Monday, 29 August 2011

Forbidden Love

Giovanni’s Room (1956) by James Baldwin tells the story of David, a twenty-something American living in Paris. David is struggling with his sexually. He is engaged to Hella, but when his fiancĂ©e travels to Spain, David begins a relationship with Italian barman Giovanni. His days and nights with Giovanni are glorious, filled with drunken love in their small room. Giovanni’s room is dark and private, and there they are safe to love one another.

But a shadow lurks over them, as David knows one day Hella will return and he must marry her as promised and have a family. David’s greatest struggle is with himself as he is unwilling to face his homosexuality. He sets out to prove he is straight by finding women to sleep with.

When Hella returns he must break with Giovanni, forcing both men into turmoil. Giovanni’s life ends in tragedy and David cannot reconcile his feelings. 

Baldwin is an amazing author and in less than 160 pages he explores complex human relationships and the subject of homophobia and social isolation in such a beautiful, readable way. Baldwin tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, unfurling details with a deliberate pace, and bringing life to the characters in such a way that you can feel their emotions.

Despite the relationship at the centre of the Giovanni’s Room, I would not classify this as a gay novel – it is a universal story of love, regret, heartache and loneliness.

This is the second Baldwin novel I have read. The first, If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), about a dysfunctional family facing racism in Harlem, further demonstrates Baldwin’s genius and is one of my favourites. 

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Barbarians at the Gate

Set in South Africa during the 1970s, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is a story of a Magistrate at a regional outpost who lives a fairly solitary, predictable life.

One day Colonel Joll arrives declaring a state of emergency because he believes the nomadic native peoples, who live in the hills outside the town, are a threat. Joll’s troops round up some of these “barbarians”, torturing them until they admit their plans to attack the frontier town. The Magistrate is convinced that the confessions are false - stemming from the horrific torture at the hands of Joll and his men.

When Joll leaves town, swearing to return with a larger force, the Magistrate nurses the torture wounds of one of the female barbarians and embarks on a relationship with her. Joll learns of this and considers the Magistrate’s actions treason. The Magistrate is incarcerated, tortured and violated in the same ways the barbarians were.

Waiting for the Barbarians is a haunting allegorical novel with strong and complex themes – colonialism, power, humanity, and the treatment of prisoners – that are explored in a simple narrative. While set in South Africa, this could take place anywhere that imperial forces have attempted to invade and subjugate the native inhabitants.

J.M. Coetzee is a brilliant writer – a Nobel laureate and Booker prize winner. His power is in his ability to write so concisely with such magically descriptive passages without resorting to sentimentality. This is thought provoking novel that will leave you pondering its themes long after you have finished reading. 

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Betty's Book Club

Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) is a delightfully witty novella which celebrates literature and the joy of (re)discovering the pleasures of reading as an adult.

The story is simple. The City of Westminster travelling library visits Windsor Castle one evening. While out with her corgis, Queen Elizabeth II encounters the van on the palace grounds and feels duty bound to select a book. While she does not like her first choice (Ivy Compton-Burnett), her next selections (Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love) are more to her taste and begins her learning journey.

Her Majesty works her way through many novels, poetry, autobiography and non-fiction. She consumes Henry James, Dick Francis, Shakespeare, Phillip Roth, Vikram Seth, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Johnson, Sylvia Plath, Mary Renault, Anita Brookner and many more. Her commitment to Proust causes her to delay some of her royal engagements. She learns how to wave from her car window while continuing her reading by placing her book at just the right height so as not to be seen by the crowd.

As Her Majesty becomes more of bibliophile she experiences a transformation and begins to see the world differently. She becomes enlightened about issues of class and gender and experiences different emotions. She asks well-wishers and her staff about their reading choices, and questions visiting dignitaries about authors from their homeland.

The Queen’s reading begins to interfere with her work, evidenced by her boredom with official duties and attempts to build more reading time into her daily schedule.  Her personal secretary becomes most dismayed at her new hobby and attempts to quash it on the grounds that reading, “while not exactly elitist, sends the wrong message. It tends to exclude.”

