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Archive for the ‘review’ Category

Colourless TI did say Tony was identifying huge holes in my reading with his J-Lit Giant Hall of Fame, didn’t I?  Well there’s no hole greater in contemporary fiction reading terms than Haruki Murakami, and yet, I confess I’ve never really felt the urge to read him.  It’s that reputation for the surreal and magical that dissuades me.  So, when word went round that Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage wasn’t of that ilk, I thought I’d dip my toe in the water. Particularly as I love a quest.

Tsukuri is, you guessed it, in search of colour.   As a teenager, he was  part of a very close knit group of five.  His four peers all had names denoting colour.  This gave him a bit of a hang-up.  He thought he was the boring one. Yet he was the only one to leave his home town to study in Tokyo.  Not that his departure led to the break-up of the group.  But something did happen which caused the rest of the group to suddenly severe all ties, irrevocably.  The shock of this bleached the poor boy of any residual colour he may have had, and rendered him incapable of forming close relationships.

Time passes but the only friend he makes during his college years also disappears from his life without explanation.  Tsukuru is convinced that the same character flaw is to blame and that the pattern will continue to repeat forever.

Years after this – now in his early 30’s – he meets Sara.

Let me say that up to this point I found the novel fascinating and psychologically true.  As would anyone who has experienced profound heartbreak and gone through days, months, years even when waking up is not the favoured option.    Sleepwalking through life, doing something to pass the time, until the pain abates.  Such are Tsukuru’s college years.  Very emotional reading though with too many sexual fantasies.

The story went off-kilter during the process of Tsukuru’s recovery.  Didn’t believe Sara would be so discerning or insist  that Tsukuru come to terms with the past before getting involved with him.  Didn’t believe the setups for Tsukuru’s interviewing his former friends.  Absolutely incredulous that not one of them believed the heinous accusations levelled against him and yet still flung him overboard, so to speak. How did that man not lose his cool?

And yet, Murakami says that Tsukuru’s experience is based on an experience of his own. Well, it’s a steep learning curve, and with friends like that, who needs enemies?  Turns out the Tsukuru’s quest for personality is a actually a search to discover he already had it in spades. Which should give him the confidence to get his girl, shouldn’t it?

3stars.GIF

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Eyrie – Tim Winton

EyrieTom Keely, once a renowned environmental activist, has lost his job, his reputation and his self-esteem.  He has retreated to his eyrie, a flat 10 floors up, with self-pity, booze and pills for company.

There’s only one direction in which to travel, and Winton’s plot is designed to bring the man back down to earth.

A chance encounter with his neighbour, a woman from his past and her grandson, is the catalyst for this process.  There’s something about them that appeals to Keely’s better nature and he begins to reengage.  BUT, given that he is a shambling wreck of a man with seriously diminished brain power,  this may not be the best decision.  Gemma was always bad news, even when they were kids, when she and her elder sister sought refuge in Tom’s home while her father was battering her mother. Things haven’t improved for her since those days.  She finds herself caring for her grandson because her daughter is in jail for drug offences.  The child’s father plays no active role in his son’s upbringing and besides, he’s lean, mean and it’s best he remains unaware of your existence.

In those far off days, Gemma was protected by Tom’s father, a preacher with a heart as big as his physique and  a reputation of mythical proportions. Tom suddenly finds himself in competition with that reputation, wanting to prove himself worthy of the big man. The irony is that the man who has walked away, rejected and alienated those who are actually on his side, does not turn away from the person who presents the greatest threat.

The character study of Tom Keely, and his impaired judgment is fascinating and perturbing in equal measure; that of Gemma is laced with ambiguity.  She, too, is damaged goods.  The protection afforded in the past, temporary, and when the Keelys moved away, the chickens came home to roost. She has survived through developing a thick skin and strategies, not always beneficial to those around her.  So, while she is in some instances a victim, in others she is a malign presence.  It’s not always clear whether she is a vulnerable adult, genuinely needing Tom’s help, or a predator, capitalising on Tom’s vulnerabiliites to drag him into the vortex of her own maelstrom.

