Archive for July, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

July 28, 2010

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

My bookies today posted their odds for the 2010 Man Booker, and as I expected David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at 9/2 has joined two-time winner Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America at 4-1 at the top of the list as near co-favorites to win this year’s prize. (Remember bookmaker odds are not an estimation of quality; rather they are a reflection of where the betting public is putting its money.) Mitchell’s novel received enthuiastic reviews when released in the UK earlier this year and an equally positive reception with its North American release a few weeks ago — no less a star than Dave Eggers enthused about it in the New York Times.

I am a serious David Mitchell fan and when 2010 dawned this book was at the top of my “looking forward to it” list. I have read all four of his previous works; Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were exceptional; Number9dream and Black Swan Green well above the norm. While the latter has a fairly traditional structure, the first three mentioned established some Mitchell characteristics — multiple story lines, intricate plots and language and a rare ability to continuously engage the reader in a kaleidoscopic experience.

So why am I so disappointed by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet? I started and abandoned it twice, believing that either too high expectations or the wrong reader attitude might be to blame. I persevered to the end the third time through and while it was a better experience, I still find the book wanting. I will try to explain why — at the very least, the review may provide some guidelines to potential readers on what to look out for.

First, a very brief outline of the plot. The Jacob De Zoet of the title is a Dutch clerk whom we meet in 1799 as the ship he is aboard approaches Dejima, an artificial, fan-shaped island off of Nagasaki, 200 paces long, 40 wide. It is basically a collection of warehouses and is the cloistered Japanese Empire’s sole port — once a year a ship from the Dutch East Indies Company arrives for a trading session of some weeks, when it departs a handful of Dutch are left behind to manage things and get ready for the next visit. Jacob has signed on for a five-year term, the only way he could persuade the father of Anna back home that he would have the means to be a worthy husband. He has another, far trickier assignment. As the assistant of the new Chief, Vorstenbosch, he is to rigorously examine the books of previous years to document the corruption the company is certain has been taking place.

Few Japanese, beyond the Empire representatives and members of the Interpreters’ Guild, are allowed on the island. Only one, Orito, is a woman. Her face badly scarred by a childhood burn, she is a practicing midwife who has saved the magistrate’s child in a difficult birth. As a reward, she is allowed to train with Dr. Marinus as his only female student — he also trains a handful of Japanese, looks after the Dutch, but mainly pursues his interest in botany.

Complications ensue — the book is 479 pages after all (Mitchell tends to write long books). Scores of other characters are introduced, new schemes of varying import are hatched regularly and there is a fair bit of violence, but all of those bigger picture stories are viewed through the lens of these two characters.

Which, for me, is the first and perhaps most serious of author Mitchell’s problems. He is an incredibly meticulous and detailed writer, who builds his story one intricately detailed block at a time, with immense amounts of necessary background — not unlike the Russians, say Dostoevsky, who take 300 pages to establish the elements of the story before they actually begin it. That trait, in fact, is one of the very real strengths of Cloud Atlas. But that novel has six different story lines, set in different eras spread across centuries, all in different places with different casts of characters — and it is a joy to hold all those elements together in your mind as the author gets ready to start. In this book, there are only two central stories and two lead characters, a clerk and a midwife, and that simply isn’t enough structure on which to impose Mitchell’s impressive mounds of detail.

A welter of voices, intricate prose and a cat’s cradle of narration, it turns out (at least for me), require an equally complex web of stories — and this novel simply doesn’t have that, which makes the reading all too often tedious and annoying, You know something big is eventually going to happen (it is no spoiler to say it does), but the process of getting there is wearisome.

That concern could be set aside if the prose style and language are so strong as to carry themselves (and those who like the book do salute the prose) but that sure didn’t work for me. Mitchell frequently sets his detail in dialogue, so consider this example from midway through the book:

“‘Master Ueda replied that the Koyamas were well aware of my origins as the daughter of a shrine but saw no objection. They want a daughter-in-law who is dutiful, modest, resourceful, and not a'”– Orioto’s voice is joined by sisters who lovingly recite the sobriquet — “‘prissy sherbet-guzzling miss who thinks “hard work” is a town in China. Lastly, my master reminded me that I am a Ueda by adoption, and why did I suppose the Uedas to be so very far below the Koyamas? Blushing, I apologized to my master for my thoughtless words.'”

“But Noriko-san didn’t mean that at all!” Hotaru protests.

