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TomCat (Cardiff, Wales.)

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by Lisa Moore
Edition: Paperback

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars February, 23 Nov. 2010
This review is from: February (Paperback)
In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland. All 84 men aboard died. Clearly this wasn't tragedy enough for Lisa Moore, whose novel 'February' is a fictional narrative set twenty-five years after this real-life disaster.

In 'February', Moore explores the protracted grief of Helen O'Mara; "one of those left behind" by the catastrophe - as the patronising, garrulous blurb puts it - as if the death of those 84 men was nothing more than a dalliance in the countryside to which their wives weren't invited. Except Helen wasn't "left behind" at all - because she isn't real: unlike, I imagine, many, many tens of women whose husbands did drown in 1982, any one of who's story would doubtless have made more moving, interesting and poignant reading that Moore's literary nadir.

The problem with February is entirely conceptual. With such a heart-breaking, community-shattering disaster as its basis, why does Lisa Moore feel the need to fictionalise the grief with made-up characters and events? It's almost as if Moore wanted to write about the Ocean Ranger, but didn't have the balls to write a straight-up novelisation of the actual disaster, and so made up her own story and set it 25 years later. Why the need for this fake chronicle set so long after the fact? Moore's narrative is just dull, dull, dull compared to its real-world inspiration. The sinking of the Ocean Ranger is the story I want to read about: that's where my interest would lie: not in this bizarre, pseudo-realistic aftermath set in the present day. Even a book of interviews with the surviving widows would have made a more fitting tribute.

It's an age-old argument: at what point does `inspiration' verge on exploitation? Moore is happy enough to use the "convenient" truth of the actual disaster upon which to ground her novel, but while the sinking of the ship is taken de facto, the real aftermath and individual pain of the event is ignored in favour of Moore's fictional heroine and her fictional grief.

Is this a form of authorial cowardice: is it easier to fictionalise the present than to engage with it? Or maybe the real-life stories of the Ocean Ranger widows just weren't interesting enough, neat enough or...dare I say it...tragic enough to make an entire book? If pain actual is too morbid, is pain fictional less uncomfortable? This is supposedly a novel about real grief and loss: but it's not - it's a novel of literary, eloquent and articulate grief: the artifice of which wrenches any impression of realism away from the reader and reinforces the book's identity as fictional dalliance.

The truth is a rabid dog constantly attacking February: but instead of wrestling it to the ground and tackling it head-on, Lisa Moore tries to shoo it away, hoping that it'll eventually limp off. Usually I would find such a tension between fact and invention fascinating; but, in this case, it made me incredibly uncomfortable. Especially at the book's dénouement, that is so full of promise, hope, happiness and life as to bathetically undermine the emotional premise and tone of the entire novel.

But maybe I'm taking all this too seriously, maybe the fact that this novel is based on true events isn't meant to matter - but if that's the case, then why do the book's editors take such pains to constantly remind you of the novel's historical inception? From the blurb inside and on the back of the book, to the meticulous obsessing over precise dates and times within the narrative: the book screams at the reader: "This Rig Really Sank!". As hard as I tried: I just couldn't ignore the truth behind the fiction.

And I did try; because sentence by sentence, word by word, 'February' is beautifully written and constructed with intricacy and care. The non-linear narrative skips and warps through the twenty-five year aftermath with masterful poise: doubling-back on itself, and back again, yet somehow always progressing the story forwards. Moore's physical description of place and weather (often tonally sympathetic to her characters' moods) is enjoyable and powerfully evocative of the winter cold, or the waveforms of a disturbed ocean, a firework display viewed from a distance or, in fact, anything Moore puts her mind to. Make no mistake: there is nothing wrong with the writing itself.

I suppose that the best way to read 'February' would be to imagine the entire scenario as a fiction. In fact, I wish it were. But there's an unspoken spectre that haunts this narrative, one I just couldn't ignore. There's an uncared for truth and reality that, unmentioned, reinforces an unsettling sense of artifice on the novel. One day, probably soon, Lisa Moore is going to publish something incredible; this just isn't it.

Jude the Obscure (Penguin Classics)
Jude the Obscure (Penguin Classics)
by Thomas Hardy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £4.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jude: Reviewed, 20 Nov. 2010
Jude Fawley is orphaned as a toddler and thrown into poverty to live with his aunt in Marygreen: a tiny hamlet in Hardy's semi-fictional `Wessex': the English county setting used for the majority of his novels. Every evening Jude climbs the scaffolds of a local chapel to stare at the light-halo given off by a city on the horizon - Christminster: a thinly veiled Oxford analogy.

Jude is immediately established as a contrary and artistic sort: he feeds the crows he's employed to scare and spends his little free time (brace yourselves...) reading! Jude even has the audacity to aspire towards social progression and vows to study at one of Christminster's prestigious colleges, to become either an academic or a priest. Of course, the academies were the exclusive realm of the rich; as was, somewhat worryingly, the church: a fact entirely due to the sheer cost of education. Jude's precociousness of ambition was frowned upon by commentators - but surely it wasn't the reasoning behind the novel's frenetic public reception?

I'm wary of writing a long synopsis here ('Jude...' is a lengthy and complex novel), and I've already self-censored myself to an alarming degree in the above, but allow me a few lines to briefly sum-up the plot. Jude... is a novel of dualism and conflict; it's in-your-face and aggressive - but so what? Subtlety is overrated anyway. Jude marries Arabella; your archetypal buxom country lass - a marital mismatch if ever there was one. A divorce ensues and Jude moves to his beloved Christminster, where he is, predictably, rejected by the academic institutions he has for so long dreamed about - on the basis of his poverty.

However, he does meet and fall for Sue (the antithesis to Arabella - learned, mannered and devout) and, after she divorces her own husband, they marry and have children. The Fawley family fall into destitute poverty, and the eldest child, believing himself responsible for the family's demise, murders his siblings before committing suicide. This drives Sue into a kind of religious mania - she becomes adamant that the death of her children is a divine punishment for her disobeying the vows of her first marriage. She returns to her first husband, and Jude dies of ill-health.

It is easy to accuse Hardy of melodrama, or to simply label Jude... as bleak; a novel that pointlessly wallows in the quagmire of self-centred despair. It'd also be easy to misrepresent Hardy's intentions: maybe in an effort to move the reader Hardy just contrived the most shocking and painful scenarios imaginable: a covers-all-bases morbidity. But to think in this way is to miss the point.

Jude the Obscure is essentially a tract of social commentary. There's a reason why so many contrasts (city-country, ability-means, marriage-divorce, love-duty) are established: it's not for the standard literary fare of generating dramatic tension - Hardy aims to expose unjust societal workings through the painful and destructive resolution of these conflicts.

Of course, it becomes easy to understand the reaction this book received: extra-marital sex, child suicide, divorce - a catalogue of the novel's themes reads like a tick-list of ecclesiastical irritants. But the real crux of the novel is marriage. Hardy's prevailing argument is that couples should be free to marry and divorce as suits. The suggestion that `bad' marriages exist at all was received with shock by contemporaries: a society which espoused the permanent nature of marital virtue with an almost fundamental stringency. Fear of social denunciation, religious excommunication and even damnation is what drives Sue to despair and pushes Jude to ill health and death.

