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3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
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A few days after returning from her honeymoon, Teresa leaves the room in the middle of dinner, goes to the bathroom and shoots herself in the heart. Years later, in the present, as our narrator Juan is getting used to the changes brought about his own marriage, he becomes fascinated by the mystery of why Teresa killed herself. He has a personal connection – his father Ranz was married to Teresa at the time and later married her sister Juana, Juan's mother. So Teresa would have been Juan's aunt – though had she lived, of course she wouldn't have been...

There are several themes going on in the book – the uncertainty of memory, the inability to forget something once heard, the increasing unknowableness of truth when stories are relayed from person to person. Both Juan and his wife Luisa are interpreters and the sections where Juan talks about listening and conveying meaning are fascinating. The title is a reference to Macbeth, specifically to Lady Macbeth's reaction on being told of Duncan's murder, illustrating a major theme - the complicity forced upon someone to whom a tale is told. Marías is also playing with the idea that events that are major in the present fade into insignificance as time passes, so that eventually all will be the same whether an event happened or didn't. An interesting thought.

In fact, there are lots of interesting thoughts hidden in Marías' prose – well hidden. This is yet another in what seems to be becoming my accidental theme of the year – stream of consciousness novels or, as I prefer to call them, badly punctuated. I admit this one is nowhere near as bad as Absalom! Absalom! But it's up there with Mrs Dalloway for sure, although Marías does at least manage eventually to get to the end of his sentences without completely losing track of where he was heading. There is no doubt that this style of writing lends the prose an air of profundity which, once one breaks the sentences down into their constituent parts, often evaporates, as one realises that the difficulty of comprehension is due not so much to the complexity of the ideas as the complexity of the sentence structure.

Another recurring feature of the few stream of consciousness novels I have waded through (or not, as the case may be) is the constant repetitiveness that the authors tend to employ, as if somehow repeating a thing a few dozen times will make it more meaningful. Perhaps it does, if one likes this style of writing – for me, it simply makes it tedious. An idea that intrigues on first mention requires expansion rather than repetition to hold this reader's interest, I fear.

To be fair, I hate this style in general, but I do think Marías does it much better than most. Much of what he has to say is perceptive, as for example in this quote about getting used to being married. (The style means any quote has to be a long one, so apologies.)

"As with an illness, this “change of state” is unpredictable, it disrupts everything, or rather prevents things from going on as they did before: it means, for example, that after going out to supper or to the cinema, we can no longer go our separate ways, each to his or her own home, I can no longer drive up in my car or in a taxi to Luisa's door and drop her off and then, once I've done so, drive off alone to my apartment along the half-empty, hosed-down streets, still thinking about her and about the future. Now that we're married, when we leave the cinema our steps head off in the same direction (the echoes out of time with each other, because now there are four feet walking along), but not because I've chosen to accompany her or not even because I usually do so and it seems the correct and polite thing to do, but because our feet never hesitate outside on the damp pavement, they don't deliberate or change their mind, there’s no room for regret or even choice: now there's no doubt that we're going to the same place, whether we want to or not this particular night, or perhaps it was only last night that I didn't want to."

This is an example of both what I liked and didn't about the book. It's an interesting perspective and casts a good deal of light on Juan's uncertainty about the married state, but the style drives me up the wall even though it's one of the least waffly passages in the book.

In terms of substance, the book is pretty much plot free. There are several set-piece scenes, some of which are very well done and give an air of menace or perhaps impending doom, and illuminate Marías' themes. But nothing much actually happens. And I must admit that by the time we finally got to the stage of discovering the reason for Teresa's death, the thing had been so stretched out and the themes beaten into the reader's head so often, that I couldn't imagine anyone actually being surprised by it.

