Thursday, 29 August 2013

Review catch-up: The Tiger's Wife, 1Q84, The Garden of Burning Sand and Perfect

Ok, so I've been reading, but not blogging. Time to do a bit of a catch-up. So I'm not doing long drawn-out analysis, but rather short and sweet (?) impressions (to the extent I can still remember!).

I was on a girl's trip to Mozambique about a month ago when I started reading The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht. I'd been curious about it for a while, and it turned out to be a beautifully written story of loss, death and myths. Obreht skillfully blends together the present, the story of war-ridden Balkan, with the narrator's attempts to come to terms with her grandfather's death. Her notion of her grandfather is infused with two stories he told her about himself. The Undead Man (a kind of Dracula story, just without all the blood), and the Tiger's Wife. Both stories are in a sense mythical, and get to the bone of who we are, as human beings. And in the end, they are all somehow connected.

 At over 900 pages, 1Q84 took me a lot longer to finish than I had intended. This Murakami tome is divided in three parts. Admittedly an homage to Orwell's 1984, it comes with quite a bit of weight. I haven't actually ever read Orwell, though, but I think I know enough about it to get at least a few of the references Murakami makes.

I literally fell into this book and got consumed with the plot potential. We meet Aomame, a hardcore gym instructor who every now and then takes a side job to eliminate a bad man from the face of the earth. An expert in anatomy, she knows exactly how to strike to make the death look natural.

Simultaneously, the cram school teacher Tengo takes on a side project too. The young female writer Eriko Fukada has written a very promising debut novel Air Chrysalis, but it needs a lot of work before it can survive the scrutiny of readers. Against his better judgment, Tengo agrees to fix it up and make it publishable, but noone can know, other than himself, FukaEri, the publisher and Fuka-Eri's "protector".

Unbeknownst to both of them, Aomame and Tengo's actions take on a huge significance that will affect their lives forever. Suddenly they find themselves no longer in the year 1984, but in 1Q84, where the rules are somewhat different and there are two moons in the sky.

The set-up for this novel is just excellent. The plot drew me in and my imagination was going wild with all the possibilities 1Q84 was offering. However, about halfway into the story, the plot slowed down, and we were suddenly observing 3/4 different characters who were all in isolation and trying to stay hidden. Fuka-Eri had to go "underground" to stay hidden from the organisation Sakigake that she attacked (covertly) in her book. Tengo had to stay hidden because of his part in the writing of the book. Aomame comes to a point where she has swallowed more than she knows she can chew, and she has to disappear to avoid being caught, and in all likelyhood killed. And then there's Ushikawa, who is a kind of private eye who stays hidden, while he attempts to sniff out Aomame's whereabouts.

There are a lot of interesting passages in the book, and I enjoyed most of it. However, the end became a bit too dragged out for me. I can see that Murakami might have done this on purpose, he even equips Aomame with a novel he says only people in jail have time or energy to read due to its length. But when it came down to it, it wasn't really the dragged-outedness that was a problem. It was rather the anticlimactic ending. The book has such an awesome build-up, you expect a real show-down. But the big confrontation that I'm waiting for, and the gun which hasn't been triggered yet, remain frustratingly flat. Once again, this might be Murakami playing around with reader expectations etc, but I would have preferred a bit more action towards the end, rather than the novel fizzing out into a romantic sort of story.

Don't get me wrong, it's a great book, I loved the fantastical elements and the world he built, I just wanted Sakigake or the Little People to be a bit more hardcore than they turned out to be...

So I never read last year's huge bestseller A Walk Across the Sun by Corban Addison, but when a preview copy of The Garden of Burning Sand was available at work, I decided to check it out. Addison writes so fluidly, it's an unadulterated pleasure to read. 

We're in Zambia. American Zoe Fleming is a lawyer, and becomes involved in a case where a young girl with Down's Syndrome has been raped. Traumatized by the event, the girl cannot express properly what has happened to her, but Zoe, with the help of policeman Joseph, are quickly able to track down a suspect. Unfortunately he's the son of a powerful businessman and a high court judge.

So begins the work of piecing together the evidence connecting the suspect to the raped girl. However, Zoe and Joseph are not only struggling to find reliable witnesses, they also face violent threats and an outdated bureaucracy that relies on superstitions rather than sense.

What I love about this book is the realistic (in my eyes) depiction of a trial and the legal process. I thought South African had problems, but compared to Zambia, SA is the promised land.