Hardy is saying: when society dogs the victims of bad marriages, this is what happens - tragedy. Even the first husband of Sue has his life destroyed by his willing dissolution of their marriage:

"They have requested that I send in my resignation on account of my scandalous conduct in giving my tortured wife her liberty - or, as they call it, condoning her adultery."

Love and marriage are cast as separate entities: when Sue abandons her mismatched matrimony for the sake of love, she is deemed a slut and infidel: Hardy, however, elevates her as a paragon of virtue: the virtue of love being ostensibly more significant than the institution of marriage.

But maybe poor Thomas Hardy was just ahead of his time. To our ears, this seemingly rational and liberal argument about marriage is barely an argument at all - it's just the way things are: yet Hardy had to spend the rest of his life defending the stance his book took. In 1912, Hardy wrote:

"My opinion is that a marriage should be dissolvable as soon as it becomes a cruelty to either of the parties - being then essentially and morally no marriage. But there was crying in the streets: and the screaming of a lady that there was an unholy antimarriage league afoot."

Unfortunately, the novel's down-the-irons social agenda often gets in the way of Hardy's usually swift and moving prose. Many of the book's most emotionally intense moments are undermined by clunky dialogue and description. Large portions of the writing feel forced as the writer tries to crow-bar his points about marriage and religion into the narrative, such as this laboured metaphor:

"[...] an earthly and illegitimate passion had cunningly obtained entrance into his heart through the opening afforded for religion."

It's as if the characters are aware of Hardy's narrative schema and are consciously trying their hardest to articulate his message. "Jude[...] don't you think it [marriage] is destructive to passion?" You can almost feel the protagonists turning towards the camera and winking. When I said that subtlety was overrated this wasn't what I had in mind.

It creates an unnerving sense that Jude and Sue are somehow `other' to the continuity of the narrative; they exist as vehicles for social commentary rather than convincing, realistic individuals. Whether or not this weakens the force of Hardy's argument is a matter for debate - but it certainly lessens the emotional impact of the story.

The supporting cast, however, are much stronger personalities: and while some of them are social stereotypes (the aforementioned Arabella, for example) others are exemplars of comic wit and social commentary - such as Gillingham, the best friend of Sue's first husband:

"Their supreme desire is to be together - to share each other's emotions and fancies and dreams."
"Well no. Shelleyan would be nearer to it."

Maybe I need to get out more: but I thought that was hilarious.

Many of Hardy's stylistic idiosyncrasies take some getting used to though: in a society that prescribed the covering up of table legs, lest their sexual indecency become an irresistible turn on, sex-scenes were almost non-existent. Instead, Hardy earnestly describes sex using some unintentionally comic and often baffling euphemisms, the following all being Victorian code for `they had sex':

"It do blow and rain"

"Of her own free will she began it quite lately"

"Our heroine [changed] thereafter from that previous self who stepped from her mother's door to try her fortune at the poultry farm."

Jude the Obscure has an ill-deserved and inaccurate reputation as being irreconcilably bleak, a book fascinated with the lowest and most morbid extremes of the human condition. This is unfortunate, because while the narrative is certainly tragic, the book is no mere dalliance in the dark aesthetics of human suffering. Jude the Obscure is a moving, personal story of desperate love beaten down into such dreadful submission that death and self-destruction are more attractive alternatives. But it's also Big, Social fiction that sticks a middle finger up to cruel and fatuous enforcement of immoral social mores. That Hardy manages such a striking convergence of the personally tragic with the socially critical is Jude the Obscures greatest achievement.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 16, 2013 11:30 AM GMT

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 29 Sept. 2010
'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' is a bit like Jesus; immaculately conceived, but sloppily executed. It's historical fiction of the densest oeuvre; apparently Mitchell spent six months in residency at the NIAS in Holland, merely to conduct `preliminary research'. Every sentence pours with historical detail, linguistic notes and precise dates; it's impressive, but sometimes there's more detail here than is necessary or enlightening; like a long-soaked sponge that has absorbed too much, and is now leaking all over your shoes.

The book is set in 1799, when Japan had sealed itself off from the entire world under the so-called `Sakoku' policy, which prevented any Japanese from leaving the country, and any outsiders from entering. Sealed off, that is, except for the small artificial island of Dejima, off the coast of Nagasaki. At this time Dejima was controlled by the Dutch who, under the remit of their East India Company (a deliberately created Eighteenth Century trading monopoly), enjoyed exclusive rights to commerce with the Japanese.

At Dejima arrives Jacob de Zoet; a young Dutch clerk on a five-year posting, during which he hopes to make his fortune and then return to Holland, having elevated himself enough to win the hand of his beloved and placate the suspicions of her father. But, of course, Mitchell's hero can't have anything so simply; for Dejima proves to be a hot-bed of economic corruption, and from the moment de Zoet arrives, he is embattled in a long, drawn-out arm wrestle against the immoral vices of temptation, who are desperate to crumple his ethical and religious integrity with offers of easy money, easy women and easy power.

But de Zoet's torments aren't exclusively professional. He meets and falls for a young Japanese scholar called Orito Aibagawa, whose face is half-disfigured (that is, if a face can be said to be `half' disfigured) with burn scars. Jacob de Zoet, in his charming innocence, views her with an arresting combination of squeamishness and lust; Orito hides her scars out of propriety and shame, but de Zoet considers this covering-up to be tantalising; he stares at her covered face with an almost sexual indecency, as if Orito's head-scarf contains not the disfigurements of past atrocities, but her actual sexual organs. Orito's burns, for de Zoet, are symbols of her sexuality: hidden from view and delicate, something lewd yet off limits; how can he not view it as indecent; how, even, can he not view it as sexual?

Yet despite these moments of appealing depth and originality, too much of this central relationship is overly familiar and, dare I say it, predictable. The young, idealistic man in a strange land who falls for the exotic yet forbidden foreign beauty is such a cliché of romantic fiction that I was surprised to find it in a book by David Mitchell. Thankfully, the resolution of this relationship isn't nearly as trite as its conception.

But a derivative characterology is one of the novel's most striking shortcomings. We have Uzaemon Ogawa; the warrior-academic with an acute sense of `honour', and love rival to de Zoet. Then there's English naval officer Captain Penhaligon; a well-spoken yet ballsy old sea-dog in the mould of Jack Aubrey. And not forgetting Enomoto; a powerful political leader who's secretly a religious nut-job. All characters serve their purpose adequately, but these three in particular seem, to me, to be plucked straight from the pages of `the beginner's guide to historical fiction - unambitious edition'.

However, the novel's supporting cast held my interest and my thoughts for far longer than its central protagonists. I was particularly taken by Dr Marinus; a sarcastic and somewhat cantankerous Dutch physician who is nonetheless highly liberal, wise and devoted. I also liked Shiroyama; a Japanese magistrate whose loyalties are torn between political traditionalism and more Western modes of Capitalist thought. If the nuanced and idiosyncratic presentation of these minor characters could have been extended to the book's top-of-list dramatis personae, the novel would, I feel, be significantly more accomplished.