Eyrie is an intense story, vibrantly told. Winton is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years and I’m now annoyed that I’ve waited so long. (I started here because the novel is longlisted for both the 2014 IMPAC and the 2015 Folio Prize). Purists may not like the fact that his prose is choppy, not always using full sentences. I did. It reflects the way people think, and there’s a plethora of history contained in the 1st sentence. “So.”  Descriptive passages are finely tuned, whether that to the sleazy after-effects of Tom’s binges or the beauty of the natural habitat of Western Australia.The ambiguities that pervade the text are masterful. Motifs of falling men recur throughout. Is Winton foreshadowing or teasing? At the start Tom has already fallen, even though he lives on high.  The novel ends with him literally flat out on the pavement. Does this mean that the downward spiral continued until physical circumstances matched the metaphysical and nothing else remains? Or is the lowest physical point the moment of his greatest triumph and the start of better things to come? That is for each reader to decide.

Five_Stars.GIF

 

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imageSnow Country (Penguin Modern Classics)Translated by Edward G Seidensticker,

As Tony, the host of January in Japan, builds up his pantheon of J-Lit Giants, he is also identifying whacking great holes in my reading experience.  That pantheon now consists of 15 and, before this year’s January in Japan began, I had only read a short story by Mishima and one by Tanazaki. Time to put that to rights (or at least double the numbers) by the end of this year’s event.

Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country entered my radar as a result of reading David J Simon’s wonderful An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful this time last year, part of which takes place in hot spa in the same mountainous region of Japan. Kawabata’s novel was cited when he won the Noble Prize for Literature in 1968.

Good job I wasn’t on the jury then!

Where shall I begin? Let’s start with Culture and my anathema to Shimamura, a rich married man who leaves his wife and children at home In Tokyo to holiday at the spa and cavort with the local geisha for weeks on end before returning to wife. (The plot in a nutshell.) I use the word cavort, but it’s not as blatant as that particularly as this is not a graphically sexual novel.   While he’s behaving this way, Shimamura spends his time obsessing about a third female, one he saw on the train journeying to the spa, tending to an obviously terminally-patient.  This behaviour earns him no approbation and seems acceptedw as normal.

Then there’s the female lead – Komako – one of many local geishas, paid to entertain the male guests at parties with music, song and possibly/probably more. (It’s not explicit.)  She’s capricious and spends most of her time drunk, perilously close to a state of emotional collapse and manically worried about her reputation, particularly if she’s found in Shimamura’s room come morning time. …

Must be a geisha-taboo – a convention not explained in the text (why would it be – Kawabata’s Japanese audience would get it).  Neither is there an introductory essay in this edition, not even the one originally written by the translator.  I found it odd that Penquin chose not to reprint it here.

I could have used it because there was so much flying over my head. Conversations between Shimamura and Komako full of non-sequiturs, zero character development, events that I knew were symbolic and significant, though I couldn’t tell you how. ( Not even the climactic burning house scene.) It felt very much like an episodic patchwork, which in many ways it is.  An understanding of the novel’s etymology tells me all I need to know.

Any redeeming qualities? The descriptions of the snow country itself and its progression through the seasons. It was a great book to read as the belated Scottish winter arrived.  Kawabata’s descriptive prowess was much in evidence and I admired many visual and psychologically astute sentences. A couple of chapters in, I was thinking of The Great Gatsby in the sense of a lean, spare analogous novel with not one word wasted, packed with hidden meaning.  I’m sure the same is true of Snow Country. It’s just that I don’t have the context to decipher it.

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imageThis Is Where I Am – Karen Campbell (Amazon Affiliate Link)

Well done, book group.  I could not have have started the 2015 reading year in better fashion.  This is Where I Am is a rivetting novel that I urge everyone to read – especially if you are from Glasgow.

It is the story of two people starting from a personal ground zero.  Deborah is a recently bereaved widow who volunteers at the Scottish Refugee Council in an effort to fill her time. Abdi is an asylum seeker from Somalia who has arrived in Glasgow with his 4 year-old daughter, Rebecca.  We do not know what has happened to bring him here, but we do know his daughter stopped speaking following the loss of her mother.

