Monday, 25 July 2011

Recent acquisitions: the verdict!

I thought I would write a brief post concerning what I thought of my exciting new purchases. In (roughly) rank order, with a one-line plot summary:

1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Marina travels to the Brazilian Amazon to find out why her fellow scientist Anders died while investigating a secretive research project that concerns a drug that might allow women to extend their fertility indefinitely. Thanks to a rave review in the Independent and Elaine's recommendation over at Random Jottings, I overcame my previous Bel Canto-induced aversion to Ann Patchett and gave this a go. I'm so glad I did. It's a wonderful book that I can imagine having a very wide appeal - beautifully-delinated characterisation, but also a strong plotline with a bit of action and scientific investigation thrown in. Very highly recommended.

2. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Follows the stories of various characters who are loosely linked to each other over a fifty-year period in the USA; very difficult to summarise in a sentence! This novel seems to be everywhere at the moment, but it's not surprising, as it did win the Pulitzer Prize and it's also a fantastic read. My only criticism would be that Egan's changes of style between the various voices, which on the whole, worked perfectly, occasionally felt a little gimmicky; I loved the Powerpoint chapter but was annoyed by the one with extensive footnotes. But this is a minor quibble.

3. There But For The by Ali Smith: Miles, a guest at a dinner party, unexpectedly locks himself in the host's spare room and won't come out; the four narrators, connected to him in various ways, tell their own stories while trying to work out what makes him tick. This is Ali Smith, so the games with language are wonderfully inventive and her characters fascinating. However, I didn't feel it was quite up to par with her previous novels, although this certainly doesn't make it bad. Interestingly, I heard her read a section from this novel in Cambridge and when I reached that excerpt here, the text suddenly seemed to come to life; I'd love to have an audiobook version with her reading the whole thing!

4. After the Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld: Frank and Leon, from two different generations in east Australia, are both facing up to their parents' legacy; Frank is trying to carve out a new life for himself in his family's old shack, while Leon, a baker, becomes a conscript in Vietnam. What a brilliant title, but it's a shame the book doesn't live up to it. This has been well-reviewed elsewhere - I enjoyed reading Vulpes Libris's interview with the author - but it fell a little flat for me. Wyld writes well, but I felt I had read this story many times before, and I'm not a massive fan of 'parallel lives' set-ups. Frank's story in particular was oddly paced, with what I had taken to be a major part of the plot happening very quickly at the end. (Although, to be fair, this was really the fault of whoever wrote the blurb for the back cover, not Wyld). I would like to see what she writes next, however, as this is her first novel and perhaps the second will be better.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Conditional absolution and the last fifty pages

As the title of this review indicates, I thought this was a fantastic novel up until the last fifty pages, and then – abruptly, and to my own frustration and disappointment – I began to change my mind. I still think it is a good piece of work, but unfortunately the way Aminatta Forna handled the crucial closing section consolidated doubts that I’d had about the book before, doubts that I would have been willing to overlook if it hadn’t all come crashing down around me. As this is impossible to discuss without full spoilers for the plot of the novel, spoilers lie ahead – read at your own risk if you haven’t read The Memory of Love.

The book is set in 2001 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and delicately and vividly charts the aftermath of the recent civil war. The central character is ostensibly Adrian Lockheart, an English psychatrist who has come to help the survivors work through their trauma and grief, but he is rather colourless, and I found myself far more involved in the stories of the two other major characters: Kai, an orthopedic surgeon, and Elias, a dying man who tells Adrian the events that unfolded thirty years ago when he fell in love with the wife of a colleague just before the country was swept up in a military coup.