Hatsune warms her hands at the fire. “He is curing her shyness, I believe.”

The blizzard of punctuation in that quote, incidentally, is another frequent effect, which I found jarring. When you are having trouble with prose, it is the little things like that that eventually really get to you. Here is another example from just two pages later:

“The story goes,” Yayoi says, curling Orito’s hair around her finger, “that when I was born with these” — Yayoi taps her pointed ears — “the Buddhist priest was called. His explanation was that a demon had crept into my mother’s womb and laid his egg there, like a cuckoo. Unless I was abandoned that very night, the priest warned, demons would come for their offspring and carve up the family as a celebratory feast. My father heard this with relief: peasants everywhere ‘winnow the seedlings’ to rid themselves of unwanted daughters. Our village even had a special place for it: a circle of pointed rocks, high above the tree line, up a dry streambed. In the seventh month, the cold could not kill me, but wild dogs, foraging bears, and hungry spirits were sure to do the job by morning. My father left me there and walked home without regret.”

(Potential spoiler coming up.) I went to the middle of the books for those quotes because it sets up my final grumble (for the review — I have others). In both those quotes, Orito and Yayoi are sharing their background — the two are effectively imprisoned at a “nunnery” in a shrine where they are “engifters” who are “gifted” by the masters and accolytes and the resulting offspring are taken from them. Remind you of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? Or perhaps Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro? It certainly reminded me; both those authors did it better and I say that having liked neither book. Again, it may have been a case that my frustration with Mitchell’s book caused me to make exaggerated criticisms but every section of the book seemed to be derivative of something done better by someone else — and I got no sense that these were homages or references to those authors, because they just go on too long to be a nod of honor. Besides, Atwood and Ishiguro are still writing and not yet ready to be elevated to Patrick O’Brien-like imitation (yes, that is a hint to another derivative section).

Mitchell does eventually set the active part of the novel going for the last 100-150 pages and, when he is in a go-forward mood, he is quite good at action. Again, I am out of step with most of the people who like the book — they admit the ending is weak, I found it the best part of the book. Perhaps I was just relieved at approaching the finish, but when Mitchell did get into an active voice here, he reminded me why I liked his previous books. (For a recent, excellent discussion of how he makes all this style work successfully check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Cloud Atlas here.)

End of KfC rant. Despite the positive critical reception for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I should note that I am not the only dissenting voice. My fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor Berrett at themookseandthegripes had some similar concerns in his review although he does end up much more positive than I did. And a couple of readers whom I respect on the Man Booker debate site have also said they abandoned it. For a much more positive assessment (with a far more complete look at the plot than I have provided) and an interview with David Mitchell, check out John Self’s Asylum thoughts here.

I very much wanted to like this book and again note that others found much in it. Despite my respect for Mitchell, I honestly don’t think my problems with it are my fault. All of which probably makes it a certain 2010 Man Booker winner. Oh well.


2010 Man Booker Prize longlist

July 27, 2010

The 2010 Man Booker Prize longlist was released today. Last year, KfC managed to review all 13 titles and I will set that goal again this year, although I may fall a couple short as I have only read four of the books. I will post a category in the sidebar with updates and links to reviews as they go up.

First off, the three that have been reviewed here:

February, by Lisa Moore — reviewed here — one of two Canadian entries on the list and a major surprise. (Emma Donoghue’s Room — not yet released — is the other.) February did not even make last year’s Giller Prize longlist. But…it is very topical, since it is about the Ocean Ranger disaster and the current Gulf of Mexico crisis makes it very timely. After a few years of Canadian absence from the Booker list, it is nice to see two there but I am sure Yann Martel, Linden McIntyre and Tom Rachman (all eligible Canadian authors) are as surprised as I am that at the choices.

The Long Song, by Andrea Levy — reviewed here. Well-loved for Small Island, Levy again returns to Jamaica with this novel about the final days of slavery — and what happens when it ended. For my money, a worthy inclusion on the longlist. Levy’s approach to her very serious subject is to examine it through the eyes of some individuals effected by it, both black and white. What results is a very human, readable novel.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas — reviewed here. An Australian novel, this one has been around for a while — short listed for their Miles Franklin prize in 2008, it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2009, but was only published in the UK this year, making it Booker eligible. A very interesting study of modern Australia, told through the eyes and experiences of a dozen characters who happened to be present when “the slap” took place. For Canadian readers in particular, a worthwhile look at contemporary life in one of the other Old Dominions, with many parallels to our own experience.

