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Friederike Knabe "Books are funny little portable pieces of thought. — Susan Sontag" (Ottawa, Ontario Canada)

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Radiance of Tomorrow: A Novel
Radiance of Tomorrow: A Novel
Price: £1.70

5.0 out of 5 stars New beginnings..., 30 Jun. 2014
"They laughed, both knowing that part of the old ways remained, though they were fragile. At the end of their laughter, words were exchanged, briefly, leaving many things unsaid for another day that continued to be another and yet another…"

Mama Kadie cautiously enters the central path of her village, not sure what to expect, pondering on what has remained and who is still there or has come back like she does now. After the traumas, losses and devastation of the war she experiences profound emotions as she walks barefoot on the local soil, smells the scents of the land and watches and listens for every sound in the bushes. What will life have in store for her? The opening pages of Ishmael Beah's debut novel, "Radiance of Tomorrow", are achingly beautiful; his voice gentle and affecting, his deep emotional connection palpable with what he describes so colourfully. Having experienced international acclaim with his memoir, "A Long Way Gone", which recounts the story of a child soldier in Sierra Leone, with his new book he returns to his homeland, sharing with his readers the demanding and difficult path that the local people have to follow in their recovery from the brutal war and its many losses in life and livelihood. There is hope – radiance – for a better future but there are also many sacrifices to make: forgiving is not forgetting; rebuilding on ruins, literally, on the bones of loved ones is probably one of the most haunting challenges. Transposing the facts and realities of the aftermath of the Sierra Leonean war into a fictional framework carries its own challenges. At the same time, it gives the author a greater freedom of expression for exploring the tragedies and recoveries. Benefiting from his mother tongue's rich figurative language, Mende, Beah also conveys to us something of the soul of his home and way of thinking. In his language there is a deep connection between land, nature, cosmos and people that speaks through his wording and that also characterizes his in depth developed protagonists.

The first person Mama Kadie meets as she walks along the central paths of the village is Pa Moiwa, who resting on a log in the village square. Much time will be needed to absorb the enormity of what has happened, evidence of violence and death are visible everywhere. Pa Moiwa slowly turns around on hearing the voice of his old friend: his only question is "how she had brought her spirit into town and which route she had taken." "… I walked the path, as that is the way in my heart." There will be many days for them to carefully and gently peel away the layers that have hidden their experiences of the recent past. Every day more people arrive: returning displaced locals and desperate refugees from other parts of the country where survival is even more precarious. Mama Kadie, Pa Moiwa and, later, Pa Kainesi play a central role in the community, respected by everybody as the "elders". Young and old sit together in the village centre after a day's struggle to repair houses, fetch water and find food to cook; the elders are telling stories of the past with the children listening attentively: "It isn't about knowing the most stories, child. It is about carrying the ones that are most important and passing them along [from one generation to the next]…." Meanwhile, the younger adults sit apart working on plans how to find work and supplies to care for their families, among them Bockarie and Benjamin, both teachers, who will do everything in their power to ensure a brighter future for their children and others in the community.

Among the returnees are several former child soldiers and lost orphans who prefer to stay at a distance from the villagers but form an important component in the rebuilding of the village as all are coping with the emotional scars of their and the villagers' recent experiences. They form a small community of their own, led by the enigmatic "Colonel", a shadowy silent figure, who, nonetheless, finds ways to express his growing allegiance to his protégés and the villagers in unexpected ways.

There is a moment of almost idyllic peace in the community, but as is often the case in real life… it is the calm ahead of the storm. And the storm comes in the form of huge trucks and machinery and shouting people who appear to come from another world… The small mining company that had operated in the area before the war has come back with ambitious new owners and investors, who, with little regard to the needs and traditions of the villages nearby, take over the precious farmland and water resources for an ever expanding open-pit mining operation. The company, endorsed by the provincial politicians, is dividing the community physically and emotionally. They bring the worst of city life into this remote region of the country. Yet, they become the only employer in the villages around. Conflicts are unavoidable and there can only be few winners. The "new beginnings" are full of drama and struggle, to maintain hope for "the radiance of tomorrow" is difficult yet essential and life affirming.

