Monday, 23 May 2011

Tigers Two: London, 1857

Next on the tiger theme: Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch.

This novel was on the Orange long-list, but wasn't shortlisted. I wasn't sure that it would be my cup of tea, as it sounded a little Dickensian (see my first blog post for my loathing for Dickens) but Amazon offered me a free copy, so I thought why not? And to an extent, this is definitely one of those books that is undoubtedly good, and just not right for me. We follow our narrator, Jaffy Brown, from his early years in London, where he is picked up by Mr Jamrach's to help in his menagerie of exotic animals after almost being eaten by a tiger (a real one this time) to his time at sea as a sixteen-year-old novice sailor involved in whale- and-dragon hunting.

Birch's evocation of time and place is absolutely complete. The London scenes are perhaps more vivid than any pastiche of Victorian London I've ever read, and the scene on-board ship when Jaffy and his crew land a whale is suitably visceral. However, these strong set-pieces were also the problem for me. The book is based on two actual historical incidents, the first being the tiger in London in 1857, and I did feel that Birch had structured her plot accordingly to include these key scenes. The uniting thread ought to be the characters, and here I feel the book has a real weakness, rather than just not being to my personal taste. The relationship between Jaffy and Tim, his best friend, is by all accounts crucial to the success of the novel, but neither boy is conveyed with much depth at all, and Tim in particular seems to veer out of character near the end.

However, I do think this would be more enjoyable if you enjoy Dickens more than I do - so don't write it off. For a more detailed summary, I've also reviewed the book on Amazon: click here and scroll up.

Last on the tigers theme: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, tomorrow/ASAP.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Reading round-up continued: Tigers One

A briefer post to sum up some more of what I have been reading lately, or, Tigers!

This was honestly not intentional - and I haven't even got round to reading another book that could have qualified on this theme, The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht, another from the Orange shortlist.

This post has become rather long, so I'm going to split it in three, and take each book in turn. First things first. Lionel Shriver's The Female of the Species is not actually about tigers at all (and yes, I think it's a lioness on the cover, so I'm stretching this slightly), but about a 59-year-old anthropologist, Gray Kaiser, who is a formidable woman who starts breaking all her own rules when she falls for a much-younger and manipulative colleague, Raphael; to throw unreliable narration into the mix, the story is narrated by Gray's long-serving assistant, Errol, who would quite like a future with Gray himself. I've been reading my way through Shriver's back catalogue ever since I finished her three most recent books - Kevin of course, but also The Post-Birthday World (which I think might be her best yet) and the viciously, exhaustingly bleak So Much For All That. Although her novels range very widely in subject-matter, I've yet to find one that failed to engage me; while I think that technically, some aspects of her writing can be criticised, her honesty, originality and consistently-challenging approach to topics that, in the hands of another writer, would descend into an 'issue novel' make up for all that.

But I digress - what about this novel, which is actually her debut? I didn't notice any drop in quality from the later novels I'd read, but what I actually found most fascinating about reading this book was Shriver's author's note at the end, which was written quite recently and reflects back on the process of writing this book in 1987, and how she feels it measures up now. Interesting, because her criticisms of the novel roundly target the things I most liked about it. She savages herself fairly thoroughly for the couple of chapters' digression at the beginning of the novel, where a much younger Grey is in Africa in the 1940s with Charles Corgie, who has set himself up as god to an isolated African tribe, claiming that it breaks the pace of the narrative. However, I not only found this the most gripping part of the novel, and a cracking beginning, I can't imagine the book without it - Gray's character would seem far shallower, I suspect, and her motivations less understandable (Raphael, when he turns up, looks remarkably like Corgie did then).

On the other hand, she claims that the flashbacks to Raphael's childhood, when he ran away from his violent father and lived rough in his own neighbourhood, are one of the best parts of the novel, whereas I thought this was where it strayed closest to sentimentality, and indeed are one of the few sections from any of Shriver's novels I can imagine being written by another writer (Errol narrates these snippets, and so it could be argued that he is at fault for embellishing them - but they take up a large enough chunk of space for this device to become quite irritating, if that is indeed what Shriver is doing). So I'm quite thankful that Shriver doesn't intend to rewrite this for 2011 - leave well alone!

Tomorrow: actual tigers in Jamrach's Menagerie.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Reading round-up, part one

As I seem to be averaging one post a month at the moment, I seriously need to try to improve in future. I'll start with a brief round-up of what I have been reading recently. (Progress has also been impeded by the new Mac, or more specifically, me not knowing how to use a Mac in order to put pictures up on the blog. This problem has now been sorted...)