And a review to be posted in two days:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. When the bookies post their odds, I expect this to be one of the favorites — it has received very good reviews and been the subject of much talk. I’ll offer a bit of a preview, however. Despite being a major David Mitchell fan (I have read all his books), I will be out of step on this book — indeed, of the four that I have read so far, I would rank it third. Then again, as veteran visitors here may remember, I did not much like last year’s Booker winner, Wolf Hall, either.

Which gives us the KfC reading list for the next while — copies of these have been ordered, with review timing likely dependent on when they arrive (a number are not yet available in North America and have to be shipped from the UK). I won’t promise that I will get to them all but I’ll do my best.

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey (already a two-time Booker winner).

Room by Emma Donoghue
The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

C by Tom McCarthy

Trespass by Rose Tremain

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Mrs. KfC visits Dovegreyreader, a guest post

July 23, 2010

Sometimes you come across a book that you absolutely love, and the characters become much loved friends whilst you are reading it, and often well after you have finished it. You imagine them going about their lives and think about them even after the book has found its place on your shelf. Then you hear that they are going to make a movie of the book, and your first reaction is “oh NO – what if they RUIN it for me!” A casting mistake, a film location that isn’t what you had imagined, a voice that isn’t true, there are dozens of ways that your imaginary friends can come a cropper in the film.

DGR at the Endsleigh

Well, I was thinking about all this as my three wonderful friends and I were chuntering along on British Rail across the length and breadth of England last Friday, coming from the Lake District to a much anticipated visit with Dovegreyreader. You see, she had become something of an imaginary friend to me over the last few months since KfC alerted me to her blog. I have been reading it faithfully and had formed an impression of her that I was holding fast, and I kept wondering what if that was what she was really like. I imagined her as a warm funny woman who embraced life fully, who found joy in all things great and small, and who was unfailingly cheerful, positive and a very, very nice person. I had a picture of her buzzing about, knitting, quilting, singing, reading, writing, and laughing. I knew what she looked like, as her picture had been on her blog. As we neared the station, I got a bit nervous – what if she wasn’t like that at all? Yikes!

We alighted from the train (as they love to say on British Rail) and as we were struggling with our bags, before we had a moment to look up, we were caught up in the warmest welcome you could ever imagine. DGR and Bookhound had come to the station 45 minutes early, just in case, and ran up to us, hugged us all warmly with a “Welcome Canada!” that made us all laugh and put us at ease. Bless them, they had brought two cars, as they knew we were travelling with a lot of gear, and they divided us up – Gill and I went with DGR and Sally and Denise and our luggage went with Bookhound. DGR piloted her little Fiesta to our hotel (the Endsleigh, if you know her blog), pointing out all the sights that had been referenced on her blog, and places of interest along the way. Bookhound, meanwhile, had released his inner Tour Guide, and treated his passengers to a jolly good look round the area en route to the hotel, arriving an hour and a half after we other three got there.

The Tinker book-signing

The next morning, DGR picked us up and took us to town where we attended the dearest thing ever – we went to visit the Tinker in Tinkertown. Having been alerted to our visit, he had just finished the hoovering (his flat is spotless – I want him to move in with us!). After a few pleasantries, the Tinker went and fetched 4 copies of his book, and we had a book signing! (The book is called Bugle Boy, the publisher is Long Barn Books and it features a Foreward by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.) He is a lovely man, funny, self deprecating, with a merry twinkle in his eye. DGR is clearly the light of his life, and they have a wonderful relationship. Before we left, he showed us some of his beautiful handiwork – needlepoint hangings that are beautiful to behold. The apples don’t fall far from the tree, do they?

DGR always alerts her readers to special moments so they can calm themselves, and I am borrowing her device here. Get ready for something terrific.

On Saturday evening, DGR and Bookhound came to dinner with us four Canadians. I know you already know this if you have read her blog, but she made each of us a lovely quilted square and then SHE GAVE ME A QUILT! I mean to say that this lovely woman had spent the last six weeks making a quilt for a person she had never met. She really did. I was gobsmacked. It is beautiful, as you can see from the picture. I was moved to tears with the generosity of this gift – who gives of her precious time for six weeks to make a quilt for a stranger? Dovegreyreader does, that’s who. Can you imagine? I’m still trying to fathom this. And so she and Rocky could get down to quilting, Bookhound cleared up after the dinner he had made every evening and delivered a cup of tea (not for Rocky though) so DGR could focus on the task at hand.

