I don’t need to jump off cliffs into oceans to die

All Grown Up
by Jami Attenberg

This book is described in the publisher’s PR as a comedy, and while it has comic moments, that’s not really how I would describe it. Or at least, it’s not how I experienced it. I did, however, really enjoy it.

This is the story of Andrea, a woman living in New York at that point in life (39, turning 40) when she interrogates her life choices – how she stopped pursuing art and took a job in advertising that she dislikes yet is somehow still doing 10 years later; how despite a string of love affairs she is basically single and basically fine with that; how she has fallen away from friends and family who have got married and had children as she has realised that she doesn’t want those things for herself.

“A book is published. It’s a book about being single, written by an extremely attractive woman who is now married, and it is a critical yet wistful remembrance of her uncoupled days. I have no interest in reading this book. I am already single. I have been single a long time. There is nothing this book can teach me about being single that I don’t already know. Regardless, everyone I know tells me about this book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages, doing the bidding of a wicked media maestro on a rooftop in modern Manhattan. Nothing will prevent them from reaching their destination, me, their presumed target demographic.”

Continue reading “I don’t need to jump off cliffs into oceans to die”

Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them

in certain circlesIn Certain Circles
by Elizabeth Harrower

I first heard about Elizabeth Harrower in a New Yorker article a couple of years ago that celebrated the republication of the elderly Australian author’s works. It included the intriguing detail that this would be the first opportunity to read her fifth novel, In Certain Circles, because back in 1971 the author decided at the last moment not to proceed with its publication.

There is no obvious clue to what Harrower could have disliked about her work, as this is a tremendously well written novel. Perhaps she didn’t like its negative tone, because this is not an uplifting read. It is deeply sad, but not due to big disastrous events. Its sadness is the type that comes from life’s disappointments, poor decisions that are only revealed to have been wrong several years later.

It doesn’t start out with an especially sad tone. When we meet main character Zoe Howard she is 17, fully aware of her beauty and privilege, living as she does at the opulent end of Sydney Harbour. Her older brother Russell was a POW during the war, forever changing his outlook on the world and the circles he wants to move in. He introduces her to his friends Anna and Stephen Quayle, siblings who were orphaned and left in the hands of a poor abusive uncle. Despite their very different circumstances, the four connect in a way that keeps their lives bound together far beyond Russell and Stephen’s shared university course.

Continue reading “Her compressed and coded thoughts exploded between them”

Lovers communicate not inside sentences but between them

post-birthday-worldThe Post-Birthday World
by Lionel Shriver

I have to try very hard to separate the prose of this book from its politics – and those of its author – because I quite liked the book but it was decidedly tainted for me by the occasional political comment. There was one short section of what can only be described as lies about the NHS that got me so mad I very seriously considered stopping reading then and there, despite it being more than 400 pages in.

Politics aside, this is an enjoyable enough, reasonably well written story that kept me interested and got me looking at my own life through a new filter, which is generally a good sign. I don’t find its central conceit as mindblowingly original as those reviewers quoted on the cover (it is, after all, straight out of Sliding Doors, a film I’ve watched many many times) but it is done well and I like that Shriver didn’t make obvious choices but kept it subtle.

Irina and Lawrence are an American ex-pat couple living a comfortable, if bland, life together in London. After nine years, and now in their 40s, they are very much set in their ways and their future seems obvious. But one night, Irina finds herself unexpectedly attracted to another man almost the opposite of Lawrence. Whether or not she kisses Ramsey is the question on which the rest of the book turns – because both answers are given, with two stories told from that point on.

Continue reading “Lovers communicate not inside sentences but between them”

Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

Continue reading “Light travels differently in a room that contains another person”

You’re just a totalitarian angel

AmorousDiscourseSuburbsHellAn Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
by Deborah Levy

This is a long poem (ish – it’s no Faerie Queen) in the form of a dialogue between a couple, “He” and “she”, alternating having their say in this argument/conversation. It’s different from anything else I’ve read, wonderfully surreal and packed with references to everything from Shakespeare to pop songs. I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to read it again.

The poem works so well because it could be read in many ways. Is this an ordinary human couple living in suburbia? Or are they angels fallen to hell? Is one of them fallen and the other trying to save them? Is one human and one God? The many religious references (to the Bible, to Dante, to the language of faith) are woven in such a way that they could just possibly be the twee fondnesses of a couple in love, or they could be wholly serious.

Best of all, it’s funny. Genuinely, laugh-out-loud but also cleverly, funny. It’s profound and profane, full of meaning and simple, pure entertainment.

