Iris Murdoch Readalong: The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974)

A later Murdoch – her sixteenth novel – and not one I knew anything about beforehand. In terms of atmosphere, characters and themes, it struck me as a cross between A Severed Head and The Nice and the Good. Like the former, it feels like a play with a few recurring sets: Hood House, where the Gavenders (Blaise, Harriet and David) live; their next-door neighbor Montague Small’s house; and the apartment where Blaise keeps his mistress, Emily McHugh, and their eight-year-old son Luca. A sizeable dramatis personae radiates out from the central love triangle: lodgers, neighbors, other family members, mutual friends and quite a few dogs.

Blaise is a psychoanalyst but considers himself a charlatan because he has no medical degree; he’s considering returning to his studies to rectify that. Harriet reminded me of Kate from The Nice and the Good: a cheerful, only mildly unfulfilled matriarch who is determined to choreograph much of what happens around her. (“She wanted simply to feel the controls firmly in her hands. She wanted to be the recognizer, the authorizer, the welcomer-in, the one who made things respectable and made them real by her cognizance of them.”) Their son David, 16, looks like a Pre-Raphaelite god and is often disgusted by fleshly reality. Montague writes successful but formulaic detective novels and is mourning his wife’s recent death.

I loved how on first introduction to most characters we hear about the dreams from which they’ve just awoken, involving mermaids, cats, dogs and a monster with a severed head. “Dreams are rather marvellous, aren’t they,” David remarks to Monty. “They can be beautiful in a special way like nothing else. Even awful things in dreams have style.” Scenes often open with dreams that feel so real to the characters that they could fool readers into belief.

Blaise knows he can’t sustain his double life, especially after Luca stows away in his car on a couple of occasions to see Hood House. When he confesses to Harriet via a letter, she seems to handle things very well. In fact, she almost glows with self-righteous pride over how reasonably she’s been responding. But both she and Emily end up resentful. Why should Blaise ‘win’ by keeping his wife and his mistress? “You must feel like the Sultan of Turkey,” Emily taunts him. “You’ve got us both. You’ve got away with it.” Here starts a lot of back-and-forth, will-they-won’t-they that gets somewhat tedious. Throughout I noticed overlong sections of internal monologue and narrator commentary on relationships.

There’s a misperception, I think, that Murdoch wrote books in which not much happens, simply because her canvas can be small and domestically oriented. However, this is undoubtedly an eventful novel, including a Shocking Incident that Liz warned about. Foreshadowing had alerted me that someone was going to die, but it wasn’t who or how I thought. When it comes to it, Murdoch is utterly matter-of-fact: “[X] had perished”.

One of the pleasures of reading a Murdoch novel is seeing how she reworks the same sorts of situations and subjects. (Liz has written a terrific review set in the context of Murdoch’s whole body of work.) Here I enjoyed tracing the mother–son relationships – at least three of them, two of which are quite similar: smothering and almost erotic. Harriet later tries to subsume Luca into the family, too. I also looked out for the recurring Murdochian enchanter figure: first Blaise, for whom psychiatry is all about power, and then Harriet.

I hugely enjoyed the first 100 pages or more of the book, but engaged with it less and less as it went on. Ultimately, it falls somewhere in the middle for me among the Murdochs I’ve read. Here’s my ranking of the nine novels I’ve read so far, with links to my reviews:

 

Favorite: The Bell

The Sea, The Sea

A Severed Head

The Sacred and Profane Love Machine

The Nice and the Good

Under the Net

The Black Prince

The Italian Girl

Least favorite: An Accidental Rose

 

My rating:

 

A favorite passage (this is Monty on the perils of working from home!): “If I had an ordinary job to do I’d have to get on with it. Being self-employed I can brood all day. It’s undignified and bad.”

 

This is the last of the Murdoch paperbacks I bought as a bargain bundle from Oxfam Books some years ago. I’ll leave it a while – perhaps a year – and then try some earlier Murdochs I’ve been tempted by during Liz’s Iris Murdoch readalong project, such as The Unicorn.