But I’m not done yet . The next day, Bookhound made us the most splendid tea you can imagine. Lovely little sandwiches – without the crusts, naturally – scones, clotted cream, yummy jam, and of course the requisite tea. All of this served on a crisply ironed tablecloth in a warm and cheery room. We spent a lovely Sunday evening with them, meeting the Gamekeeper (who is great), his dogs, his ferrets, the neighbor’s cows (two of whom have sexual identity issues), Muffy (the cat), and revelling in the beautiful view we all see out the window in the upper corner of DGR’s blog.

So, Dear Readers, I am much relieved to tell you that Dovegreyreader is every bit as wonderful as I had imagined her to be from reading her blog. She is defined by the generosity of her spirit, her joyful approach to life, and her indomitable enthusiasm for her family, her books and her community. When they make the DGR movie, I shall recommend they cast Vanessa Redgrave (circa 1985) as DGR, Alan Bates as Bookhound, Sir John Gielgud as the Tinker, and Rocky as himself.

It was a gift to get to meet these lovely people.

And if you are one of the few people in the world who has not yet visited dovegreyreader’s blog, here is a link.

Vida, by Patricia Engel

July 20, 2010

Review copy courtesy WordFest

What only a few years ago looked to be a subset of the American short story world has now emerged as a fully established genre: the diaspora experience of (name country here). Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for Interpreter of Maladies in 2000, a story collection based on the Indian experience, and followed it a few years ago with Unaccustomed Earth, a collection on the same theme. Junot Diaz had earlier introduced the Dominican Republic diaspora with the short story collection Drown (1996) – he returned to the theme in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in 2008. Chimamanda Adichie last year explored the Nigerian version with The Thing Around Your Neck. I am sure there are others – and certainly if we look back in American literary history there are precedents (most notably Irish and Jewish), so the phenomenon is not really that new. The homelands may have changed and the world may have moved on, but many of the elements of the story are similar.

The latest addition is the Colombian diaspora and it comes in the first book for 33-year-old Patricia Engel, born in New Jersey to Colombian parents. Her nine story collection, Vida, is set there and in New York and Miami, with occasional flashbacks and holiday trips to Colombia itself. What is different about Engel’s work is that all nine stories feature the same central character, Sabina, whom we first meet as a school child, although most of the stories involve her experiences as a young adult.

In many ways, the first story, “Lucho”, is a prologue which sets up the rest of the book:

It was the year my uncle got arrested for killing his wife, and our family was the subject of all the town gossip. My dad and uncle were business partners, so my parents were practically on trial themselves, which meant that most of the parents didn’t want their kids to hang around me anymore, and I lost the few friends I had.

We were foreigners, spics, in a town of blancos. I don’t know how we ended up there. There’s tons of Latinos in New Jersey, but somehow we ended up in the one town that only kept them as maids. All the kids called me brownie on account of my permanent tan, or Indian because all the Indians they saw on TV were dark like me. I thought the gringos were all pink, not white, but I never said so. I was a quiet kid. Lonely, and a hell of a lot lonelier once my family became the featured topic on the nightly news.

Sabina’s family is not poor; indeed, they employ a succession of maids. When we meet her, she is 14; the Lucho of the title is her first boy friend – he’s actually from California but acquired his name from the Argentine who fathered him and then promptly departed the family. Sabina’s casual relationships with questionable men will be a constant factor in the stories.

In the second story of the volume, “Refuge”, Engel takes a risk that almost led me to abandon the book (and I am glad that I didn’t). The year is 2001 and Sabina has a job as a receptionist at a financial firm in New York (I’m sure you can see what is coming):

This morning the Towers were hit and I was in bed – not at the office in Tower One – because I called in sick again. My brother phoned, said turn on the TV and I watched it all, everything I don’t need to describe here now. Before the phones went dead, I made contact. Parents, a few friends. Trying to decide how to handle this mess but I’m in no position to make a decision which is a good thing because Luscious Lou (his stage name), my guitar teacher of these past few months, showed up at my door, all seven feet of him in his usual black leather and suede, leaning on the frame, that sleeping crow of hair on his head, diagonal nose like a dragon’s tail, tiny gray eyes folded into hard wrinkles. Moist bellowing voice: “Sabina, I knew you’d be home.”

