Friday, 31 May 2013

Thoughts on the 'Orange' Prize, #1

In an utterly shocking turn of events, it turns out I have so much to say about the six shortlisted novels for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction that I'm going to break this into two posts, which will detail my thoughts on the six novels, state which one I think ought to win, and then predict which one I think will win. The winner will be announced on Wednesday 5th June, so I'll post again then to comment on the result. So, in no particular order (though don't worry, I will be ranking all six at the end of my second post):

1. Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: In a (mostly) strong shortlist, this novel stood out to me as being an odd contender. This is not to say that it is weak; thinking back to Orange Prize shortlists of previous years, I would certainly have placed it among my top three or four novels. But for all its wit and charm, it feels a little lightweight and ephemeral, especially as I read it immediately before the Homes, which draws on similar themes in its satire of American consumer culture, but is a far more original and memorable read. Bernadette is a once maverick architect turned semi-recluse, scandalising the other mothers at her fifteen-year-old daughter Bee's exclusive Seattle prep school. The novel, which is largely told through emails, notes and letters, chronicles Bernadette's descent into 'madness' while simultaneously highlighting the mad behaviour of everybody around her. Unfortunately, I can't see that it does much more, although it is an amazingly quick and entertaining read. I adored the section set on an Antarctic cruise at the end - but then I can't think of much set in the Antarctic that I couldn't enjoy. The characters were largely played for laughs, and although I suspected that Bee is meant to form the moral centre of the novel, she was too much of a cliche - super-intelligent teenager isolated by a childhood illness - to perform this function properly. I also found Bernadette frustratingly unsympathetic, perhaps because of the misleading title - I kept on expecting her to disappear long before she actually did! - and perhaps because she was an unsympathetic person (a spendthrift who seems to think it's appropriate to pay her Indian PA a $1 hourly rate - of course, it turns out to be a scam, but that's not really the point). In a way, it's a shame this was put up for a prize against so many literary heavyweights, because I now don't feel able to enjoy it for what it is.

2. May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes: On the other hand, this kind of novel is what the 'Orange' shortlist is for. I would never have picked up this book otherwise, and I'm so glad I read it, bizarre, meandering and ultimately a little unsatisfactory as it was. Harry, a university lecturer pursuing a lengthy obsession with Richard Nixon that he hopes will culminate in a book, finds his life turned upside down when his brother George kills a family (except the youngest son) in a hit-and-run accident and then murders his wife Jane after finding out that she is having an affair with Harry. After that, one does wonder what else can happen in the novel, but it traces a series of increasingly random events in the course of a year of Harry's life - from strokes to internet sex to curious prep school initiations to schoolteachers preying on their pupils. Any review of this novel, I feel, risks dwelling on its faults, which are easy to list, without recognising its virtues, which are harder to describe; the Guardian's review manages to achieve a balance which I largely concur with. Props to Theo Tait; I'm not usually a massive fan of broadsheet reviews, feeling that they often tread too carefully and spend too much of their limited word count rehashing the plot, but Tait's review gave me plenty of food for thought. The comparison to Little Miss Sunshine, and to The Corrections, is remarkably apt; there is something of a cop-out about the 'melting pot' of an American family that Harry brings together at the end of this novel, embracing the orphaned child of the hit-and-run accident, George's teenage children, one (or two?) women met over the internet, and even a South African village. As adventurous and riveting as this book is, I did feel that it ultimately became a little banal, even as I was exhilarated by Homes's daring storytelling. (Zadie Smith - why wasn't White Teeth more like this?)

3. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver: So, I've had mixed experiences with Barbara Kingsolver so far, and one of my biggest problems with her otherwise excellent and well-written novels is that she sometimes lets the message overwhelm the story. While this is absent from some of her early work (The Bean Trees) it is overwhelming in The Poisonwood Bible and The Lacuna, neither of which I particularly enjoyed, and a slight problem in Prodigal Summer, which I otherwise loved. Therefore, 'Barbara Kingsolver tackles climate change' was not a formula that filled me with joy, although the obvious similarities of this novel to Prodigal Summer made me eager to read it anyway. After reading a number of internet reviews that condemned it as 'preachy', I felt that I knew what I was in for. So I started reading and...