Ishmael Beah's novel is beautifully written, absorbing and engaging at many levels. His central characters stay in your mind long after you closed the book. He succeeds in telling a story that balances humanity and grace on the one hand with the harsh reality of life in a country that has come out of a brutal civil war and is faced with a devastated economy. Traditional ways of life are challenged and as readers we can only hope that the wisdom of the elders can continue in the mind of the younger generations and that they will learn from the many stories their culture and communities have to offer. [Friederike Knabe]


Tail of the Blue Bird
Tail of the Blue Bird
by Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It feels good to read an entertaining story like this, 30 Jun. 2014
This review is from: Tail of the Blue Bird (Paperback)
It feels good to read an entertaining story like this: Tail of the Blue Bird by Ghanaian writer, Nii Ayikwei Parkes. He is presenting us with an original murder mystery, an adventure story that moves beyond fact-based evidence with believable, well drawn characters. Despite its fantasy-like cover image, Nii Ayikwei Parkes's novel is firmly grounded in modern-day Ghanaian reality that incorporates urban as well as rural life and with it the need to bridge the different cultural, linguistic and spiritual traditions. The author brings all the different narrative strands convincingly together and does so in a lively and engaging way.

Most of the action takes place in a remote village two and a half hours drive from Accra, the capital. The young forensic expert, Kayo, has been dispatched to the village with his police sidelick, Garba, to investigate the foul smelling remains of what appears to be of human nature. The solving of the case has political ramification for him and the police inspector in Accra. Time is of the essence... but evidence cannot be obtained or verified without the cooperation of village elders... and their world operates on different parameters than city people would assume.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes pulls the reader very quickly into this different world; his characters, Kayo and Garba, and the central figures in the village are very well drawn; their personalities are endearing and affecting and at times surprising in their own ways. The author's depiction of the northern Ghana landscape is evocative... and you can easily imagine the presence and the power of the ancestors' spirits. Just one caution, the language, especially the dialogs take a bit of getting used to for most of us. My recommendation: just relax into it and the fast paced story; it will become easy after a while. While terms are not directly explained, the author finds an organic way to let you know what they mean in due course.


The Tuner of Silences (Biblioasis International Translation) (Biblioasis International Translation Series)
The Tuner of Silences (Biblioasis International Translation) (Biblioasis International Translation Series)
by Mia Couto
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The end of the world?, 29 Jun. 2014
"I was eleven years old when I saw a woman for the first time, and I was seized by such sudden surprise that I burst into tears." This opening line pulled me immediately into Mia Couto's novel, THE TUNER OF SILENCES; it raised questions for me from the beginning and these didn't let me go til the end. Mwanito, the narrator, reflecting back on the early years of his life, recounts his experiences while living in the company of three men and his slightly older brother in a remote campsite in a semi-desert. Couto, an award-winning Mozambican author, has written a novel that is part coming of age story, part family drama and part a kind of love story. Mwanito's mature voice recaptures convincingly the innocence of his childhood, his gradual awakening to a life that may be different from the one prescribed by his father, whose trauma and loss keep haunting him. In the tradition of African story telling, Couto's narration moves with ease from realistic depiction of people and scenarios to fantasy, symbolism, mythology and the rich imagination of dreams. Set against the early years of post-Portuguese colonial rule in Mozambique, Couto touches on questions of race and identity, of long held beliefs and traditions, and the uncertainties in the newly independent country.

After the sudden death of his wife, Mwanito's distraught father takes his sons and flees the city for an abandoned game reserve far away. For him life as he knew it has ended and, he explains to his sons, "Over There", beyond their camp, the world has seized to exist; it is a total wasteland. He declares the camp an "independent" land, names it "Jezoosalem". Yes, the religious connotation is intended. Following the "renaming ceremony" of place and people, he, now Silvestre, rules "his land" dictatorially, his strict discipline not to be questions. The children live in fear of their father. No books are allowed or anything to do with writing; Mwanito is forbidden to learn: he is to be the Tuner of Silences. "I was born to keep quiet. My only vocation is silence..." he recalls his early experiences. Only he can calm the father's anxieties. The family is accompanied by a raggedly looking ex-soldier who acts as a servant, security guard, hunter for essential meat supplies and, sometimes, friend to Ntunzi, Mwanito's brother. Lastly, there is "Uncle Aproximado", who lives at the edge of the game reserve, far away from the camp. He turns up from time to time to bring other essential supplies from "Over There". His arrival is welcomed by the boys, who also wonder whether he steals, whether the father has escaped a crime, whether there is really a "wasteland" beyond the perimeter they are allowed to explore...

