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[746] The Accidental – Ali Smith

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” Think of it this way. A pretty woman arrives at the door. She is ragged, hungry and lost. She is knocking on all the doors of all the houses to see who’ll be generous; it is a test. The innocent family, out of the goodness of its heart, takes her in, feeds her and offers her hospitality. ” (The Ending, p.270)

The Accidental is a novel with a very simple plot but the execution of which is a literary feat, purely stylistic speaking. It is written in a series of stream-of-consciousness, with every chapter representing the internal thoughts of each of the four members in a family. Astrid is an angsty 12-year-old who is only interested in video-filming. Her brother, Magnus, is a surly and confused adolescent whose prank has caused the death of a girl in school. Michael, their father, is a randy academic going through mid-life crisis, and his way of coping is philandering with his female students. His wife, Eve, a self-absorbed, negligent mother, is supposed to be writing the next in her series of “Genuine Articles,” books that relate the lives of people who died in the second war.

What was happy? What was an ending? She had been refusing real happiness for years and she had been avoiding real endings for just as long, right up to the moment she had opened the front door on her own emptied house . . . (The Ending, p.295)

The Smarts is a family with no real ties to each other. They hardly communicate—and their reflection are solipsistic bubbles of their own. Into this “atomized” family one day walks Amber, a thirty-something blonde wastrel with no love of social niceties. She turns up on the doorstep on the Smarts’ summer house claiming her car has broken down. Ludicrous as it seems, Michael assumes she has come to interview his wife, while Eve assumes she’s one of the Michael’s student mistresses. Somehow this mysterious stranger, charming both Astrid and Magnus, manages to stay with them for several weeks until she is cast out by Eve. Who is she? What does she want?

As clever as Smith is, the book is dull and a pain to read. Smith takes the rather derivative plot and turns the story into an experiment in literary exercise. Monologues, asides, poetry—all find their way into the narrative. The stream-of-consciousness is so indulgent, so excessive that it is a disconnected flow of tangent upon tangent and layer upon layer, until one is drowning in the metaphorical, wondering what happened to the action in the “real world” of the story. Ye, for all that, the novel about the interplay of real life and story delivers more flash than substance. I find the ubiquitous demonstration of her wit and of the depth of knowledge on numerous subjects distracting and digressive. The book needs to be edited down to the essence that is relevant to the characters.

306 pp. Penguin Fiction UK. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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[739] Beauty and Sadness – Yasunari Kawabata

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” Even now Oki’s words had not faded from her memory. The dialogue in his novel echoed them and seemed to have taken on a life apart from either Oki or herself. Perhaps the lovers of old were no more, but she had the nostalgic consolation, in the midst of her sadess, that their love was forever enshrined in a work of art. ” (126)

This eloquent and lyrical novel allures to a motif, the strange and nihilistic self-love pf the character Otoko. Ueno Otoko has established to be a successful painter in Kyoto. At age 16 she gave birth to a stillborn child from a forbidden love affair with a married man, Oki Toshio, who is almost twice her age. She managed to escape from mental hospital after her suicide attempt because of her unrequited love for Oki.

I suppose even a woman’s hatred is a kind of love. (94)

The novel begins as Oki, now in his mid fifties, is on a train to Kyoto for the New Year’s Eve belling tolling, which gives him an occasion to visit Otoko, whom he has not seen for 24 years. Otoko, too, has remained single and unmarried since the traumatic affair. During the visit, Oki meets Keiko, Otoko’s young portege and lover, in whom he sees the full bloom of Otoko’s lost beauty and passion. His affair with her has been an instrument to his success in literary career—he used the affair with Otoko to write his first novel, which brought hurt and humiliation to Otoko but wealth and fame to himself. Keiko sets out single-mindedly to revenge for Otoko by seducing Oki and his son Taichiro, using her beauty as a weapon.

Kawabata’s story takes place in that ethereal realm that lies between abstraction and reality. In the novel her writes Oki has immortalized his passion for Otaoko. Otoko wants to express her sense of loss, her grief and affection for the child she had never raised in her painting. Keiko wants to prove her love for Otoko by seeking a revenge for her. They are all entwined in this destiny but that neither one of them is comfortable with this destiny. They are all connected in a morbid way, and so their reflections abound, multiply, and reinforce the same locales and images. In a sense, they are lost in the confusion between image and reality.