This is possibly one of the least 'preachy' novels I have read that deals with a serious subject about which there can be no serious debate. It is astonishingly difficult to bring home a message that readers already 'know' about but have not internalised, but the emotional power of this narrative is such that it made me reassess my lazy complacency about climate change all over again, which is surely what Kingsolver intended. Our heroine, Dellarobia, has been an Applachian farmer's wife since she accidentally fell pregnant at the age of seventeen. Ten years later, she uses potential and actual affairs as a means of escape from her dreary existence as a full-time mother to two young children. Hiking up a mountainside to run away with her lover, the trajectory of Dellarobia's life is instead altered in a much more profound way when she discovers a colony of monarch butterflies. The entomologists who swiftly arrive in the area know that this change to the butterflies' migration pattern - they normally winter in warmer Mexico - shows something is wildly out of sync. A motley camp soon forms of climate change activists, evangelical worshippers, and hippy knitters, all wanting something from this event. Meanwhile, we trace Dellarobia's personal trajectory as for the first time she returns to her high school ambition to pursue further education and make something of her life.

The reason why this novel is not 'preachy', perhaps, is because it deals not with climate change - the implications of the butterflies' behaviour are spelt out in a relatively short amount of page time, and Kingsolver does not need to resort to hyperbole to make the message frightening - but with the reasons why humans are unable to accept that climate change is happening, or even if they do accept it, are unable to act on their knowledge. Many of the characters are uninterested or disbelieving when Ovid, the head of the scientific team, tries to convert them, and this is shown to be an integral part of their sympathetic and nuanced characterisation, rather than an individual moral failing. Indeed, Ovid's flailing about when confronted with denial is also subtly criticised, as Kingsolver suggests that scientists need to be able to communicate better to get their message across. Best of all, though, is Dellarobia's conversation with an environmental activist who wants her to sign the 'pledge' to use less carbon. After they have run through reusing clothes, machinery, less electricity, second-hand computers, and so forth, all actions that Dellarobia's poverty has forced her to take anyway, they reach the nadir of his motivational spiel: '"Okay, this is the last one," he said. "Fly less."'. "Fly less,"' Dellarobia repeats; she has never left the state.

Therefore, through this exploration of this poor community's reaction to climate change, Kingsolver forces us to consider why people choose to be wrong about climate change, rather than simply telling us that they are wrong; and, reading between the lines, suggests that globally, such rhetoric may have little meaning for those developing nations that have yet to climb out of poverty. This is not a novel that preaches a message; it is a call to action, a warning against complacency, but also an aid to understanding.

Tomorrow, I'll be discussing Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, NW by Zadie Smith, and linking back to my thoughts on Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as well as giving my overall rankings - so watch this space.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South #3: 'Those who have experience of the garden'

I've been wanting to read this novel for a long time, but despite being little more than two hundred pages, it is such a dense reading experience that one is forced to read slowly, to properly appreciate George Mackay Brown's carefully-constructed sentences and sparse, accurate descriptions. And in the end, I found that I took away something very different from it than I had expected. The opening lines are, 'There was a boy who lived in a hamlet in Orkney called Hamnavoe. The boy's name was Ranald.' This deliberate choice of language - much like the opening of Maria McCann's As Meat Loves Salt - cues the brain to switch gear, to expect something that is more akin to folktale or traditional storytelling than the modern novel. I'm a big fan of traditional stories, and so this would certainly have been something I would have enjoyed - but although Vinland does interweave old tales, Viking sagas and Orkney history into Ranald's tale, it goes beyond the folk tradition.

Ranald Sigmundson, our hero, is initially a man of adventure. Having run away to sea when he is eleven years old, he travels first to the mythical 'Vinland', a land of plenty, but he and his fellow Vikings are driven away by the hostility of the natives. His second escapade takes place at the court of the king of Norway, and this, again, is related in traditional mode. However, after Ranald returns home to farm in Breckness on Orkney, the novel shifts gears into something more complex, more elegiac, and initially, less satisfying. Mackay Brown details the internal politics of Orkney carefully, as the old Earl who ruled the land dies and his four sons compete to carve up the land and rule in their own name. I felt that these political manoeuvrings sat oddly alongside the opening of the novel, and at times, it was almost like reading a history of eleventh-century Orkney rather than a narrative, even though this history is fascinating in itself. Ranald takes less and less of a part in the affairs of the kingdom as he ages, and indeed, as an old man, completely withdraws from the world and lives as a virtual hermit, passing his farm down to his eldest son. This made him a somewhat unsatisfactory protagonist, and enhanced the sense that this was a work of non-fiction.