Mwanito, too young to remember his mother or anything from "Over There", is a docile and dedicated follower of his father's instructions. However, influenced by his older brother's stories about their mother, Mwanito feels her presence in his vivid dreams, yet cannot define her features. Ntunzi, old enough to have been to school, pressures his younger brother to go against the father's rule and learn to read, one letter at a time. "I already knew how to travel across written letters, as if each one were an endless highway. But I still needed to learn how to dream and to remember. I wanted that boat that took Ntunzi into the arms of our dead mother..."

Eventually, after years in isolation, Marta, the woman from the novel's opening sentence appears, inadvertently disturbing the life of each of the camp's inhabitants and challenging the father's enforced order. Marta's presence is not quite as coincidental as it may seem at first, although some readers might find her involvement with the family and their secrets a bit too convenient. Still, she represents an important new conduit to the world outside, essential for the boys in coming to terms with their understanding of identity and other needs.

Mia Couto's writing is engaging, his sense of place evident and with it the description of the abandoned game reserve in the semi-desert environment evocative. I found the story's narrator Mwanito totally believable and in his childhood observations, his dreams, desires and wonderment very endearing. While his father may need him as the Tuner of Silences, the boy is a very astute observer of his surroundings. In his musings his language is gentle, poetic and rich in imagery. Silvestre, the father, by contrast, comes across as a tragic figure. In his inability to communicate, he isolates himself increasingly from his children. Unable to recover from his personal trauma, his clinging to a happier past with pseudo-religious rituals alienates his children and, rather than protecting them from the "wasteland Over There", pushes them towards planning their escape if there is a chance. Given the place and the time frame the novel is set, I sense that Couto while personalizing his story very effectively, his novel also explores the deeper societal traumas and challenges that people in Mozambique have faced in their recent history. For me, this has been a thought provoking read. [Friederike Knabe]


In Times of Fading Light
In Times of Fading Light
by Eugen Ruge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A family portrait through time, 29 Jun. 2014
Eugen Ruge's IN ZEITEN DES ABNEHMENDEN LICHTS, created a bit of a literary sensation in Germany when this debut novel won the prominent German Book Prize 2011 for, what some German critics have called, the "Great DDR Buddenbrooks novel", a multi-generational family tale, set primarily in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Now translated into English as IN TIMES OF FADING LIGHT by the highly esteemed Anthea Bell, it will likely establish itself as an important fictional account of personal and political realities in East Germany from roughly 1952 to 2001. Personalizing the experiences of three generations of Germans, Ruge explores for the reader the changing and complicated interpersonal relationships that reflect back on the changing societal landscape from the early days of the newly formed GDR, passing through the dramatic events leading up to and following the fall of the Berlin Wall to the unified Germany. In fact, Ruge is very public about the fact that he has fictionalized of his own family's story.

In his novel Ruge demonstrates his own original language style and an unusual rhythm in which the chapters are organized. The events are told episodically and placed deliberately into the selected non-contiguous time-frames, moving backward and forward in the time continuum. The year 2001 provides an overall framework thus closing the circle, while one recurring precise date, October 1, 1989, is given special importance, both in terms of the central family event and developments in the GDR in general. The date is roughly a month prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, by October, each day more and more Germans are leaving the country via borders more porous than that between the two Germanys. A topic for discussion and concern at the dinner table?

Within the family, each generation has had to define its relationship to the State, its politics and deal with whatever past they had already experienced. The old patriarch, and committed communist, Wilhem, had returned (with his wife Charlotte) from exile in Mexico to the young GDR in the early 1950s; Charlotte's sons had gone east during the war and Kurt returns (with wife and child) after years in exile in remotest Russia. Their differing views and those of other members of the family, friends and colleagues are explored in varying ways throughout the different episodes. For me, Kurt's mother-in-law, the resolute Nadeshda Iwanovna, is the most endearing individual among them all; her sense of humor is more pronounced than that of any other.

