gracefully in a world that does not make it easy. He may be living in ultramodern LA but in the 1960s it was still illegal to be a practising homosexual there and the secrecy that this requires of George has clearly taken its toll. It is heartbreaking that he feels he has to bury his grief around most people for fear of what it will reveal but this is the way the world was not so long ago and in some places still is.

The writing is undeniably brilliant. George came to life for me right from page one and his interaction with a favourite student was particularly well played. And yet – I was not hooked. I wanted more excitement of some kind and it wasn’t there. As I said, I’ll take this book out again when I’m older and maybe the added empathy will make it more meaningful for me.

First published 1964 by Eyre Methuen & Co