However, the heart of the novel does contradict this reading, and lends Vinland the emotional power of the best folktales, while calling upon an intellectual sophistication that is not so common in pre-modern texts. When Ranald talks to Abbot Peter, a local monk, about life and his vocation, Peter makes the following speech: 'Imagine, my friend, a great grim keep, in which we wake up and are told "This is the House of Life" - here you must do what you are given to do, told to do, for the time that is allotted to you, and you will obey the rules of the House to the uttermost letter, and there is no appeal, but there will be a measure of enjoyment for you from time to time, if you have the wit and the cunning and the strength to seize what this place has to offer. ... One day... the man finds himself looking out of a little casement upon a garden of great beauty and delight... The rules of the House have said nothing about a garden like this, only about the transient satisfactions of cunning and gain and glut. He opens the door and goes into the garden and takes a flower from a tree and returns with it to his cell... [he] returns worn out with broking and bargaining and getting what he can... and when he lies down on his bed at last he is convinced that the garden was a dream and a delusion. But when he wakes in the first grey of dawn, the man sees the apple blossom on the pallet of his bed...' Throughout the rest of his life, the man may occasionally meet others who have 'experience of the garden... he will chance to meet someone in the great keep - quite an ordinary person, seemingly - and the stranger's coat, as they brush sleeves in passing, gives out the enchanting subtleties of tall grass, dew, rose blossom and honeycombs...'

This beautiful paragraph is the heart of Vinland; I will remember Mackay Brown's beautiful extended metaphor of a keep and a garden for a long time, for I have rarely read something so simple and yet so wise. So, a Viking novel which opens with scenes of derring-do and adventure ultimately becomes very inward-looking, very reflective, and very quiet, with the various earls' political machinations significant only in contrast to Ranald's reflective life. Ranald is no saint; indeed, his withdrawal from the world is, in some ways, selfish, and he admits that he has not been a very good husband to his wife, Ragna. But his early glimpses of an earthly paradise, Vinland, seem to have pre-disposed him to be one of those that seek the garden; and therefore, despite his passivity, he becomes a worthy protagonist with very unusual aims.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Laura Rereading: 'the place with the greatest density of people to fall in love with'

Before rereading: 'Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot' - Independent on Sunday

After rereading: 'Sweet Valley High as written by George Eliot' - Independent on Sunday

Ah, Prep. This is probably one of my favourite books of all time - which is not to say I think it is one of the best books of all time, but it's one of the few I can count on for a purely pleasurable reading experience that is also intellectually and emotionally challenging. I'm not 100% sold on Sittenfeld as a writer - I liked her other two novels, The Man of My Dreams and American Wife, but thought they could have been stronger - but in this debut, she selects her greatest strength and zooms in on it. As she chronicles Lee Fiora's four years at an exclusive American prep school, 'Ault' (rumour has it that this school is the model) I've never read anything that is so funny, accurate, and painfully nostalgic about adolescence. Indeed, Prep is so quotable that it's possible to open it on almost any page and find yet another astute observation. Take this from p.277, when Lee discovers that her best friend and roommate, Martha, has been made senior prefect, and is too jealous to congratulate her immediately: 'By the time we met up again, she'd be able to hand her reaction to me as a tidy package: a single square of lasagna in a sealed Tupperware container as opposed to a squalid kitchen with tomato sauce spattered on the counters. And I wouldn't have to be there while she got it in order.' Or pp.125-6, where Lee forms a crush on a boy, Tullis, imagines how they will get together and how their relationship will develop, realises that all the other girls have a crush on him as well, and then remembers that he already has a girlfriend - all in the space of a single song he performs: 'oddly enough, early the next week, I did pass him in the mail room, at a time when it was quiet, when I could have said something about his performance without feeling self-conscious, but instead I said, and I felt, nothing at all.'

If this makes Prep sound episodic, that's because it is. Some critics struggled with this aspect of the novel - at times, it can feel like a collection of gossipy detail with nothing more substantial behind it - and indeed, its greatest flaw is that you're never quite sure what Sittenfeld is trying to say. The ending of the novel seems to gesture at the restrictiveness and privilege of life at Ault, how all its students have indeed been trapped in an ivory tower for four years, but this jars with the universally recognisable experiences that Sittenfeld explores. My adolescence took place in a British comprehensive school, but I certainly empathise with much of this material. Putting that aside, however, Prep triumphs in two such significant ways that I feel able to forgive it almost anything. 

Firstly, Sittenfeld is brilliant at investing very ordinary events with the significance they hold for those who live through them. It's incredibly difficult to handle an adolescent girl's first, inconsequential, relationship with the seriousness she does here without seeming melodramatic, but I think she succeeds. Secondly, her handling of memory and nostalgia - something which also struck me in American Wife - is continually spot-on, culminating in this memorable passage after a fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night at Ault: 'As the alarm blared, it was so cold and most people weren't wearing coats. Some of the girls around me had started howling up toward the sky, like wolves... Jean Kohlhepp said - she wasn't crooning, she said it plainly - "I just want this to be over with." Narrating ten years later, an older Lee comments, 'Now I think, Jean. Jean! You got your wish. The fire drill is finished, but so is everything else. Did we believe we could pick and choose what passed quickly? Today, even the boring parts, even when it was freezing outside and half the girls were barefoot - all of it was a long time ago.'

