Sunday, 11 January 2015

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Karen Joy Fowler

ISBN: 9781781254967

Starting a story in the middle is a confusing thing to do; both for the person telling the tale and certainly for the person hearing it for the first time. It requires an immediate concentration of the mind, with an adroitness of imagination to keep up with an explanation of something where you have no idea of context. Then, half way through the tale, the penny drops and everything makes sense. So it is with this story.

We are told at the beginning that the story is not starting at the start, so a certain amount of readiness helps move the story along. However, there is an equal amount of head scratching as you try and keep up. Then, half way down a page, a good way into the book, a single sentence, almost as an aside, makes all that has gone before make logical, reasonable, and above all, understandable. I can imagine audible calls of ‘ahhh’ around the reading rooms of the world as we all reach this point. After that, it should become a straight forward tale. But it isn’t as it tackles a subject that is certainly new to me and a first for the shortlist of the ‘Man Booker’ prize for literature. There is no spoiler in this blog, so I’ll not speak of that revelation but it will become a source of familiarity to lots of English readers of a certain age.

Once the ‘cat is out of the bag’, a different type of interest is invoked, an interest in how the conclusion is reached, if indeed there is a conclusion. Was it a satisfactory end? I don’t think so, but then I’m not sure such an end could ever be suitably imagined.  That is, if it all came from the author’s imagination in the first place. There is an authoritative manner in which the prose is carried forward that suggests more than an imaginative mind; an element of experience in the subject comes through. Either that or a very fertile mind that makes me want to read more from this splendid author.

The book itself is a page turner; well written, at a pace to keep the reader wanting more. Considering the content, there is little political bias, which is a feat in itself. During the course of the tale, we learn to like and dislike each of the characters, and even the main protagonist, writing in the first person, puts herself up for us to judge. During the tale, I changed my mind about her several times, the only constant was that I was fully engaged with what she was trying to do now. Her history, along with other members of her family swing between selfish and caring, ending with...well, you will have to read it to discover what happens, why it happened, and everything in between.
I didn’t think I would enjoy it when I first picked it up, but it did make me late to bed two nights running, and that can only be a good thing. Well worth sticking with, I’ll listen out for your ‘ahhh’! 

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The In Between World of Vikram Lall


M.G. Vassanji

ISBN: 10-1-4000-7565-0

When I first picked this book up, I was expecting...I don’t know what really, but it certainly wasn’t what I got! It is one of the most avid reads I have had for a long time. Perhaps it is because it uses, as its backdrop, a period of history, recent enough for me to have been alive for, of which I had no information about before reading this tale. Only occasional words and phrases, ‘Mau Mau’ for example, had entered my world of knowledge, but I had no context in which to place it. But I must make clear from the outset, this is not a book about them, it is not a book of blood and guts, and explicit terror, but more about the consequences of the changes that were happening in Kenya, during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.      

The main protagonist, Vik, is telling us the story of his life, justifying his status as the most hated man in Kenya, on the most wanted list, with African hit men on the lookout for him. This makes him sound like a hardened baddie, but he isn’t, just a victim of circumstance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting the wrong people. I’ve just made it sound like a thriller, or a crime mystery, which it definitely is not. The criminal status is a backdrop for the story of his and his family’s life.

The story begins with his childhood, he and his sister from Indian stock, but Kenyan by birth, and their forged friendships with an African servant boy, and a pair of English children. As the Mau Mau terror period looms and erupts, the children’s lives and futures are forever changed and we follow each life to its present day conditions. We are taken through the revolution and the fledging birth of the new country, and explore how each community fares. Indians will suddenly lose their property and wealth, the Mau Mau fighters are let down on the governments promises, and the government is as corrupt as before any changes. The narrative resists the changes to this modern way of thinking, when we are with  Vik’s parents, who insist still on arranged marriages with one’s own culture, and the narrative will forge ahead with changes when we spend time with Deepa, Vik’s sister. Njoroge, the childhood servant boy adds yet another layer in the interwoven lives of all the characters. A certain amount of predictability creeps into the love story aspect of this tale, although that is blown apart on the very last page. I will resist a spoiler, but I did find the ending a little odd, considering the text, the narrator and the end. Those who read this tale will understand.

I found myself there, in Kenya, with the characters from the very beginning. The writing that absorbs the reader into the page and the atmosphere is excellent. I could smell the street, hear the sounds of the jungle and see the vistas of the Rift valley. Vassanji is a first class wordsmith, and I am very pleased to have had the pleasure of finding this book, in a second hand bookshop in Nova Scotia, Canada.    

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Silent House
Orhan Pamuk

ISBN: 978-0-571-27592-2

Set in the 1980’s pre revolution Turkey, Pamuk takes us off to a small seaside town, to a house that is in a state of disrepair, wherein lives a ninety year old grandmother, looked after by her dwarf servant, who is the illegitimate son for her deceased husband, and the  grandchildren are on the way to celebrate her birthday. Sounds simple enough? Well, it is, but...

The story is told in the first person, with each character moving the story along, explaining their role in the family, their hopes and aspirations and some even have a goal in life. We meet the dwarf, who knows nothing more than to serve his mistress; she suspicious of everyone and spending her time with her memories and her past. The younger generation who visit include one who is aiming for a better life in America, one who’s wife has left him when his drinking became too much of an issue, and a young lady veering her political thoughts towards communism.  So, for very different reasons, they all agree that Grandmother should give up the house and the proceeds should be allocated accordingly. But will it work? Can they convince the elderly lady to retire to a care home? That’s the face value premise and plot of the tale. As will all Pamuk’s work, there is an underlying threat and dark, parallel subtexts will draw you into a world that is not quite as straightforward as it seems.

It is a very pedestrian work, slowly ambling along, seemingly going nowhere but giving us an in depth knowledge of each character. But as we stroll though this quaint seaside setting, small telltale signs alert us to rumblings and discontent; guards on the beach, demanding payment for sitting and sunbathing, a small time protection racket going on against the shopkeepers by the angry youth of the town.  So we are drawn in. Certainly for me, I found myself changing my opinion of each character as they went through the tale, and I think we were meant to have that change of heart. Some of the characters find the same about each other, in the same way. I am not one for giving spoilers, so I have no intention of giving anything away, but I was initially disappointed when the climax came and I was taken completely by surprise. Immediately afterwards, the story became as pedestrian s it was before the ‘event’. It is only on reflection that I can now appreciate the how and why the author did this.

As with all his work, you will get sucked into his setting, the world he wants you to inhabit and observe. The quality of the text is superb, the descriptive narrative has you exactly where he wants you to be. Because it is a slow burner, you will need patience to get stuck in, I’m afraid there is no horrific crime to report on the first few pages. What you will gt though, as you close the book for the last time, is an understanding of Turkey at the time when revolutionary thoughts were beginning to enter the heads of the new generation.