There's also a monkey called William who runs around Dejima carrying a severed human leg.

Humour, as well, has its place in Mitchell's sprawling epic; but it's of an understated and subtle kind. The occasional witticism or wry observation proves that Mitchell doesn't treat history with any misguided reverential respect. Many of the novel's jokes play off a political sub-text, subtly implanted for the historically aware modern reader. The humour is not unlike that found in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, for example:

"[...]why is the scarecrow [called] Robespierre?"
"Because his head falls off when the wind changes."

It's David Mitchell's treatment of history that is 'The Thousand Autumns...' most accomplished and impressive characteristic. If I've not made it explicit already, allow me to do so now: this is a very complicated novel. There are hundreds of speaking parts, tens of nationalities present, and the political, emotional and economic machinations of the plot are fearlessly intricate.

For history isn't a neatly-cut puzzle of well-fitting sources that, once slotted tidily into place, creates a visionary and lush landscape of the past. History is bad mannered. It interrupts when you're speaking and stamps on your half-finished jigsaw of interpretation with glee. Every page of The Thousand Autumns... introduces new conflicts, new complexities and wrenches your heart in previously unforeseen directions. Unlike most historical fiction, 'The Thousand Autumns...' doesn't take you by the hand and lead you gently through the green remembered gardens of a rose-tinted idyll. Instead it pushes you head-first into the fray of a newly-forging world, and expects you to find your own way out, or fight your own way out. I finished the book confused and dizzy, but invigorated. With every chapter my allegiances changed, and at the end I didn't know whether I sided with the Dutch, the Japanese or the English. Mitchell's characters may be a tad predictable and derivative, but his research, ambition and tireless devotion to representing the complexities of history are insurmountable.

I mentioned earlier that, although 'The Thousand Autumns...' is brilliant in conception, it's somewhat messy in execution. Maybe this is overstating the point; but the language of the novel is, unfortunately, a multi-sided die, somewhat weighted in favour of the awkward rather than the magnificent. There are some particularly rousing and impressive linguistic feats (particularly in dialogue); such as this delightfully over-the-top delivery by captain Penhaligon, which does a particularly good job of encapsulating the war rhetoric of the period:

"Show this pox-blasted pagan port what ruin a British dog of War can inflict upon an enemy when its righteous ire is roused."

But many of the book's metaphors, by comparison, are clumsy and misconceived:

"Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats."

"Jacob's fear is the size of a new internal organ, between his heart and his liver."

'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' is an accomplished if imperfect epic. Parts of the novel are masterful, and it's a testament to Mitchell's dedication constructional skill that long scenes in which ten Dutch diplomats speak through six Japanese interpreters to rooms full of foreign dignitaries are never over-complicated or difficult to read.

Before I finish, I have decided that I do want to add my voice to those of the myriad protesters who are rightfully astounded that 'The Thousand Autumns...' wasn't shortlisted for this year's Booker prize. I don't think it's an obvious and clear-cut deserving winner (my vote still lies with `C' by Tom McCarthy), but it's more than worthy of a place on the shortlist, and I'd even place it within the best 3 of this year's nominees. I have taken time to describe some of its shortcomings; but I hope it's clear that these are minor and forgivable in the face of the novel's grander achievement; that of revealing what is possible in the medium of historical fiction. Maybe David Mitchell will never win the Booker; it wouldn't be the first time that genre-defining art hasn't been recognised by a major institution, but maybe this just doesn't matter. After all, Radiohead haven't won the Mercury Music Prize - and it's not done them any harm.

The Finkler Question
The Finkler Question
by Howard Jacobson
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Finkler Question, 21 Sept. 2010
This review is from: The Finkler Question (Hardcover)
There are two points that I want to get across in this review, and pressed for time and lacking in talent, I've decided to forgo subtlety: 1) 'The Finkler Question' is very funny, 2) 'The Finkler Question' is very Jewish.


Julian Treslove is a middle-aged former BBC radio producer now working as a celebrity look-a-like. His face is so "vague" that he can pass himself off as anyone from Brad Pitt to Billy Crystal or Colin Firth without soliciting any hint of doubt or scepticism from his clients. Ironically (yet somewhat fittingly) Julian is suffering from an identity crisis.

His only friends are Libor Sevick; a ninety-year-old Czech Jew, and Sam Finkler; a Jewish philosopher and television personality in the mould of Simon Schama - only more acerbic. Both these men are recent widowers, and their loss somewhat steals the thunder of Julian's identity crisis. He is jealous of their Jewishness, he is jealous of their closeness; he is even jealous of their grief.

So, either in an act of misguided empathy or selfish personal posturing (it's up to the reader to choose which), Julian `decides' that he, too, is Jewish; it's just taken him half of his life to realise it. This revelation comes when Julian is mugged in what may or may not be an anti-Semitic attack. But with a string of failed relationships and disappointing children floating in his wake, Julian doesn't really know who or what he is - so he may as well be Jewish. All of his friends are Jewish, and the religion seems (to Julian) to possess a closeness and sense of belonging that he's never been able to find for himself:

"All Jews are at furthest remove one another's great-great-great cousins. We don't do six degrees of separation. We do three."

In order to reconcile his newfound Jewishness with his predominantly secular upbringing, Julian turns to his friend Sam Finkler for inspiration. Julian imprints on Finkler, and views him as the archetypal Jew; most of the narrative even substitutes the word `Jew' for `Finkler', thus the book's title becomes a rather strange play on the concept of `The Jewish Question', as every action Sam makes is over-analysed by Julian, in a futile effort to capture and define what it is to be Jewish.

But Julian is a simple soul, and manages either to over-simplify or over-complicate everything. Large portions of the novel are hilariously pithy and wry, as Julian wrestles with the `Jewish' aspects of everyday life; what is Jewish food, what is Jewish family, what is Jewish love, what is Jewish sex? - Julian goes as far as to have an affair with Finkler's wife to answer this last question. Nothing is sacred, everything is tongue-in-cheek:

"I wanted to play the violin"

"That doesn't make you Jewish. Wagner listened to operas and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. When Mussolini visited Hitler in the Alps they played the Bach double violin concerto together. `And now let's kill some Jews,' Hitler said when they'd finished."

But don't be fooled; 'The Finkler Question' is not really a comic `beginners guide to Judaism' told through the eyes of the Gentile convert.

I offer you a warning: there's an elephant in the room, and it's wearing a Yarmulke.

Behind the novel's humorous take on modern Jewish life is an incredibly dense and loaded examination of modern Jewish politics. Much of the narrative is given over to long discussions of such zeitgeisty issues as Jewish anti-Zionism, Palestinian aggression and whether or not apologists for Israel are, in their own way, anti-Semitic.