So far, I might have written this review after my first reading of Prep, so what did a second (or, rather, third or fourth) read add to the novel? This time, I found myself thinking much more obsessively about Lee herself; how reliable is she as a narrator, is she irredeemably selfish, do other characters see her the way she sees herself? On the surface, Lee is a relentlessly observant and honest narrator; this may be why some reviewers have found her irritating or self-centred, although to me, she simply expresses what most of us whitewash over, in adolescence and in later life. However, I don't think this translates into her being a reliable narrator; although she endlessly records social detail, and probably is honest about her own desires and motives, it seems unlikely that she accurately reads the other characters, given some of the events of the novel. One particularly distorted thread concerns her relationship with Cross Sugarman, her long-term crush, and somebody who noticed her and enjoyed her company from their very first year at Ault. In Lee's head, Cross is far too popular to pay any attention to her as a possible girlfriend, even though they have a sequence of interactions over the years, and she suspects that he knows he likes her. However, when he comes to her room one night, they do embark on a relationship of sorts. Lee doesn't seem to question why Cross takes the initative like this - although she thinks 'it seemed like the unlikeliest possibility in the world' and, reading, I began to use this small disjunction to try and get a handle on what Lee's narration does in Prep.

While Lee is an unreliable narrator, Sittenfeld does not use her in the same way as, for example, Kazuo Ishiguro manipulates Stevens in The Remains of the Day, or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World. Ishiguro's skill is in allowing the reader access to an analysis of the situation that his protagonist is unable to understand; we easily follow the romance between Stevens and Miss Kenton, for example, even though Stevens remains stubbornly obtuse about it and phrases any information in the language of 'being a good butler.' Ishiguro's concern is with how his characters relate the stories of their own lives, and in examining their layers of self-deception, so he has to allow us to see where they went wrong. In contrast, Lee's narration bars us as well from gaining an accurate reading of the social life at Ault. We can try and imagine what she might look like from Cross's point of view, or from Martha's, and we realise that there must be students for whom Ault is not a complex network of power struggles, but we cannot get out of Lee's head to gain any purchase on this for ourselves. I think this is an important and deliberate narrative choice. Unlike Ishiguro's novels, this is not primarily a book about self-deception, but about the experience of remembered adolescence; the atmosphere that Sittenfeld so carefully creates, such as Lee's heated passion for Cross, would evaporate if we were allowed to see outside it. What is particularly interesting is that the twenty-eight-year old Lee who narrates the novel doesn't comment, either, and indeed, tells us very little about what has happened to her since Ault, although we learn the fates of a number of her classmates.

Near the end of the novel, when Lee feels she is about to leave Ault in disgrace after describing her problems with the elitism of the school to a journalist, her friend Martha tries to console her: ' "I don't want you to remember it like this. Just because it's the end. I mean - the end isn't the same as the most important. What you should remember is stuff like - okay, how about this? That Saturday morning in the spring when we got up really early and rode bikes into town and ate breakfast at that diner next to the gas station. And the eggs were kind of undercooked, but they were really good... That morning, that was what our lives were like at Ault." ' Ironically, therefore, although I found the ending of this novel unsatisfying, that has hardly affected my opinion of Prep as a whole, and perhaps that's why it's so re-readable; you feel you can dip into it at any point and re-enter a world. By structuring Lee's memories in this way, Sittenfeld taps into the way we remember, as well as what we remember, about being very young, and it resonates with me every time I read it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

'In towns like this there is nothing to do but learn to live with each other'

I very much enjoyed Aminatta Forna's Orange-shortlisted The Memory of Love, although I had some reservations about the ending, so I was eager to get my hands on her latest novel. Although, superficially, The Hired Man seems to contrast with her earlier novel - set in a fictional, isolated Croatian village rather than in postwar Sierra Leone - its major themes are very similar. Gost may seem sleepy on the surface, but underneath, a kind of collective turmoil is brewing as the villagers struggle to come to terms with the experience of the civil wars of the 1990s. Our narrator, Duro Kolak, is a wonderful guide to this uneasy truce, a genuine, warm and kind man whom it is difficult not to like. When Laura and her teenage children Matthew and Grace arrive from England to move into the 'blue house' - which, unknown to them, is the incubator for many of the painful memories the villagers are still nursing - it is Duro who befriends and defends them against the hostility of many of the other inhabitants. Gradually, however, the suffering in his past is revealed as well, as he works through his reasons for deciding to stay in Gost rather than fleeing to Zagreb with his mother and sister.