What I wasn't so impressed with, was the, to me, unnecessary cliches. Zoe is not any other girl, she's the alienated daughter of a US presidential candidate, who herself has had a very personal rape experience. I didn't need her to be all those things. Furthermore, I also get the impression that you have to be wealthy to be able to help and make a difference. I'm sure this is not Addison's intention, but he didn't have to choose a main character that came from such a privileged background.

All the same, this is a fast paced legal crime book that cares. I hope and think that Addison might succeed in reaching some wealthy Americans with women to spend, and motivate them to try make a difference in Southern Africa. It's an excellent read, enjoyable and full of suspense. Only at the last page do we really know what'll happen.

I really loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce so I was excited to read her new novel Perfect. Once again Joyce tackles a middle aged male character who is having some problems fitting in. Jim has a severe case of OCD. He has recently had to try reintegrate into society, as the hospital he's been staying at has shut down. Now he cleans tables for a living, while counting to 1 and 2, greeting his inanimate household objects and duct taping his doors and windows to ensure nothing bad happens. When a woman named Eileen hits his foot with her car, this sets motions into action, forcing Jim to start building some relations with other people - whether he likes it or not.

The parallel story is set in the 70s. We meet the the two teenage friends Byron and James. James tells Byron that two seconds will be added to the time this year, and Byron becomes consumed with worry about when this will happen. Then one day as Byron's mother is driving Byron and his sister to school, Byron can see the extra second being added, just as his mother runs into a little girl. Byron's mother doesn't notice and Byron is too scared to tell her. Finally he confides in James, and together they make the project "Perfect", a plan to save Byron's mother. But the boy's project to save her, might just be doing the opposite, and the seemingly perfect facade Byron's mother has kept up until now, is starting to crumble.

Perfect is a  truly tragic story with hope and redemption. Joyce once again treats her characters with tenderness and care. I love how the plot keeps thickening, but it is also straining to see the boys digging their own graves (and Byron's mother's!) without being able to stop them. Beautifully written and well worth the read.

Puh! So I remembered some things afterall! 4 good books, all very different though. And I would reread them all. :)

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell | The Great Gatsby reimagined

I keep picking up books set in the 1920s. As in Z: a Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, The Other Typist, Suzanne Rindell's debut novel deals with the roles of women, and especially nervous woman, in the wake of Prohibition in America.

The novel is to a large extent an homage to The Great Gatsby, and we do not have to look further than to the unreliable narrator Rose Baker to see the similarities. Rose works as a typist at a police precinct in New York. The most exciting events in her life is minutely recording the confessions of the criminals that are arrested or interrogated at her precinct. But Rose's life will change drastically the day Odalie Lazare starts working as a typist as well. Similar to Jay Gatsby, Odalie is mystical and irresistibly attractive in our narrator Rose's eyes. At once both repelled and drawn in by Odalie's glamorous person, Rose keeps a keen eye on all of Odalie's moves, until the happy day that Odalie invites her into her confidence. But unbeknownst to Rose, Odalie has plans of her own, and being Rose's bosom friend might only be a step to a darker goal.

Similar to Nick Caraway, the narrator in The Great Gatsby, our narrator Rose suspects that Odalie's wealth has come to her through not entirely honest endeavours, and Odalie, similar to Jay Gatsby, has a habit of spinning fantastical tales about her past. As Rose and Odalie grow closer, the picture of Odalie, who she is and where she comes from, start taking shape. But Rose, however, as Nick Caraway, is also not a reliable narrator. She tells us she's keeping a diary, but we are only prone to selected entries, and Rose admits that in the writing, she was also selective as to what she put down. Later on, there is an incident where Rose oversteps in her position as typist, and fabricates a confession to ensure that a suspect is finally convicted. The further we get into the narrative, the more we realize to what extent Rose cannot be trusted.

Although not trustworthy as a narrator, Rose is naive and easily taken in by Odalie's charms. Abandoning all her previous reservations, Rose becomes involved in Odalie's flapper lifestyle and finds herself sharing Odalie's luxurious hotel apartment. Rose absorbs Odalie's looks and behaviour, striving for Odalie's approval and attention. And although Rose deep down knows that Odalie has ulterior motives for everything she does, and can point out when Odalie is manipulating someone to get her way, Rose is unable or unwilling to detach herself.

The Other Typist is a well-written, well plotted novel. I thoroughly enjoyed Rose as an unreliable narrator, and I love love loved the dark undertones running through the novel. The novel explores how fascination can turn to obsession, and obsession to madness. The ending is deeply ambiguous, which makes me love it even more.

And more to look forward to - Keira Knightly to star in the movie adaption of the book:)