Relationships are about stories, not truth

Apple Tree Yard
by Louise Doughty

This got lots of great reviews when it came out, which is how it came to be on my shelves but it wasn’t until my Twitter stream was full of responses to the recent BBC adaptation that I decided to read it.

I remember the reviews gave me a sense that this was different from the standard crime novel in some way, and they were right, but even now I struggle a little to put my finger on the exact difference. It wasn’t quite what I expected.

For starters, the actual crime is held back until late in the story. The first half of the book builds up tension while filling in the back story. Biologist Dr Yvonne Carmichael has just given evidence to a Select Committee in the Houses of Parliament when she bumps into an attractive stranger who offers to show her the private chapel. Thus begins their affair. But while they are both married, it isn’t clear for a long time exactly what crime this leads to, or why the book’s prologue has Yvonne being questioned in a criminal court.

Continue reading “Relationships are about stories, not truth”

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.

Continue reading “In Africa, you feel primordial”

There is no truth except in relation

The Luminaries

The Luminaries
by Eleanor Catton

I’m a bit bemused why this won the Booker Prize. It’s not by any means a bad book, but less than a week after finishing it I’m finding it’s not really stayed with me, and nothing about it felt particularly standout. Except perhaps its size. That’s pretty noticeable.

This is a historical mystery novel with a broad cast of characters (and you know there’s a lot of people to keep track of when a book begins with a character list) who inhabit the New Zealand coastal town of Hokitika during the 1860s. The story opens with the arrival of Mr Walter Moody, come to make his fortune on the nearby goldfields. On his first night in town he stumbles on a secret meeting of 12 men who are trying to get to the bottom of a series of mysterious events that occurred two weeks previously: a prostitute attempted suicide (or did she?), a wealthy (and well-liked) man vanished and a drunken hermit was found dead with a fortune hidden in his home. Moody finds that by chance he has some information that may be pertinent to the gathered men, so they all tell their stories in turn. Or rather their snippets of the same story, because it becomes clear that they are each part of a large jigsaw puzzle that must be reassembled.

“Unconfirmed suspicion tends, over time, to become wilful, fallacious, and prey to the vicissitudes of mood – it acquires all the qualities of common superstition – and the men of the Crown Hotel, whose nexus of allegiance is stitched, after all, in the bright thread of time and motion, have, like all men, no immunity to influence.”

That’s part one, which is 360 pages long – partly because every new character is described in great detail, or at least their physical appearance and temperament are. But that length also comes from the same story effectively being told multiple times from different perspectives, with different details added or assumptions made that are later proved wrong. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, if sometimes confusing, and I think I was a little disappointed that the rest of the novel didn’t follow quite the same style.

From part two the story moves more conventionally forward and then eventually backward in time, much like a detective novel, following the characters trying to unravel the mysteries and then going back to reveal what actually happened. It’s no surprise that all of the odd events are linked together, but figuring out how and why is genuinely intriguing and enjoyable enough to keep me reading without feeling burdened by the book’s 832 pages (except for the occasional sore arm from holding all that size and weight – this is definitely a good argument for the e-book).

“[This] only showed, Moody thought, that a man ought never to trust another man’s evaluation of a third man’s disposition. For human temperament was a volatile compound of perception and circumstance.”

So if it wasn’t the book’s size or the plot that left me unsatisfied, what was it? One thing is that I didn’t really get the book’s main narrative device – the plural narrative voice (as in, the story is told by “we”, not that different narrators take turns). I wasn’t sure who these voices were supposed to be, though I did get a sense they were somehow linked to star signs and astrology, which also pop up at the start of each section. It’s a shame because I quite like the idea of a chorus, like in an old play, but it just didn’t quite work for me. Possibly because I was put off by the astrology references. This is a personal prejudice, but I did think that the astrology didn’t strongly relate to the rest of the story and felt out of place. (It does actually come up as a plot point that’s probably meant to be really important, but I felt could easily have been dropped without affecting the rest of the story at all, so that’s not really key at all, is it?)