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Classic and Doorstopper of the Month: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952)

Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, East of Eden is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls. This weighty material – openly addressed in theological and philosophical terms in the course of the novel – is couched in something of a family saga that follows several generations of the Trasks and the Hamiltons. (Some spoilers follow.)

Cyrus Trask, Civil War amputee and fraudulent hero, has two sons. He sends his beloved boy, Adam, into the army during the Indian Wars. Adam’s half-brother Charles stays home to tend the family’s Connecticut farm. There’s a bitter sibling rivalry between them; more than once it looks like Charles might beat Adam to death. When Cyrus, now high up in military administration in Washington, dies and leaves his sons $100,000, Charles is suspicious. He’s sure their father stole the money, but Adam won’t accept that. Adam takes his inheritance and buys a ranch outside Salinas, California, taking with him his new wife Cathy, who turned up battered on the brothers’ doorstep and won’t reveal anything about her shadowy background.

Cathy is that rare thing: a female villain, and one with virtually no redeeming features. No sooner has she given birth to Adam’s twin sons than she runs off, shooting him in the shoulder to get away. Unbeknownst to Adam, who still idealizes a wife he knows nothing about, she gets work in a Salinas brothel and before long takes over as the madam. As her sons Aron and Cal grow up, they hear rumors that make them doubt their mother is buried back East, as their father claims. Aron is drawn to the Church and falls for a girl named Abra, whom he puts on a pedestal just as he does his ‘dead’ mother. Cal, a wanderer and schemer, is determined not to follow his mother into vice even though that seems like his fate.

The John Steinbeck House (his childhood home) in Salinas, CA. By Ken Lund [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.
Meanwhile, the Hamiltons are a large Irish-American clan headed up by patriarch Samuel, who’s an indomitably cheerful inventor and land advisor even though he’s hardly made a penny from his own ranch. He’s a devoted friend to Adam in the 11 years Adam is lost in his grief over Cathy. At about the halfway point of the novel, we finally learn that the narrator is a version of the author: this John Steinbeck is one of Samuel’s grandchildren, so at the same time that he’s mythologizing the Trasks’ story he’s also expounding family stories. I’ll have to do more research to see to what extent the family’s Salinas history is autobiographical.

This was a buddy read with my mother. We were surprised by how much philosophy and theology Steinbeck includes. The parallels with the Cain and Abel story (brought to mind by both sets of C & A Trask brothers) are not buried in the text for an observant reader to find, but discussed explicitly. My favorite character and the novel’s most straightforward hero is Lee, Adam’s loyal Chinese cook, who practically raises Cal and Aron. When we first meet him he’s speaking pidgin, as is expected of him, but around friends he drops the act and can be his nurturing and deeply intellectual self. With some fellow Chinese scholars he’s picked apart Genesis 4 and zeroed in on one Hebrew word, timshel or “thou mayest.” To Lee this speaks of choice and possibility; life is not all pre-ordained. For the two central families it is a message of hope: one does not have to replicate family mistakes.

Steinbeck with his third wife, Elaine Scott, in 1950. The character of Cathy may be based on his second wife, Gwyn Conger, who cheated on him on multiple occasions and asked for a divorce. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
There are plenty more scriptural echoes if you look out for them. Two brothers taking their inheritance and doing different things with it reminded me of the Prodigal Son parable. Siblings squabble over a father’s blessing as in the Jacob and Esau story, and the Hamiltons are like the many children of Israel – the youngest is even called Joseph. It’s rewarding to watch how money and technology come and go, and to trace the novel’s repeating patterns of behavior – some subtle and some overt. (There are three $100,000 bequests, for instance.)

At 600 small-type pages, this is a big book with many minor threads and secondary characters I haven’t even touched on. Steinbeck grapples with primal stories about human nature and examines how we try to earn love and break free from others’ expectations. His depiction of America’s contradictions still feels true, and he writes simply stunning sentences. “It is one of the best books I’ve ever read,” my mother told me. It’s a classic you really shouldn’t pass up.

