April 30, 2012 § 1 Comment
Stray Love is the story of Marcel, a boy who has been abandoned by his mother and is being brought up by his foreign correspondent guardian, Oliver. When Oliver begins to travel extensively for work, Marcel moves in with their neighbour, Pippa, with whom Oliver has a confusingly intense relationship. Growing up in sixties England as the child of a white mother and a black father, neither of whom he even knows, Marcel feels conspicuous but also identity-less. Eventually, Pippa’s less than orthodox childcare methods are discovered, and Marcel finally joins Oliver in Vietnam, a place he feels comfortable despite the turmoil and violence around him.
This story is intersected with Marcel’s later life, when his childhood friend and first love Kiyomi asks Marcel if he can look after her daughter Iris while she rushes to her mother’s hospital bedside. Marcel is surprised and somewhat put out—surely there is a friend in New York who would be more suited to the task—but quickly becomes fond of Iris. Iris is just what Marcel needs to disturb his complacency, asking awkward questions out of a real desire to know what motivates him. As the novel progresses we learn (and sometimes unlearn) many layers of truth, and Marcel gradually discovers more about his identity.
Stray Love is exceptionally well done. It’s gentle and quiet, written with kindness and compassion, except for the places that are loud or dangerous or angry, which are full of boldness and passion. It has a classical feel—slightly formal, vaguely reminiscent of Ishiguro in its careful pacing and attention to detail. It’s classical in another way too, in the way that classical music is so much more complex than pop music: this novel has melodies, counter-melodies, changes in dynamics. First one instrument plays the motif, then another picks it up and gives it a different voice. Among the many layers are repeats and developments and resolutions.
This novel is a story largely about identity, and about how far understanding one’s own identity helps one to belong (and vice versa). That is to say, it’s about people in search of a narrative. But it’s also a historical study of another narrative, one of social change, about the reasons why Iris is so much more comfortable in her own skin, and so much more confident, than Marcel ever was. Ambitious, sensitive and graceful, Stray Love is a book that stays quietly with you long after the book is closed.
April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
The clues suggested I’d be wasting my time. A previous novel I hadn’t particularly enjoyed, a cover that didn’t appeal (the second one shown on this page), a title that didn’t convey the idea of challenging writing. If Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz had not been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, I would almost certainly have ignored it, despite the fact that I like her writing in the LRB. And then I read the first paragraph:
If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive. Not that there is anything to forgive, of course, but the fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered. The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.
I closed the book to take another look at the cover, make sure I was reading the book I thought I was reading, and then went back to that last sentence. This is what I’ve been waiting for from the Orange Prize, I thought. In fact, it’s what I’m always waiting for in a novel—a tiny insight that makes you say yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.
That first delicious hint drew me in, the suggestion that the partners in adultery followed through not because of the overwhelming rightness of their love but because once the child was involved, the overwhelming rightness of their love could be the only justifiable reason for destroying her parents’ marriage and her stability. We all tend to assume that other people are the grown ups; that everyone else behaves in an adult fashion. But of course that’s not true: secretly we are all still waiting to grow up. That’s why the last sentence of the quoted paragraph is so perfect and so full of ambiguous tension: they had been behaving as if they could get away with something, but once a child was involved they had to act like grown ups and start believing in consequences. Something they had wanted to do might now become something they didn’t want to do, but were compelled to do.
The Forgotten Waltz is the story – self-consciously a story, as the narrator, Gina, reflects throughout on what she might be altering to make a better narrative or to make something fit with her conscience—of an affair. Gina even calls Seán the love of her life while constantly undermining (and underlining) this assertion. The writing is lively and witty, without using humour as a way of distancing the characters from emotion. Gina’s voice is wry and frank, cynical yet not deadened, as Enright charts the affair from the high drama of lust and secrecy to the quiet tragedy of responsibility.
I do have some reservations about The Forgotten Waltz. It’s not a lengthy novel, at 225-ish pages, but towards the end I did start to feel that something else needed to happen along with the wrapping up (although in some ways the whole novel is a wrapping up). The affair is set in the Irish housing bubble and subsequent bursting of it, and more could have come of this by making Gina and Seán’s relationship itself fully contingent on the sale of a suddenly and massively devalued house. Gina also dips occasionally into caricature—the white-wine-drinking female professional in a man’s world—and I wondered whether Enright had never quite made up her mind whether she liked Gina or instead despised her and the rest of her circle for their consumerism, the way they measure everything in terms of cash (the house Gina buys with her husband Conor “was going up by about seventy-five euro a day”), and their constant assessment of their status. An author disliking a character isn’t necessarily a problem, but an author’s ambiguity can produce an uneven semi-empathy that startles readers when it is snatched back.
