Big ideas for a big story

The Magus
by John Fowles

This is a crazy book that plays with concepts of humanity, deceipt, morality, psychology and storytelling, all wound up in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that is packed full of suspense, action, beautiful scenery and romance. It’s full of big ideas but it’s also a great fun rollercoaster of a story with so many twists and turns that I often felt as confused as the hero.

Said hero is Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who doesn’t know what to do with his life and is generally miserable. He narrates the story and makes for a very interesting perspective on events. He is shallow, naive and quick to change his mind. On many a page he says “I knew for sure…” or “I understood now…” only to be proved wrong a few lines later.

Not that he can be entirely blamed for changing his mind about certain things. The central premise is that Nicholas goes to teach English on a remote Greek island and there meets an old man, Conchis, who lures him into a bizarre game in which nothing and no-one can be trusted. There were times when the situation got so dark or confusing that I found it far-fetched that Nicholas would continue going back for more, but on the other hand he’s a selfish young man who’s been placed at the centre of a millionaire’s play – that’s got to be good for the ego – and, of course, there’s a young lady involved. Actually, more than one. It’s
complicated.

There are so many layers of lies or potential truths that I constantly reached passages that read like a conclusion was about to come and at first I’d think “But hang on, there’s 400/300/200 pages left” but by the end you’re not ready to trust anything, even the last sentence.

And of course there’s the element of belief – what is real and what is imagined? Nicholas is in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language before he arrived, the weather is relentlessly hot, the people are very different from those he’s used to spending time with, the landscape is obviously foreign – nothing is familiar. That must take a toll on the way a person reacts to events they are confronted with. Not to mention the question of what and who we trust and why. As a middle class intellectual, Nicholas is pre-conditioned to believe obviously educated, well read, well spoken people. As a womaniser he’s inclined to believe anything a woman who flirts with him says. And this is clear and obvious to anyone who wishes to take advantage of his gullibility.

The morality of the story is the thing I found hardest to get on with. This was written in the 1960s but set in the 50s and, though in some ways it’s surprisingly modern (yes, women can separate sex from love and use their bodies accordingly) it’s also harshly judgmental of Nicholas, who is really just a bit of a drifter and a womaniser who never pretended to be anything else. He is put through the mill to perportedly make him a better person and yet, with all of the questions that this long book asks, it is never suggested that maybe Nicholas doesn’t need to be changed, that he’s basically decent from the start. In fact I think I liked the original Nicholas who was sure of what he was and good enough to be honest about it, though he was generally unhappy with his life, more than the Nicholas at the end of the book who has been frightened into doing nothing, trusting no-one, fearing everything.

Despite my standing up for him, there were times – many of them – when I wanted to shout at Nicholas. He is so obviously wrong at times and just plain stupid at others. I even figured out a perfect line of work for him so he woudn’t need to drift/teach any more (if you’ve read this give your ideas in the comments below and we can compare!). But where with some books that would be frustrating, with this one it felt good to engage so fully, to get emotionally involved in bits that weren’t a love story (though it is one of those as well).

And yet, though I was fully engaged and the story is definitely eventful, I found this was a slow read. I read every day, often far later into the night than I should and it still took me weeks to get through. It is a long book but I think it’s also one that requires you to pay attention to every detail. There’s so much talk of clues and hints that I often re-read passages in case I’d missed something important. I found that I even read the descriptive passages closely where I would often skim the lengthier ones in other novels. Fowles’ descriptions of Greece are spellbinding and more than once I found myself looking up holidays to Greece when I put the book down.

Many a long essay has been written about this book and I can see why, but from a personal point of view I will conclude with: this is a good read, an extremely good read, that makes you think and yet doesn’t feel at all ‘worthy’. Highly recommended.

First published 1966 by Jonathon Cape. Revised by the author 1977.

To sleep, perchance to dream

Girlfriend in a Coma
by Douglas Coupland

This is a strange novel in many ways. It’s about the end of the world, and this is made clear from the start, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story of apocalypse. The story starts with a group of teenagers and, though it spans 20 years, the characters don’t progress much. Which is the point of the whole story.