This is all well and good, but the problem is that such political posturing dominates the narrative to a detrimental extent. Politics has its place in fiction, of course it does; but parts of The Finkler Question don't even feel like a novel; it's as if Jacobson used the framework of `a novel' as an excuse to air his political ideas and cultural mapping. Everything I've mentioned thus far - the comedic take on Jewish life, the examination of male friendship and the quest for personal identity - all of it plays second fiddle to the novel's political agenda. Jacobson is constantly slapping the reader in the face with the smorgasbord of anti-Zionism. Somewhere in The Finkler Question are two very good books; a modern-day comedy of manners, and an essay on apologists for Israel; but the two just don't gel well together, something in their union has gone terribly wrong.

It's frustrating because, aside from all this dumping of political ideology, 'The Finkler Question' is very well written, very funny and can be very moving.

The novel is most successful when comedy converges with pathos. Libor's love and grief for his dead wife is heart-breaking, and the short scenes featuring him are among the novel's best, as he dedicates his life to her memory. He even takes up the piano, in order to recreate the music they loved together.

But this accomplished and moving portrayal of loss is never leaden or over-played. It's beautifully counter-pointed by some characters of inspired comic creation; such as Alvin Poliakov, a Jewish internet blogger who dedicates his life to attempts at re-constructing his missing foreskin, and broadcasts his efforts (and inevitable failures) over the internet for all see. It's a brilliantly bathetic narrative contrast to Julian's obsession with later-life circumcision.

In a way, 'The Finkler Question' is a victim of its own success; how it manages to make a comedy out of such a loaded subject as grief is just sublime, so much so that Jacobson's politics and ethics are uninteresting by comparison; they just get in the way. I've not been so torn by a book in a long time. The Finkler Question is almost, almost there - if it could be re-edited to cut-out the heavy-handed politics and moral debate (or maybe just to tone it down), it'd be a significantly better novel.

Jacobson's political theory is interesting, but misplaced; I'm sure it'd make a fascinating book of essays. The political barrage doesn't ruin the novel, but it does damage it. As such 'The Finkler Question' comes highly recommended, but with a caveat - be weary of the book's political agenda. I'm sure that certain readers will indulge in the moralising and political affectation; but for me, this novel's supplementary, subtle themes of grief, friendship and identity are much, much more interesting.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 5, 2011 10:37 AM BST

In a Strange Room
In a Strange Room
by Damon Galgut
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.99

62 of 71 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In A Strange Room, 7 Sept. 2010
This review is from: In a Strange Room (Hardcover)
I readily admit that my knowledge of "travel writing" begins and ends with Bill Bryson. So when I learned that 'In A Strange Room' is a road novel grounded in the facts of an actual journey across Africa and India, my interested piqued - maybe it would offer me an easy way into the alien landscapes of travel writing via the comfortingly familiar scenery of narrative fiction. Oh so naive me. Far from the light-hearted reading I had anticipated, In A Strange Room is a challenging, often abstract novel; an experiment in form that defies genre and isn't troubled by such mitigating concepts as `meaning' or `realism'. Its simple, sparse prose hides beneath it a veritable smorgasbord of themes, ideas and questions; never has the description `still waters run deep' rung more true.

'In A Strange Room' comprises three short stories (all previously published in The Paris Review), each of which follows a journey made by Damon, an itinerant South African who simultaneously is and isn't Damon Galgut the author. The book doesn't so much blur the boundaries of autobiography and fiction as it does tie them into an indistinguishable knot, hand the knot to the reader and say, with a smug but sad demeanour, `good luck untying that one'. There's a tension between memory and invention that is never resolved; what did happen and what could have happened is the dichotomy that defines this book, and the key relationship is between the writer and his protagonist alter-ego. I suppose it's fitting, given this duality, that my copy was accidentally double-bound with two dust jackets, instead of one.

It's got an odd lay-out for a novel: no scene is longer than a single paragraph, and there are several of these on every page. Thus the book consists of hundreds of small sketches of narrative; some scenes offer mere physical descriptions of landscapes, others are short philosophical musings, while some relate brief conversations between Damon and the characters he encounters on his travels; the time lapse between each scene may be minutes, or months.

'In A Strange Room', then, is characterised by a kind of brevity; you'd be forgiven for believing that the novel is unfinished, a yet-to-be-fleshed-out diary of ideas for some grander project. The actual writing, however, is exceptionally polished and eloquent; the more I read, the more engrossed I became; the novel's tiny micro-scenes and sparse dialogue - conversations so short they can barely be said to have happened at all - lend great momentum to the book, and it's easy to read a hundred pages in one sitting, only to find yourself wondering where the time has gone.

There's no clichéd rationale behind Damon's travels: his journeys are not attempts to `find' himself, or even lose himself; Damon travels because he must: movement is necessity. For Damon, travel is a de facto expression of his own lack of identity; it's especially pleasing that 'Damon' is anagrammatic (a mirror image, even) of the word 'Nomad':

"The world you're moving through flows into another one inside, nothing stays divided any more, this stands for that, weather for mood, landscape for feeling, every object is a corresponding inner gesture."

Likewise, the characters we encounter are all vague and vespertine; their relationships are characterised more by what isn't said than by what is.

In the second story, `The Lover', Damon meets and falls in love with a man named Jerome. The depth of feeling involved is painfully obvious, but neither man will admit to it. It's a linguistic cowardice on the part of Damon; he won't vocalise his feelings - he is too scared to commit to any one version of himself. But if speech acts have a high price in this novel, then the price of not speaking is even greater:

"Jerome, if I can't make you live in words, it's not because I don't remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it's for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it's all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love."

Jerome is Damon's double; equally as taciturn, yet equally as passionate. And so it is with every character; in being represented, each character ultimately contains more of Damon than of anyone else.

I can't say whether I liked 'In A Strange Room' or not. I certainly didn't dislike it, but more-often-than-not the feeling that I was most struck with was indifference. It's not your average `road novel', and it's definitely intriguing and well-written. But it can also be frustrating, too brief and afraid to commit itself emotionally. It's not about what travel is as much as what travel means; and this is combined with a constant struggle between memory and invention which makes everything slippery and hard to pin-down. It's a book that asks a lot but says very little. Don't go into it expecting lavish and accurate descriptions of Africa and India; travel is merely a narrative framework for a novel of self-examination and introspection. It could cynically be labelled as a vanity project.

I've found it very easy to read, but very hard to write about. In A Strange Room defies meaning and, more than anything, the novel tries to say that the world, ourselves and other people are very difficult know.

"A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it's made. You go from one place to another place, and onto somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return."
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 8, 2013 2:32 PM GMT

The Slap
The Slap
by Christos Tsiolkas
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

577 of 669 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars The Slap, 28 Aug. 2010
This review is from: The Slap (Paperback)
If Christos Tsiolkas had wanted to name his novel after its most prominent moment or topic, then he should have called it `unpleasant people having repetitive, unpleasant sex' rather than 'The Slap'. The novel's titular event is barely a footnote to the plot, and Tsiolkas seems morally afraid to engage with the issue on any significant plane: 'The Slap' is neither emotionally nor intellectually demanding and offers no insight into the ethical conundrum posed by its blurb.