My rating:

 

A few favorite passages:

“It is the dull eventless times that have no duration whatever. A time splashed with interest, wounded with tragedy, crevassed with joy—that’s the time that seems long in the memory.”

“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him.”

“We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

 

During the month I spent reading this I could hardly get these two songs out of my head. Both seem to be at least loosely inspired by East of Eden. I’ve pulled out some key lines and linked to audio or video footage.

 

“Salinas” by Laura Marling

When the clouds roll in, we start playing for our sins

With a gun in my hand and my son at my shoulder

Believe I will run before that boy gets older […]

Ask the angels, “Am I heaven-bound?”

 

“By the Skin of My Teeth” by Duke Special

My luck ran out just east of Eden

Oh, I proved you right

I’m a danger […]

I’m tired, don’t let me be a failure

Library Checkout: February 2019

A somewhat lighter month, but with lots of skimming of books on topics that interest me: happiness, nature, mental health and self-help. The set of books that I’m currently reading is absolutely fantastic. (As usual, I’ve added in star ratings and links to Goodreads reviews where I haven’t already featured the books on the blog in some way.)

 

LIBRARY BOOKS READ

SKIMMED

  • The Happy Brain: The Science of Where Happiness Comes From, and Why by Dean Burnett
  • The Nature of Winter by Jim Crumley
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis
  • Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Johann Hari
  • The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that Reveal how to Make Your Life Better (And Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin

CURRENTLY READING

  • Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family by Garrard Conley
  • Faces in the Water by Janet Frame
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Absent in the Spring by “Mary Westmacott” (aka Agatha Christie)

CURRENTLY SKIMMING

  • To Obama: With love, joy, hate and despair by Jeanne Marie Laskas

CHECKED OUT, TO BE READ

  • Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot [poetry]
  • Injury Time by Clive James [poetry]
  • Taking the Arrow out of the Heart by Alice Walker [poetry]
  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Along with the rest of a new batch of university library books:

  • An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame
  • A Pocket Mirror by Janet Frame
  • Becoming a Man by Paul Monette

IN THE RESERVATION QUEUE

  • Seven Signs of Life: Stories from an Intensive Care Doctor by Aoife Abbey
  • Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain by James Bloodworth
  • 21st-Century Yokel by Tom Cox
  • Everybody Died, So I Got a Dog by Emily Dean
  • Murmur by Will Eaves
  • Also Human: The Inner Lives of Doctors by Caroline Elton
  • Dream Sequence by Adam Foulds
  • Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World by Lyndall Gordon
  • The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison
  • Lost and Found: Memory, Identity, and Who We Become when We’re No Longer Ourselves by Jules Montague
  • Lanny by Max Porter
  • The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid
  • The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken
  • Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith
  • The Face Pressed against a Window: A Memoir by Tim Waterstone

RETURNED UNFINISHED

  • Louis & Louise by Julie Cohen – The prose is fine – easy to read, but nothing special. Though Cohen says she was inspired by Alderman’s The Power and Woolf’s Orlando, I don’t have faith that significant points will be made about gender identity.
  • The Binding by Bridget Collins – I didn’t even make it through the first chapter. I was getting Diane Setterfield-lite vibes, but couldn’t imagine reading 400 pages of this.
  • Orchid Summer: In Search of the Wildest Flowers of the British Isles by John Dunn –The writing is great; no question about that. But the book is so dense: so many words on a page, in such small type. Unless you’re a botany nut, I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • Milkshakes and Morphine: A Memoir of Love and Loss by Genevieve Fox – Fox has some amusing turns of phrase when talking about her throat cancer and treatment, but this is way too long at over 370 pages of small print.

RETURNED UNREAD

  • Daphne by Will Boast – I liked the voice in the first couple of pages and will definitely get this back out at another time.
  • The Way of the Hare by Marianne Taylor – This felt more detailed and technical than I was looking for in a species overview.

What have you been reading from your local libraries? Does anything appeal from my stacks?