I'm sighing with frustration because there's a lot of good stuff in here. Written in normal prose, it would have made an excellent, thought-provoking novella or short novel. As it is, it's overlong, repetitive and filled with unnecessary waffle, all of which diminishes rather than adding to its impact. I found I could only read it in short sessions because the style frankly bored me into a dwam, and I would discover I'd read several pages (approximately half a paragraph) without absorbing any of it. So, recommended to people who enjoy stream of consciousness writing and not recommended to people who don't. 3½ stars for me, so rounded up.
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on 4 August 2012
This book was one we chose for our book club. I got it from the library and wasn't sure if it was going to be an easy read or a tedious, boring drudge through some long, descriptive sentences. I read it in 6 days and couldn't put it down. There was stage at the early part of the bookwhen it did become a bit dull. Then the story picked up and the tale of how Juan met his wife really grabbed my attention. I laughed and really couldn't stop reading. There was an unexpected twist near the end. All together I thought this book was well written, had my attention and I actually cared about all of the characters.
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on 24 April 2008
'A Heart So White' is an emotionally-layered and incredibly nuanced yarn that explores - evidently - the human heart, its immense power and the darkness that lies therein. Page by page - almost too methodically sometimes - the book questions what love is, the lies that sustain love, and the limits to which it can drive us. Starting with the protagonist, Juan, being mistaken for some one's lover, and then overhearing a lovers' spat while caring for his new wife, who is delirious with fever, the story slowly unfurls Juan's own history, paralleling the story of the bickering lovers with that of Juan's father with a truly surprising conclusion.

Javier Marias is the kind of writer that I don't imagine would be an easy read for the typical UK reader since, for the last fifteen years or so, the average book buyer picks up sensationalist or shallow entertaining books which are promoted to death, with, of course, the odd masterpiece - like Margaret Atwood's 'The Blind Assassin' thrown in. Indeed Javier Marias may have found it hard to find a publisher if he was English, so thank god for Spanish and thank god for translation!
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on 22 March 2013
This is an excellent novel but you have to work at it. I don't usually like my books so introspective, and Marias' style which involves repetition of words and phrases can strike a discordant note, but it is a gripping story.
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I remain enthralled with Javier Marias. This is the fourth book of his that I've read; the other three are: While the Women are Sleeping,Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (Penguin Modern Classics), and Dark Back of Time (Vintage International). Each title is taken from a line in Shakespeare. In the case of this book, the line is uttered by Lady Macbeth, after the murder of Duncan. She says: "My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white." And so what does that really mean? The beauty of Shakespeare, here as well as other places, is the possible ambiguities. Marias proposes that it might mean "nonchalance," but it could also mean "pale and fearful" or "cowardly." I could think of some others. It is an excellent title, given the subject matter of this book, some of which is the most essential to human existence: what do we really know about our parents, and hence how we got here; and what do we really know about the person who shares our bed every night? Marias continues to show the relevance of Shakespeare to our daily lives. He takes the "white heart" theme, and about nine others, develops them, and plays them back through the lives of his characters. Point and Counterpoint. And even a "riff" or two. I couldn't help but think of how Aaron Copland took the melody from a straightforward Shaker song: "'Tis a gift to be simple," and turned it into his masterpiece, "Copland: Appalachian Spring; Rodeo; Billy the Kid; Fanfare for the Common Man."

Late in the book we learn that the narrator's name is Juan. His father is Ranz, who has been married to three women, all of whom have died. Juan is the product of his father's union with his last wife, Juana. In terms of "pulling the reader in," Marias does, when he commences the novel with the suicide of Teresa. I once recall a police officer who told me that women almost never commit suicide in a way that disfigures their body. Teresa's did, however, which alerted at least me to the seriousness of the causation.

