Thursday, 16 June 2011
Tuesday, 7 June 2011
I’m going to try to be scrupulously fair with my review of this debut novel, partly because I recently went to an event in Cambridge where Sarah Winman was one of the writers discussing her work and she seemed like a lovely person, and partly because it has been reviewed well by others and may just not be my thing. But I have to admit it: I’m baffled and a bit bored, but mostly baffled.
When God Was A Rabbit is narrated by Ellie, who begins her account as a child and ends it as a young woman in her late twenties. The book is divided into two halves; Ellie’s childhood in Essex and Cornwall, and her young-adulthood, divided between London and New York. As ever in this coming-of-age type story, the bonds between Ellie and her brother Joe and best friend Jenny that are formed during their youth become central to the narrative of their adulthood, even though they are scattered much further apart. The rabbit of the title is Ellie’s childhood pet and her confidante (and is actually named ‘god’ with a lowercase g, a puzzling detail as I wouldn’t have thought children who name their rabbit god would be too worried about being blasphemous, but never mind…)
However, none of this seems to be fully considered, and this extends to the characters as well. There are certainly suggestions of depth, and I was intrigued by Ellie, Joe, and to an extent their parents – but again, we never seemed to spend enough time with them, and I felt as if there’d been an earlier section of set-up which I’d missed. The novel is broken up into very short chunks, and there are almost no long consecutive passages of dialogue; Ellie describes everything for us, and we hardly ever get to witness these characters or their interactions ourselves. Jenny, her once-best friend, is a particular disappointment; she flares into life in the first half, is abruptly shuffled off-screen, and hardly gets to appear in person at all in the latter section. In fact my favourite character was probably god (Yes managed it again!) – and, unfortunately, considering the death and destruction elsewhere, his fate was perhaps the most moving.
Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Back to my tigers theme - although The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Booker winner in 2008, is actually tigerless. The White Tiger of the title is the way our narrator thinks of himself, a once-in-a-generation entrepreneur who has risen from poverty in rural India to business success in Bangalore. This is a great page-turner, and the narrative voice is what makes it. Balram Halwai, our narrator, fully establishes his own particular way of looking at his country as he writes a series of letters to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, who is about to pay a state visit. Balram fears that the premier will only see one side of India, and wants to introduce him to the side he sees - the exploitation, poverty, and misery of the 'Darkness' in which the majority of the population live.
This has obvious potential to become worthy and heavy - another Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry, and a novel that I seem to be alone in my dislike for. Anyone else?) but Balram's narrative simply sweeps such concerns aside. He's persistently likeable, despite the fact that he tells us almost immediately that he has murdered his boss, capable of both surprising generosity and shocking contempt for others. And yet... I finished this novel today at full pace and wished for both more pages, and more depth. The ending felt extremely rushed, and I'm beginning to suspect that Adiga simply writes so well that it conceals the fact that there isn't as much substance here as there could be. I certainly wouldn't let most writers off for portraying most of their characters as broad stereotypes (dominating family matriarch, greedy landlords etc). And yet I can't help but recommend it.
PS: (Has anybody read his second novel/collection of short stories, Between the Assassinations? I've just been sent a proof copy of his latest novel, Man In Tower, and am very much looking forward to it, but the lukewarm reviews put me off the previous book).