Night Waking by Sarah Moss (2011)

I found Sarah Moss's debut novel, Cold Earth, fascinating - both because it is creepily atmospheric, featuring a group of archeologists studying an ancient settlement in Greenland which died out unexpectedly suddenly, and their own isolation in the wild after communication with the outside world is cut off - but also because structurally, it was deeply flawed, and yet I enjoyed it immensely. I was looking forward more than usual to what she might write next, because Cold Earth without the dodgy structure would have been truly fantastic, rather than merely good. And then I read Night Waking - a whole new set of strengths, a whole new set of flaws.

The central character is Anna, an historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century childhood who is stranded with her husband and their two children on a fictional island based on St Kilda while he studied puffin populations. Anna is trying to cope with being a full-time mother while finishing off the draft of her first book - a publication that is essential to keep her in employment after her junior research fellowship at Oxford finishes - and is unsurprisingly finding this difficult, particularly as her younger son Moth is a typically demanding toddler while her older son Raphael, seven, is preoccupied with the apocalypse. Anna is hardly a silent martyr, however, and a lot of the novel is made up of her increasing complaints - to herself, to her husband, and hilariously but disturbingly, slipped into her monologue as a mother, as when she re-interprets The Tiger Who Came To Tea: '"Good morning," said the Tiger. 'I'm here to symbolise the danger and excitement that is missing from your life of mindless domesticity,' or her Freudian slip when reading another children's story, 'Lucy and Tom went off for a lovely day at the suicide. Sorry, seaside.' Anna's story is interwoven with nineteenth-century letters from a nurse called May, who came to St Kilda to attend to the local population in childbirth due to the horrifyingly high infant mortality rates; the strand that connects the two is the body of an infant that Anna finds buried in her back garden.

Any chunk of Night Waking, taken on its own, is undoubtedly a good piece of writing, and I enjoyed reading it very much, but again, my problems are with structure, which gets increasingly repetitive as the novel continues: Anna has a rant at her husband, Anna edits a tiny section of her book, Raphael has a crisis, Moth has a tantrum, Anna complains about motherhood, oh look! a letter from May! To an extent this is unfair, as there are any number of beautifully-observed scenes (Anna's parenting crisis at high table in Oxford springs to mind), and idealistic teenager Zoe, introduced partway through, shakes up things somewhat. But unlike Cold Earth, which seemed rushed, the plot is undoubtedly plodding, and I found that the real interest in the story for me came in May's narrative, which deserved to be further fleshed out as it began to raise questions about who was in the wrong: the 'ignorant' villagers or the interfering May? Significantly, I think a strong case could be made on both sides, and unlike the rest of the novel, May's story is wrapped up too quickly. From a personal point of view, I think I may have also been a bit too close to a lot of the material here - working for a PhD on childhood and youth in postwar Britain, but having done a lot of past research on childhood in Anna's period as well, I fear my nitpicky historical brain switched on whenever we got an extract from Anna's book, blocking my more forgiving novel-reading self :)

I guess now I'll have to say that I'm waiting for Moss's third book... she has so much potential, and I really hope she cracks the structural issues.

The Orange Prize, 2011

I have only read two novels on the shortlist so far and so am not really able to comment on the list as a whole, but I'll certainly have a go at commenting at the ones I have read. Emma Donoghue's Room was the first I picked up, and I think overall I enjoyed it, but am a little bemused at the hype. I thought the first half of the novel was probably the strongest section, where Jake's five-year-old view of the world as a single room dominated, and was illuminating insofar as the most mundane objects and rituals were so important to him; for example 'Meltedy Spoon', a spoon with a melted handle, and the rituals and routines Ma invented to fill their day. After that, I think it became a bit too kidnapping-escape-story generic.

I've just finished Nicole Krauss's Great House, and although I think it was a stronger novel than Room, for me it was still good, but not great. Krauss's turn of phrase is fantastic, but I felt that sometimes she let this dominate the five characters' narratives - Izzy and Nadia sounded particularly similar to me. The novel is ultimately frustrating, because it seems to be about how much we cannot know, and how sometimes the truth is less important than what we do know and can hold onto: my favourite scene was where Weisz, an antiques dealer who has devoted his life to re-making objects Jews had lost during the Second World War, and claiming he had 'found' them again, reflects on his work: ‘Even if it no longer exists, I find it… He’ll only notice for a moment, a moment of shock and disbelief, and then his memory will be invaded by the reality of the bed standing before him. Because he needs it to be that bed where she once lay with him more than he needs to know the truth’.

I think this post is now long enough, so I will continue the round-up asap. (Not after another month this time!)