These points aside, The Forgotten Waltz is exactly the sort of thing that prizes ought to reward: intelligent, strong and confident writing; something that investigates, with grace and a killing sharpness, just what it means to be fallibly human. Enright has a wonderful voice and the ability to create a tight, smart story one sentence at a time. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether she is literary or not. I tend towards the yes camp (after all, there are all kinds of similarities with Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy—packaging excepted–not least being the astonishing grasp of the selfish single-mindedness of people who want something they are not supposed to want): literary overlapping with upmarket mainstream . Or is that just hedging my bets?
April 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
Today’s writer, Jonathan Bennett, is the author of five books including the critically acclaimed novels, Entitlement and After Battersea Park, two collections of poetry, Civil and Civic, and Here is my street, this tree I planted, and a collection of short stories, Verandah People, which was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. He is a winner of the K.M. Hunter Artists’ Award in Literature.
Jonathan Bennett’s other writing has appeared in many periodicals and journals including the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, Quill and Quire, Southerly, Antipodes, Matrix, This Magazine, and Descant. Born in Vancouver, raised in Sydney, Australia, Jonathan lives in the village of Keene, near Peterborough, Ontario.
When did you first know you wanted to write books?
When I read Dubliners. I suppose I was about 19. While I’d been writing bad poems, the odd juvenile short story, and the like; it had never really occurred to me before then as an actual possibility. But, the language of that book, coupled with my enormous naiveté, made me believe it was something I could do.
What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?
I begin by drinking lots of coffee. Then I write until my back aches. I can go for many, many hours. But I don’t write every day. In fact, I can go weeks without writing. But, the story, or poem, is always there circling. I am always “writing” in a way, filtering the world through the project I am at. So, when I do sit down, I am ready to strike.
What do you read while you’re writing?
If I am writing poems, then fiction. If fiction, then poems. I read non-fiction all the time—I rarely write it.
What have you read recently that you really loved?
I don’t really love books. I more admire them. So, let’s go with that… Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life. It really hung around and came back to me. Barnes’s Sense of an Ending I also thought was a fine example of how absolutely complete a story can be. I just finished Stray Love by Kyo Maclear and thought it a really beautiful novel.
What are your all-time favourites?
I’m going for living writers here. David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life. He writes the body like no one else, and this is my favourite of his I think. Anything by William Trevor or Alice Munro. As for poets, I go back to often, or will eagerly buy anything new by: Les Murray, Robin Robertson, Ken Babstock, Karen Solie, A.E. Stallings, Seamus Heaney. Those are who come to mind today…
You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?
Writing, and I suppose I would start watching films.
What’s your third R?
April 18, 2012 § Leave a comment
So the usual debates are surrounding the announcement of the Orange Prize shortlist. People who don’t appear to even read books see the headline about a women-only prize and start weighing in on the comments section. In the Guardian (where the tone is slightly more, um, evolved than some places), commenter Oscaria suggested that the people asking where the men’s prize was should start one and call it the Lemon Prize.
I have a foot in both camps. On the one hand, I think that having a special prize for women writers simply continues the tradition of men being writers and women being women writers (at least we don’t call them authoresses any more). Even pro-equality publications still slip into these kinds of assessments. On the other hand, given all the recent VIDA data that shows how little things are really changing in terms of reviews written by men of male books, etc etc, the prize does give the twenty shortlisted women a hit of publicity. There have been suggestions that the Orange jury should be mixed, and that seems like a good start. As to the rest, I think I’ll just shut down my inner cynic by pointing out to myself that I’m all in favour of an ideal world where a women-only prize isn’t necessary. (Edited to add: the excellent Pickle Me This blog has a much clearer discussion of all this. Read it!) Of course, more serious covers would be a good thing all round… (I’ve included two images of Half-Blood Blues in this post on the basis that Edugyan’s book is the only one whose covers don’t insult my intelligence).
In any case, the shortlisted six are:
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding
Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
I’m surprised not to see Gillespie and I by Jane Harris, simply because it’s had strong recommendations from other bloggers. The shortlist does seem to have gone for what I considered the top half of the longlist, broadly speaking. Now that the list is more manageable (and the distractions of the ones that didn’t appeal are removed) I think I’ll have a bash at getting through the lot before the winner is announced.
