book

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Another novel I’ve read for our book club at work, this time a follow-up to Hannah Kent’s best-selling debut, Burial Rites, which I didn’t love anywhere as much as others did and found rather over-praised. Maybe it was the lowered expectations, but I ended up enjoying this one much better. Kent seems to have a penchant for the grim northern settings and harsh landscapes; Burial Rites was set in an isolated Icelandic community and this book moves the action just a bit further south, to a remote valley in the 1820s Ireland. The subject matter however is entirely different: The Good People concerns itself with the Irish folklore and superstitions, particularly the fairies, or the Good People, who according to the traditional beliefs belong to neither God nor Devil but exist on their own, mischievous and unpredictable terms.

The novel opens with a sudden and inexplicable death of Martin Leahy, a husband to Nóra Leahy, who receives this blow soon after the death of her only daughter. The immediate aftermath then introduces the rest of the characters, Nóra’s family and neighbours, a chief standout among them being Nance, a local wise woman who arrives at the wake to offer her keening (lamenting) services. Nance occupies a shaky ground in the community where she’s both a social outcast and yet is sought out for her knowledge of herbs, midwifery and the ways of the fairies. A new local priest however is not willing to be as tolerant about these pagan matters as the old one and could spell out trouble for Nance.

Nóra is also burdened with the care of her four-year-old grandson Micheál, once healthy boy who can no longer talk, walk or put on weight, and wails relentlessly through the night. Neither the priest nor the doctor can offer any help or remedies, and though Nóra hires a teenage girl, Mary, to help her with the child, taking care of Micheál is an ordeal and an emotional drain. So it’s with some sense of relief that Nóra accepts Nance’s diagnosis that Micheál is a changeling, a false fairy child swapped with the real healthy Micheál by the Good People.

To be honest, I thought that the main narrative of the novel – Nóra and Nance’s quest to recover the boy from the grasp of the fairies – felt too stretched out and maybe didn’t warrant an almost 400-page novel. Where this impeccably researched book really excels though is in immersing the reader into its claustrophobic setting, and vividly evoking the life in a poor 19-century Irish village. The freezing dirt floors, the diet of potatoes and poitín, the smells and textures, the tactile quality of life far removed from our modern world, the evocative language peppered with the Irish vernacular, all weave together to transport the reader. In Nóra’s world, there are no coincidences or meaningless incidents, if something bad happens to an individual or a village, someone is to blame – either for deliberate malice or failure to follow a ritual.

As for the fairies, I wasn’t sure until the end what sort of book I was reading – is this a strictly historical novel about the way desperate, powerless people cling to the superstition in order to deal with the misery of their lives? Or was there going to be a genuine supernatural element after all? I’ve been caught out too many times with gotcha! endings, so I wasn’t certain. Without going into specifics, the ending of the book did provide me with a certain jolt.

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

I’ve always loved short stories and this collection certainly has a unique premise. Each of the ten short stories is narrated by a soul of a different animal caught up in the human conflicts of the last century, and ends with the tale of their deaths. Among them is a female cat surviving in the trenches of World War I, who reminisces about her life with her bohemian actress owner; a bear slowly starving to death in the zoo of the war-torn Sarajevo; a tortoise who crosses paths with several literary geniuses and dreams of travelling to space; a young mussel who goes on a road trip Kerouac-style.

I confess, it took me some time to get used to the concept of the book and read it on the author’s terms, because initially the idea struck me as painfully contrived. I’ve read a few from-the-animal’s-point-of-view books before, but Dovey’s stories ask you to accept her animals as incredibly self-aware, articulate and literate creatures who care about the beauty of a piano and the poetry of Sylvia Plath. As such they felt to me more like human consciousness forced into an animal shape, and the words coming out of their mouths came off as very unnatural. It’s not really a book to make me think about the humans’ treatment of the real-life animals when they’re anthropomorphised beyond recognition.

However, once I finished a couple more stories and got over this contrivance, Only the Animals turned out to be a beautifully written, original, inventive and empathetic treasure trove of a book that’s completely devoid of excessive sentimentality or cutesiness animal stories can sometimes fall into. The book is also not preachy in some sort of overt “animals = good humans = baaaaad” kind of way. The animals remark on the humans around them in a frank, matter-of-fact manner; sometimes they’re bemused by them, sometimes they’re horrified, and quite often they’re sympathetic.

Since every story ends with the death of its main character, they’re inevitably poignant and tragic, but they also can be quite playful and witty; the story of the mussel in particular comes closest to the outright parody and feels slightly different in tone to the others, in a good way. What binds the stories, other than the themes of violence and human cruelty, is the literary connections: famous writers like Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and George Orwell sometimes appear in a story as the background figures, or it’s their work that has inspired the animals in some way; or the author uses an existing work (such as Kafka’s A Report to an Academy) as a jumping off point for her own story. I’ve probably missed out on some of the references and homages to past writers, but I don’t think this knowledge is necessary to enjoy the stories on their own.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In the first paragraph of the novel, its narrator singles out what he believes to be his ‘fatal flaw’: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs. If you can relate to this in any way, at least when it comes to fiction, and can enjoy appalling yet fascinating characters who are not likeable or relatable, The Secret History is a treat, a rather unconventional and mesmerising blend of intellectual ideas and a murder mystery.