Deborah is assigned to Abdi as a mentor.  Her role isn’t just to guide him through the process of applying for refugee status.  She is to show him the city that may become his home and help him adjust to his new existence. It’s not plain sailing.  First there is the physical reality. “There are not that many tall, black men in Glasgow”.  Abdi is conspicuous. Glasgow has its fair share of rascists and Abdi is targeted.  Secondly, the mental trauma of the past. A series of flashbacks reveal the reasons for Abdi asylum seeking status and his daughter’s silence.  Thirdly, the trials of a bureaucratic system, designed, at times, to prevent asylum seekers and refugees from making progress.

Deborah too has much to learn.  She is financially comfortable but the long years of caring for her husband have left her isolated. So the volunteer work is a first step into reconnecting with society.  Perhaps for this reason, she invests more in the relationship with Abdi and his daughter than I would have expected, though it’s fortunate for them that she becomes a friend who cares, despite the emotional scars and cultural minefields that must be negotiated.

You could say that this is a political novel and, in these days when – shall we say – foreigner-bashing is becoming increasingly prevalent, it will make some question their preconceptions. However, in no way is this a didactic read.  It is a humane story of reentry into society.

It is also a portrait of a city. Each chapter begins with the description and history of a place, whether that be one of Glasgow’s iconic sites, such as the Kelvingrove museum, or one of the less touristy spots, such as Leverndale mental hospital. They are all places where Deborah and Abdi meet and the descriptions serve to show the contrast and colour of Scotland’s largest city.  The same is true of the demography.  The supporting cast is just as varied.  For every obnoxious rascist (and one is particularly beyond the pale), there is a warm, generous-hearted Glaswegian.   For every hypocritical professional cum politician, there is a sincere man of the streets.  For every asylum seeker who succeeds, three fail with differing fates awaiting them.

Campbell is not just showing where Abdi is, but how it is, and it’s not always pretty. It is an emotionally honest novel, uncomfortable in places. Campbell does give us an ambiguously happy ending (you have to read it) but at the cost of an unfeasible plot twist.  (My only criticism.)

That said, this doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the novel at all.  Primarily due to the language.  Whether it be Glaswegian banter in a supermarket fishmongery, impenetrable bureaucratic jargon, or the bemused misunderstanding of someone coming to terms with English idiom, the pitch is flawless and frequently hilarious.

Her Sunday School teacher told her she was a ‘mucky pup’ after craft-time, when she had glue on her hair and chin  I looked up “pup’ in my dictionary afterwards – it means young dog.  She called my little girl an animal!

Fortunately Abdi realises this is not an insult and adopts it as his daughter’s nickname. Lovely, isn’t it? Just another of this novel’s many endearing features.


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Winner of the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize
Translated by Anne McLean

This novel first came to my notice at last year’s Ayewrite! Festival when Kamila Shamsie extolled its virtues.  It then went on to win the IMPAC. As I’m about to start reading the TBR books longlisted for this year’s prize, I thought it would best to read last year’s winner first.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It was a pleasant surprise, I hasten to add. I think I was expecting the horrors of a political dictatorship. No idea why (something to do with Vásquez’s previous novel, The Informers, perhaps?) In many ways though, it is about dictatorship, albeit the dictatorship of post traumatic stress disorder.

The narrator, Antonio, is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He barely survives an assassination in which his companion, the target, is killed. As the two men were in the early stages of a tentative friendship, not much is known about why someone would want Ricardo Laverde dead. Except that he had just been released from a 19 year imprisonment.  There is also the mystery surrounding the recording that reduced Ricardo to tears shortly before his death.

Antonio is deeply traumatised and, following a lengthy convalescence, becomes obsessed with discovering the whys and wherefores.  This search, while understandable, is full of personal risk. His partner is beginning to weary of his post-incident  preoccupations and Ricardo Laverde’s past can be nothing but murky.

So it proves to be, and, within the context of Colombian 20th century history, this inevitably involves the drugs trade. Vásquez takes us back to the time when it all began; when it appeared harmless. The contemporary narrative post dates the era of notorious drug baron, Pablo Escobar – his ranch is already lying in ruins –  but the ongoing and murderous effects of his legacy are all too clear.

