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.

A gallop through time

One Hundred Years of Solitude
by Gabriel García Márquez
translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

This is one crazy book. I both loved and hated it. I took my time over it, reading just a few pages at a time, but I was never bored. Confused, surprised, shocked, maybe.

It is the 100-year-long story of the village Macondo in Central America and the family at the heart of it, the Buendías. The family found the village and ruin it, save it and destroy it, are worshipped by it and forgotten by it. It’s a family saga with a large and fascinating cast, but it’s not just that. Márquez uses magical realism to give added symbolism to certain moments, bizarrely making things literally happen that might have worked just as well metaphorically.

The timeline is not clear but I would guess it is roughly 1860s to 1960s. From humble beginnings the village gains a railway, motor cars, a pharmacy, a cinema. It plays a central role in wars and uprisings and yet its interaction with the rest of the unnamed country is minimal. Which is just one of the many references to solitude. Another example, and a nice example of the writing style:

“Taciturn, silent, insensible to the new breath of vitality that was shaking the house, Colonel Aureliano Buendía could understand only that the secret of a good old age is simply an honourable pact with solitude.”

A lot happens for 400 pages, and it is packed in largely by using a detached, minimal style. In brief scenes we learn the details of a character’s thoughts and torments, then by the end of the chapter their life will have been summarised and dispensed with. There’s a lot of death, much of it untimely.

With characters pairing off, reproducing and dying quickly, and a tendency to name all the descendants by the same three or four names, it can be confusing sometimes who is who. Handily a family tree is provided at the start of the book. As this shows each child’s parentage, many of whom are illegitimate, it might be considered a spoiler. But then Márquez starts the book by telling us the fate of the first character we meet, and teasingly dripfeeding more details through the early chapters. He repeats this with other characters and even with larger story arcs, but often by the time I reached the actual event I had forgotten the precursor.

Márquez manages to be very descriptive and evocative without using a lot of words or ever getting flowery. He creates a whole world for his characters within but somehow separate from the “real world”. It is an amazing, magical but also sad and suffocating place.

I had a couple of problems with this book. One was the speed at which characters were written out. Except for the odd few long-lifers, I would just be getting to know and be interested in a character and bam they would die. My other problem is the, err, sexual proclivities of this family. I’m not a prude, I’m reasonably open-minded and the adultery and whorehouses are one thing, but bestiality? incest? Too far for me to be comfortable with. And once again paedophilia comes up (the reason I was uncomfortable with Márquez’s other major work, Love in the Time of Cholera, and yes I know that in both cases it’s strictly ephebophilia but that’s still something I’m squirmy about). It’s like he’s trying to push as far as he can, see what he can get away with.

I was genuinely moved by but also disturbed by this book. I can see how it generates a lot of discussion but whether I liked it? I don’t know.

Cien Años de Solidad first published 1967.
This translation first published in Great Britain by Jonathan Cape 1970.

Cold or cool?

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
by Vendela Vida

I picked this book up due to a combination of hearing that Vida was one of the new generation of young “now” writers I should pay attention to (according to GQ or some magazine like that) and thinking the title was brilliant. Now that I’ve read it I stand by both statements.

There is a certain “coolness” about Vida’s writing; it’s hard to describe. She’s both a step back from the action and yet lets you right inside the main character’s mind. It’s detached but still emotionally affecting. The detachment is backed up by the literal cold of the Lapland setting, and in that respect reminded me a little of Snow by Orhan Pamuk (which I loved).

Clarissa was 14 when her mother disappeared. Now aged 28, following the death of her father, she decides to go to Lapland to follow a hunch about the whereabouts of her mother. She leaves suddenly, without telling anyone, even her fiance, where she is going. The combination of grief for her father and the complete strangeness of Finland give her a strange basis for an adventure, one that is bound up in unearthing family secrets and bringing to the surface secrets of her own.

The writing is very easy to get on with, although it deals with some dark subjects, but it did take me a while to get used to the detached style and a little longer to warm to the character of Clarissa. She carries such sadness and her story is beautifully told, with flashes of humour and a heartbreaking sense of finality.

The one thing I struggled with is that I felt this ought to have been a book about a woman striking out alone, discovering inner strength, and instead she turns again and again to men for help. There was a hint that this was just Finnish culture, and had there been women around offering help she’d have gladly taken it, but it still grated a little.

Overall I greatly enjoyed the story. Some aspects were predictable, others completely unexpected. I already have another of Vida’s books in my TBR and I don’t think I’ll be leaving it on the shelf for long.

First published in the USA by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, in 2007.

No ordinary life

Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie

Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.