Kawabata’s style is simple and light, but the novel is carefully constructed such that past events are often called and accumulated in the narrative to render a timeless quality. Since there is a poetic flow to it, the book is better relished slowly, to allow that bewildering array of reflections on the part of the characters to soak in. The recurring imagery—those flowers, temples, stone garden—all ingrained in characters’ memories, continue to reinforce and distort their reflections, and this is what makes the book very literary.

208 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[726] The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

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” For years I’d been wallowing in a hothouse of wasteful sorrow: Pippa Pippa Pippa, exhilaration and despair, it was never-ending, incidents of virtually no significance threw me to the stars or plunged me into speechless depressions . . . Worse, my love for Pippa was muddied up below the waterline with my mother, with my mother’s death, with losing my mother and not being able to get her back. ” (Ch.10, ii, p.632)

The Goldfinch is a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind. At 962 pages in paperback, the size could be stalling. It revolves around Theo Decker, a 13-year-old boy whose life is blown apart, in a very literal sense. He miraculously survives an explosion in a gallery he’s visiting with his devoted, angelic mother. She dies; he escapes with minor injuries and carrying a priceless painting from 1654 called The Goldfinch, a token of his memory, and which later becomes the object of barter of criminals and collectors. He’s taken the masterpiece because a dying old man who ended up beside him after the blast told him to save it. This man, Welty, also gave him a signet ring that leads the boy to the house of a charming furniture restorer named James Hobart, a place that becomes a safe haven as Theo tries to comes to terms with his loss.

Hobie made me see the creaturely quality of good furniture . . . He was a good teacher and very soon, by walking me through the process of examination and comparison, he’d taught me how to identify a reproduction. (Ch.4, xii, p.207)

If Hobie is the father figure who has a better sense of the boy and treats him as a companion and conversationalist in his own right, Theo’s own father is the unreliable knucklehead who is steeped in substance abuse. Trying to cheat Theo’s education fund, his father is as much a rogue as Hobie as the anchor.

Despite his checkered fate, Theo is an admirably unlikable character. He’s flawed, selfish, and does very silly things. To save Hobie’s struggling antiques store he sells masterful reproductions as originals. He is drenched in nostalgia of the past, in this ruthless loop of searching. He epitomizes the pathetic “good person” who makes all the wrong decisions. All the ridiculous convolutions hinge on his keeping the painting which is classified as a crime. But Tartt imparts in him a strong sense of decency underneath it all and surrounds him with some lovable creations. Hobie is a fine gent; Boris is his partners in crime while in Las Vegas. They show us how one can never draw a sharp line between good and bad. Neither has a point to exist without the other.

The book probes into questions of human achievement and the human soul. But at times Tartt can be heavy-handed and indulgent in theorizing and philosophizing. The harangue of an explanation tacked on at the end is necessary, but could have been done more lightly. That all said, The Goldfinch is a rewarding journey that teaches the moral about outward appearance versus inward significance. It does offer a glimpse of hope at the end as Theo awakens to the truth that there is no such thing as perfection and pulchritude. It has the addictive quality of a Victorian novel—it reminds me of Dickens, but with its air of mystery, intrigue and escapades it also evokes of Wilkie Collins. It’s a book of epic scale in terms of its ambitious theme: art may addict, but art also saves one from the sadness of human beings pushing and struggling to live.

962 pp. Little Brown and Company. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[653] Foreign Bodies – Cynthia Ozick

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” Marvin’s children too lived away. They could not live with their father—he had driven them off. The girl was inflamed. She had inserted herself into the unstable lives of her brother and his wife, a couple entangled nightly in sex. He’s a man—so had Lili, old in the ways of bodily congress, spoken of the boy she had aroused; and there lay the girl in a nearby room, listening, inflamed, . . . ” (Ch.36, p.163)

Foreign Bodies is Ozick’s homage to Henry James, a mirror to James’s The Ambassadors, with slanted replications of the latter’s storyline in reverse. In James’s novel, a middle-aged widower is dispatched to Paris on a delicate social mission by his friend and literary patron, the wealthy Mrs. Newsome, to retrieve her son, Chad, from the seductions of France and return him to the family business in America. But the task is futile once he realizes how remarkably imrpoved Chad has become in the clutches of an older woman, Madame de Vionnet.