Ultimately, The Uncommon Reader makes a case that reading literature can alter the reader’s outlook on life. The Queen’s regret that she had turned down opportunities to meet many writers (Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and others) is a compelling argument for seizing the day. Writing with humour, intellect and imagination, Bennett subversively hypothesizes about what would happen if the Queen were to become a voracious reader late in her life.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A Snowball's Chance

Dunstan Ramsay, war hero, historian and noted author of several books about saints, is retiring after 45 years of teaching at a prestigious Old Boys’ school in Canada. Miffed by an article in the college news which portrays him as “a typical old schoolmaster doddering into retirement”, Ramsay seeks to set the record straight and tell the true story of his life. He does so via a letter to the school’s headmaster, which forms the basis of Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business (1970), the first novel in the Deptford Trilogy.

Commencing with his youth in Deptford, Ontario, Ramsey describing the people and events that shaped his life. Along the way we meet his childhood “friend and enemy” Percy ‘Boy’ Staunton, renowned magician Magnus Eisengrim, unfortunate parson’s wife Mary Dempster, defeated Leola Cruickshank, hideous Liesl and a range of other interesting characters.

On reflection, Dunstan realises that much of what has happened in his life stems from a single incident in his childhood in which a snowball with a rock inside is thrown, hitting the pregnant Mary Dempster and bringing about her early labour. Staunton threw the snowball and feels no remorse. Ten-year-old Ramsay swerved to avoid it and is stricken with guilt. Paul Dempster is the child who is born prematurely as a result. All three boys are intricately linked in ways that unfold over this Trilogy.

There is so much to admire about Fifth Business. The description of the snowball incident and its aftermath is intriguing and Davies’ style of the writing makes you feel as if you know Deptford and its inhabitants intimately.

On one level the book is a simple bildungsroman as Ramsay describes his growth through World War I, the Great Depression and so on. But there are many layers and subtle complexities to this novel that add to its richness: the depictions of small town Canada in the early 20th century; the focus on religion and hagiology; travels to Europe and South America; and the critique of materialism and morals.

Robertson Davies is such an esteemed writer and, as a Canadian, I am ashamed to admit that I waited so long to read any of his work. I loved hearing Ramsay’s tale, and the humour and insight with which he told it. Now that I have found Robertson Davies I will be quick to read the next two novels in the trilogy: The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1975) and explore his other works.

See also: 
My review of  The Manticore (1972) 

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Nature, Nurture or Something Other?

On 6 December 1989 14 female students were murdered in a shooting spree at the Ecole Polytechnique, in Montreal Canada.  This outrageous act of violence against women was the first I had ever heard of a school shooting and the horror of this crime stays in my memory.

Ten years later in April 1999 two students committed the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado killing 12 of their classmates. Again, in 2007 at Virginia Tech, 32 students and faculty were killed by a student.

These real life events prompt many questions: Why? What is the motive behind these killings? What sparked the assault? How were these killers raised? Were violent films or games to blame? Is access to guns too easy? 

While the perpetrators in each of these massacres committed suicide before answering these questions, authors Jodi Picoult and Lionel Shriver have attempted to fill in these gaps with interesting novels about teenage killers.

Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes (2007) focuses on 17-year-old Peter Houghton who has been bullied his whole life. Peter’s gentle nature and lack of athleticism made him a victim to playground tortures and daily humiliation in the halls at school. One day, Peter has enough and in a 19-minute spree he has killed 10 classmates and wounded dozens more. 

Josie Cormier grew up with Peter. She is part of the in-crowd and is a witness and silent participant in his humiliation. Josie’s mother Alex is initially the judge in the case, but recuses herself when her daughter gets put on the witness list. Jordan McAfee, Peter’s lawyer, attempts to defend his client by applying Battered Women’s Syndrome, claiming Peter acted in a dissociative state due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) tackles the same subject matter from a different perspective. It is written in the first person in the form of letters from Kevin’s mother Eva to her husband Franklin while Kevin is in jail for shooting seven classmates. Eva writes of her relationship with Franklin, her ambivalence towards motherhood and instances of Kevin’s childhood that revealed his early sociopathic tendencies. Eva attempts to answer the nature versus nurture question by ascertaining whether Kevin was born a bad seed or if Eva and Franklin somehow failed their son.

