literature

The Private Patient by P.D. James

I quite enjoyed the previous P.D. James murder mystery I’ve crossed paths with, but I didn’t have as much success with this last entry featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh. Though seeing that it’s the 14th novel in the series, it’s not enough for me to cool down on them altogether. After all, a series this long-running is bound to produce some duds.

The scene of the crime is the fictional grand country estate called Cheverell Manor, situated a few hours out of London, in Dorset. Once the property of a distinguished family, it has been converted to a private clinic belonging to George Chandler-Powell, renowned plastic surgeon. The victim is one his patients, investigative journalist Rhoda Gradwyn who visits the clinic to remove a disfiguring facial scar. She comes to the manor twice, once on a preliminary visit to get acquainted with the place, and again later for her big day, which ends with her death. In between, the novel implies, she just can’t help her journalistic instincts and digs up some dirt on one of the manor employees. Or maybe it’s a red herring and the murder was about something else entirely. It’s up to Adam Dalgliesh and his team to find out.

This is a classic murder-in-isolated-setting setup, and it was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, but only just. The most disappointing aspect of the whodunnit itself is that it’s resolved not so much through the efforts of investigation, but with the culprit handing themselves in via a bizarrely melodramatic turn of events. The most disappointing feature of the novel is the dreadful amount of padding which grinds the pace to a screeching halt. I am not necessarily against the descriptive passages, and I appreciate the attempts to flesh out the characters and treat them all with empathy, no matter how minor. But good lord do I really need to know the exact configuration of a character’s living room, with a full list of furniture and where everything is placed? Then there are detailed descriptions of people’s appearances, meals and car trips from Dorset to London which could be edited out with no loss to the story whatsoever. The book also detours into the personal life of Dalgliesh, which I’d probably be more interested in if I had more attachment to his character. To be fair, it would perhaps be wiser to read some more of the earlier books before diving into the last one.

Along the way, there are some insightful thoughts on class and the changing British society, a few well-written characters and atmospheric settings (spiced up with a ghoulish story of a burnt witch). So it wasn’t a total waste of time, but there was no reason for this book to be almost 400 pages long and it could have done with some ruthless snipping.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The finale to Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels chronicling the lives and complicated friendship between Elena and Lila didn’t disappoint and it’s hard to think of a series equally as rewarding and consistently fantastic. It’s impossible to convey, in a review, what makes Ferrante’s writing so extraordinary. On the surface, if you tried to describe the story, it sounds just like any domestic drama – lives of two women as they mature from girlhood into adulthood, going through various highs and lows, grappling with motherhood, making ends meet, becoming successful, growing old. But their experiences and everyday lives are just so incredibly well-drawn, with such degree of richness, texture and psychological insight, in prose that’s so crystal and powerful.

Because I left a bigger gap between reading this book and the rest, I actually forgot the premise of the first novel, where, in the present day, Elena decides to write the story of her 60-year-old friendship with Lila after Lila herself disappears without a trace. And there’s a sense of the story coming full circle, in a few respects. After years of trying to escape her old neighbourhood in Naples, in this novel Elena comes back to the city with her two young daughters after the break-up of her marriage, and eventually moves into an apartment directly above Lila’s. Her writing career is thriving, while Lila and her partner Enzo have a successful business and Lila becomes entangled in the murky underworld politics of the neighbourhood. The two friends become pregnant at the same time, and Elena observes the traits and dynamics in the relationship between their daughters that strangely resemble her own and Lila’s (Lila’s daughter is bright and precocious, while Elena’s Imma is more ordinary and submissive). Other long-running story strands, like Elena’s obsession with Nino, her love since childhood, thankfully come to an end (Nino has become one of my least favourite fictional characters and it’s a relief when Elena finally gets over him).

While Elena is a character who breaks with the traditions that bind the women of her time, becoming an academic and a writer, getting involved in feminism, leaving behind Naples and her family in both geographical and emotional sense, the story of her rebellion is still a fairly conventional one. Lila however defies any easy categorisation and, in the end, remains one of the great literary enigmas. After reading the first novel, I felt that Lila’s opaqueness made her a somewhat unsatisfying character, but after finishing the series it’s clear that mystery is at the core of her character, and that Elena puts their story in writing partly in order to figure out her friend who has shadowed her life for decades and never really left despite the long stretches of separation.