She was all contradiction—resentment and indifference—and then this . . . this harebrained plummeting into Paris. To do what? To rescue whom? Marvin from his torment, the brother who abused her? Bea from a low and ragged life? (Ch.10, p.48)

Ozick’s ambassador from New York to Paris, where “young Americans in their 20s and 30s who called themselves ‘expatriates’, though they were little more than literary tourists on long visit,” (Ch.1, p.2), is a divorced high school teacher named Bea Nightingale. In summer 1952, Bea is charged by her abrasive brother, marvin, with going to Paris to reclaim his son, Julian, whose junior year abroad has now lasted three.

What Bea finds in Paris is a “homeless and jobless and reckless and rash” (Ch.17, p.81) boy who cannot keep up with the literary crowd of “imitation baby Sartres and Gides.” A loser in short. But the chief, more shocking fact of her nephew’s life that Bea has to confront is his sudden marriage to an older woman, a Romanian refugee, Lili, daughter of an educated Bucharest family, whose first husband and young son were murdered in the war and whose own arm is scarred from a bullet wound. Bea’s involvement is out of duty and obligation—she had no interest in their lives. But it sends her backward to confront her own past.

Ozick’s prose is incisive, observant and sharp-edged. The story mostly flows nimbly except for an occasional hiccup in which Ozick indulges in stumbling with excessive historical details. The tensions that motivate this novel are brought to alleviations as Bea comes to touch everyone’s life. Ozick examines the pull of family and obligation—the things we do for loved ones even when we don’t know why. But I have mixed feelings for this book, which could have been more substantial if the focus is on Lili, who is frustratingly peripheral. The beautiful, puny language is the strength, but sometimes it’s overwrought.

255 pp. Atlantic Books UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[643] The Lighthouse – Alison Moore

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” The ferry ploughs on across the North Sea, and home gets further and further away. The cold air from the vent seeps down the neck of his pyjama top and he turns over again. His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left. ” (Ch.1: Violets, p.7)

An unsettling and spare debut, The Lighthouse begins on the deck of a ferry that carries Futh, a middle-aged man who recently separated from his wife, to a holiday along the Rhine. Despite its seemingly strange structure, where fragments of memories over time are juxtaposed, sometimes within the same passage, at the evocation of a smell or of the sight of an object, the plot is very simple. It’s a sentimental journey. Futh remembers a previous trip on the same ferry with his father, both of whom bruised and angry after the sudden, but premeditated, departure of Futh’s mother.

Futh and Angela walked into the hotel dining room, Futh with one hand in his pocket, his fingers wrapped tightly around the little silver lighthouse. He always took the lighthouse with him when he travelled, as if it were his Saint Christopher. (Ch.7, Stewed Apples, p.80)

Futh also reflects on early trips he took with his parents and his estranged wife, who resents Futh’s constant perception of her as a mother figure. (Futh’s mother and wife happen to have the same name, Angela.) Thoughts also meander to the patched-together family his father builds with Gloria, the woman next door, and her son Kenny, in the aftermath of Futh’s mother’s disappearance. Parallel to Futh’s misery is Easter’s. She and her husband Bernard run the bed-and-breakfast Futh stays. There’s a piece of backstory about their history that, in its treatment of brothers, betrayal, and infidelity, incites a sense of ominousness. During his stay, Futh offends Bernard grievously that for the rest of the novel, as his long walk takes him back to his troubled past, reader’s sense of inevitable disaster becomes almost unbearable.

Ester does not remember when she started drinking in the morning or sleeping in the middle of the day. She remembers her first infidelity but she does not remember them all. (Ch.16: Moths, p.168)

The Lighthouse explores grief and loss, and the patterns in the way we are hurt and have hurt others. The interchangeability of names and events takes a bit getting used to, but this sense of ambiguity also seems to speak the novel’s main theme: we go in circles, repeating the past, feeling trapped and claustrophobic, helplessly re-experiencing our earliest, sometimes life-forming, hurts.