He told me to go with him, that I live too close to the scene.

While her execution is somewhat clumsy, Engel is making a point with her use of 9/11, a point that will be underscored in a later story when we discover her parents lived in the drug centre of Medellin before immigrating to the United States. The impact of these “global” events is almost coincidental for her characters – they are so far out of the power loop, that the events exist as almost peripheral disruptions to immigrant life. Life is much more about weaving a way to survival.

Most of the rest of the stories are about what is involved in that weaving. In the title story, “Vida”, Sabina is hanging out in Miami with a new sometime boy friend with East European roots. Vida is another Colombian, the girl friend of Sabina’s boy friend’s mate. The two become close and Vida reveals that she was “sold” as a prostitute when she arrived in America — her boy friend was the brothel guard who “rescued” her, although that turns out merely to be an exchange of imprisonment. How Sabina helps her weave a route to survival is the major theme of the story.

By using Sabina as the central character and focusing on the “survival” theme, Engel creates a novel-like feel to the collection. She is a confident writer, with a narrative style that well suits the relative lack of action in her plots – what is a big deal for Sabina is not really a big deal for the rest of the world. Much like Lahiri’s stories, that’s the central point of Engel’s stories.

The result is a worthwhile book, although I suspect not to everyone’s taste. Readers who are interested in the immigrant experience – particularly as seen by the second generation – will find much to contemplate in this collection. With her focus on a single individual, the author succeeds in exploring a highly personal, rather than political, story.

The publisher’s promotional material states that they have a novel under contract as well, so Engel would seem to be following the Diaz route. There is every reason to look forward to her next book.


July 17, 2010

Okay, KfC is somewhat behind in terms of new posts. I will confess:

1. Every four years, I become a football fan for four weeks. I thought that I had read and written enough in advance, but it turns out that I was about two books short.

2. Plus, a highlight of every summer is the Open Championship. Even I can’t read a novel when I know that howling winds at St. Andrews are producing very high scores — and wonderful television.

3. Perhaps most important this year in terms of reading distractions, Mrs. KfC and some friends have been off trekking in the Lake District and I have been sending daily North American news reports. Even better for regular visitors here, however, they have now headed south to Devon and will be spending the next few days in the territory of the blogger of all bloggers, dovegreyreader — DGR and Bookhound met them at the Plymouth train station yesterday. I’m getting regular reports (and photos) so this too is a reading distraction. The good news, however, is that Mrs. KfC has promised a guest post about the experience when she gets home. Stay tuned.

I promise I will be back to regular form in a week or so. The David Mitchell is the book currently being read (and is proving a bit slow). Once I figure out when I’ll be finishing it, I’ll get a schedule up. In the meantime, here’s a picture of a sculpture that we are rather proud to own:

The News Where You Are, by Catherine O’Flynn

July 12, 2010

Copy courtesy Bond Street Books -- click cover for info

So what do you want from a good summer read? Enough plot to keep you going, but not so much that the book can’t be put down for a grilled steak or holiday conversation. A (limited) cast of central characters, ideally offbeat enough to keep attention engaged. Bits of humor. And perhaps a sardonic comment or two on the modern world.

Catherine O’Flynn’s first novel, What Was Lost, attracted substantial critical and prize attention — winner of the Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for both the Booker and Orange Prizes. While I don’t think her second novel will get quite that much jury attention (it is a bit thin on the literary side of things), it is a highly enjoyable read and I am sure it will do well on the sales front. O’Flynn hits on all of the checklist above — if you are looking for a book for the cottage or beach (or even just an entertaining break, as I was) this one succeeds.

The main character, Frank Allcroft, is a television news anchor on Heart of England Reports, one of those regional news shows that every country seems to have but which almost nobody watches. Amend that; we have all seen a version of this dreadful show. Actually, let’s deal with the show first:

Sometimes Frank would see a film, usually American, set in and around a newsroom. He struggled to find any parallels with his own work environment. The journalists were always either hard-bitten cynics or wide-eyed idealists — never the kind of shuffling unspectacular plodders that he felt himself and many of his colleagues to be. Their patter was fast and littered with one-liners, not the directionless drivel that passed between him and the others on slow afternoons as they asked each other about their sandwich fillings. Their Hollywood counterparts drank black coffee, never milky tea, ate Danish pastries, never Penguin biscuits, and they never seemed to cover stories about controversial new traffic-calming measures.