This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.

Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.

Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.

There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.

Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.

As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).

But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.

See also: review by The Girl.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.

I read to open up my world

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is a book that you know from the start is going to be hard in terms of subject matter, but worth it. It won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007 and it was completely deserved.

There is a fairly long build-up before the horrors, a window into “normal” life in Nigeria following independence from Britain. I was charmed by the cast of characters – largely well-off middle-class people – and their lives that were familiar (jobs in universities, trade, journalism) and yet unfamiliar (different clothes, different foods, the politics of tribes and postcolonialism).

But this is ultimately a book about war. The dates are given and I know only a very little about Nigeria, it’s that they had a civil war in the late 1960s, a war that was brutal and involved genocide and other war crimes. So I knew this book was going to some dark places, but I let myself be lulled by the peacetime stories of love, family problems and – yes – politics.

At the centre of the book are twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Their father is a Big Man, a tribal chief by name, a successful international businessman by trade. The twins were raised in luxury in Nigeria’s main city, Lagos, had an expensive education and travel to England often.

Beautiful Olanna is drawn by revolutionary ideals and moves to Nsukka to work at the university and be near her lover Odenigbo, a revolutionary who gathers like-minded people in his house every night to discuss social and political problems over dinner and brandy. Plain Kainene is ever-practical and takes over part of her father’s business to support herself. She can’t believe any man could really love the ugly sister, but Richard falls for her at first sight. He is an Englishman who came to Nigeria to study ancient pots and has fallen for the country and is frustrated that he can never be truly Nigerian, with his white skin and the advantages it confers.

The other central character is Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Ugwu comes from a small village with very limited education but knows that being a house boy is his chance to prove himself worthy of the girl he likes back home. Odenigbo, unusual as he is, shows kindness to his servant and educates him, even gives him his own room and a bed to sleep in.

When war does come, its effect on their lives is gradual. Everyday life is still about love, friendship, trust and betrayal. As the war worsens/gets closer it gets gradually more central to the characters’ lives.

There is a sense, inevitably, that this is about how rich (or at least reasonably well-off city-dwelling) people are affected by war, which is not necessarily how poor country folk are affected, but Adichie does try to show through minor characters how different people experience both war and the build-up to war, and also how war, when it gets really bad, is a great leveller of rich and poor. When money is no longer worth anything, when everyone has fled their homes with a handful of clothes and little else, are rich people really any better off than anyone around them? Perhaps, in that they are more likely to know people – useful people who can things, messages, news. And even when money is supposedly worthless and there’s supposedly nothing to buy with it, there is always someone who can be bribed.

There is a surreal sequence at the height of the war when Richard goes to meet a pair of American journalists, to act as their guide and translator. Of necessity he takes them only to relatively safe places and feeds them decent food paid for by the government. They complain that it doesn’t seem that bad. Then Richard goes home to a place where even rice is a rare luxury, where children catch and roast lizards to fend off starvation.

The title, by the way, refers to the flag of the short-lived nation Biafra, the south-eastern region of Nigeria where all the main characters live. Their anthem was “Land of the Rising Sun” and their motto “Peace, Unity, Freedom” – which sadly never came. The region still suffers from ethnic and religious violence.

This book is brilliant and sad and warm and heartbreaking. It’s an important reminder of the best and worst of humanity. Thank you once again to Amy Reads for recommending it to me.

First published 2006 by Fourth Estate.

UPDATE: See also this review by Amy of Amy Reads. Plus you can listen to an episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to June 2009.

One day in the life

Saturday
by Ian McEwan

I have read a few of McEwan’s books, and have had a pretty variable response to them. This one kept me so thoroughly hooked (staying up until 1 a.m. to finish it) and had such masterful language that it is definitely my favourite so far (oh, except maybe A Child in Time, which was heartbreakingly beautiful).

The story is about one particular Saturday, a day that is both ordinary and extraordinary for main character Henry, a brain surgeon in a wealthy part of London. McEwan goes into a lot of detail in this book, not something I remember particularly of his previous writing, so I suppose maybe it’s intended as a reflection of Henry’s precise nature. There are pages and pages detailing medical procedures, for example, both adding authority to the story and revealing how very much the job is a part of who Henry is.

Henry wakes early, unable to sleep, and by chance sees a plane burst into flames from his bedroom window. This is how his Saturday begins. It goes on to include a squash game, a minor car crash, food shopping, a family reunion and his observation of the Don’t Invade Iraq protest march. Yes, it’s set on that particular Saturday.