The murder mystery is not so much of a mystery: right in the prologue, you learn that the narrator, Richard, and four of his friends kill another friend. The tension in the book then is not about who, but why the five college students came to commit this terrible act, and what happens to them and the wider community in the aftermath. It goes all the way back to when Richard, an unhappy Californian native with blue-collar parents, gets a scholarship and a chance to attend the exclusive and prestigious Hampden College in New England. There, he falls in with a small, close-knit group of ancient Greek students and Julian, their charismatic teacher. These kids are privileged, aloof, self-absorbed, snobby, eccentric, and utterly alluring to Richard, partly because they seem to be so out of step with the rest of the students and the modern world in general. Their dedication to the ancient Greece strikes a chord with Richard, who, despite being far from a sexless creature, seems to be obsessed more with the ideals of beauty. In fact, this otherworldly, unmodern quality of the characters gives The Secret History a timeless feel, where this could have easily been a 19th century novel if not for the mentions of phones, hippies and The Grateful Dead (and quite a bit of drugs).

Of course, Richard’s new friends hide a gruesome secret, foreshadowed in one of my favourite parts of the book where Julian talks eloquently about the ancient Greeks and their fascination with the loss of self, religious ecstasy, and the dark, irrational part of human nature. It’s to Tartt’s credit that the details of the secret, which could have come off as ridiculous and melodramatic, seem totally plausible, even when they’re tinged with a touch of supernatural. Perhaps predictably, after pages of building up suspense and apprehension, the book loses some of its power once the central murder happens and one of its most vivid characters exits the stage. Which is not to say that the aftermath, with its further revelations about the characters, is not compelling, and the book also gets rather satirical in its depiction of the mass hysteria that sweeps the campus post-murder.

The novel has some great descriptive passages and fantastically drawn characters, particularly Henry, the unofficial leader of the group who is highly intelligent, erudite, cold, manipulative and whose motivations you’re never completely sure about. Some other characters fare less well, especially Camilla, the sole female member of the gang, who mostly floats in and out like an ethereal ghost and whose main purpose seems to be a subject of infatuation. Overall though, this is a haunting, beautifully written, confidently constructed book that’s definitely a re-read material.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the-heart-goes-lastI love me a good dystopia and I enjoyed this futuristic satire despite the slightly jarring shifts in tone, especially towards the end when it seemingly abandons all restraint and dives into (still very entertaining) surreal silliness.

The beginning of the book is fairly grounded: in the near future, a financial crisis has reduced a large part of the USA to an unemployed wasteland. Charmaine and Stan, a married couple down on their luck, are living in their car, getting by on tips Charmaine makes working at a seedy bar, scavenging for food, always on guard from the roaming bandits. They’re in fact prime candidates for a socioeconomic experiment called the Positron Project, which they see advertised one day. It is located in the town of Consilience, and provides the lucky applicants with jobs and roof over their heads. The catch? One, every other month, they have to swap the occupancy of their house with the Alternates – a couple just like them they’re never supposed to meet – and spend a whole month in the on-site prison. Two, the project is for life and you can never ever leave Consilience for the outside world.

Sure enough, Charmaine and Stan promptly sign up and at first things are ok, even though the happy-happy 50s aesthetic of the town, down to the selection of music you’re allowed to listen to, is rather dull and antiseptic (no rock music or anything else deemed overly stimulating). Charmaine seems happy in her new surrounds, but Stan begins to find their marriage stale and sex too vanilla. His imagination is set on fire when, one day, he finds a love note under the fridge, presumably written by the female Alternate who shares their house, hinting at the kind of sexual abandon he craves. Unable to stop fantasising about the woman, Stan is determined to meet her, even though such contact is against the rules. Little does he know what massive shocks expect him.

Of course there’s much more going on than a tale of marital infidelities, and soon enough the story dives into – surprise – the dark side of the Positron Project, getting increasingly sinister and absurd and involving sexbots, knitted blue teddy bears, gay Elvis impersonators… among other things. At times it gets almost too silly, yet its bleak view of humanity and the scary places future technology and corporate greed might take us to don’t feel all that far-fetched, sadly. The novel is perhaps more uneven than some of the other Atwood books, but her imagination and caustic wit are a delight as always.

Room by Emma Donoghue

room-iiIt’s always interesting to read a book after watching the film adaptation first, particularly when the way the same story is told in different mediums is so drastically different. In Emma Donoghue’s remarkable novel, the only viewpoint we get is that of its narrator, a five-year-old boy named Jack, who lives with his mother (referred to solely as Ma throughout the book) in a 11-by-11-foot room, where he was born. As revealed later, Ma is a young woman who was abducted when she was a 19-year-old student, and kept for seven years in a soundproof garden shed by her captor, a much older man whose visits eventually leave her with a son.