While the story meetings for Heart of England Reports are delightful set pieces, the most interesting part of Frank’s dreadful work experience is his relationship with his predecessor, Phil Smeadway: “Phil had some kind of televisual gold dust — viewers loved him; there had been something in his DNA that seemed to make him affable to everyone. He’d long ago moved on from regional to national television and from news to entertainment. He had been hosting a prime-time blockbuster show every Saturday night when he was killed in a hit-and-run accident six months previously.”

No points are awarded for spotting the dramatic foreshadowing in the last sentence of that quote and no spoilers will be forthcoming here. One thing that Phil has “bequeathed” to Frank, however, is Cyril. He is a gag writer who wrote the corny jokes that Phil made a nightly staple. (And you are going to have to read the book to get any of the jokes — there is a limit to just how much can be given away in a blog review.) Cyril is eager to perform the same service for Frank and, despite the anchor’s leaden delivery, the gags actually, kind of, work:

Shortly after he started inserting the occasional joke, Frank’s producer discovered through a friend of his son’s that Frank was developing a cult status among students in the city — the bad jokes were actually pulling in more viewers. Eventually a Web site was dedicated to him — — with clips of Frank delivering his more excruciating one-liners.

That’s enough of the work stuff — O’Flynn certainly has more to offer. Frank is the son of an architect who was responsible for eight of those concrete behemoths that anyone who ever visited Birmingham in the last half of the 20th century will know only too well. The good news is that seven have already been demolished (such is the fate of the carbunkles that Prince Charles loves to deride) and Frank will engage in a project to preserve the last vestige of his father’s work.

And finally there is Frank’s own family. His mother, Maureen, has been installed at Evergreen Senior Living in the Helping Hands section, as opposed to the Golden Days (“inevitably referred to by residents as Gaga Days”) section. If you happen to be of an age where your parents are living in places like this, there are some excellent riffs on this subject as well.

And Frank has a perceptive eight-year-old daughter, Mo, who gets more than a few good appearances in the book.

Given all that — plus the fact that I am avoiding the spoiler that drives the latter part of the book — you have to admit that there is a lot to recommend this novel from the entertainment point of view. Keep your expectations low (this is cottage reading after all) and you will find a most entertaining cast of pleasantly hapless characters who keep you amused from start to finish. No, it is not a prize winner, but what more can you ask from a summer read? I was impressed enough that I will be heading back to O’Flynn’s previous novel in the future — books like this deserve more attention than they generally receive.

A final note for Canadian readers: The News Where You Are is a Bond Street Book, one of Random House Canada’s imprints. The volumes that they produce (check them out here) would get my vote for the best physical volumes that are being published today in any country. It is wonderful that at least one section of the trade remains committed to producing volumes of such wonderful quality. I know I shouldn’t like a book because of its cover, let alone its production, but every Bond Street Book that I pick up has a special appeal.

For another take on this book, check out Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck — he and I are very much on the same page with this one.

The Memory of Love, by Aminatta Forna

July 6, 2010

ARC courtesy Bloomsbury Press -- click cover for info

With the exception of Ulysses (a planned extended read), there is no doubt that it took me longer to complete The Memory of Love than any other book that I have read this year — a distinction that I think it will continue to hold at year end. Part of that is undoubtedly the novel’s 464 largish pages and small type. Even more of a factor, however, is the nature of author Aminatta Forna’s story and the way that she has chosen to tell it. I found that the book needed to be put down after every 40 or 50 pages (and that is definitely not my normal reading style) and often required a day or two of contemplation before it could be resumed.

The Memory of Love is set in Sierra Leone as the twenty-first century opens. The West African country has been plagued by decades of violent disruption, particularly in the late 1990s, and every character in the book bears the scars (physical, emotional or both) of the atrocities that took place there.

Forna uses three central characters, each of whom anchors a narrative stream — the point of view alters between the three throughout the book, although they do overlap.

Elias Cole is an aging, retired university professor, now on his deathbed in hospital. His disturbed memories extend back to 1969 and the conflict that was taking place even then — his “love” is Saffia, the wife of a fellow professor:

I saw a woman once, the loss of whom I mourned, even before I had spoken a single word to her.