April 16, 2012 § Leave a comment
April 12, 2012 § Leave a comment
I’ve never been a fan of the hatchet job. I understand that it’s an art form in itself, that it’s entertaining, and that it livens up reviews pages, often so full of lukewarm praise and a fear of criticising the person who might bury the reviewer’s own novel in a year’s time. But I try to remember that the author who wrote the book I’m reviewing is actually a person with feelings, a person who probably spent years writing the book, and I aim to be fair even in harsh criticisms (not all of the people whose books I’ve reviewed will be convinced that I manage this). From the quotes I’ve seen, Adam Mars-Jones prizewinning hatchet job largely follows my rules too, he’s just funnier than I am. The real hatchet jobs are the ones where you can see a personal or professional hostility exists, but aren’t privy to the subtext.
Since starting this blog I’ve been reviewing about half of the books I finish. Some I prefer to savour without writing about them; others I simply don’t have much to say about, even if I enjoyed them. But each time I’ve started out writing about a book I didn’t like, I’ve come to appreciate it more through writing about it, through trying to figure out what the author was trying to achieve, even if they didn’t quite succeed. It’s been an interesting experience in that sense, and also curious how quickly my reviewing eye has started to notice things like structure, character development and skill in the actual craft of writing during the first read, instead of during the post-read analysis. So this blog has changed me as both a reader and a reviewer, and hopefully for the better. But there’s always a place for criticising something done badly
April 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
When I opened Martha Schabas’ debut novel, Various Positions, my first reaction was wariness: the book is written in the present tense. Unlike some people, I don’t find the present tense irritating by itself, but it can often distract a reader’s attention and interrupt the reading pleasure (partly, I think, because it needs so many auxiliary verbs and is therefore less immediate than the more concise simple past tense). If you’re going down a slide, you don’t want to feel every join and screw that’s holding the thing together, you just want to enjoy the sensation of sliding. Once I was a few pages in, however, I stopped noticing the tense: Schabas is one of the writers who can use it well.
As Various Positions opens, fourteen-year-old Georgia Slade is struggling with the sudden interest in sex at her high school, where parties have begun to feature a disturbing game called Chicken, and is about to audition for the Royal Toronto Ballet Academy. Her parents are fighting: her mother, Lena, is depressed and her father, Lawrence, whom she worships, is utterly uninterested in her audition, since ballet is feminine rather than feminist, and he wants (or thinks he wants) his daughters to be serious-minded.
Georgia is one of very few students to be accepted by the academy, and is looking forward to a serious environment in which to concentrate on her dancing. She is therefore nonplussed to find out that the other girls talk about boys instead of focusing on their dancing. She suspects that the male teacher, Roderick, can somehow tell that they aren’t dedicated enough, so she focuses on being a dancer rather than a girl, but soon a chance comment from Lena, embittered by Lawrence’s infidelity, makes Georgia notice boys’—and men’s—interest in her. When she googles for more information, she concludes that her former assessment was misguided: sex must be everywhere, so she must behave in a way that attracts Roderick. Trapped between her family’s uncompromising feminism and the omnipresence of sex and misogyny in the wider world, Georgia doesn’t realise that she has no baseline of normal behaviour. What she does next is shocking in its mixture of naivety and awfulness, affecting not just her but the whole school.
This book is a very assured debut, full of those dreadful moments of realisation that mark growing up: that the world isn’t at all how you thought it was, but instead is messy, unfair, uncontrollable and incomprehensibly different from your expectations. Schabas allows Georgia to speak for herself, showing how the polarisation in ways of thinking about sex is a problem rather than a solution. In this book, the feminist (and concerned family) position is akin to the position of abstinence-only education. Both think they are showing girls how not to be victims; neither understands that mild interest in sex is not the same thing as wanting to have sex, and that a lack of information and culture of extreme disapproval results in girls having sex (and babies) even when they don’t want to. The adults in this book don’t understand that Georgia’s experience of the world is incredibly limited. They don’t recognise that their morals and advice come from a position of overview and lived experience and as such cannot possibly help Georgia make real decisions.
At the end of the book, Georgia makes everything right before moving on to new things. Because the novel’s subject matter is largely unexplored from this perspective in literary fiction, which usually deals with teenage sex by mixing titillation and disapproval from an unimplicated grown-up distance, I would have liked to see the novel extend a bit further into the consequences of Georgia’s actions, to see the lasting effects–on her career, her emotional life, the other people affected by what she did–of the adult-world crisis she precipitated. But this is a tiny quibble, and is probably another book entirely. Shabas more than justifies her inclusion in the Canadian women to watch list with this excellent and important debut.