183 pp. Salt Publishing UK. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[641] In the Springtime of the Year – Susan Hill

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” Oh God, how many tears have there been? How much unhappiness and despair and exhaustion and anger and loneliness and misunderstanding? For it seemed at this moment that all the people she had ever known in her life had been weeping, all the days and nights of the past months had been full of nothing but tears. ” (Part III, Ch.15, 242)

The quiet novel was first published in 1974, when the author’s fiancé at the time died suddenly of heart attack. The book opens with the death of Ben Bryce, a young man in his 20s whom reader will only get to know posthumously but someone who clearly has left his imprint on all who knew him. In the Springtime of the Year, spanning about 9 month’s time, begins with the news of Ruth’s husband’s death in early March until the last page in December, when she emerges from her grief.

So they talked about her, Dora Bryce, and Alice, and the wives and mothers of the men Ben had worked with, and told anyone who passed through the village too. They waited for her to go mad and run about the countryside stark naked, to be taken away. To be found dead. (Part I, Ch.1, 23)

Ruth is withdrawn in her own grief, resisting help and resenting other people’s grief. She embraces bereavement alone, refusing to be comforted. Cut off from Ben’s family, who never approved of her. She tries to make sense of Ben’s tragic death, but other events external to her grief will occupy her and eventually deliver her from grief. Her in-laws are equally devastated—but they are not likable. At the head of the Bryce house is an egotistically blinkered and selfish mother who has ruined her grown daughter’s life and despised Ruth. She is inconsolable because she fails to affect her two sons. Her grief is so overwhelming that she refuses to have closure.

Obviously the object of In the Springtime of the Year is a dissection of grief. As grief has to run its course, every page of the book is devoted to moments of grief. The story of healing is also a meditation on the nature of sudden tragedy. But it seems to drag with lots of irrelevant description and not much happening.

254 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[640] The Sense of An Ending – Julian Barnes

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” It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others. ” (Part Two, p.80)

The second time around The Sense of An Ending is even more hard-going. The subject matter is heavy and grim despite the short length of the book. It’s a mystery of memory and missed opportunity. Right off the bat the reader knows Tony Webster, who narrates in first-person voice, is unreliable. The unreliability is not a result of aging, but a deliberate effort on his part to avoid things rather than facing them. He’s a cautious, divorced man in his 60s who “had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded.” (99). He receives an unexpected bequest from a woman he’d met only once, some 40 years earlier. The mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, has bequeathed him a legacy that unsettles him, forcing him to get in touch with Veronica and seek answers to certain unresolved questions.

I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens the field, doesn’t it? It also leads straight to the matter of Miss Veronica Ford. (Part Two, p.81)

The matter involves a diary of his best friend, Adrian Finn, for whom Veronica left Tony. The relationship ended very badly and Tony wrote Adrian and Veronica a vitriolic letter. Had he loved her? At the time, it was an emotion he had lacked the spine to own up to. As Tony assembles his willfully forgotten past impressions and actions, it’s obvious that he has been spineless his whole life. He has lived so carefully, avoids being hurt and calls it a capacity for survival. His life’s modest wages have resulted in the accumulation, the multiplication of loss, quoting his word. So his tragedy really is not the damage he has caused others, but the fact that he avoids deep connection rather than embracing it, for fear of risking its loss.

One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt—and inflicted for precisely that reason. (Part Two, p.142)

Remorse is the whole point of The Sense of An Ending. Tony Webster is more than the unreliable narrator—he is a total mystery to himself, clueless of the damage incurred on others while he is concerned only to avoid conflict, pain, and hurt. He plays safe but that’s just cowardice. The novel is beautifully written, full of the narrator’s own conversation bubbles. It reads a like short story infused with mislaid facts and suppressed memories that resurface at the whim of his mind. The corroboration he seeks only comes as a painful revelation of how he just resembles the people he fears.

150 pp. Vintage Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]