20 January 1969. The faculty wives dinner. We, the bachelors, gathered together at the bottom of the lawn, a patch of untended weeds. On the other side of the grass was the reception line. I was listening, or at least making the appearance of it, to my companion complain about the reallocation of space in the faculty building. He had lost out, which was a shame, no doubt. As he spoke he wiped his face with the napkin that had been wrapped around his glass, leaving flacks of paper all over his forehead. I found myself inclined to stare and so I looked away, towards the arriving guests. She wore a blue gown and, as she descended the stone steps to the lawn, her fingers plucked lightly at the fabric, which clung to her in the heat. I watched her and felt a surge of feeling, that then nameless emotion.

Elias has a need to recount a version of his life (which may or may not be reliable, perhaps deliberately unreliable) and finds a willing set of ears in the second major character, Adrian Lockhart, an English psychologist on temporary secondment to the hospital — an assignment he has chosen mainly because both work and home life in England have left him isolated and confused. The new assignment proves equally as isolating as none of the patients or clients that he is assigned want to see him more than once. He eventually follows one, Agnes, a woman who has the habit of “wandering” every two months or so until someone kindly takes her to the asylum — the locals say she “may be able to cross back and forth between this world and the spirit world.” Adrian eventually makes a diagnosis of “fugue”, a condition first posited in 1887 and for the most part denied by the profession ever since:

A spate of fugues followed the publication of Les Aliens Voyageurs, Adrian reads. Most accounts related to missing servicemen between the First and Second World Wars. The men eventually turned up hundreds of miles away from home. All claimed to suffer memory loss, not to know who they were, or how they had ended up in the place in which they were found. Some were using other names and pursuing new occupations. All appeared to inhabit a state of obscured consciousness from which they eventually emerged with no memory of the weeks, months or even years they had spent away. These were not isolated incidents in the lives of these men, but a constant, a pattern of behavior, of journey, of wanderings of compulsive travelling. The suspicion, on the part of the psychiatrists treating the servicemen, was of malingering. The men were shot as deserters.

That diagnosis does not just to apply to Agnes; indeed, it could be applied to every character in the book. Memory of atrocities witnessed or inflicted cannot be denied, yet it cannot be fully addressed either. At some point, the victim — and everyone is this book is a victim in one way or another — needs to travel to another place, be that in this world or the spiritual world. Some things are so terrible that a collective refusal to remember them is the only way to survive.

Yes, Adrian also finds a “love” as the book progresses, a young woman whom he thinks has replaced his English wife and daughter as the centre of his world. Perhaps.

And finally there is Kai Mansaray, a young indigenous surgeon, who shows up one night at Adrian’s room at the hospital — staff used it as a crash pad before the European arrived and Kai intends to continue doing so. The next morning over breakfast, they discuss Adrian’s presence:

“I’m seconded for a year.”

“So you don’t plan on coming to live here for good. No, well I thought not. If you did, you would be the first immigrant in two hundred years.” Kai Mansaray laughs at his own joke, a raucous ear-splitting sound. “We don’t even have any tourists. Except your sort, that is.”

“My sort?”

The visitor [Kai] takes another bite of bread. “Nothing. What I meant to say to you was, “Welcome!” He raises his coffee cup.

Like Elias and Adrian, Kai has a “love”, or at least the memory of one from his student days. And like the other two as well, he is selectively exploring the memory of his history and his present — and having a difficult time with that selectivity.

Forna does not hesitate to concretely describe the atrocities that require this extensive editing of memory (and that reading is painful), but that is not what makes The Memory of Love a challenging read. Rather it is her commitment to exploring each segment in almost relentless, sometimes apparently irrelevant, detail (take another look at the quotes — they are representative of the entire book), creating a sensory overload in the reader. Rather than an editing of memory, it is a surfeit of what might or might not be important. In no way does that experience directly compare to the atrocities that the characters have experienced, but in its own way it has the same numbing effect — which demands that the book be put down fairly often so the reader can sort out just what is going on.

I was reminded often while reading this novel of the oral story-telling tradition of indigenous authors from Canada (see the review of Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce) and Australia (see Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria). While Forna was born in Scotland, she was raised in West Africa and I have to believe was influenced by an oral story-telling tradition there. That tradition takes an incident and explores it in significant detail as the installment of the evening — with another incident explored in equal detail the next night and so on. While the over-arching story may be bold (in this case, a horrible atrocity that touched every citizen) the segments of the recounting are a deep exploration of details which seem to be incidental at first glance — but are important to the individuals who lived through them. The big story moves at a glacial pace, but then so does life. So it should come as no surprise that a story that was meant to be “told” over a period of days, weeks or even months takes more than a few days to read.