Jared died when he was 16 years old. He was a football star with more sexual experience than all of his friends combined, then he died of leukaemia. He narrates the story of his friends’ lives. It is a story of middle-of-the-road ordinariness. Its characters exist on the brink of failure. They don’t fulfill their dreams or achieve greatness. And yet these people are somehow important in the story of the end of the world.

It’s an interesting concept, that the people who have an important role to play aren’t the statesmen or the philosphers or the rich and famous. Instead, they are the lost, lonely people who need some persuasion to see that they are lost and lonely. But it’s also frustrating because you feel that they don’t deserve to be chosen, that they should be handling the survival of the human race better. Or at least I did.

It’s well written and the characters are very very real. For most of the middle section I would recommend not reading this last thing before you go to sleep (you’ll understand when you get to that part). It’s gripping and enjoyable. However, my frustration with the emptiness of the characters overtook my enjoyment of the story at times.

Published 1998 by Flamingo
ISBN: 978-0-0065-5127-0

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.

More chills than Hitchcock

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

I can only imagine that everyone who has read this novel came away with the same dumbstruck combination of awe and horror. It is an absolutely terrifying book. The twists in the story rarely manage to surprise but they do keep it interesting and the narrative remains believable and human at all times.

For the three people in the world who don’t know, the story is told in the form of letters from a woman, Eva, to her husband, all talking about their son Kevin; a son who took a gun to school and killed several of his classmates, a son who was always chillingly distant, detached and unreachable, a son who manipulated his parents from a very young age. Eva always felt that he was evil, or at least capable of evil things, but was desperate for that not to be true and tries hard to rationalise Kevin’s actions as a consequence of her parenting.

The details of the horrific homicidal rampage are gradually eked out inbetween tales of Kevin as a baby, about Eva’s life before him; but most of all about her feelings as a mother who cannot connect with her child.

I am not always a fan of books that are quite this introspective and self-examining, but this book is utterly brilliant. I am torn between thinking that everyone should read this to understand a little more about how hard parenting can be and how huge an effect the tiniest decisions can have, and wanting to protect everyone I love from the awfulness of the book’s events and conclusions.

Published 2006 by Serpent’s Tail.
Winner of the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction.

UPDATE: I can highly recommend listening to the episode of the World Book Club podcast in which Lionel Shriver discusses this book. Just click on the link and scroll down to July 2009.

I can see why people study this

As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner

Addie Bundren is dying. Or is she dead already? Nothing is ever quite clear in this brilliant but challenging American classic. It probably helps if you are familiar with the vernacular of 1920s Mississippi. I really am not.

The story is told by various characters in or observing the Bundren family as their matriarch dies and is transported to her hometown to be buried. Stream of consciousness is used rather than past-tense “this is what happened”. The voices are very different and, except for the occasional lapse into straight storytelling, the characterisation is excellent.

Characters are not formally introduced, with it sometimes taking several chapters to figure out how two people are related, which has the effect of making you feel that you have come into the story partway through. This is fantastic in terms of realism but can make the story hard to follow. There are also some scenes that are described by more than one character, making it appear that time is not quite linear.

Helpfully, the character who narrates the most – Darl – is a dreamer and his descriptions are more poetic than the others’. In his voice Faulkner writes some beautiful vignettes of simple scenes of life, from flowing water to the night sky. The other characters regard Darl with suspicion but it is not until near the end of the book that it becomes clear why.

This is a very poor family, farmers who feel strongly their differences from the likes of town folk. They work hard for the little they have and pride overrules most everything else. This is central to what would otherwise be a very difficult book to understand.

This certainly isn’t a light read. It makes you think about life and death and the relative values that you place on things. It can be tough to follow and the language can be a barrier. But it’s worth the effort for those moments of poetry and the brutal honesty of people when in their darkest hour.

First published 1930 in the USA.

See also: review by Marie of Little Interpretations.