“i try to introduce you
to the way i see things
and all you want is a wife
a wife and a second-class stamp and a bath
a bath and a donut and a product to kill moths

“You’re just a totalitarian angel
Full of self-rapture
I thought you were a divine messenger
In fact you’re a glutton
With wings”

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape.
This edition, with revisions, published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

Mere effort of the mind produced an earthquake

Sun Alley

Sun Alley
by Cecilia Ştefanescu
translated from Romanian by Alexandra Coliban and Andreea Höfer

I seem to have had this reading experience a few times this year: I get to the end of the book and I’m still not sure whether or not I liked it. I can say that the writing was, for the most part, great, but I have real reservations. I’m fairly sure it’s the books and not me, but who knows?!

Cecilia Ştefanescu is a bestselling writer in Romania but pretty much unknown over here. I have always had an inexplicable yearning to go to Romania (I even started learning Romanian, briefly) but haven’t yet made it there, so I thought reading a Romanian book might be a start. I’m not sure I have learned anything particular about Romania from this book, aside from that I’m impressed such an unashamedly literary work was a bestseller there.

“After the whirlpool drags you for an angstrom or so, you remain nailed because the attraction of the fractions is so strong. Each growing part, in ceaseless expansion, hangs down with the weight of death. You go back in your mind to see your point of departure, but once the image has vanished, its memory disappears as well. You are suspended between spaces, and time flows disproportionately.”

This novel starts as the story of a boy and girl (their age isn’t given but I guessed about 12), Sal and Emi, who are hiding their fledgling romance from friends and family. On his way to visit Emi one afternoon, Sal discovers a dead body. What does this mean? Is it somehow symbolic of the rest of his life? And where do this adult couple who keep popping up fit into Sal and Emi’s story?

It’s odd, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this certainly requires some work of its reader – all is not always clear. The writing is beautiful but the melancholic tone, disjointed timeline and slow pace took me a while to get into. And figuring out that you can’t take it all at face value took me even longer.

“The loneliness felt in dreams was tremendous, more dreadful than all he had been through in Harry’s basement, uglier than the mole-crickets crawling undisturbed in his grandmother’s house, more shocking than Emi’s long silences she hoped to impress him with. That loneliness contained something overwhelming that would crush him, as if the mere effort of the mind produced an earthquake that crumbled down the whole stone-made edifice of his enforced and self-inflicted enclosure.”

Effectively, the novel is told from Sal’s point of view, though it isn’t first person, and like all individual perspectives, his is not entirely reliable. He’s clearly aware that he’s different from other children, but not in what way he’s different. One early clue is that he makes friends by telling good stories. Despite this perspective, I never really felt I got to know or understand Sal, or indeed Emi. What was the attraction of this strange boy who holds himself apart one day, then throws himself into the boys club the next day? And why do Sal’s parents disapprove so strongly of Emi?

I definitely want to read more Romanian literature but I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to Ştefanescu.

Intrarea soarelui published 2008 by Editura Polirom.
This translation published 2013 by Istros Books.

Source: Waterstones.

The air is like a solid entity

Instructions for a Heatwave

Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O’Farrell

This is a lovely book, a sort of family saga that only covers a month or so of time but manages to encompass whole lives lived and deftly investigates family relationships of all varieties.

In the summer of 1976, Britain was in the grip of a now-legendary heatwave and drought, and O’Farrell uses excerpts from the hastily introduced Drought Act 1976 to intersperse the action. The effects of the heat and water shortage are filtered through one family: the Riordans. Gretta knows her husband Robert is struggling a little to adapt to retirement but she doesn’t expect him to just go missing one day. Their three adult children hurry home to help with the search, but they bring with them their own baggage and conflicts.

“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor.”

The children are quite different but what they share is that the distinct effects of their childhood can be discerned in their adult selves. Middle child Michael Francis struggles to balance his desire to keep his wife and children happy with his unfulfilled ambition to move to America and be a rock star of the academic world, a desire that is driving his wife away from him. Youngest child Aoife is dyslexic but at a time before such things were known about, she has spent her life hiding her shame at her inability to read, which led to her being labelled fractious and difficult. Oldest child Monica spent the latter half of her childhood effectively raising Aoife, as their mother was often too tired or ill, and her adult life is defined by her wish not to be a mother.

“She cannot read. She cannot do that thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemise them into meaning…She can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm, through her fingers and out on to a page. She doesn’t know why this is. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and…decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed for ever.”

There are many secrets hiding in cupboards for the Riordan family, some of which are revealed early on in the novel (and therefore included in the previous paragraph), some of which are hinted at and then gradually revealed, while others come completely out of left field, or so it seems. This is partly the effect of the family’s (or at least the parents’) Catholicism, which puts pressure on them all in ways that perhaps wouldn’t have been true for a less religious family. But then again it is 1976, and some of the events recounted are years before that, so at least some of the social pressure is simply of its time. Being Catholic doesn’t just give them all a higher level of guilt, it also makes them different from the people around them so that there are times when they close ranks as a family. Gretta and Robert are both Irish but living in London, and it’s worth remembering that the IRA was at the height of its terrorist activities in the 1970s, so having an Irish connection was another way to be shunned by your English neighbours.