As is probably clear from my previous reviews, characterisation is immensely important to me in a novel, as is a lack of preaching. I don’t believe fiction should come with a moral tacked on the end, although it can certainly deal with moral questions. And for the vast majority of this novel, Forna seems at no risk of straying into either of these pitfalls, although I would have to admit I was disappointed with her portrayal of the female characters. Elias’s lover, Saffia, and their daughter Nenebah, nicknamed Mamakay, are essentially the same person thirty years apart, and that person isn’t very interesting; in fact, she’s the stereotypical strong female, not allowed to have flaws, make jokes, or even speak all that much, unlike the men. Of course, Saffia and Mamakay suffer from being seen largely from the outside, idealised by their respective lovers – Elias, and Adrian and Kai – but this is a question that could have been addressed, and isn’t.

The reason the relative weakness of the female cast struck me so strongly in the last fifty pages of this novel, when it hadn’t before, was the part Adrian plays in its denoument. Mamakay is now pregnant, and he is planning to abandon – I don’t think the word is too strong – his wife and child in England in order to start a new life with her in Sierra Leone. He has also started to suspect that some of what the dying Elias has been telling him about his imprisonment during the military coup is not true, and confronts him about it. To be brief, it turns out that Elias is a bit of a coward, something that was foreshadowed earlier in his narrative. His friend Julius, Saffia’s husband, was imprisoned in the cell alongside him and he could hear that he was suffering an asthma attack, but didn’t dare protest to his guard, Johnson, in case he was never released, as he knows that Julius has been involved in protests. He hopes that Julius has his medication with him, but it turns out that he dies of the attack. Later, Elias rises in the university hierarchy through appeasing men like Johnson, and reports student political activity to the authorities after ensuring that his daughter is safe. His actions are unpleasant and show him to be a seriously flawed man, but he kept my sympathy under the full force of Adrian’s – and the author’s – judgement that he now suffers.

Adrian, who has never lived through a war or under military rule, feels that he can despise Elias, while not giving a thought to his abdication of responsibilities towards his own family. While his relationship with Mamakay fuels his judgement of her father, he scarcely seems to know her – and her death during childbirth handily saves him from having to make any difficult decisions. If this self-righteousness was portrayed as a failing of Adrian’s, it would be interesting – but my impression was that Forna was entirely behind Adrian’s viewpoint here, especially as we hear no more of Elias after this pivotal scene, and there are no more sections from his point of view that might qualify his actions. Disturbingly, in an earlier scene Adrian is fully able to forgive a war criminal who tossed a baby into a burning building, and even compares him favourably to Elias because he is honestly repentant, while Elias is still trying to justify himself. It jars horribly, because my impression from Elias’s narration was that he has not forgiven himself, and that he is suffering; although he marries Saffia after Julius’s death, he knows that she will never love him. Again, there remains the possibility that Forna was intentionally setting up this conflict, but my instinct is that she wasn’t. The narrative, as I’ve already noted, handles Adrian with soft gloves, making his moral decisions for him, whereas Elias is forced into the most difficult dilemmas; not only imprisoned at the same time as Julius, but imprisoned literally next to him; not only imprisoned next to him, but able to hear his coughs through the wall.

And this leads me back to the question of the female characters, who become idealised pawns largely because we are meant to come down on Adrian’s ‘side’. If Adrian (and Kai and Julius, to an extent) were presented more as human beings, rather than the paragons of virtue they become (despite Julius and Adrian’s more nuanced presentation earlier in the book), Adrian and Mamakay’s relationship would be further problematised than it is. Saffia’s random death in a car crash after her marriage to Elias also ties up loose ends rather too neatly; the reader is left wondering what her version of the story would be, were she around to tell it.