Marias weaves wildly disparate characters and scenarios into his novel, with elements of both pathos and humor. The cover of this edition depicts one of the themes well...of characters standing at windows, or in the street, observing each other from a distance, and wondering what the true circumstances of the other's condition is. In an early scene, he is in Havana (the birthplace of his maternal grandmother), on his honeymoon. He observes a woman, a stranger, whose name is later revealed as Miriam, yelling at him. Her anger was misplaced; it was meant for the occupant in the next room, Guillermo. Juan overhears snippets of conversation, concerning love, marriage, and murder, and speculates on the outcome. Juan, as well as his new wife, make their living as interpreters, and so it is a "gut" reflex to be translating the words of others. Another scene involves the deliberate mis-interpretation of the remarks of two high level politicians from different countries. As Marias says: "...the task of the translator or interpreter of speeches and reports is boring in the extreme, both because of the identical and fundamentally incomprehensible jargon universally used by all parliamentarians, delegates, ministers, politicians, deputies, ambassadors, experts and representatives of all kinds from every nation in the world, and because of the unvarying turgid nature of all their speeches, appeals, protests, harangues and reports." Clearly, Marias has "been there," and so why not a scenario that plays with meanings, just to liven things up? There is also a scene involving an Australian politician, at an all-English speaking conference, who demands to be "interpreted," which is particularly funny. Another scene of pathos and humor occurs in NYC, with Berta, slightly disfigured in a car accident, who is still searching for "Mr. Right" via the dating services and lonely heart ads, sending videos of herself... Oh, the sorrow and the pity. It was a scene worthy of the best of Paul Auster. There is also a scene involving the Prado museum in Madrid, and his father, who has mastered the corrupt dealings of the international art market.

But the heart of the novel is the deep physiological interactions among Juan, his wife, Luisa, and his father, Ranz, as the past is revealed. In the matter of the interwoven themes of love and violence, Marias raises the question of how each of us, as well as our friends, might be involved. The novel was profoundly satisfying; Marias is a genius at insight, and has the writing skills to make complex themes and scenarios "work." Whither the Nobel Prize? 6-stars.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 November 2009
A Heart So White is exceptional. I read it a while ago, so the fine details do not stick with me, but I recall a powerful book, sensitively written, with immense intelligence and lovingly crafted sentences (well done to the translator!) I remember sympathetic, flawed characters, tragedy wrought excellently. It builds wonderfully, slowly, and is not a quick read: that's not to say it is difficult to ingest, it just requires patience. I remember that it has a great shock at the end. I remember that I enjoyed it immensely, found it rewarding, and recommend it to people ages after I read it. If you have a reading list, this should go on it. A major world writer.
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on 3 August 2012
It always amazes me how a book so boring, dull and lifeless can win so many awards. After an encouraging start - mystery, shock and drama - this book descends into an awkward mix of tantalizing reference and overwritten, indescribably boring passages of pointlessness. Perhaps this does serve as a literary lesson. Perhaps there is something worth mulling over. Then again, perhaps there isn't. Far too many writers indulging in this sort of monotonous writing forget sometimes that to be able to tell a story is the sign of a truly gifted author. Even one that employs literary device. A triumph of style (not even that good) over content (non-existent). Dull.
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on 17 April 2016
I read about a third and had to give up. I was expecting a lot since the author is so famous but I was completely underwhelmed. There is no plot development, the prose meanders in endless disquisitions about matters that may or may not end up being relevant to the story (but one has to have the patience to follow to the end all of the pseudo-philosophizing tirades, such as the one on the impossibility of translating adequately the speeches of politicians of different nationalities, and beyond the impossibility the very pointlessness of such an exercise, even in a fictional context such as this novel, which in spite of its occasional and mostly failed attempts at insightful commentary remains a narrative nevertheless ...) You get the idea. I fell asleep. You have to be Proust or Mann to sustain the reader with this sort of style, and Marias is far from either.
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on 25 December 2013
It was the first Marias' book I read....and after that he became one of the top writers in my own list... Plus he brought me back and made reread Shakespeare.... as the book gave me a key to unlock some hidden secret in Shakespeare's works....
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on 18 November 2013
I am new to this author but now a big fan. Unexpectedly vibrant and thought-provoking in equal measure. if you haven't read him yet waste no more time.
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