All of which makes this sound like quite a serious book, and certainly it deals with some serious issues, but it does so with warmth and love, not to mention humour. It was a joy to be in the Riordans’ company, even while they were all being incredibly frustrating in their various and different ways. It’s also a very atmospheric book, with a real sense of the heat of that summer and evocative descriptions of its various settings.

“Conversations with his mother can be confusing meanders through a forest of meaning in which nobody has a name and characters drop in and out without warning. You needed to get a toehold, just a slight grasp on your orientation, ascertain the identity of one dramatis persona and then, with any luck, the rest would fall into place.”

One thing that struck me was the realisation that the three adult children are all younger than me. They seem so sure that the paths of their lives are decided, that they are where they will stay, but they’re all in their 20s – so much could still change for them if they can only find their way. Again, this is partly a product of the times. People married and had children much younger then, and such commitments do have a tendency to make big life changes harder to make! But it’s also a bit clever on O’Farrell’s part, combining the uncertainties and the sureness of youth – the children know they are flawed, they fret about it and even try to change, but they are so certain they know themselves inside out when we, as readers, can see that they have plenty left to learn on that score.

As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will be adding O’Farrell to my list of authors to buy in future.

Published 2013 by Tinder Press.

Source: Foyles Bookshop, Bristol.

I was penetrated by sunlight

Claudine Married
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

Claudine Married

Getting hold of this book was a little bit of a saga. I came across the first Claudine book in a secondhand bookshop and fell in love with both the charming story and the attractive old Penguin edition I had picked up. I resolved to collect the set of four in the same design and soon had three, but this one proved a bit of a challenge. Twice I ordered it from sellers on Abe Books only for the sale to fall through because they didn’t have it in stock after all. It was with some excitement I finally lined up my little collection.

It’s a shame then that this instalment didn’t quite live up to the first two, though I hasten to add that it’s still a beautifully written and insightful book. But one of the things that I liked about the character of Claudine was her mixture of naughty wilfulness and youthful innocence. Now she is innocent no more. Or isn’t she?

In this third book in the Claudine series she returns to Paris from a long, leisurely honeymoon with her husband Renaud. She is just 18 years old and her husband in his 40s, which gives us an early clue as to his sexual tastes. There is an uncomfortable section where the newlyweds visit Claudine’s old school and both flirt outrageously with the 15-year-old girls boarding there.

Sexual attraction had been a major topic of the series previously but here that’s what it’s all about. Claudine had dabbled with both sexes before her marriage and the pattern continues. As well as loving her husband, she falls hopelessly in lust with a new acquaintance, Rezi, the buxom wife of a jealous invalid. Renaud immediately sees this and encourages Claudine in what she sees as him being an understanding husband, but I read as straightforward lechery. I won’t say which of us was right, but Claudine certainly has some lessons to learn.

As always, Colette writes with great affection for the French countryside.

“At least I had been able to bathe my bare hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun. I was penetrated by sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden.”

This book is fairly sexually explicit but it’s not Henry Miller. The deed itself is usually skipped past. The narrative concentrates instead on Claudine’s reaction to events. It was with some relief I realised that her reluctance to give in to her desire for Rezi stems from wanting to be faithful to her husband, not the fact that Rezi is a woman. She has, after all, been there before.

I can see why it took almost 60 years for an English translation to appear in print but I do wonder how shocking (or not) these novels were in France.

First published as Claudine amoureuse 1902.
Published as Claudine en ménage after the above edition had been destroyed.
This translation published 1960 by Secker & Warburg.
My edition published 1972 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

For shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro

This collection of short stories was picked by my book group. The title gives a clue to its overarching themes and I had an inkling that Munro was well known for her short stories, but otherwise I didn’t know what to expect. I have an idea that she is a bit of a national treasure in Canada so apologies for my cluelessness.

The stories all deal with relationships, of all kinds – couples, siblings, extended family, friends, acquaintances; even the brief relationships established with strangers under certain circumstances. There is nothing fantastical, or showy, or even hugely eventful (though things do happen that with another writer at the helm could be dramatic, or melodramatic). Munro’s style is quiet, understated, acutely observed but not in the biting, sarcastic manner of many a younger writer. She is generous to her characters, reserving judgement even as she reveals their flaws.

All of which sounds like this could be a light, fluffy read, but it most definitely is not. There is a slightly melancholic air about the stories, a sense of disappointment and disenchantment. Lovers cheat and/or break up, people get sick, people die, people lose touch. But it’s not all downbeat. There are small pleasures, small hopes, moments of pure love:

“Her heart had been dry, and she had considered it might always be so. And now such a warm commotion, such busy love.”