In this book, Lila remains the same fascinating figure, the “terrible, dazzling girl”: cruel yet kind, manipulative yet honest, charismatic, capricious, submissive to no one, a constant source of feelings of inferiority in Elena despite the success she’s achieved. Her presence in Elena’s life is both toxic and indispensable. At the same time, Elena comes to realise that Lila lacks the solid centre she herself possesses, particularly when her friend, in a rare unguarded moment, talks about the terrifying episodes of dissociation she describes as “dissolving boundaries”. One of the things Ferrante captures really well is the way any strong emotion in her characters has an underbelly and nothing can be described as simply love, hate, happiness, envy etc. My own feelings about the two main characters are similarly divided: while Lila is a much more compelling character, Elena with her frank admissions and insecurities is easier to identify with.

Some of the descriptions can get old over the course of the series – how many times can Lila narrow her eyes, already? But in the end, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of a complicated female friendship so intricately and intimately portrayed.

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.

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.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainThis was one of those mystery/thrillers where you go, hmm I think I can see where the story is going, but there are still plenty of pages left, so hopefully there’s some totally unexpected juicy twist in store… oh wait there isn’t. So then the remainder of the book is just waiting for the main character to connect all the dots and for the story to roll out, which is rather tedious. I don’t usually play Sherlock and try too hard to solve the crime or predict the plot of the books and movies – in most cases I prefer to sit back and go along with the story, and I rather like being surprised. Here though the red flags are so obvious I couldn’t help but guess the culprit long before the heroine does.

The story is told by multiple narrators, but our main hero and the titular girl on the train is Rachel, a young woman who well and truly hit the rock bottom after her husband dumped her for another woman. She’s unemployed with a raging drinking problem, and in order to fool her kind-hearted friend-slash-landlord she takes the same commuter train to London as if she still had her job. Every day, the train takes Rachel near her old house, now occupied by her ex-husband, his wife and their baby, and another house not too far away, with a young attractive couple Rachel becomes obsessed with – she even gives them imaginary names. They seem to have a perfect life together and she fantasises about their perfect amazing relationship that’s a complete opposite to her own failed marriage, until one day she sees something that totally shatters that image.

As a thriller, The Girl on the Train is for the most part a well-crafted, compulsive reading – I read it in a flash and even took it with me to work so I could finish it during lunch break. An unreliable narrator who suffers from blackouts is a fun device and the book puts it to good, suspenseful use. The problem is, there’s really not much else to the book apart from its central mystery – this is strictly a shallow, read-once-and-forget kind of novel. The writing is merely serviceable and the setting generic, without any sense of mood or atmosphere. Besides Rachel, the other two narrators are Anna, the woman Rachel’s husband left her for, and Megan, the half of the “perfect couple” who disappears in mysterious circumstances. While I never had a problem with unlikable protagonists, if you write unsympathetic characters you need to make them compelling in some way, but none of the characters here come off as distinct or interesting and their voices are pretty much interchangeable. I’m curious to see how the film adaptation with Emily Blunt turns out – this could be a rare case where a movie actually improves on the book.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante

9781925240023Surprisingly, I got through the third entry in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels much quicker than the first two – maybe because of greater familiarity with her style. In this novel, Elena/Lenú and Lila, the two girls we first met as young children in My Brilliant Friend, are now grown women entering their third decade. At the conclusion of the previous book, Lila left her husband and ended up in poverty, working at a sausage factory and enduring miserable conditions and sexual harassment, whereas Lenú left Naples for Florence, got engaged to a young professor from a distinguished academic family, and became an accidental published author. You don’t need a crystal ball to predict that their respective fortunes will seesaw throughout the book, as will their difficult relationship, which persists despite the two young women losing contact for years and Lenú admitting, at one point, that true heart-to-heart intimacy is no longer possible between them.

Despite the changes in their lives, at the core the two women remain the same: Lila plows ferociously through life, getting involved in the class struggle and political upheaval of Italy at the time, Lenú experiences life mainly as an observer. Even though she escaped her old neighbourhood and the cage of poverty, her marriage turns out to be a cage all the same, and she struggles to find her own voice as a writer as well as coping with demands of being a wife and mother (a shiny happy look on motherhood this book isn’t).

Ferrante’s writing is as wonderful as ever, but since most of the book follows Lenú’s own life this time, I rather missed the setting of Naples and the old supporting cast of characters, who do appear but are given less time or are simply mentioned by other characters. The passing of years was at times hazy and took me unawares – at one point I went, oh wait Lila’s son is already 10 years old? Also, a certain character who I hoped was well out of Lenú’s life comes back, causing me to groan a bit. It was the first time I felt like Ferrante’s tale got too soap-opera-ish and it’s also my own personal peeve against the “heroine pines after a man who is SO not worth it” story trope. These issues aside, it’s still a fantastic, intelligent, visceral, multi-layered read. Bring on the final fourth book!