The changing time-frames and with them each episode concentrating on one or two members of the clan is initially somewhat confusing. But a quick look at the table of content reveals the rather clever and useful order of the chapters. Ruge is very careful not to overload the reader with political detail or societal intricacies staying closely within the family chronicle. Readers interested in the broader picture are well advised to consult other resources. Yet, while focusing on the individuals, the episodes are nonetheless written from the perspective of an outsider, an omniscient narrator. This places the reader at a certain distance from the protagonists. We don't see the world through their eyes; we observe their actions and interactions and rarely get a glimpse into their mind. Hiding a person's inner truths was of course a requirement during the days of the GDR...

Finally, I have admit that I am not in the best position to assess the impact of Ruge's novel and how a reader with none or little familiarity with the subject matter will relate to it. While my own experiences, directly and indirectly, reflect in many ways the realities as Ruge describes them realistically, and I find the book well written, I would not want to compare it with Thomas Mann's BUDDENBROOKS or Gunter Grass's novel and relevant to the issues here, TOO FAR AFIELD. [Friederike Knabe]


A Fairy Tale
A Fairy Tale
by Jonas T. Bengtsson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.08

5.0 out of 5 stars "I have to draw the whole world, otherwise it'll fall apart.", 29 Jun. 2014
This review is from: A Fairy Tale (Paperback)
A FAIRY TALE, Jonas T. Bengtsson's recently translated novel, is a love story of a very special kind: the love between father and son. It is a story of trust, loyalty and deep connections in the face of whatever obstacles might stand in the way of happiness. And there are a few of those as we slowly discover. Bengtsson's writing kept me engrossed in the story from the beginning to the end. A FAIRY TALE, is also a remarkable and astounding coming of age story, imagined with deep understanding for the boy and empathy and compassion for the father. Set primarily in and around Copenhagen, Bengtsson creates a physical reality that is an ever present backdrop yet also shows touches of a fairy tale.

Told in the voice of the boy - six years old at the novel's beginning - we quickly become more than mere observers of the boy's account of daily life. Through the short chapters we celebrate with the boy in his delight in just being with his father, the small presents, his astute observation of people, and we feel for him when his dad packs their bags again, often at the spur of the moment to move to yet another apartment or room in another neighbourhood. Each time they have to leave something behind, he muses. At night the boy eagerly awaits for the father to continue the story about the King and his prince and how they, yet again, escaped from the invisible White Men who are sent by the cruel White Queen to capture them...

Father and son are living an unsettled life at the fringes of Danish society: the father survives by taking on odd jobs for a while, always mindful of the safety needs of his son. Sometimes they stay longer, in a nicer place and people, who appear to have known the father in the past, support and help in smaller or larger ways... but then they have to leave again and hide. For the son his father is the only anchor in his young life; his love for him and trust in his actions are unconditional. The boy asks to go to school but is patient to wait until the time is right while learning with the father in the meantime. One way to cope with loneliness when the father is at work or to build his own world from what he experiences and not necessarily understands is to draw. Drawing will carry him into his young adulthood...

As time passes - a couple of years in fact - we increasingly worry about will happen to the two of them. What is the dad's back-story? Why is he on the run if he is? What is the symbolism of the White Queen, the old villa with the wild garden and the old lady? Whatever happened to the mother? Bengtsson builds the tension gradually and convincingly and one day, out of the blue, something dramatic happens that changes everything... Later on, the now teenage boy has to finally confront the questions he was not able - or willing - to ask his father as a child. He will have to decide where to go from that point onward. What an extraordinarily powerful novel! There is much to think about in our relationships with our children and grandchildren, societies' conventions and family's hidden secrets. [Friederike Knabe]


Sanctuary Line
Sanctuary Line
by Urquhart Jane
Edition: Hardcover

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Look out the window..., 6 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Sanctuary Line (Hardcover)
"... The cultivated landscape of this farm has decayed so completely now, it is difficult to believe that the fields and orchards ever existed outside my own memories, my own imagination... ". With these opening lines Liz Crane, forty-year old entomologist and the central voice in Jane Urquhart's new, engrossing and most personal novel invites us into her world and into her mind. Having recently returned to the old Butler homestead, Liz feels she needs to reconnect with all that is familiar from the past. She lets her memories return to the fun-filled summers of her childhood, spent amongst her cousins and the rest of the extended family. They bring to mind the annual migration of the Monarch butterflies that she now and studies at the nearby Sanctuary Research Centre. Important questions have lingered on about the whereabouts of some loved ones. Will her going through the remnants of memorabilia kept in the farmhouse shed some light on these?