Every story stands up to scrutiny; in fact they are almost certainly improved by it. At book club we all had different favourites and all enthused about each other’s choices. We did all have reservations about the first story, from which the collection takes its title. While clever and interesting, it did not have the everyday feel of the other stories. It starts with a woman arranging to ship furniture across Canada, then tells us who she is and why she is doing it, then continues her story, but it skips perspective several times, zooming in on a character for a few pages at a time. At 54 pages it is the longest story in the book and possibly the most experimental. It certainly intrigued me but also frustrated me, which was actually a reaction I had a few times.

It is almost certainly a good thing to find yourself shouting (on the inside) at a character for their actions – it shows both that you have been drawn into the story and that you find the character believable – how else could you presume to think they would act in a certain way? And Munro definitely populates her stories with believable people. She deftly, in just a few lines, tells you what you need to know and yet sometimes the whole story will be a gradual revealing of a person’s character:

“She looked both frail and hardy, like a daisy on a long stalk.”

Brilliantly, you could just as easily argue that little or nothing happens in these stories, or that too much happens. Those mundane details of everyday life that Munro picks out can seem so inconsequential, yet at the same time you realise that the characters’ concerns are often the same as your own so-called disasters. It is difficult balancing guilt at having moved away from family and the need to build your own independent life and it is galling when someone plays on your guilt.

This is one of many examples where Munro seems to take a side, only to give sympathetic ear to the other side of the debate later on, often in another story. To balance the unwanted family guest, there’s a very sick man who could really do with his family making the effort to visit. That, incidentally, comes in the final and for me most emotionally engaging story, “The bear came over the mountain”.

I am beginning to realise how very much there is to say about these stories and that I already want to re-read some of them. At first I was not impressed and even on immediately finishing the book I felt that it had all been a bit old-fashioned, too much about marriage with most of the wives staying at home and having babies. But the more I reflect the more I see how well Munro has captured the realities of a certain kind of life that is familiar to most of us in the western world. None of her characters is hugely rich or desperately poor. Those who face hardship have support. These are the most middling of ordinary lives, and that is why they ring so true and say so much:

“And yet – an excitement. The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life. Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet.”

Published 2001 by Alfred A Knopf in the US, Chatto & Windus in the UK.

What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths

Enduring Love
by Ian McEwan

This is a story of love in all its forms, and both how painful and how uplifting that love can be. It also manages to be a compelling thriller, beginning with an event that sets wheels in motion for a series of misfortunes, building up to a dramatic climax.

Clarissa and Joe are happy, utterly in love after many years together. While at a picnic, they unwittingly become part of a terrible accident. At first it seems that the rest of the book will be them coming to terms with tragedy. But it quickly turns out to be something else, or at least, as the narrator, Joe keeps insisting that something else is going on, but Clarissa and the police don’t believe him. Is this a classic case of the unreliable narrator? Or is there a genuine terror stalking Joe and Clarissa, ready to erupt at any time?

For a start, Joe is easily lost in daydreams or work-related thoughts from the reality at hand. From the first page he is challenging his own memory. Did it happen the way he describes? He knows certain details conflict with other witness accounts gathered by the police and Clarissa’s memory. He says, “I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible.”

Joe is a freelance science writer, a successful one, but also a man who feels that he made a mistake leaving research behind, so he is not entirely happy with where he is. He loves Clarissa unreservedly but she is unable to have children, which has always been a huge source of pain for them both. It’s a set-up that allows pure happiness to fall apart very quickly.

Through a psychological thriller framework, McEwan examines relationship love, parental love, religious love (though only at the extreme end), the love shared in friendship, sibling love (quite briefly) and obsessive love. It also examines a few forms of psychological instability, from the uncertainties of grief through to a far more troubling example.

McEwan writes well and keeps the possibilities open as he carries us along to the climax. In true thriller style, the augurs are all there that something is coming, but as a literary novel you know that the actual ending may be a more mundane realisation of truth.

I didn’t greatly like Joe. He is a bit dismissive of Clarissa, even condescending at times. While he has acquired tidbits of knowledge from far outside his original physics training, he seems to assume Clarissa’s only interests are her scholarly work on Keats, and children. I’m not sure if this is a failing of the character or of McEwan. Certainly, neither of the other female characters comes off well from Joe’s descriptions either. One is a widow too distracted by her loss to pay attention to her children, the other essentially a bimbo. I hope the problem is Joe’s.

Interestingly, although this all sounds plot-driven, despite having watched the film made of this book a few years back, I could not remember where it was going. Perhaps that’s just my memory, or the film was somehow incoherent, but perhaps it is because this book is sneakily about the writing after all: “What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness.”

First published 1997 by Jonathan Cape.