At a BBQ in Melbourne, Australia, a four-year-old boy named Hugo is acting every bit the insufferable, entitled, disruptive and unpleasant infant his parents have brought him up to be. In an effort to calm the rowdy and precocious boy, a man who isn't his father slaps him in front of the entire gathering.

The domestic corporal punishment of children is a contentious issue; even more so when the chastisement is delivered by a non-parent. In some countries (not Australia) it's completely illegal, and in most parts of the world the concept is associated with a niche of old-fashioned parenting, perhaps synonymous with the traditionalist right.

Child slapping has also received an unprecedented amount of media attention in recent years; it's an issue about which everybody has an opinion - even if you've not been a parent, then you've been a child - making it perfect fodder for the popular novel. Perhaps this universal interest accounts for the novel's ridiculous sales record; it's currently the best-selling book of the 2010 Booker Prize longlist, and according to some sources, it's sold a staggering 5000% more copies than its closest competitor, Room by Emma Donoghue. These sales figures can probably be attributed to the book's provocative subject matter; but if you were feeling particularly cynical, you could argue that 'The Slap' has sold so well because it's the only paperback on the Booker longlist.

The narrative is divided into eight very long chapters, each told from the perspective of a different witness to the slap. The first thing I noticed was the ethnic and cultural diversity of the cast of characters at this neighbourhood barbecue. The entire social rainbow is represented in 'The Slap', and the novel's dramatis personae reads like the fantasy guest-list of an equal opportunities officer: there's an Indian-Australian, Greek-Australian, Aboriginal-Australian, naturalized white Australians, a black Muslim, a Catholic, a Hindi and an atheist; young, old, gay, straight, single, married and divorced; with careers ranging from the unemployed to car mechanics, doctors, vets, writers, actors, waitresses, shop-keepers and carpenters. I'm not saying that such a sundry group of tight-knit friends doesn't or couldn't exist (if anything, I admit that `realism' is an elastic and ambivalent critical term), but the cast smacks of misguided political correctness.

Concordantly, the social and economic diversity of the characters exposes Tsiolkas' laziness as a writer; he resorts to the most basic exploitation of social conflicts in order to create dramatic tension. It's indolent, lacks depth and is border-line offensive in its reductiveness.

However, despite their differing cultural heritages, the characters in The Slap all share the same, uniform personality. It's a psychological homunculus applied to every single protagonist. They are all (without exception); adulterous, quick to anger, violent, vain, profane, selfish and judgemental. The eight characters that the novel follows may as well all be the same person. They're not presented as anti-heroes, nor are they unpleasant in an appealing or curiously attractive way; they're just horrible, horrible people, and I thank God that Tsiolkas' vision of society isn't at all close to reality.

Supposedly, each chapter gives us a different viewpoint on the slapping of Hugo. I was hoping that, as the novel progressed, a complex discourse would develop; one that analyses the various moral and social implications of hitting children. But in truth, Tsiolkas has absolutely nothing to say on the matter; nothing in The Slap is enlightening, contentious, creative or insightful. The fall-out from the titular event lasts no more than fifty pages, and the writer doesn't contribute anything of interest to the debate. Only the two simplest of viewpoints are implicit in the narrative, and these the most garishly polar of the debate: `The kid deserved it' versus `nobody should hit a child'. What's more frustrating is that Tsiolkas refuses to express any kind of authorial opinion - lest he alienate a percentage of his potential readership, I imagine. The book is reluctant to fall down on either side of the child-slapping debate and thus lacks any argument or imperative whatsoever.

The prose can be defined by two stylistic idiosyncrasies: firstly, there's a constant use of expletives and secondly, an obsession with gratuitous sex.

I wish I could say the language was witty or shocking, but it's merely tedious in its verbose repetition. Every page of the book drips with profanity rather than insight; it seems that Tsiolkas can only articulate his characters' emotions with expletives; from happiness to sadness, everything is described in four-letter words. To say the novel suffers from a lack of linguistic breadth would be an understatement. Maybe this is how the average Australian speaks (which I doubt), but after 500 pages of it, I just had to let the pointlessly crude language wash over me, meaninglessly - surely this is not a good thing?

I found the novel's sex scenes to be equally pointless. I don't consider myself a prude, or squeamish, but the sheer amount of gratuitous sexual imagery in The Slap acts as nothing more than distracting filler. At times I was confused as to whether I was reading an attempt at literature, or soft-porn. Generally speaking, I discourage sex scenes in novels; unless they develop a plot, comment on themes or are in some way vital to character development, then I find them irrelevant. The language and imagery used to evoke sex in The Slap is cliché-riddled, ineloquent and unintentionally farcical. I don't want to see the characters having sex for the same reasons that I don't want to see Elizabeth Bennet slowly eating breakfast, or Jack Bauer voiding his bowels - it tells me nothing, it means nothing; I feel nothing.

Parts of the novel are also frustratingly difficult to read. There's a frequent confusion of pronouns, for example:

"Hector told Harry that he was in trouble."

The meaning of this sentence is ambiguous; is it Hector that's in trouble, or is it Harry? It isn't clear from the context and while I could forgive such a misguided construction if it were a one-off, this type of grammatical error is alarmingly common-place. Similarly, the second-half of the novel is riddled with typing and page-setting errors, take the following three examples:

`Brutal' she head [sic] her aunt say, `it's just brutal'.

`I'm going to put then [sic] kids to bed'

`Harry shouldn't have het [sic] that child.'

It's as if Tsiolkas' editors got bored half-way through the book (who can blame them?), and decided to give up. I find such a proliferation of typos in a printed novel to be utterly inexcusable and a detriment to the veracity of the medium.

'The Slap' is a complete failure; a book that promises so much but delivers so little. Supposedly, it's a heated and controversial novel about a much-debated moral issue; in reality The Slap makes no contribution to the child-slapping discussion. It offers no original insights or ethical commentary, and doesn't even do a good job of couching the debate in terms of its pros and cons. The actual event, `the slapping', is over in an instant and is soon forgotten about in favour of long, gratuitous sex-scenes and uninteresting personal disputes. I'm sure that the novel's ostensible subject matter will make it popular with a certain type of coffee-morning book group; but I'm also confident that, like me, most readers will be disappointed by the novel's refusal to engage with the issues at hand.

I cannot fathom why the Booker Prize judges saw fit to nominate this novel to their longlist. Don't read it. And if you happen to see Christos Tsiolkas walking down the street, feel-free to give him a much-deserved and well earned slap across the face.
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by Tom McCarthy
Edition: Hardcover

16 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars C, 18 Aug. 2010
This review is from: C (Hardcover)

Carrefax; first name Serge (pronounced as the Latinate `Surge', rather than the Russian equivalent `Ser-gei', apparently), is born at the beginning of the 20th Century. Conceived by a sound-obsessed father and a deaf mother, Serge is born in unison with the first amateur radio broadcast: these two strange siblings subsist together as Siamese twins joined in utero; inseparable and inter-dependent, for life. 'C' is the story of Serge and signal, a quasi-character study that not only examines the early decades of the nineteen-hundreds, but the psychological nature of the individual and his relationship with technology.

