More book club reading. This one was an interesting experience – the author’s intent became obvious to me only after I finished the novel and read the acknowledgements at the back, which recast the whole thing in a very different light. If I remembered my classic Greek literature better, I’d probably have realised sooner that Home Fire is a modern-day retelling of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. This made me understand the author’s story choices better, while also making it easier to pinpoint why, overall, the book didn’t quite work for me. There’s still a lot to like about it – the prose is simple and lucid, it explores the timely topics like terrorism and anti-Muslim attitudes with insight and intelligence, most characters are well-drawn and their wildly different life choices are easy to understand and empathise with. But in the end, it did feel less than the sum of its parts.
I’ve read and loved a few Maugham novels without realising that he also excelled at short stories. This is the first one of a four volume collection, which I’ll no doubt complete one day as I love both short stories and Maugham’s brilliant writing. As in any collection, the quality varies somewhat, but most entries are great little gems of economical, elegant storytelling.
The thirty stories contained in the volume are grouped together by geography, as they move from the islands of the Pacific Ocean to England, France, Spain and back to Borneo. They vary wildly in length – some stories take up forty pages and others stop at four – and in tone, with some stories light-hearted and dryly comical, almost resembling a witty punchy epigram, while others are almost luridly tragic.
I’ve resolved not to buy any more clothes from the second-hand stores to prevent the wardrobe explosion, but I can’t stop buying really cheap books! I very much enjoyed this charming, off-kilter first novel from the Indian author who later won the 2006 Man Booker Prize with The Inheritance of Loss, about a young morose slacker who leaves his home town to take up residence in a guava tree, and becomes an accidental guru. Hilarity and chaos ensue.
Last book club read for this year before we regroup in January, Purple Hibiscus is an engaging and beautifully written coming-of-age story set in postcolonial Nigeria. Its heroine, Kambili, is a shy and timid 15-year-old girl growing up within the confines of her wealthy family, ruled by her devoutly religious, authoritarian, verbally and physically abusive father Eugene. When Kambili and her brother Jaja get a chance to spend time with their liberal aunt Ifeoma and her children, freed from Eugene’s oppressive regime, Kambili slowly begins to find her confidence and her own voice.
In between book club reading, I’ve revisited one of my favourite short story collections, which is destined to be one of those books I take off the shelf again and again. I’ve heard a few people say that they find short stories frustrating; it’s probably the way they toss you out of the world created by the author just when the reader gets into the story and characters. And for sure, a novel offers a more engrossing experience you can get properly lost in. But as a reader, few things are as satisfying to me as an effortlessly perfect short story that makes an impression and creates a lived-in world in a space of a few pages, and Lahiri is one of the best authors I’ve read (Pulitzer Prize people agreed as well, since this collection won the 2000 fiction prize).
Neil Gaiman has become one of my favourite writers over the years and I was happy to get my hands on this latest third collection of short trips into the weird, shadowy country of Gaiman’s mind. It never really occurred to me to compare him to Ray Bradbury, but in fact Gaiman’s short stories have the same effect on me that I had while engrossed in Bradbury’s fiction when a teenager – a pleasantly uneasy sensation of looking at the world in a distorted mirror, or lifting the fabric of reality to find some dark, strange, disturbing things lurking underneath. Gaiman’s imagination is just as boundless, and his voice as a writer is just as distinctive (his books on the whole have a lot more graphic sex, though not in this particular collection).
I haven’t read anything by Anita Shreve before, but she sure knows how to grab the reader’s attention in the opening chapter. A video tape is brought to the headmaster of a small exclusive New England boarding school, which shows three male students, aged 17 to 19, engaged in sexual acts with a girl. She doesn’t seem to be in any way unwilling, but she is clearly very young, fourteen as it turns out. There’s also a fourth person operating the camera whose identity is never revealed during the scandal that explodes soon after and destroys the lives of the people involved.