October 2012 Reading: A Life in Full and Other Stories, Room, The Secret Agent, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

A Life in Full and Other Stories by Various Authors (2010)
The Caine Prize for African Writing has introduced me to some fantastic short story writers, and this anthology from 2010 is no exception. It includes the five shortlisted stories, plus an additional twelve stories which came out of the Caine Prize’s workshop for that year. Alongside superb stories from writers whose work I’ve read, such as Lily Mabura and Jude Dibia, are new discoveries, particularly Olufemi Terry’s powerful story ‘Stickfighting Days,’ which shows a darker side to the ‘games’ that children play. I would recommend the Caine Prize anthologies as a great introduction to the huge array of talent in African literature.
Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)
Inspired by the Fritzl case, Room is told from the point of view of five year old Jack, whose mother is kidnapped aged nineteen and kept prisoner in a single room, in which she gives birth to and raises her son. The genius of the book lies in its avoidance of ‘trauma novel’ tropes, and its focus on Jack’s world, which, despite its limitations to our eyes, is all he knows, and which has been lovingly created for him by his mother. In this sense, there is an almost sci-fi feel to the novel. Objects are described without articles: Room, Bowl, Rug, Bed – because, of course, for Jack, there is only one of everything.
The tone of the novel changes when Jack’s mother confesses that she has been lying to him, that there is a whole world outside ‘Room,’ and that the images he has seen on TV are not entirely fictional, as she has led him to believe. The tension between her desire to escape and Jack’s contentedness with his life in Room is played out wonderfully. Once the two of them finally make it to the outside world, the dynamic between mother and son necessarily alters, and this section is portrayed as cleverly as what has gone before. Donoghue’s choice to focalise the novel through Jack is what makes this novel special – adult behaviour as seen through a child’s eyes is a tough trick to pull off in fiction, but Donoghue excels here.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

I read this Conrad novel as I’m currently tutoring English Literature A-level and, amazingly, this is one of the set texts. I’m surprised because it is one of the most convoluted, difficult to follow novels I have read in a long time, and if you’d given this to me when I was seventeen, I wouldn’t have been able to make head nor tail of it. It has apparently enjoyed a revival since 9/11 due to its terrorist themes, and some have argued that Conrad showed remarkable foresight, but this seems to me to be missing the point – terrorism is hardly a 21st century development.
The lack of sympathetic characters in the novel makes it hard to care too much, and the shifting point of view adds to the general confusion (which may be appropriate for a novel about anarchy, but it hardly makes for a pleasurable reading experience.) I read Heart of Darknessa long time ago and I can remember the sensation of being lost in a gloomy, dark maze – I had a similar feeling on reading this novel. If anyone can tell me what I’m missing with Conrad, I’d love to hear from them.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
One of the problems with reading books on a Kindle is that I often don’t know how long a book is when I start reading it. The reason I have only made it through four novels this month is because this one is a beast: the paperback is about 800 pages long. Since finishing it, I’ve thought long and hard about whether its length is justified; on the whole, I think it is. Clarke has created a wonderful world which sits comfortably between history and fantasy, infusing magic into a realistically drawn nineteenth century setting. It tells the story of England’s only two ‘practical magicians,’ who inevitably become rivals. Of the two, Strange is the more likeable, relatable character – the stuffy, anti-social Norrell is less nuanced, and I enjoyed the sections that focused on him less. While Norrell’s elitist attitude to magic leads to him hiding his books and only performing the spells that he sees fit, Strange’s adventures with real-life characters such as the Duke of Wellington add a real sense of fun to this epic novel.
The slightly tongue-in-cheek tone does develop, however, and as the novel progresses, Clarke introduces sinister elements which increase gradually until the book’s conclusion. The plot is complicated enough to fill several novels, and it’s no wonder it took ten years to write. Like writers such as Tolkein and Neil Gaiman, the world that she creates is so satisfyingly all-consuming that when I reached the final page and was spat out into the real, non-magical world, I felt quite bereft. This is not a novel to be undertaken lightly, but it is a masterpiece.