Much of the story takes place in the nineteen eighties at the Butler family farm on the northern - Canadian - shore of Lake Erie, a landscape that is depicted with detailed and loving attention. Liz, the city girl, is the enthusiastic "summer cousin" immersed in play and exploration, especially with her cousin Mandy. Mandy and her father Stanley, the head of the Butler clan, are often on Liz's mind now in her ruminations about the past. Mandy, the poetry lover turned military officer, was killed on duty in Afghanistan not long ago, and Stan, the life-loving "innovative" farmer, disappeared without a trace one day, twenty years earlier. Reminiscences also take her back to Teo, the Mexican boy, whom she got to know over several summers at the farm. His mother was one of the Mexicans working there each season. They had become close friends, until... "There is no one, no one left. I live in a landscape where absence confronts me daily," she reflects, and later on: "Hardly ever has memory been good for people..."

Multi-generational family sagas, reaching back in time to Irish immigration to North America, are one of Urquhart's familiar themes. In SANCTUARY LINE the primary storyteller is uncle Stan, who captures Liz's attention with his absorbing tales of the family's forbearers, the "Great-greats". His recounting of the past history of the Butlers is revealed in small, apparently disconnected, summer installments. Liz's mind, recalling his stories, is also not linear, wandering in and out of memory snippets. Central to the family characteristics, beginning in Ireland, is "bifurcation": between farmers and lighthouse keepers, and in North America between those settlers on the southern shore and those on the northern side of Lake Erie. Family dramas and politics are alluded to over and over again. Still, Liz keeps wondering how much of Stan's rich lore was based on fact and how much a construction of his creative mind, deliberately invented for the benefit of the children.

Having read most of Urquhart's previous novels and enjoyed her insightful realization of engaging characters and her often lyrical and vivid evocation of the beautiful and diverse landscapes in Southern Ontario, SANCTUARY LINE feels quite familiar in that respect. Yet, for this novel, the author has taken a new, and for me, more intimate approach to story telling. Creating, for the first time, an authentic first person female voice, she allows the reader to feel like an intimate companion to Liz's inner voice. She even appears to invite us to "look out the window" with her into her young girl's persona and life. With the hindsight and distance of a mature person, yet filled with deep emotion and unresolved questions, she brings the past to life for her and our benefit.

By allowing Liz's memories to wander effortlessly - and seemingly randomly - between present and past, yet also subtly linking the two spheres by dropping clues and small hints to future situations, Urquhart, in fact, spins a beautifully crafted delicate, yet sturdy, and increasingly tightly structured story web. It captures scattered shards of Liz's memory, splinters from Stan's imaginative and sometimes wild family stories, and builds on strong connecting threads of love and friendship, loss and happiness. It is up to the reader to carefully assemble the numerous and recurring references to individuals and relationships that will be revisited again and again, revealing a bit more each time until they are eventually explained.

Monarchs appear regularly every summer on the Butler farm and the symbolism of their migratory conduct is evident to Liz, who monitors their behaviour. She understands their genetically imprinted sense of orientation and interconnectedness through several generations that makes them return to their summer breeding grounds. In her ruminations she returns to their image, recalls their presence in the "butterfly tree", admires their strengths as a swarm but also recognizes their fragility when migration patterns are in jeopardy or one butterfly is straying from the predetermined path. The parallels to her understanding of her family and human behaviour in general are evident and very aptly described. Sometimes the connections to the story web seem somewhat arbitrary and tenuous and are in danger of getting lost in the midst of everything else. [Friederike Knabe]


Snowdrops
Snowdrops
by A. D. Miller
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars "The less you know...", 6 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Snowdrops (Paperback)
Moscow at the turn of this century could be a dangerous place: almost anything could be bought or extracted for a price, and many people were, for one reason or another, in on some deal or scheme to get ahead in the business of money, comfort or influence. Life was also fragile, people disappeared without a trace, only to turn up as "snowdrops" during the spring thaw. With his debut novel, SNOWDROPS, AD Miller delves into the unfettered, yet also manipulated, period of early capitalism in Russia that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime. Part crime, part love story, Miller's fast-paced, fluidly written and engaging novel combines these elements within a chilling psychological portrait of an expatriate corporate lawyer, who has been living comfortably in "wild Moscow". Miller's book is on the shortlist for this year's Man Booker Prize.