It is Duro's voice that really makes this novel. Although much of the content feels familiar, the gentle narrative makes it utterly compelling. Forna masterfully weaves together the past and present history of Gost, tracking the same swells and falls, so we feel as if Duro's story is carried along on a series of small waves. A lesser writer would have adopted Laura's perspective, but Duro allows us to see the tiny details of everyday life that reveal what lurks beneath the surface in Gost, details that the oblivious Laura misses entirely. Grace, her quiet teenage daughter, is a much more astute observer, and it is through her questioning of Duro that much of his memories are brought back to light. Forna's greatest achievement, in the end, is in sketching a careful portrait of the threads that link together the villagers, and showing the reader how they manage to co-exist despite the betrayals and horrors of the past; indeed, in making this a novel, like The Memory of Love, that is very much about the experience of civil war rather than war in the abstract.

This novel would have been virtually perfect were it not for the fact that some of Duro's memories of the happier past feel insubstantial, compared to the strength of the rest of his narrative. His earlier memories of childhood playmates Anka and Kresimir seem idealised, and Anka, especially, never seems to come into her own as a character; she seems to exist merely as an object for Duro to pin his emotions onto. Of course, as we see everything from Duro's perspective, this may be intentional, but I still felt there could have been more sense of Anka as an individual. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble, and I would strongly recommend this novel.

Friday, 3 May 2013

'We'd never seen anything like that around our place before'

This debut novel has been praised for its original voice, laugh-out-loud humour and brave take on a difficult subject, and to an extent, this is all true. Indeed, the first third of this novel absorbed me completely, although having heard a section of it read out in Kevin Maher's lovely Irish accent when he spoke at Cambridge Wordfest helped, especially with the pronunciation of some of the characters' names. For these reasons, it seems unfair to judge it harshly, yet I'm afraid I felt that the plot lost me after the two-thirds mark. Maher mentioned in his interview at Wordfest that he wrote the first sixty or so pages long before the rest of the novel, and then wrote at least two different versions before finally writing this one, and I think it shows; while he sustains the brilliance of the first sixty manuscript pages (I'm not completely sure what that equates to in printed pages) for much of the novel, the story feels unfocused and unstructured as a whole, as if he never knew quite where he was going.

Jim Finnegan, our narrator, is a thirteen-year-old Irish boy growing up in a family of five older sisters, hanging out with his mates Gary and Mozzo, and entertaining a series of crushes on older girls such as the gorgeous Saidhbh. However, when he attracts the attentions of predatory priest Father O'Culigeen, his life will never be the same again. Jim's descriptions of his abuse, which begins very early on in the novel, are all the more heartbreaking because he so casually weaves the incidents into his reports of the rest of his life, and the reader gets the impression that he will not realise the full impact of his experiences until he is much older, despite his panic attacks and his increasing withdrawal from boisterous family life. His daily life at home and school, however, marks a hilarious contrast to the horror of Father O'Culigeen's attacks, with his mother, father, and sisters Sarah, Siobhan, Fiona, Claire and Susan all distinctive and entertaining characters, and their family dynamic and familiar rituals beautifully drawn, such as battles over the radio and jokes about saying grace at meals. Maher is also brilliant on the details of 1980s culture, and while I'm just a little too young to remember this decade, I'm sure many will find this novel incredibly resonant. Much as I'm usually loath to praise the 'voice' of a narrator, as well, Maher manages to avoid gimmicks and cheap laughs and makes Jim a genuinely likeable boy, which of course makes what happens to him even harder to read.

While it retains the Dublin setting, close-knit cast of characters, and threatening antagonist, therefore, this novel works. It begins to fall apart after the arrival of Jim's Auntie Grace, whom I thought was a bit of a deus ex machina. Without giving too much away, the section of the plot that she introduces feels contrived, unbelievable and dull. At nearly four hundred pages, this book is simply too long, and yet ironically, the resolutions of the three principal storylines - Jim's abuse by Father O'Culigeen, his relationship with Saidhbh, and his dad's illness - feel rushed, especially the latter. The ending of the novel is so unconvincing that I'm still wondering if Jim was having a vision or dream, which seems possible, but is not satisfying in its current form. Its length also means that Jim's humour becomes rather tiresome, whereas cutting a hundred pages or so would probably help it to retain its freshness.

Because of the brilliance of the first two-thirds of this novel, I might still recommend it - but be prepared for disappointment.