That experience would not be welcomed by every reader and I certainly would not describe The Memory of Love as an enjoyable book. I would, however, characterize it as an immensely compelling one. I knew as I was reading it (and setting it aside) that if I started another book instead of returning to this one, I would probably not return to finish this novel — and that would be a dreadful disservice to an author who has crafted such a painful, but important, story.

And a copy of Annabel goes to…

July 5, 2010


Congratulations — I’ll be in touch via email to get a shipping address. My special thanks to author Kathleen Winter for the excellent guest post and to House of Anansi Press for both providing me with a copy of Annabel and offering one for the contest. Thanks as well to everyone who commented on Kathleen’s post.

The Lights of Earth, by Gina Berriault

July 1, 2010

There are novels that in the very first paragraph tell readers what awaits them.  The Lights of Earth is one of those books:

Years after the night of that strange little party her memory played a trick on her. Her memory set him among the others, the guest of honor who heard every word, who saw every gesture and every expression on every face. But he wasn’t there. He wasn’t even expected that night. He must have been still in Spain or New York or down in Los Angeles or over the continent on his way back to San Francisco. He must have been up in the sky, somewhere over all, as the suddenly famous ones seem to be.

Copy courtesy Hungry Like The Woolf

That opening promises a book about loss — loss contemplated, loss experienced, loss lived out in the future — and that is exactly what The Lights of Earth is. It is both contemplative and gentle, but from the very first words it is a study in what has been missing, or is being missed, or will be missed in the future.

Those thoughts belong to Ilona who is heading off to a dinner party in honor of her lover, Martin. As they indicate, he has just achieved international success as a novelist, is busy on tour and hence unable to be present at the hometown San Francisco occasion that is being given in his honor. As they also indicate, Ilona has a premonition that their affair is about to end.

The premonition gets worse as Ilona contemplates the people at the party, “each striving to be seen and heard”:

Except one, who had no need to strive — the one among the women who was beautiful, and Ilona knew at once that the woman was the wife of the man who was guiding Claud and herself toward the table and knew that she was the eventual one, the one who takes away the lover, the one who is a reward in a time of rewards, and she wished for herself a time when presentiment of loss would never bother her because she would be wise enough to know that loss was as natural as breathing.

Ilona is not a complete innocent in this unfolding drama, since she herself had previously take Martin from his wife. As the novel unfolds, she relives that experience; in many ways it is a dress rehearsal for what is going to happen to her. Like Martin, she too is a writer; unlike him, she is neither published nor successful. Whatever life she has been leading is about to move into another gear and it is one that she cannot engage.

The strength of Berriault’s book is the way that she plays with time when she contemplates these slender aspects of her plot. Even after Martin has left her, Ilona continues to think about when she “stole” him. And she doesn’t just remember the time that they spent together, she searches him out after he has departed and they do have evenings and experiences that take them back into their previous life. Ilona does not just live in the present, but the past and the future as well. In all three time dimensions, she has been merely a passenger in what was happening — she knows that she will also just be a non-controlling passenger in the bleak future that awaits her.

At dawn when the phone rang she was lying against his back, curved to him as she had been curved to him countless times before, and in the first moments of waking the loss of him had not yet come about. Wrapping his shirt around her — it was closest to hand — she ran down the hall, praying that all was well with everyone.


Martin sat on the rim of the tub and bathed away the sheen over her body. He drove her to the airport and, waiting in line to board the plane, she rested her head against his chest and he kissed her on the brow, and to everyone else he must have appeared to be someone who would be waiting for her when she returned.

Gina Berriault (1926-99) was born in California and spent most of her life there. She is probably best known as a short story writer — Their Beds, New and Selected Stories won the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award — but her oeuvre includes four novels. I will admit that this is the first book of hers that I have read (I do recall a short story or two) and I will keep my eye open for others.

I can’t help but compare The Lights of Earth to Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood in the way that both explore the troubled circumstances of young women who find themselves in circumstances that they cannot influence. And I should also acknowledge that both books came to my attention via the same source — Kerry at Hungry Like The Woolf. It was through his attention to the 2010 Tournament of Books that I was lead to NightwoodThe Lights of Earth was his gift to me when I won the consolation prize in his ToB contest. I would have never discovered either book without the contest; I am glad to have read both.

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