I don’t have an official link-up system, so please just pop a link to your blog in the comments if you’ve taken part in Library Checkout this month. (Feel free to use the image in your post.)

The Three Best Books I’ve Read So Far This Year

I’m very stingy with my 5-star ratings, so when I give one out you can be assured that a book is truly special. These three are all backlist reads – look out for my Classic of the Month post next week for a fourth that merits 5 stars – that are well worth seeking out. Out of the 50 books I’ve read so far this year, these are far and away the best.

 

This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne (1995)

The cover image is Mark Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1956).

I plucked this Wigtown purchase at random from my shelves and it ended up being just what I needed to lift me out of January’s funk. Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder, “rare, life-changing moments of seeing or hearing things with heightened perception,” is what makes us human. Call it an epiphany (as Joyce did), call it a moment of vision (as Woolf did), call it a feeling of communion with the universe; whatever you call it, you know what he is talking about. It’s that fleeting sense that you are right where you should be, that you have tapped into some universal secret of how to be in the world.

Mayne believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to wonder by encouraging us to pay close attention. His frame of reference is wide, with lots of quotations and poetry extracts; he has a special love for Turner, Monet and Van Gogh and for Rilke, Blake and Hopkins. Mayne was an Anglican priest and Dean of Westminster, so he comes at things from a Christian perspective, but most of his advice is generically spiritual and not limited to a particular religion. There are about 50 pages towards the end that are specifically about Jesus; one could skip those if desired.

The book is a series of letters written to his grandchildren from a chalet in the Swiss Alps one May to June. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, the effect is of a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages. I don’t often feel awake to life’s wonder – I get lost in its tedium and unfairness instead – but this book gave me something to aspire to.


A few of the many wonderful quotes:

“The mystery is that the created world exists. It is: I am. The mystery is life itself, together with the fact that however much we seek to explore and to penetrate them, the impenetrable shadows remain.”

“Once wonder goes; once mystery is dismissed; once the holy and the numinous count for nothing; then human life becomes cheap and it is possible with a single bullet to shatter that most miraculous thing, a human skull, with scarcely a second thought. Wonder and compassion go hand-in-hand.”

“this recognition of my true worth is something entirely different from selfishness, that turned-in-upon-myselfness of the egocentric. … It is a kind of blasphemy to view ourselves with so little compassion when God views us with so much.”

 

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross (2007)

When she was training to become a doctor in Rhode Island, Montross and her anatomy lab classmates were assigned an older female cadaver they named Eve. Eve taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a published poet, as evident in her lyrical exploration of the attraction and strangeness of working with the remnants of someone who was once alive. She sees the contrasts, the danger, the theatre, the wonder of it all:

“Stacked beside me on my sage green couch: this spinal column that wraps into a coil without muscle to hold it upright, hands and feet tied together with floss, this skull hinged and empty. A man’s teeth.”

“When I look at the tissues and organs responsible for keeping me alive, I am not reassured. The wall of the atrium is the thickness of an old T-shirt, and yet a tear in it means instant death. The aorta is something I have never thought about before, but if mine were punctured, I would exsanguinate, a deceptively beautiful word”

All through her training, Montross has to remind herself to preserve her empathy despite a junior doctor’s fatigue and the brutality of the work (“The force necessary in the dissections feels barbarous”), especially as the personal intrudes on her career through her grandparents’ decline and her plans to start a family with her wife – which I gather is more of a theme in her next book, Falling into the Fire, about her work as a psychiatrist. I get through a whole lot of medical reads, as any of my regular readers will know, but this one is an absolute stand-out for its lyrical language, clarity of vision, honesty and compassion.

 

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

Had I finished this late last year instead of in the second week of January, it would have been vying with Lauren Groff’s Florida for the #1 spot on my Best Fiction of 2018 list.

The title – presumably inspired by both Gertrude Stein’s remark about Oakland, California (“There is no there there”) and the Radiohead song – is no soft pat of reassurance. It’s falsely lulling; if anything, it’s a warning that there is no consolation to be found here. Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least, with alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and gang violence as recurring sources of trauma. They have ongoing struggles with grief, mental illness and the far-reaching effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.