These are the Russian "gold-rush days", and Nick, Nicolai Ivanovich to the locals, a British lawyer, is caught up in financial and other dealings in more ways than one. Despite slowly realizing that all may not be as it appears with his new girlfriend, Masha, her sister Katya and Tatiana Vladimirovna, their aunt, and warnings from his cynical journalist friend, Steven Walsh, he cannot extricate himself from their influence. Rather, Nick prefers to adopt the popular advice of the day "the less you know, the longer you live".

In his business dealings Nick is as gullible, going with the flow: "Money in Moscow had its own particular habits", he muses by way of explanation and justification for his actions. "Money knew that someone in the Kremlin might decide to take it back at any moment..." Nick writes his story with hindsight, confessing "all, as honestly as I can", to his soon to be wife (he hopes). He admits to her that he was terribly naïve and totally in love with the mysterious Masha. He was blinded by his urge to "find the one", who would take him out of his pathetic early midlife crisis mood. He is still drawn to his life in Moscow, despite everything. Moscow can have that effect on those who have spent time there...

AD Miller evidently knows those effects. His intimate knowledge - as correspondent for The Economist - of Moscow and Russia, its diversity of peoples, and its sociopolitical reality of the time, adds to the story's authenticity and makes the locales more than a backdrop, but rather a lively participant in the unfolding human dramas. While we readers are fully absorbed in the novel's events, sometimes understanding earlier than the protagonist the associations between different people's actions, I could not help also thinking of developments beyond the confines of Russia and the early twentieth century. Many of the issues that Miller touches on are with us, even if in different, more subtle or hidden forms. [Friederike Knabe]


Agnes
Agnes
by Peter Stamm
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "But it's just a story..., 1 Oct. 2011
This review is from: Agnes (Hardcover)
...You wanted me to write it that way." I said, "we wrote it together."

Yes, Agnes had wanted her lover to write her life story, but, until now she had not warned him how stories can influence her thinking and behaviour. The novel's opening sentences suggest that much in very short blunt sentences: "Agnes is dead. Killed by a story. All that's left of her now is this story." He, the nameless narrator, a Swiss author staying in Chicago for research for a glossy book on luxury trains, agrees to retell the story of their relationship. It lasted nine months. His previous success as a fiction writer had been modest, and his only effort at a novel abandoned, until Agnes rekindles his interest. AGNES is Swiss author, Peter Stamm's first novel (1998) and for those familiar with his most recent novel, Seven Years, his style and, in particular, the depiction of human relationships and personality traits in the narrator/central character will be recognizable. This novel being much shorter, more a novella, he touches on themes effectively without developing them, however, in comparable depth to later novels.

Agnes is something of a loner and not particularly attractive: a physics student, writing a doctoral thesis on the symmetry in crystals, she prefers touching objects to being touched, even accidentally, by people. Nonetheless, she attaches herself quickly to the narrator, in an all-or-nothing kind of way. Initially, the narrator, considerably older than Agnes, appears only intrigued, his flirtations with her casual. "My freedom had always mattered more to me than my happiness." Stamm's matter-of-fact language and detached style underline the impression of the protagonist's reluctance or even inability for involvement with his surroundings.

Throughout the novel, Stamm uses his descriptions of the city- and, especially, the landscape around Chicago, to evoke the changing moods of his characters. Their walks along the Lake and into to National Park brings the couple most intimately together. Their lives are "too happy" to make a good story, the narrator keep telling Agnes as she, gradually becomes more of a fixture in his space and life. It is only when she is not there, do his feelings for her coming to the fore.