Concordant with the theme of technology is that of grief; the death of Serge's sister (unexplained but not unexplored) permeates the narrative as an aggressive, ever-present spectre that corrupts every experience of Serge's life; from sex to séance and combat to cryptology.

Critics have variously defined 'C' as `post-structuralist', `French Nouveau Roman' and `Lacanian'; but don't be put-off by such lazy genre labelling - the novel isn't nearly as pretentious as the critics would have you believe. Confusion, rather than comprehension, is probably what's fuelling the genre ticker-taping of such review writers; because `it's Tom McCarthy' they want to couch their reviews in the language of literary theory rather than criticism. Creative and theoretical readings are possible (even encouraged), but aren't necessary to enjoy the book; my very meagre understanding of post-structuralism was no impediment to a full appreciation of 'C''s aesthetic identity.


Compositionally, 'C' is heavily influenced by modernism; it lacks traditional plot structure and celebrates the individual's struggle to preserve autonomy in the face of overwhelming social upheaval - you could even describe the prose as `stream of consciousness-lite', if you were so inclined.
Converse to this modernist approach, however, is a celebration of literary tradition, expressed through constant and clever literary references. Conventional sources of poetic expression (such as Renaissance lyric poetry, or revisionist drama) are re-shaped by McCarthy to symbolise the age of communication and broadcast. Clogging the air of the novel are cryptic transmissions and poetic signals: the iambic rhythm of Shakespeare's sonnets becomes the dots and dashes of Morse code, Rainer's poetic trochees are re-imagined as German cannon fire and Goethe's theory of colour is bastardised into the camouflage of early aircraft.

Confession: while I recognised several of the coy and wry literary sub-texts and references that occur in 'C', I'm sure that many more went beyond my immediate frame of reference and understanding; it would take a much more well-read and literate reader than I to fully appreciate the depth and multiplicity of McCarthy's references.

Compound-complex sentences define McCarthy's prose style; but it's a testament to his ability as a writer that 'C' is never difficult to read, despite its penchant for long, twisting, winding sentences. Complementing this is the novel's imagery; Serge always describes the real, physical world using the esoteric terms of radio transmissions and broadcast paraphernalia. C.f this description of soldiers dying in the First World War:

"Coming there is a loud sound, the men's deformed mouths seem to be either transmitting it or, if not, then at least shaping it, their twisted surfaces and turned-out membranes forming receptacles in which its frequencies and timbres are unravelled, recombined, then sent back into the air both transformed and augmented, relayed onwards."

Compare this with the more visceral description of, say, 'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks, and it's clear quite how original McCarthy's writing is; he's contrived a character who sees the world through a striking dualism; technology doesn't dislocate Serge from everyday experience; it helps him to define it.


Comedy merges with cruelty to birth a deformed yet beautiful offspring; 'C''s sense of humour is the dark love-child of propriety and perversion. Coquettish serving-girls are revealed to be sexual deviants; theatre performances are corrupted by Serge's hilarious technological tampering; even the we-all-know-it's-funny-really concept of friendly-fire is satirised by McCarthy's narrator:

"Serge, chewing on his omelette, wonders if it's really necessary to fight the Germans after all: they could just lounge around, each on their own side, dying in random accidents until nobody's left and the war's over by default."

Concomitant to all these positives are, inevitably, some negatives. Copulation plays an important role in the story, but is somewhat over-played by the author. Cringe-worthy sex scenes are commonplace - Serge manages to sleep with every female character he encounters (except, thankfully, his mother), and even when he's not seducing `the help', he's working out some `surges' of his own creation: on the battlefield, in an escape tunnel, flying a plane, while dreaming of his sister...

Complicated and specific terminology is also a problem: the prose is dense with archaic nomenclature used to depict the exact mechanisms of early signal transmission. Carrying a dictionary with me wherever I settled to read soon became an inconvenience, so I was forced to let all the strange and unfamiliar words wash through me; like so many un-received radio waves. Combine this with a protagonist who describes the world in terms of carrier signals and Morse code, and it's easy to form the impression that C is a novel afraid to commit itself emotionally. Crafting an emotional response to C is a task lying steadily in the hands of the individual reader, as you will get no help or hints to feeling from either the characters or the narrator. Comfort reading, this book is not.


'C' is chimeric. Constantly denying the reader what he wants and expects from a novel, McCarthy will not satisfy you with notions of plot, character, conflict or resolution. Coming to the end of this review, I've barely scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer; themes I haven't even touched on include: entomology, drug addiction, theology, paternal lineage, cinema and tradition. 'C' challenged my pre-conceptions of what a novel should be, it made me question my own understanding of the world, and how everything is alarmingly inter-connected, and for that alone I'm glad to have read it. Calling for all writing to be so Avant-garde would be facile, but I do wish more writers were as daring, probing and creative as Tom McCarthy. 'C' contorts the common-place and alienates the mundane through its daring language and chaotic array of themes. C is for complexity, C is for Cocaine, C is for Carrefax, C is for carbon, C is for cinema, C is for climax, C is for cryptology. 'C' is a different way of seeing the world.

by Emma Donoghue
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Room, 13 Aug. 2010
This review is from: Room (Hardcover)
**Spoilers ahead**

I wrote this review for my blog, so it's a lot longer than my other amazon reviews. I'm sorry...

Apparently there's a lot of `buzz' surrounding this book. The literary press, like January Sale shoppers, have been falling over each other to claim that they saw it first, and Donoghue (Irish born, Cambridge Educated, Canadian living) is rumoured to have been paid an advance of quarter-of-a-million pounds for it - an almost unheard of amount of money for a writer who has enjoyed only moderate success. With so much fuss surrounding a brand-new novel by a (relatively) obscure writer, I just had to read it for myself - if only to sate my curiosity.

Here's the blurb:

Jack is five years old. He's spent his entire life locked inside a small room with his mother; he's never been outside, he doesn't even know that there is an outside. Maybe there isn't. Jack's universe is the room he lives in and the few objects inside it.

Intriguing stuff - one glimpse at this short synopsis filled me with a thousand questions, and the philosopher within me got very excited - he only seldom comes out to play. However, I soon found that the most pressing question - what is going on? - is answered within the first few pages: it turns out that 'Room' isn't the highly abstract, experimental novel I thought it was going to be. Jack's mum has been kidnapped and raped, held in captivity for seven years and given birth to a son in the process. I entered Room expecting Plato's cave; what I found was Fritzl's basement.

But once I'd gotten over this initial disappointment, I began to realise that the two aren't so dissimilar. Superficially, 'Room' is the story of a woman who's taken from the street, raped, and has a child she is forced to bring up in captivity. But even the most meagre scratch through the surface of this narrative will expose a whole array of philosophical themes flowing through the novel, surging like a restless underground river: sensory deprivation, the development of language, notions of `society', isolation, grief and sociopathy are just a few of the `big issues' tackled by 'Room'. And it tackles them well. Its subject matter makes 'Room' a disturbing book, but I want you to dispel any pre-conceived notions of what a misery memoir or novel of abuse is like; this is not one of those books.