The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, alternating between the first and third person (plus one second person chapter). As we see them preparing for the powwow, whether to dance and drum, meet estranged relatives, or get up to no good, we start to work out the links between everyone. I especially liked how Orange unobtrusively weaves in examples of modern technology like 3D printing and drones.

The writing in the action sequences is noticeably weaker, and I wasn’t fully convinced by the sentimentality-within-tragedy of the ending, but I was awfully impressed with this novel overall. I’d recommend it to readers of David Chariandy’s Brother and especially Sunil Yapa’s Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. It was my vote for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize (for the best first book, of any genre, published in 2018), and I was pleased that it went on to win.

Three Recent Review Books: Holmes, Tokarczuk & Whitaker

Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes (2018)

A gem of a poetry collection. Gaia Holmes is a creative writing tutor in Halifax, Yorkshire. This is her third volume of poetry. A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. It felt like she could never get anything right and kept angering him, as she recounts in “Feckless.” Even after his death, she continued to see him. I especially loved the food metaphors in “Kummerspeck” (a German term for emotional overeating; literally, “grief bacon”), where sweets, meat and salt cannot sate the cravings of ravenous grief.

Other themes include pre-smartphone life (“Before All This” – not everything needed to be documented, you could live where you were and not rely on others’ constant approval), the lengths women will go to impress men (“The Audition”), being the only childless person in a room (“Ballast”) and a marriage falling apart (“Your Orange Raincoat”). Also notable are a multi-part tribute to the Chilean miners trapped in 2010 and an imagined outbreak of violence between runners and ramblers. Holmes channels Anne Sexton in “Angel of the Checkout,” with its wonderful repeated line “do you know the price of love?”, and Mary Oliver in the first stanza of “Wild Pigeons.”

There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery. I would highly recommend this to poetry lovers and newbies alike.

A favorite passage:

I have no manual

for dying

so I do what I think

you’re supposed to do

in this situation.

I light the stub

of last night’s candle,

utter something holy

and stand

at your bedside

with the unfamiliar taste

of the Lord’s Prayer

clinging to my lips.

(from “The Lord’s Prayer”)

My rating:


My thanks to Comma Press for the free copy for review.

 

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009; English translation, 2018)

[Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones]

What a bizarre novel! Janina Dusezjko is a delightfully twisted Miss Marple type who lives in a remote forest cabin in Poland, near the Czech border. She’s determined to learn the truth of what happened to her two beloved dogs, whom she calls her Little Girls. When four different men who were involved in local hunting – her unpleasant neighbor, a deer poacher whom she nicknamed Big Foot; a police commandant; a fox farm owner; and the president of the mushroom pickers’ association – are all found murdered, her theorizing runs wild. She believes the animals are taking revenge, and intends to use her astrology skills to glean more information about these untimely deaths. The police, meanwhile, dismiss her as a hysterical old crone.

The title comes from William Blake, whose writing is an undercurrent to the book: Dizzy, Janina’s former English pupil, is reading and translating Blake, and I reckon Janina’s nutty philosophy and capitalization of random words, especially abstractions, may be an homage to Blake. I probably missed some of the more intricate allusions, and my attention wandered for a while during the middle of the book, but this was an offbeat and mostly enjoyable read. I struggled with Flights, but I’m glad I tried Tokarczuk again.

A representative passage:

“We have this body of ours, a troublesome piece of luggage, we don’t really know anything about it and we need all sorts of Tools to find out about its most natural processes.”

My rating:


My thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions for the free copy for review.

 

Chicken Unga Fever: Stories from the Medical Frontline by Dr. Phil Whitaker (2018)

This is a selection of Whitaker’s “Health Matters” columns from the New Statesman magazine. In his time as a GP he’s seen his fair share of common and unusual illnesses, and has so honed his diagnosing skills that he can start to figure out what’s wrong based on how someone stands up and walks towards his office from the waiting room. That’s why he’s a “meeter” (calling names in person and escorting patients down the hallway) rather than a “buzzer” (waiting for them to come to him, having being called via a digital screen).