And so, instead of writing a largely positive review about a book I enjoyed, I’ve written a rant about those last fifty pages. It’s a shame, because Forna is a fine writer and her depictions of the aftermath of the conflict in Sierra Leone are utterly chilling. I just wish that she had ended her story in a different way, or, I suppose, made the ending rather less like a brick wall. It deserved its place on the Orange Prize shortlist, but I’m glad that it didn’t ultimately win.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

No longer quite at home

In this outstanding debut novel, Belinda McKeon tells the very simple story of half-hearted PhD student Mark, divided between his life in Dublin and his father Tom's wish for him to work on the family farm near Edgesworthtown in Longford, and his love affair with trainee solicitor Joanne, who shares the same roots. However basic this subject matter may seem, I found it absolutely gripping. It is McKeon's sure command of language that makes these characters and their choices real; her style is also simple, but surprisingly assured for a first novel, even a good first novel, and I knew from the first few sentences that I was going to enjoy it. Her voice puts me in mind of a younger Marilynne Robinson or - unsurprisingly given his praise on the cover - Colm Toibin.

McKeon places the importance of `home' front and centre in this story, but rather than just rehearsing the familiar theme of the importance of where we come from and what we were, she raises the more problematic possibility that we may need to both break away from home and retain it in equal measure. This is most clearly shown in the conflict between Mark and Tom, as neither man can be said to be fully in the right. Tom cannot understand - as is obvious when he and Mark discuss the career of a friend's son, a software engineer, who also lives in Dublin - why anyone would need to move away from his immediate locality, and he believes that Mark need only spend a few days a month in Dublin to teach. Meanwhile, Mark fails in both worlds as he tries to keep a foot in each, managing to write only two chapters of his thesis - which, ironically, is on local celebrity Maria Edgeworth - in three years, and disappointing his father by only coming to the farm on weekends.

However, other characters also struggle with, and try to solve, this question in differing ways; Joanne breaks completely with her crooked lawyer father, despite his pride that she is the only child to follow in his footsteps, which contrasts interestingly with Mark's closer relationship with his father despite a very different choice of career. A subplot concerning one of Joanne's court cases, between a mother, Elizabeth, and her son, also highlights this theme. It is Elizabeth's daughter, Antonia, who now lives in New York, who fully recognises the tension between one person's concept of home and family and another's; she tells Joanne that her mother considers her to be `estranged', despite the fact that they are in regular contact, because she no longer lives with her. Mark's older sister, Nuala, seems to have achieved the perfect balance, as Tom sorrowfully describes: she moves to London, `coming home to see them only once or twice a year,' although she phones often, and `when she visited, he seemed never to have a conversation with her that lasted longer than their conversations on the phone. Always, she seemed only in the door with her suitcase... before she was heading off with the cases again'. Yet, later in the novel, Nuala's decision to limit her contact with her parents is one she regrets.

McKeon gently reveals these shifts, misunderstandings and unmet expectations in our dealings with other people through her use of switching third-person points of view, juxtaposing one character's inner monologue with another's. On an early date, Joanne anticipates the way Mark will react when she tells him a story about her annoying colleague, how he will take her side, but in the event he is too busy watching her hand gestures to listen to what she is saying. Mark continually anticipates the way Tom will react to certain statements and even plans comments that he thinks will please him, but his father stubbornly refuses to behave in the way that he expects. When they have one of their most serious arguments, McKeon takes it off-page and reveals what was said only in both characters' inner thoughts later; the importance of what passed is only magnified by its absence. Her avoidance of contemporary brand names or TV programmes also gives the novel a timeless quality, despite its obviously modern setting on the brink of the Irish recession, which lends it weight; Tom is puzzled by a miserable English soap, rather than Eastenders, and Joanne's aforementioned annoying colleague shows off the red soles on her shoes, rather than boasting about having a pair of Louboutins. In their own ways, both Tom and Mark are trapped in the past; Mark goes round in endless circles with Maria Edgeworth, while Tom still can't quite believe that Mark is no longer the little boy who was so keen to ride in his tractor, and eventually tries to appeal to that little boy, rather than the adult Mark has become.

While this novel has its tragic moments, it is ultimately well-titled; like Robinson's
Gilead, there is balm to be found in Solace for the failures and misunderstandings of everyday life. I very much recommend this, and I can't wait to see what McKeon writes next.