Two families are ruined by it. It is the human interest in these stories that form the heart of the novel, and make it beat.  That and the tour of Columbia, from the streets of Bogota through the mountains to La Dorada in the hot and sticky Magdalena Valley. Vásquez never takes us into the seedy drug dens or the world of the addict.  He has no need.  There is drama aplenty. For Columbia also has a legacy of fatal air accidents and Ricardo Laverde’s life is irrevocably coloured by the fallout from two of these. The sounds on the tape mentioned earlier are of his future falling apart.  As Antonio’s quest progresses, patterns in his life begin to mirror those in Ricardo’s – to the point that he, too, is left in possession of the sounds of his own life falling into the abyss.

35_stars.GIF

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Just in case you missed it, 2014 was the 25th anniversary since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So the publication of Fiona Rintoul’s debut novel which takes us back to the GDR in 1985 is well-timed.

Magda is a student linguist, desperate to escape along with her lover, Marek.  She’s not adverse to sleeping her way to freedom, if that’s what it takes.  So when Robert, a Scottish student studying for his Ph.D at Leipzig University arrives, she sees a means to an end.  He falls in love.  Both are double-crossed and must bear the wrath of the state.  In Magda’s case brutally. In Robert’s case, no less ruthlessly. That, however, is only half of the story. Years later, long after the Wall has disappeared, the truth of what happened in Leipzig is finally revealed.

The first half of the novel takes place when the GDR was firmly in the grip of communism.  While there is some freedom of movement and some black marketeering, the illusion of freedom is just that.  Every move is monitored and every life controlled.  The bluff and double-bluffs of the dissidents are more than matched by the Stasi. Magda might think she knows who is spying on her and who she can trust, but does she?  Enemies in plain sight are always the best camoflagued.

Robert’s story is just as interesting.  Why does a Scot studying at St. Andrews transfer to Leipzig in the mid-1980’s?  How do subsequent events scar him for life, lead him to a life of excess in the City, ultimately forcing him back to Germany to face his demons? 

Germanophiles will love this novel for its realistic depiction of the sinister heart of the GDR and for the truth that lives weren’t miraculously healed when the Wall fell.  Those less preoccupied with German history will enjoy the mystery at its core.  I did figure it out but only a couple of sentences before the reveal.

Rintoul deservedly won the Sceptre Prize and The Virginia Prize for Fiction with this novel.  I look forward to her second.

4_stars.GIF

 

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The second novel in my Berlin through the ages themed read takes place in 1946, just after the war, when Berlin lay in ruins. In fact, the depiction of Berlin at that time is so good, that I would award The Spring of Kasper Meier an honorary membership of German Trümmerliteratur, were it within my gift to do so!

They arrived at the back of the Reich Chancellery and stopped on the corner of Voßstraße. Standing side by side they looked across the barren grounds that had once been the Chancellery’s garden. surrounded by thin barbed wire in a meagre effort to deter souvenir hunters,it was now a strange landscape of charred trees, scrap metal and fallen stone. The concrete masses of the exploded bunker, with their intensely black shadows, appeared like a geometric puzzle – an upturned cube, a cylinder, a cone. Behind it, the Chancellery itself had retained only a few solid buildings, lne rooms amid rows of ruined walls, like broken teeth.

in the midst of this desolation, Kasper Meier is eking out a living on the black market as he tries to feed his elderly father and himself. His network of contacts is such that there is very little that escapes him or that he cannot find out should he have need of it. He soon does. Into his life walks Eva, who is trying to trace a British soldier. Meier, who wants to keep away from both the politics of post-war Berlin, and any association with the wave of murders of occupying forces, refuses to engage, only to find himself threatened with blackmail. For he, like everyone else, has secrets, which in the wrong hands could spell disaster.

Thus begins his search, not only for the British soldier, but, also for Eva’s mysterious employer, the ever pervasive Frau Beckmann. Kasper may kid himself that he is seeking to protect Eva, but there is a fair dose of self-preservation in his motivation. This path is fraught with danger for the occupying forces are hostile. Frau Beckmann also has two protective protegés, the twins Hans and Lena. More chilling psychopaths I have yet to encounter.

There is a sticky web of deceit at the heart of the plot, which is full of page-turning suspense. Yet the real strength lies in the the historical detail.  Fergusson’s interest in the city of this period was sparked by the scars on buildings that remain visible to this day.  Four years of resultant research has enabled him to recreate both the everyday and the alien, hostile and dangerous world that Berlin of 1946 undoubtedly was.

4_stars.GIF

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