Eventually, his writing of their story catches up with the present: can he imagine their future and will it be happy? All of a sudden, his narrative intentions no longer matter, the story takes over and dictates what to write... Stamm brings out the writer's inner conflict: his sense of freedom to imagine a different future is intense. The temptation to create a different Agnes, whose life he can control totally, is powerful. Agnes, on the other hand, while regularly reading what he writes, is starting to act out the story's character and demands that he play along. Fact and fiction are in serious danger of coming into conflict with each other. "'I don't read much anymore,' said Agnes. 'Because I didn't want books to have me in their power. It's like poison.' [...] 'I'm always sad when I finish a book, ... It feels to me that I'd become the character in it, and the character's life ends when the book does.'" The danger signs are obvious to the reader, but the author continues to make light of them: "it's just a story." similarly to his later novel, Stamm introduces the 'other woman' into the story: she is attractive, independent and casual in her dealings with men, the opposite of Agnes. Again, his central male character does not fully realize the consequences of his actions.

To have the beginning of a novel pre-empt the ending can enhance or reduce the reading pleasure. In this case, for me at least, it did both - increase and diminish the creative tension that Stamm builds very well throughout the narrative. I didn't spend as much thought on some of the finer intriguing touches of the novel and rather felt myself focusing on wondering what could trigger Agnes' end and how, anyway, could a story kill... As can be anticipated, the end of the book cycles back to the beginning, or, maybe, not quite as straightforwardly. The reader will have to decide how to interpret it. Michael Hofmann has presented an exquisite and finely-tuned translation; he has since translated all books published by Peter Stamm. [Friederike Knabe]


The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "You don't get it, do you...!?", 1 Oct. 2011
This review is from: The Sense of an Ending (Hardcover)
Julian Barnes' new novel, The Sense of an Ending *), is an intimate reflection on memory and its unreliability over time. Writing in the voice of sixty-something-year-old Anthony Webster, a "peaceable man", Barnes explores convincingly how the brain grows selective and untrustworthy with age, reinterpreting how "what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed... Thus, the reader is put on notice from the beginning that what we read may not be quite what it will turn out to be.

Isolated memory snippets open the novel: a "shiny inner wrist; a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams; another river...; bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door". Initially we don't really know where we are and who is talking. The narrator wonders about "everyday" time - "it holds us and moulds us"; pain or pleasure can give us the illusion of its stretching or contracting... Something has triggered his musings that take his mind back to "a few incidents that have grown into anecdotes, to some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty."

Those incidents take us without much transition to his adolescent years, when growing up is as daunting as it is exciting: close friendships are an essential component, so are school and teachers, and the mounting physical urge for intimate encounters... Barnes is perceptive and astute in his depiction of Tony and his trio of close friends. Adrian, "a tall, shy boy who initially kept his eyes down and his mind to himself..." stands out in terms of intelligence and his admiration for Camus's existentialist philosophy. The others, while joining in the wide-ranging debates in class - on history, on "Birth, Copulation, and Death", on poetry - are more concerned with "getting" a girl or pretending to... These are the early nineteen-sixties and the sexual liberation may be spreading elsewhere but not here.

Then, school is out and life moves on... fast forward. An early tragedy, rather than bringing them together, pushes the friends further apart. So, what, forty odd years later, brought all these memories back to the fore in Tony's mind? Why does his first girlfriend's "You don't get it, do you...!?" comes back to haunt him after all these years? Didn't she not call him a "coward" then, but why? Along the way, we receive few hints as to the connections between past and present. Barnes holds his cards close to his chest, just giving us enough context to want to keep reading... It is only when reaching the novel's concluding pages that we are confronted with scenarios that challenge our own recollections of what might have happened earlier on. Did we get caught out in the memory game by missing sublte clues, by interpreting behaviour and events to suit our image of the hero? Could our perception of Anthony Webster's character potentially "stand up in court"? For me personally, the ending of the book made my reading of the book as a whole much more meaningful. The first part, set in the school and boys' environment, while well captured and interesting in a detached sort of way, did not overly engage my female mind. Yet, after reaching the last pages I looked back at the earlier depictions of people and events and felt them bringing out additional layers and depths to the story. In the end, did Barnes leave enough clues for his readers to solve all of the puzzles? It is up to the reader to decide. [Friederike Knabe]

*) shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize


Hand in the Fire
Hand in the Fire
by Hugo Hamilton
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "You have a funny way of doing things here...", 9 Aug. 2011
This review is from: Hand in the Fire (Paperback)
"... Like friendship, for example. Nobody does friendship like you do in this country." The way friendship is offered, or withdrawn, in an "all or nothing" way.