Jack’s mother made every effort to make his life in the Room safe and happy, inventing routines and games with the few means at her disposal, and insisting on as little “brain-rotting” TV as possible. She also encourages Jack to believe that the Room is all there is to the world, and nothing Jack sees on their TV is really real, a decision which lets Jack have a semblance of a happy childhood. Their jailer, known to Jack only as Old Nick, brings them enough food to survive and Ma keeps Jack out of his way by hiding him in the wardrobe at night-time.

This may sound like a harrowing and lurid sort of setup, but the book’s genius is in telling the story from the point of view of a small child and restricting everything to his vision, which lends innocence to a very dark scenario without trivialising or downplaying it. Jack is happy in his routine and the Room for him is a safe magical place where every inanimate object is a good friend and deserves to be called with a capital – Rug, Bed, Meltedy Spoon, Door etc. Shielded from the true horror of their situation, he treats things like Ma occasionally spending a day prostrate on the bed with depresssion with a child’s acceptance. The novel never falls into the trap of making Jack’s voice sound precocious or cutesy; he’s maybe unrealistically articulate for a five-year-old but you can say the same about any character from a film or a book (let’s face it, no one wants to hear truly “realistic” dialogue).

Soon after we meet Jack on his fifth birthday, his mother begins to slowly reveal to him that there’s in fact a big world outside of their tiny cell, which is like telling an average person that most of the existence happens in a fourth dimension they didn’t know was there. Without spoiling things too much, Jack’s world does expand in the second half of the book, and as in the film, the story does lose something without the unique, claustrophobic setting of the first half. However, it still remains compelling, with the sensitive exploration of the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), Jack’s impressions of the Outside and its sheer disorientation and sensory overload, mother and son’s coping with their new situation and Jack’s eventual growth into his own person after their intense closeness in the Room. Some of Jack’s observations about the Outside are quite priceless:

“Everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear.”

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life_after_lifeLooking at the title, I presumed that this was going to be a book about the afterlife, something like The Lovely Bones, but in fact its meaning is one life after another. This book doesn’t treat death as final: its protagonist, Ursula Todd, dies when she is born in 1910 with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Then in the next chapter and the next life she gets another chance: the family doctor who originally couldn’t be present because of heavy snowfall makes it to her birth, and cuts the cord in time. A few chapters later, five-year-old Ursula and her sister Pamela drown at sea, then in another life they get rescued by a stranger who happens to be nearby. A year later she falls to her death out of the window while trying to rescue a favourite doll, then she is stopped by the kitchen maid before she climbs the windowsill and lives on.

At that point, while enjoying the book, I thought to myself, ok is this going to be like playing a video game where you die and fail a level, then come back and pass the level, then fail the next level and so on? Because that’s going to get old real quick and this is a thick book. But the novel, thank god, was much more inventive than this. The early start-and-stop-and-start narrative is about the more straightforward perils of childhood, but as she grows up and has more autonomy over her choices and actions, Ursula’s many fates take many, wildly different routes. In one life, a kiss from a visiting American student ends with an abusive marriage, in another, a timely slap prevents a disaster. Romance that happens in one life takes another trajectory in the other, and same people and places play different roles in different chapters. Ursula herself becomes vaguely aware of her own alternate past lives, experiencing strange feelings of déjà vu and inexplicable dread, and a visit to a psychiatrist touches on the nature of time and reincarnation, handily visualised as a snake with a tail in its mouth.

Merely explaining the concept of the novel however does no justice to Atkinson’s empathetic, humorous and vivid writing, which brings to life complex family dynamics and life in England between and including the two world wars. Ursula’s family is comfortably wealthy and live just beyond the north London, in a leafy area not yet swallowed by the encroaching suburbs. While Ursula herself never quite gels into a fully realised character, probably because of her ever-changing life course, the novel has a rich supporting cast, of which Ursula’s snobbish and caustic mother Sylvie and erratic, free-spirited aunt Izzie stand out the most. The details of wartime London and its blitz horrors are harrowing and authentic, though the book feels less convincing when it travels over to the continent in a life where Ursula ends her days in the 1945 Berlin instead. Atkinson knows her England through and through, Germany on the other hand feels a lot more sketchy.

If I continued the earlier video game comparison, World War II is the unbeatable big boss of Ursula’s life; even when she makes out of it alive the tragedies it visits on her family leave it mangled forever. In the opening chapter set in the 1930s Germany, Ursula dies while trying to assassinate Hitler, and the closest the novel gets to “what it all means” is the implication that Ursula’s ultimate goal is preventing the war from happening. But the book remains rather vague on this account; there’s even an intriguing remark by one of the characters that perhaps a great evil happens in order to prevent an even greater evil (this in fact made me half-expect a version of Ursula’s life where Hitler dies but the future turns out to be even worse than WWII, but I guess this would be getting too much into science fiction turf). Despite this lack of clear resolution, this is a remarkable, rich, haunting book that I’d probably want to re-read down the track.