The entire novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack in the first-person singular present tense. He has no notion of anything outside of the room in which he was born; there are no windows and he is pushed inside a wardrobe by his mother whenever their captor brings food. His friends are Dora the Explorer and Lady Gaga - but they `are TV' and don't talk to him. At this point it would be tempting to make some crass comparison between the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave and images displayed by modern television; but to draw such an association would be a bit twee.

As Jack's life experience is so limited, so is his use of language. Emma Donoghue has, very clearly, put a great deal of research and effort into Jack's characterisation - and I readily admit that Jack is one of the most original voices in fiction that I've ever come across.

Jack has no concept of multiplicity, or that anything exists beyond his day-to-day experience in the room. As such he employs no grammatical articles when he speaks; there is not a bed or the bed, simply `bed'. Nothing is an indefinite or definite article - for Jack, the abstract of any given noun is, essentially, its entire identity.

"I sit on Chair, and I look at Kit on Shelf near Bed. Next to Bed is Rug and Table."

I defy even the most stone-hearted reader not to feel the deepest sympathy for Jack and his plight. His mother enforces a routine on their lives which includes the daily scream for help - which Jack thinks is just a game.

Jack's mother reads to him - a lot. The only novel he knows is 'Alice in Wonderland' and Jack uses his word-perfect knowledge of this book to describe the world around him. Everything he encounters has a parallel with 'Alice in Wonderland', and his unique living conditions means that Jack can draw some highly original readings out of his favourite book.

If you were particularly eccentric, you could claim that that 'Room' is nothing more than a bizarre literary criticism of 'Alice in Wonderland' that takes the form of a fiction. Barely a page goes by without Jack drawing some strange yet beautiful comparison between his tragic existence and Lewis Carroll's masterpiece.

Jack's narratorial innocence is off-set by the worldly knowledge of you as reader. He tells us that he has to stay `in wardrobe' when their captor comes to `play with' his mother - but it's painfully obvious what's going on - he is forced into a cupboard while his mother is being raped. What's bewildering or playful to Jack is sinister to the reader. Room is a powerfully emotive experience, and Donoghue's writing is so accomplished that even when Jack is at his most confused, the reader always knows exactly what is going on.

Note: It's difficult to discuss this novel without some spoilers, so if you want to come to the book afresh, I recommend you stop reading here.

At exactly the half-way point of 'Room', Jack and his `Ma' break free; it's a dramatic episode and heavily symbolic of the process of birth. It is in this second act that Jacks begins to experience the world for the first time and, and it's here that 'Room' really astonishes - both as a novel and as a piece of speculative psychology.

Here the prose undergoes a dramatic reversal of tone. Whereas Jack was comfortable and secure in the room, the vastness of the world `outside' is too much for his undeveloped psychology. He constantly begs his mother to take him `back to Room' and even refuses to acknowledge the existence of other humans.
The most mundane experiences, like the opening of a door, the sight of a staircase or the sensation of rain cause Jack to suffer hysterical attacks of panic. I was sceptical of the apparent extremity of this, but some basic research (read: `googling') informed me that such intense disorders of anxiety are common among long-term captives deprived of normal sensory practice. He also suffers from visuo-spatial deficiencies and has no sense of personal boundaries or the difference between truth and fiction.

In this second-half, Jack's naivety and inexperience create some highly unusual metaphors that are simultaneously charming and loaded with heart-breaking pathos:

I don't want to walk in the sea.
"but Jack, it's just rain and salt. Ever taste a tear?"
"Well, that's the same as the sea."
I really don't want to walk in it if it's made of tears.

'Room' is almost the opposite of the novel of self-discovery. Jack isn't discovering himself, but the rest of the world.

It's also a book that's going to divide people. Some readers will be put-off by the controversial subject matter; other (more cynical) readers may be irritated by the saccharine sentimentality expressed in the relationship between Jack and his mother. There's also an oddly repetitive fixation with childhood erections - the significance of which escapes me. And the persistent name-dropping of celebrities and consumer brands could also have been avoided, I feel. So it does have some minor flaws, but nothing that undermines its overall goals as a novel.

It'd be easy to dismiss Room as a nothing more than a hodge-podge mash up of several very contrasting inspirations: The Fritzl case, Plato's 'Allegory of the Cave;, Lewis Carroll's ;Alice in Wonderland' as well as the current popular fixation with the misery of the individual within a society. But 'Room' is much more than the sum of its parts. Jack's narration alone could be read as an exercise in experimental form and linguistic psychology.

I don't want to gush, but I'm not embarrassed to praise either: 'Room' is really, really good. Some people are going to hate it for its fixation on suffering and its overt sentimentality, but I was profoundly moved by Jack's story and Donoghue's accomplished writing. For some, the buzz surrounding this novel may turn out to be nothing more than the hum of flies around manure; for me, the pre-release hype was entirely justified, and as much as I'd like to keep 'Room' as my little secret, I'm sure that the quiet buzz will soon break-out into a deafening crescendo of fawning praise and garrulous sentiment; and, for once, you won't hear me complaining.

by Rose Tremain
Edition: Hardcover

101 of 115 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Trespass, 4 Aug. 2010
This review is from: Trespass (Hardcover)
Another long review here. Sorry, this becoming a bad habit of mine...

'Trespass' is set in the Cévennes, southern France. The novel consists of two narrative threads which meet, cross, double-cross and become increasingly inter-twined as the story progresses. Firstly we meet Anthony Verey, a one-time famous, English antique dealer; he is sixty-four, miserable and addicted to rent boys. Anthony's antique business has been on the verge of collapse since the onset of the current economic recession, and the novel opens with him leaving his lavish Chelsea home and travelling to France, to live with his sister while he searches for his ideal country mansion in which to live out his retirement.

The second story-arc concerns Audrun and Aramon Lunel; French siblings, also in their sixties. Audrun was raped throughout her life by her father and brother, but emerged from the experience an independent and opinionated - if a tad clichéd - `survivor'. Aramon, by comparison, has suffered a dramatic fall-from-grace since youth, and is now a violent alcoholic. The siblings are engaged in a life-long bitter rivalry over land, inheritance and the sale of the giant family home, the Mas Lunel. No prizes will be given for guessing how the lives of Anthony and the Lunel siblings collide...

So far, so promising. The three central characters couldn't be more contrasting, each with their own selfishly demanding goals. Supplicating the conflict between these three protagonists are their back-stories - three turbulent narratives of past tragedies which, unfortunately, aren't given the focus they deserve. This is where Trespass' most obvious failing lies: the past histories of its characters make for much, much more interesting stories than the one the novel is actually telling.