These opening sentences in Hugo Hamilton's new novel, "Hand in the Fire", set much of the tone and theme in this thought-provoking story of one man's unrelenting efforts to fit in and make a home for himself in a new country: Ireland. Vid Cosic (accents not shown), a recent immigrant from Serbia, recounts his observations and reactions to his new surroundings that reveal as much his bemusement as his confusion. He approaches people with a naïve trusting innocence, willingly participating in whatever activities he is invited to. Insecure in his own judgement of what he observes, he, nonetheless, carries a strange sense of foreboding of a disaster that he might cause without intending to, due to his "misreading" and "mishearing" of people's language and gestures. Drawing on his personal experiences of growing up in a two-language and two-culture family, surrounded by a predominant third, Hamilton is familiar with this sense of "alienation", of not belonging to the society in which he lived. His mother was German, his father a staunch Irish nationalist, who forbade the use of English and insisted on writing the family name in the Irish way. His childhood memoir, The Speckled People, captures his own experience brilliantly. Effortlessly, Hamilton slips into the mind of Vid, who has not - yet - developed any of the inner protective sensors that are required to discriminate between what is true and what is false or exaggerated, how to avoid misinterpreting what is being meant rather than said. Starting with his strong central protagonist in a midst of a whole range of well depicted diverse individuals, the author builds an increasingly dramatic story that delves into fundamental themes of friendship and loyalty, rejection and betrayal, and above all, the vital need to belong: to a family, to a place and to a country.

Coincidence and a violent encounter outside a pub, tie Vid's life together with that of Kevin, a young, ambitious lawyer. Surprisingly for Vid, an immediate friendship develops: "A true friend was somebody who would put his hand in the fire for you." Vid believes Kevin's definition even when their friendship is heavily tested. Even more so, after Kevin offers him work in his mother's house, thereby suggesting an opening into "joining" a family. Vid captures Kevin's character with a few effective descriptions, pointing out the parallels between them: "never look back... Like me, his aim was to escape. Only, he made it look like fun. All the bad things erased." Vid is a contented man, until the recent past catches up with him and Kevin... Later on he muses: "I didn't know what was so funny, until I realized that being treated like one of the family was maybe not always the best thing you could hope for..."

Vid's growing involvement with Kevin's family, the Concannon, brings out deeply held secrets and, without really understanding why, Vid turns into a quiet private eye. In particular, the mystery of a pregnant young unmarried woman's untimely death by drowning, preoccupies him. It happened a couple of generations earlier and the information is scant and only reluctantly given. Interspersing Vid's pursuit of the old story, Hamilton touches on social behaviour patterns, prominent then, yet still reaching into the present of the novel. It is evident that more than an uneasiness remains in the family's actions. Eventually Vid meets the man who can shed more light on the past and who offers him a different kind of friendship.

How can an offer of friendship be more movingly and poetically captured than by the description of a handshake? "...It was asking me to believe him, to trust him, to speak well of him. A handshake of ten verses... His hand contained the entire journey of his life... All the stories and memories, the laughs and triumphs and failures and injustices... A handshake that remained imprinted on my hand long after I had walked back down the street." In him, Vid finally finds a person with whom he can share his own emotional baggage, that he has carried since he fled Serbia, barely alive.

In a recent interview Hugo Hamilton suggested that this novel is for him, in many ways, an extension of his own earlier memoirs. The sensitivity in which he captures Vid's perspective stands out for me. As an immigrant(twice) myself, I relate very personally to the way in which Hamilton illustrates Vid's perspective and his sense of being "in between places, neither here nor there." Among the many fictionalized accounts depicting the lives and struggles of new immigrants, I have not come across any that is so predominantly focused on the new country and the immigrant's reflections as well as his active efforts, despite many obstacles, to fit in: " My problem was not having the language skills to stop things being straightforward, black and white. I was playing the duplicitous game of being myself." A exquisitely crafted novel that, while starting slowly, builds into a dramatic story around diverse and plausible characters and memorable scenarios, sustained by the thoughtful reflection on what it means to start a new life in a foreign country. [Friederike Knabe]


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