In digestible essays of 2.5 pages each, Whitaker discusses mental health sectioning, home visiting, the rise of technology and antibiotic resistance, the culture of complaint, zealous overscreening and overtreatment (he’d have an ally there in Barbara Ehrenreich: see her Natural Causes) and the tricky issue of getting consent from teenagers. He also recreates individual cases that have left an impression on him. When it comes to diagnoses, he recognizes that sometimes it’s a matter of luck – like when he landed on Cushing’s disease based on a rare combination of common symptoms – and that sometimes you have to admit you don’t know and turn to the Internet. That’s where the title comes from – an out-of-hours caller’s approximation of suspected chikungunya fever.

This is an enjoyable book for medically minded laymen to read a few pieces at a time, though I suspect its take on various issues could soon be outdated.

My rating:


My thanks to Salt Publishing for the free copy for review.

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley & Improvement by Joan Silber

Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)

Two London couples: Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary. They’ve known each other for decades, and their affiliations have changed in major, even ironic ways. It was Lydia who was initially infatuated with Alex when he taught both her and Christine, and Christine and Zachary who dated for a time. But this is how things ultimately fell out, each marriage resulting in one daughter. Christine with Alex; Lydia with Zachary.

The cover image is Raja (1925) by Felice Casorati.

Except now Zachary is dead. The phone call comes in the novel’s very first sentence. How Lydia and her friends – not to mention her daughter, Grace, who’s studying art in Glasgow – will cope with the loss, and rearrange what was once such a comfortable quadrilateral, is the ostensible subject of the rest of the book. There’s a funeral to plan and a future for Lydia to construct. But the problem, for me, is that every other chapter hosts a seemingly endless flashback to the couples’ backstory. Apart from an odd, titillating moment when the four nearly let down their guard together, these sections don’t reveal an awful lot.

This is my sixth book by Tessa Hadley. Her eye is always sharp on how families work, how relationships fall apart, and how memories form and linger as we age. She’s also a master of third-person omniscience, moving effortlessly between characters’ perspectives. The writing here is exquisite; there’s no question about that. I especially love the descriptive passages, full of so much sensual detail that you can imagine yourself right into a scene:

A breeze fanned the newspaper on the table, the smells of a city summer were wafted through the open window: tar and car exhaust, the bitter-green of the flowering privet hedge. Police horses went past in the broad street, their hooves clip-clopping conversationally alongside the voices of the women who rode them; the stables were nearby.

Her perception was a skin stretched taut, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street, in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards.

Despite the fine prose, I found the past strand of this novel tedious. If you’re new to Hadley, I’d recommend starting with Clever Girl and/or Bad Dreams and Other Stories.


Late in the Day was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on February 14th, and in the USA by Harper on January 15th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

 

Improvement by Joan Silber (2017)

I’ve been thinking a lot about linked short story collections, having written a brief article about them for BookBrowse to accompany my review of Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You (those who contributed ideas on Twitter, thank you!). I find them easier to read than the average short story volume because there are fewer characters and settings to keep track of, and you get the fun of tracing unexpected connections between characters. Improvement didn’t quite work for me in that way, mostly because you can tell that it started as one short story, “About My Aunt”: now the untitled first chapter, it is, as you might guess, a solid stand-alone narrative about Reyna and her aunt Kiki. It was originally published in Tin House and collected in The Best American Short Stories 2015.

I was most interested in Kiki, a terrific character with a completely unsuitable name. Her marriage to a Turk failed – but hey, at least she got a great rug out of it, as well as the fun but temporary challenge of third-world life. (“For a hardheaded person, she had let herself be flung about by the winds of love, and she wasn’t sorry either.”) Back in New York City she directs a house-cleaning agency and babysits for Reyna’s four-year-old son, Oliver. Tattooed Reyna’s African-American boyfriend, Boyd, is in prison for three months for selling pot; when he gets out he comes up with the bright idea of smuggling cigarettes between Virginia and New York to profit from the tax difference. He asks Reyna to make one of the pick-ups, but she chickens out at the last minute. Boyd’s friend Claude drives instead, and is killed instantly in a crash.