“When we looked upon Man, we sought to fix him: we mourned his failures and measured his gifts…But there is no truth except in relation, and heavenly relation is composed of wheels in motion, tilting axes, turning dials; it is a clockwork orchestration that alters every minute, never repeating, never still. We are no longer sheltered in a cloistered reminiscence of the past. We now look outward, through the phantasm of our own convictions.”

I did like the little summary at the start of each chapter, which reminded me a lot of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, including the tongue-in-cheek sense of humour with which they are written. And I liked the variety of people, both in terms of nationalities and personalities. But that very plurality also meant that there was no psychological insight into any people or events. It’s a personal preference, I know, but I like to get under someone’s skin in my reading, rather than be held at arm’s length.

Have you read this? What did you think of it?

Published 2013 by Granta.
Winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

A sunburst split the seams of the clouds

The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

A good friend mentioned this book to me because it features a friendship between two girls, one of whom has lupus, and that was enough to interest me. However, that is just one plot thread in a novel that has so much going on you could easily accuse it of that typical feature of the debut novel – that the author threw everything into it – except that that sounds like a bad thing and I really really enjoyed this.

I tried describing the story to Tim and I think overwhelmed him with all the stuff, and yet it doesn’t read like a plot-heavy novel because the writing is lyrical and the elements are given room to breathe, not rushed through. I’m not quite sure how Groff achieved this in just 360 pages but I suspect it is because she has wound everything up together, so that it is all linked.

“We have run through the dark orange days of July, run through the summer mornings soft as mouse fur, through the drizzle, through the baking heat…This is called solace, our morning run.”

The central character is Wilhelmina, or Willie, Upton, a 28-year-old archaeologist who turns up on her mother Vi’s doorstep heartbroken and lost after a disastrous affair with a married man. She has come home to Templeton, the small New York town where she not only grew up, but was the direct descendent of the town’s founder, the semi-legendary Marmaduke Temple. Vi decides that this is the moment to reveal to Willie that she is not, as she had been told, the result of free love in a San Francisco hippy commune, but instead that her father is someone in Templeton, someone Willie has known all her life. But Vi doesn’t tell Willie who, instead she gives her a clue about his ancestry, sending Willie digging through the town archives and old family letters. Alternate chapters are narrated by characters from the town’s past, giving both a flavour of the history of the town and clues to Willie’s quest.

Back in the life Willie has run away from in California, her best friend Clarissa is seriously ill, having been diagnosed with lupus on the brink of multiple organ failure and now months into a treatment regime that is kept quite vague, frustratingly for me as I had an obvious interest in that part. This was inevitably the thread that was going to be hardest for Groff to sell to me and to be honest I think it was done pretty well, with only a couple of minor misfires. Clarissa teeters between exhaustion and boredom/frustration at being home and not able to work, which rang pretty true for me. Her boyfriend Sully cares for her but is angry at Willie for not being there, for having disappeared first on a months-long archaeological dig and now back to her mother.

“There was a painful rubbery silence then, when the noise of the crowd down at the park burbled up to the house and a few chirps from the frog-pool began to rise and the grandfather clock ticked and ticked in the dining room.”

And then there’s the monster. Yes, an actual monster. On the day Willie arrives back in Templeton, a huge dead creature is found floating in the lake that the town is built on the edge of. The creature is dragged to the shore and then away to a laboratory where a series of biologists fail to identify it. But the residents of the town know that it was their monster, that it had been there in the lake longer than the town, and without it everything feels wrong, empty somehow.

This last thread was the one I found difficult to reconcile with the rest of the novel. There’s a touch of the mystical or fantasy in the story of the monster. In the historical sections of narrative we learn that troubled souls have always been drawn to the monster (indeed, a number have committed suicide by walking into the lake) and Willie herself may be one of these characters linked to the monster. It’s a fairly clear metaphor for the life of the town and for Willie’s emotional state and sometimes I liked the touch of surreal that it added to the novel, but at others I found it a little out of place.

There is so very much going on in this novel that I haven’t yet touched on. There’s the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Vi and Willie. Hippie feminist Vi appears to have found God and a drippy priest for a boyfriend, much to Willie’s chagrin. And Willie wants to curl up and be a child again just as Vi has found herself ready to move on from being a mother above all else. There’s the similarly complicated friendship between Willie and Clarissa, college buddies who can get on each other’s nerves as well as love unconditionally, who can hold back and keep secrets from each other but also at times be brutally, painfully honest.