Audrun's past is one of paternal abuse, rape, retribution and redemption. Anthony's past is scarred with doomed relationships, hidden homosexuality and a tragically un-reciprocated devotion to his mother; almost an Electra complex. These are the stories I want to read, these are the narratives that should have made up the novel; instead, they are given merely incidental reference. The story of an old man trying to buy a mansion from some feuding siblings is, by comparison, just dull.

There's an unintended bathos that destabilises this novel: the past is an unstable fault-line threatening to bring the superficial top-layer of this story to ruins - what happens beneath the narrative is vastly more engaging than the actual `plot'. While I praise Tremain for being daring enough to write a novel with an exclusively post-retirement age cast, it seems to me that the real drama of the book lies in the protagonists' histories. I understand what Rose Tremain is trying to accomplish - a hidden history that jeopardises the present day is a standard trope of story-telling; in this case, however, the history is too interesting and the present (the bulk of the novel), is just a muted aftermath. Anthony echoes my sentiments with this charmingly articulated mid-novel protest:

"You have to let go of the past, darling." She said.
"Why?" he replied, "I like it there."

Similar to the narrative, the writing is also a two-sided coin; one which, unfortunately, is weighted in favour of the competent rather than the excellent. Most of the writing is merely adequate; it's not stylised, but it gets the job done. There are, however, moments of expressive brilliance that tease us with what Tremain is capable of:

"The world is so dull, thought Anthony. So cripplingly tedious. So full of all that you've met a thousand times before and which has never moved you and never will. Yet still it goes on..."

I also admire the fact that Tremain doesn't directly describe the more graphic and violent events: sex, rape and murder all occur, but they are "off-screen", as it were; not part of the mise-en-scene of the narrative. With so many modern writers devoting so many words to detailed descriptions of rape and murder, it's refreshing to find a writer like Tremain; one who recognises that long-winded and visceral descriptions rarely contribute to momentum or plot, and more-often-than-not stray dangerously close to unintentional farce and cliché. But, as I have said, Trespass' high-points of stylistic excellence are few and far; separated by wide canyons of the mundane.

And so it is with every aspect of this novel. The characters have great back-stories, but uninspiring present-day ambitions. The writing has moments of beautiful expression, but is too often leaden with the uninteresting. Even the novel's final moments - a shocking and imaginative revelation - is marred by the fact that I saw-it-coming a hundred pages in advance. 'Trespass' is almost a very good novel, but it's also close to being a very bad one. Every success is counter-pointed by a failure and the result is something that's just middle-of-the-road. This `almost' factor left me in an unusual emotional state: I felt a kind of frustrated indifference, torn between accepting the novel as it is, and longing for what it could have been.
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The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

70 of 75 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 31 July 2010
'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' follows the lives of Tomas (a Czechoslovakian surgeon), his wife Tereza and his mistress Sabina during the Prague Spring of 1968 and the turbulent years that followed the event.

At heart, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the story of how three very different people attempt (and repeatedly fail) to reconcile their differing views of love. Tomas, for example, has promiscuous sex with as many women as possible, but he is only in love with one woman - his wife. For Tomas, love and sexuality are distinct and separate entities, and he has no moral scruples about loving one woman while sleeping with many:

"Tomas came to a conclusion: making love with a woman, and sleeping with a woman, are two separate passions, not merely different, but opposite. Loves does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman)."

By contrast, Tomas' wife Tereza believes in marital fidelity - she loves her husband and blames herself for his womanizing life-style. Her despair in life comes from an unresolved personal mind-body dualism; she believes that Tomas loves her soul, but not her body. This fundamental difference in sexual behaviour is the conflict that underpins the entire novel - there's a heartbreaking pathos forged out of the relationship between Tomas and Tereza; their great depth of feeling is persistently tested by their irreconcilable views of love.

The third major protagonist is Sabina, an artist with an unusual take on the concept of `betrayal'. Sabina feels oppressed by her parochial ancestry and the artistic limitations imposed on her by the communist occupation. As a result she deliberately distorts - in a highly visual manner - the everyday objects that surround her. One particularly memorable scene has Sabina straddling a mirror on the floor of her studio, completely naked except for her father's bowler hat. This serves as her own personal deconstruction of her father's puritan legacy and turns the conservative image of the bowler hat into a symbol of her sexual emancipation.

But I don't want to rant on about the characters too much, because by far the most interesting voice in the novel is that of the narrator. Although he is never formally named, he speaks with a first-person identity and possesses an intimate knowledge of the characters and their actions. It's probably safe to assume that the voice of the narrator is actually the voice of Milan Kundera himself.

This narrator is the source of a great deal of comedy in the novel - for no sooner than a scene is over does the narrator immediately start to critique the action. He often criticises the characters, their behaviour and even, in some brilliantly observant and hilarious acts of humility, the actual writing of the novel.

This creates an unusual reading experience. It's almost as if Kundera wrote two books - one of them a novel, the other a harsh yet humorous critique of the novel. He then mashed them together into one coherent volume, so that the reader receives a running-commentary on the events of the book as they occur. My description probably doesn't do it justice, but I assure you, this works brilliantly well.

Further to his practical criticism, the narrator also engages in long philosophical speculations; this is what really sets the novel apart from all others that I've read. The philosophy is relevant and enlightening, yet simultaneously very tongue-in-cheek. The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins by challenging and dismissing Nietzsche's idea of eternal return (the concept that everything occurs and recurs ad infinitum), but then the novel constantly replays the same scenes over and over to the reader - albeit from different perspectives.

The narrator will open up a philosophical discussion by defining his terms in a charmingly idiosyncratic manner. These terms will then recur throughout the novel. As the narrator introduces more and more concepts into his discussion, the language of the text becomes more and more esoteric. So much so that, by the end of the novel, there is such a breadth of specific terminology being used that the final fifty pages or so would barely make any sense to somebody who hasn't read the first few hundred. In other words, Kundera develops his own secret philosophical lexicon and shares it with the reader. This successfully creates a unique feeling of intimacy between narrator and reader, who share a common language, unknown to anybody else, exclusive to this narrator-reader relationship.

The novel's philosophy is as broad in scope as it is focused in linguistic detail. Kundera rigorously analyses what it means to `be' in the world by exploring some unusual but striking contrasts. Sexuality is examined through multitude, not intimacy. Politics is explored through love and marriage. There's even a long, very funny and thought-provoking attempt to reconcile the act of being God, with the fact of bowel movements. The narrator even muses, as I've glossed over, on the creative operational aspects of writing:

"Characters are not born like people, of women; they are born of a situation, a sentence, a metaphor containing a basic human possibility that the author thinks no one else has discovered, or said something essential about."

'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' is a wonderful book. It's tragically moving yet charmingly funny and self-aware. Pathos and philosophy, comedy and culture criticism all merge seamlessly and intelligently. If I was forced to draw any criticism against it, it would be that the narrator is significantly more interesting than any of the characters, but this is a very minor complaint. At worst you might argue that the book is merely a love-story masquerading as philosophical didacticism; at best The Unbearable Lightness of Being may inspire you to re-assess what it means to be in love, be in work, be political; in fact, you may find yourself questioning what it means to `be' in the world altogether.

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