Part II reaches into the lives of some of the minor characters on the fringes: Claude; Teddy, the truck driver who was the other party in the car accident; Osman, Kiki’s ex-husband; a trio of Germans who passed through their Turkish town in the summer of 1977 with smuggled antiquities in their possession; and so on. For me, these narratives were too diffuse and didn’t hang together as a novel. I had hoped to enjoy this more since it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and Silber is one of those writer’s writers you always hear about but never get to read. I found her voice similar to Anne Tyler’s or perhaps Julia Glass’s, but I’m not sure I’d try another book by her.


Improvement was published by Allen & Unwin on February 7th. It came out in the USA from Counterpoint Press in 2017. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

 

Bottom line for both:

Subtle, sophisticated but underwhelming.

Wellcome Book Prize Longlist: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

“This is all, ultimately, a litany of madness—the colors of it, the sounds it makes in heavy nights, the chirping of it across the shoulder of the morning.”

Magic realism and mental illness fuel a swirl of disorienting but lyrical prose in this debut novel by a Nigerian–Tamil writer. Much of the story is told by the ọgbanje (an Igbo term for evil spirits) inhabiting Ada’s head: initially we have the first person plural voice of “Smoke” and “Shadow,” who deem “the Ada” a daughter of the python goddess Ala and narrate her growing-up years in Nigeria; later we get a first-person account from Asụghara, who calls herself “a child of trauma” and leads Ada into promiscuity and drinking when she is attending college in Virginia.

The unusual choice of narrators links Freshwater to other notable works of Nigerian literature: a spirit child relates Ben Okri’s Booker Prize-winning 1991 novel, The Famished Road, while Chigozie Obioma’s brand-new novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, is from the perspective of the main character’s chi, or life force. Emezi also contrasts indigenous belief with Christianity through Ada’s troubled relationship with “Yshwa” or “the christ.”

These spirits are parasitic and have their own agenda, yet express fondness for their hostess. “The Ada should have been nothing more than a pawn, a construct of bone and blood and muscle … But we had a loyalty to her, our little container.” So it’s with genuine pity that they document Ada’s many troubles, starting with her mother’s departure for a mental hospital and then for a job in Saudi Arabia, and continuing on through Ada’s cutting, anorexia and sexual abuse by a boyfriend. Late on in the book, Emezi also introduces gender dysphoria that causes Ada to get breast reduction surgery; to me, this felt like one complication too many.

The U.S. cover

From what I can glean from the Acknowledgments, it seems Ada’s life story might mirror Emezi’s own – at the very least, a feeling of being occupied by multiple personalities. It’s a striking book with vivid scenes and imagery, but I wanted more of Ada’s own voice, which only appears in a few brief sections totalling about six pages. The conflation of the abstract and the concrete didn’t quite work for me, and the whole is pretty melodramatic. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other inside-madness tales I’ve read (such as Die, My Love and Everything Here Is Beautiful), I can admire the attempt to convey the reality of mental illness in a creative way.

My rating:

 

My gut feeling: I’ve only gotten to two of the five novels longlisted for the Prize, so it’s difficult to say what from the fiction is strong enough to make it through to the shortlist. Of the two, though, I think Sight would be more likely to advance than Freshwater.

Do you think this is a novel that you’d like to read?

 


Longlist strategy:

  • I’m about one-fifth of the way through Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning, which I plan to review in early March.
  • I’ve also been sent review copies of The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and look forward to reading them, though I might not manage to before the shortlist announcement.
  • I’ve placed a library hold on Murmur by Will Eaves; if it arrives in time, I’ll try to read it before the shortlist announcement, since it’s fairly short.
  • Barring these, there are only two remaining books that I haven’t read and don’t have access to: Astroturf and Polio. I’ll only read these if they make the shortlist.

 

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.

We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.