It’s an interesting set-up and is executed extremely well. The impending Iraq invasion pervades the whole day. Henry can’t get it out of his mind. He is completely torn on the subject. Not ambivalent – he definitely cares – but he is honestly not sure whether it’s the right thing to do. He’s not concerned about WMDs but he has met Iraqi intellectuals who tell awful tales of Saddam Hussein’s regime, tales that make him think that removing such a man from power could only be a good thing. But Henry’s an intelligent, astute enough man to know that it’s not that simple. For one thing, war is always to be avoided. There’s also the question of what happens next – does the UK suffer from reprisals? Does Iraq get another terrible dictator who inflicts unspeakable crimes on his own people? Does the US try to rule Iraq, causing a much bigger, longer-drawn-out war? Does this give us licence to go invade every other country with a despotic leader who we think is doing bad things?

I think this is part of why I liked the book so much. I relate very strongly to this in Henry. It’s easy to say in hindsight whether something was good or bad, whether it was done well or badly. But at the time I was so uncertain. A lot of my friends went on that protest march through London and a few people were surprised that I didn’t. I’m a pacifist – I could never be for war – but there was a strong argument for removing Saddam from power. It would be wonderful if this sort of thing could be managed through the International Court of Justice, but it’s never that simple.

But back to the book…Henry is in some ways an irritating, smug, well-to-do character who is so far removed from war zones and human rights violations that it could have been hard to care about what he thinks. He certainly has money, a comfortable lifestyle, a loving wife and children, a job he thrives on. His difficulty relating to his creatively minded children could have been clichéd. At a party I might not be inclined to speak to him. But McEwan manages to both find the humanity of this man but also write his story in a way that does not ask you to care. In a way, the whole point is how comfortably middle class Henry is because he epitomises the capitalist consumer, he is the person Al Quaeda despises and wages hate campaigns against. And he is very close in type to the people who actually made the decision about whether or not to go to war. You imagine that he was probably classmates at public school and later university with key cabinet members.

In his favour, Henry is a thinking man and McEwan gives him a believably erudite turn of phrase. For instance, when considering his difficulty with reading poetry, his thoughts run:

“…it cost him an effort of an unaccustomed sort. Even a first line can produce a tightness behind his eyes. Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time…But to do its noticing and judges, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of the moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling.”

(Incidentally, I’m not sure if I somehow had an American edition but I did get a little annoyed that this well bred Englishman was using American terms like “airplane” and “movie” rather than the British English equivalents, but that’s the sub-editor in me coming out.)

This was a very well executed novel that held me in its thrall and I am very grateful to Kath of [Insert suitably snappy title here…] for recommending it.

First published 2005 by Jonathan Cape

That’s prostrate, with two Rs

Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years
by Sue Townsend

Oh, Sue Townsend, you never let me down. I’ve been struggling to read much lately but as soon as I opened this book I was tearing through the pages, laughing out loud and loving reconnecting with the characters that are so familiar they are like extended family.

I pretty much grew up with Adrian Mole. I somehow got hold of the first two books when I was about 10 (I think they’d been given to my older sister, not to me) and I read and re-read those volumes many a time through my teens. I think I have bought and read all of the subsequent volumes, and though grown-up Adrian is far more annoying than the teenage boy was, I still love being back in that world.

Adey, as Pandora still calls him, is approaching 40, is living next-door to his parents in a converted pigsty, is worried that his wife Daisy is gaining weight and losing interest in him, and is having trouble with his prostate (which everyone keeps calling his prostrate, much to his irritation). Still, he enjoys his job at a local independent bookshop and his five-year-old daughter Gracie is a treasure, albeit one with an overactive imagination. And surprisingly, the glamorous and successful Pandora (MP and junior minister) still shows enough interest in him to make his wife jealous.

This wouldn’t be an Adrian Mole book if he wasn’t teetering on the brink of total failure and there are moments when you wonder if he doesn’t bring it on himself (he’s so earnest) but he is ultimately a very sympathetic character surrounded by everyday-type chaos. What I’ve always thought Townsend does particularly well is to make Adrian a terrible writer when he’s trying to write (which he’s still convinced is his forte despite only ever having published a cookbook that his mother had to ghost-write when he couldn’t get past the introduction) but a brilliant diarist. His daily life, boring to his own eyes and those of his friends and family, becomes wonderfully funny through a combination of keen observation and fantastic characterisation.

In this book, for possibly the first time, my favourite character was Adrian’s mother Pauline. She freely admits to a long litany of faults but is devoted to her family and amazingly capable (she is often the only one who can persuade Gracie to wear her school uniform and not one of her many fancy dress costumes…and she does it without tears or tantrums). She is also writing an autobiography full of shocking lies that she has provisionally titled A Girl Called Shit and is threatening to take Adrian’s sister Rosie on The Jeremy Kyle Show to reveal who her real father is.