Despite the grim subject matter, both books are compelling reads examining how these tragic events affect individuals and the community. Picoult and Shriver try to get inside the minds of these killers by hypothesising their motives and what lead up to their crimes.

Picoult is a more populist storyteller and adds courtroom drama to draw the reader in. Her novels are true page-turners and reliable easy reads, although they are slightly formulaic with stereotypical characters. Nineteen Minutes exposes the terrible trauma that can result from schoolyard bullying.

In contrast, Shriver doesn’t do ‘easy’ and her novel is a challenge to read. Eva is an unlikeable character and her relationship with young Kevin is heartbreaking. Shriver uses complex language and creates a tremendous sense of unease.

While I enjoyed both books, We Need to Talk About Kevin is the one that has stayed with me and the one I found most intriguing. Eva is not a stereotypical mother and her feelings about parenting make her fascinating. Despite the challenge of the language and the subject matter it is well worth the read. If you only had time for one, Kevin is the better novel.
We Need to Talk About Kevin won the Orange Prize for literature in 2005 and has recently been made into a film staring Tilda Swinton as Eva.

Monday, 15 August 2011

A Stolen Life

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006) by Scottish author Maggie O’Farrell is a powerful and intriguing novel about a stolen life.

Esme Lennox was an unconventional girl in 1930s Edinburgh. She enjoyed reading and had a desire to attend University rather than attend balls and get married as was the ambition of most girls her age. Seemingly embarrassed by Esme's non-conformance, her family sought to erase her from memory. Her beloved sister Kitty colluded in the betrayal that resulted in Esme’s commitment to an asylum.

Sixty years later, Iris Lockhart, another unconventional woman, receives news that her great-aunt Esme is due for release. Iris begins to unravel the mystery of her great aunt who had never been spoken of in the family.

Told in brief snatches alternating from the past and present, Esme’s story unfolds in layers. Iris, Esme and Kitty (Iris’s grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s) provide their perspective on events. Like puzzle pieces, the fragments of the story come together gradually revealing the whole picture.

Maggie O'Farrell has such a compelling storyteller that the reader is drawn into the mysteries surrounding the women in the novel. Each of the three women have unique voices and contribute fascinating detail to the relationships between them.

Suspenseful, haunting and profoundly sad, this story of how Esme's life was taken from her will stick in your mind long after you have finished the book.

Maggie O’Farrell is also the author of After You’d Gone (2000), My Lover’s Lover (2002), The Distance Between Us (2004) and The Hand that First Held Mine (2010).

Monday, 1 August 2011

Brilliant Frozen Moments

Booker prize-winning author Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger) lived in Egypt as a child during the 1930s and 1940s until the age of twelve. In her memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived (1994), Lively reflects on her time in Egypt during the Second World War, with her devoted English governess Lucy, and tries to “recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood”.

This is not a chronological memoir, but rather like flicking through an old photo album with a friend who tells you random tales about the flora, fauna or furniture in each image. The result is the reader learns about young Penelope’s experiences with a snake charmer, visits by British soldiers to the Lively home Bulaq Dakhrur outside Cairo, car trips to Palestine, criteria for choosing donkeys to visit the pyramids, and her early interest in natural history.

Returning to Egypt later in life Lively is amazed by the changes in Egypt, especially in Alexandria where she has spent many summers on the beach, using gourds as flotation aids. Revisiting in 1988 Lively found the beaches replaced by “stark apartment blocks” and as such the Alexandria of her childhood “survives now only in my mind”.

I loved Lively’s conversational style and her ability to describe the child’s view of the world from adulthood. Whether she is talking about a settee she was not allowed to sit on, or children she could attend Brownies with but not invite over for tea, Lively reflects with great clarity through two lenses:  the past child and the present adult. She admits her vision of the past, while clear in her mind, is skewed. For example, she writes, “my Cairo of then is thus a landscape that is highly selective, entirely personal and only tenuously connected either to the reality of the time or the city that has overtaken it today”.

In the preface to Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively writes: “I believe that the experience of childhood I irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity.” I am so glad I had an opportunity to share these frozen moments.