There are many more subjects covered, such as the concept of home or belonging to a place, and the importance to some people of having a family history to draw on (though Clarissa, an orphan, seems to feel more drawn to Templeton as a home than Willie is). And of course the mysteries and secrets behind every door, behind every face. Whether it’s a broken heart or something much darker, everyone is hiding something.

“Outside, Templeton was still a pigeon gray, but over the far hills a sunburst split the seams of the clouds and blazed one stamp of trees a strange green-gold. I had dressed in a short yellow sundress from high school because I felt so sad and only that dress seemed to hold an element of light in it.”

Between the chapters there are old photographs labelled with the names of characters going back to Marmaduke Temple and even the last native people who lived on the land before the town was founded. It was perhaps not surprising to find, on reading the author’s note, that the fiction was loosely based on Groff’s hometown of Cooperstown, right down to the town’s famous author – James Fennimore Cooper – who wrote semi-fictional accounts of his town and the characters in it. In fact, readers more familiar with Cooper’s writing than me will probably know that he called his fictional town Templeton and many of the historical character names used by Groff are also his. Groff has written a love letter to her hometown and an homage to its great writer.

Despite its everything but the kitchen sink storyline, this novel is beautiful, with interesting, sympathetic but fallible characters and a very skilled use of multiple voices to bring a whole town to life. Perhaps it would be more generous to call it multi-layered, which it certainly is, as well as intelligent and probing. I will definitely look out for the author’s other books.

Published 2008 by Hyperion.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

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.

Immersed in darkness

The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves

This is a dark, brooding, action-packed thrill of a gothic mystery. All of the essential ingredients are in place. There’s the unreliable narrator, the setting that’s at once beautiful and dangerous and absolutely a character itself, a host of potential good guy/bad guy switchovers and more than one beautiful woman who life has not treated kindly.

The main character, David Martín, is, appropriately enough, a writer of cheap crime fiction, a writer who has made a name for himself but feels that he can produce something better, worthier of his talent. He describes his home city of Barcelona the way he knows best – as a romantic place filled with dark, crime-filled back streets and a suffocating atmosphere that holds him there against his better judgement. His judgement is of course highly questionable – more so as the story progresses. It can be hard at times to understand the decisions he makes but to truly enjoy this story you have to give in to the almost cheesy gothic craziness of it all.

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story but, essentially, Martín has always scraped a living, being helped out by kind benefactors more often than his pride would like, so when he is offered a fortune by a stranger (the angel of the title) to write a book it is too good an offer to turn down. Unfortunately the commission and the stranger are both strange forces that Martín underestimates the power of.

This is a very enjoyable, fast-paced read but it does have some down sides. There is some extreme violence that I found off-putting and the lead female character is very weak and feeble. However, there are other stronger females in here and the violence certainly has its place in this type of story. Because the mystery is that of an over-arching evil it is easily maintained even as secrets are revealed, though not all secrets do get revealed in the end. Ambiguity is something I tend to enjoy, particularly when, as here, it is quite subtle to begin with. The broody gothic atmosphere is very effective; many’s the time I had chills run down my spine while reading a scene.

The story is set mainly in the 1930s, adding a certain something to the ambience. Though it is only occasionally mentioned, the political turmoil is somehow part of the darkness of the story. It certainly helps with the feeling that this a film noir on paper.

And that might just be the reason why I didn’t like this quite as much as I had hoped to (having rated Zafón’s previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, extremely highly) – there were too many scenes that felt like they’d been written with film in mind, rather than fiction. Don’t get me wrong – Zafón is not spare in his descriptions. On the contrary, his language is beautiful, evocative, atospheric. But some scenes felt false, with writing akin to stage directions. It’s a feeling I last got when reading Dan Brown, much as I hate to compare these otherwise very different authors.

Published 2009 by Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2644-7

UPDATE: For another viewpoint, check out this review on And the Plot Thickens.