As ever, the diaries are set in the recent past (2007–2008) and provide an often-satirical look at life in Britain. There are the precursors to and early rumblings of recession, the resignation of Tony Blair, the summer floods and the smoking ban.

The next instalment of the Mole diaries is due out later this year and I greatly look forward to it.

Published 2009 by Michael Joseph.

The serious side of fluff

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
by Helen Fielding

This is a bit of a mishmash of a novel, combining hapless heroine, chicklit, rollicking adventure and post-9/11 paranoia. It doesn’t entirely work.

Olivia Joules is a freelance journalist with an awful lot in common with Fielding’s more famous creation, Bridget Jones – she’s man-obsessed, convinced she’s made for greater things than the job she’s doing and gives her imagination free rein without applying common sense – but Joules has a darker past and, when pushed, turns out to be a lot more capable. By the end of the book she’s a strong heroine but it takes her a while to get there.

The story is far-fetched and heavily influenced by 9/11. Possibly too much so. Joules is sent to Miami to cover an inane story for the Sunday Times’ Style magazine where she meets a man she’s convinced is up to no good on a global scale, with her usual ability to add 2 and 2 and make 7. However, this time there are an awful lot of coincidences that appear to suggest that her hunch was right.

Fielding’s style is very readable and Joules is likeable enough, but she still has too much Bridget Jones in her to be an interesting original creation. She makes lists. She jumps to conclusions from people’s initial appearances. It’s like Fielding started creating a much more interesting, strong character, but then held back. And threw in an awful lot of prejudiced nonsense to boot. Racially, mostly (I can’t explain that without giving away spoilers but if you read it you’ll see what I mean), but also against geeks/techies. In addition, she seems to be trying to write satirically and failing.

There’s a lot about this story that’s hard to believe, and I suppose to enjoy it you need to switch off from thinking that way, but I just couldn’t. I freely admit that I loved Bridget Jones’ Diary when I read it back in 1996, but I was a lot younger then and I think my tastes have changed somewhat.

Published 2003 by Picador.

UPDATE: See also this review by Judith of Leeswammes.

Talking books

Hunger
by Knut Hamsun
translated from Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad

A few months back I went along to a new book group at a local pub. I only found out about it a few days beforehand and didn’t even know which book they were discussing, so that was an odd start to the evening but it was a great night. I met some new people, found out more about my adopted city and talked a lot about books. The chosen book turned out to be Hunger, which was already on my TBR, and the discussion about it inspired me to dig it out and give it a try.

The unnamed narrator of Hunger (except for when he gives himself pseudonyms) is a young, struggling writer, battling with his pride and the difficulties of getting paid to write, with the result that he is often starving or even homeless. The lack of food and warmth plays with his mind and the story delves into a dark psychology that to me seemed far more advanced than its publication date of 1890.

The writing is brilliant, and draws you on even when the narrator is incomprehensible or the storyline particularly dark, both of which happen often. There are dozens or more moments that stand out as somehow key – sleeping out in the forest one night (which struck him as a romantic idea and a potential source of food but turned out to be cold, wet and a long walk from the city); trying to sell the buttons from his overcoat to a pawnbroker; turning down a food coupon because he has told the police he is a rich man who lost his key, though it seems that surely they see through that lie and the writer hasn’t eaten in so long…

I completely agree with the member of the book group who said that she often wanted to scream at the narrator, he’s so frustrating. Although his pride does wear down eventually, for a lot of the book it gets in the way of him getting money or food. I did sympathise to a certain point. He seems to find it funny to tell lies to random strangers, including policeman, which is sometimes entertaining but other times costs him dearly.

I also think that the narrator probably has serious psychological issues that may have preceded the starvation. He has extreme highs and lows, achieving euphoria in his hunger or his writing but also stark depression. It’s a pretty extreme experience being described and it affected me deeply that the high moments were such small, simple things like a sunny day or decent night’s sleep. Interestingly, I don’t think eating was ever described as particularly pleasurable. In fact, he often vomits because the rare food he gets he eats too quickly, or it’s too rich.

One thing we discussed at the book group was the question of translation. This book is old enough that it has been translated into English multiple times. There were three or four versions round the table. This could mean that members of our group had very different experiences from each other. I wonder if all those who liked it most read the same version?

Thanks Hombre Mediocre for the book choice and for starting the group. I look forward to our January meeting.

First published in Norway in 1890.
This translation first published by Canongate Books in 1996.