April 2019 Reading: Let the Great World Spin; The Outlander; Home Fire; Day; The Moons of Jupiter; Fates and Furies; Vinegar Girl

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (2009)

This novel spirals out from a central image: the illegal tightrope walk between the Twin Towers performed by Philippe Petit (who remains unnamed in the book) in 1974, though the main cast of characters have only tangential connections to the act. I have to admit, the opening chapters, set in Dublin, didn’t thrill me – the first narrator and his brother, Corrigan, are both rather dour company. But, after both relocate to New York and a terrible accident occurs, the novel springs into life, and a cacophony of lively voices won me over. The female characters in this novel are particularly strong, from Lara, the artist who is involved in the accident, to Tillie, a middle-aged prostitute, to Gloria and Claire, whose bond is that their sons were both killed in Vietnam. The connections between the characters are complex and organic, growing and changing as the novel progresses. There is also a beautiful interlude describing the funambulist’s training, which has a poetic, timeless quality.

The book is bold, beautiful, experimental, and, as in all the very best fiction, it feels like it really gets to the heart of life.

The Outlander by Gil Adamson (2007)

I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, and, in a frugal effort not to spend too much money on Kindle books, I added it to my pile of unread paperbacks for this month. It appears I have forgotten how to read ‘real’ books – I fumbled with the pages, dropped it on my face, lost my place several times, but despite such millenial incompetence, it was an entirely pleasurable experience. Mary Boulton, referred to almost exclusively as ‘the widow’, is on the run in the Canadian wilderness after murdering her husband. The thing that struck me most about this novel was the meticulous description, so detailed it felt cinematic. Each episode in her (mis)adventures is thrilling, from finding refuge with a bird-like old woman to living in the wilderness in a strange kind of domestic harmony, to the mining town of Frank, pursued, always, by the malevolent twin brothers of her dead husband. This pursuit is what drives the story forward, so that even when the widow ‘beds in’ to a situation, we know it can’t last.

The characters are wonderful – William Moreland, the Rev ‘Bonny’ who shelters her in Frank, Mac the dwarf, Giovanni the cat skinner – they are vivid and funny and compelling, and the widow herself is the kind of complex, flawed protagonist you can’t help but root for. I did find myself wishing that her psychosis, which haunts the first part of the novel, was more fully explored in the later stages – but this is a minor quibble. I loved this book. A review from the Guardian sums up what is so brilliant about this novel: “The Outlander is that rare delight: a novel that is beautifully written yet as gripping as any airport page-turner.” (As long as you are capable of actually turning pages.)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

This is a modern retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone, but it wears its source material lightly, especially at first. The novel begins with Isma leaving behind her sister, Aneeka, to travel from London to the States to study. Their brother, Aneeka’s twin, Parvaiz, has recently disappeared, suspected to have joined Isis, in a worrying echo of their now deceased jihadi father, whose shadow looms large over the family. Isma faces an entirely expected airport interrogation, which leads to some surprisingly funny lines.

I wasn’t overly sold on this novel at first – Isma is an admirable but rather dreary character, and the recruitment of Parvaiz, detailed later on, seemed too easy, but it made more sense when followed by his immediate realisation that he had made a terrible mistake. He is only 19, after all, and Shamsie is clever to make him a relatable character. At the heart of the book, though, is Aneeka, whose fierce, independent nature grows in scale until, by the novel’s climax (cleverly witnessed through the medium of TV, a visual, extremely powerful ending), she has reached the truly tragic proportions of her Sophoclean ancestor. This book stayed with me for a long time after I finished it, and made me radically (excuse the pun) rethink my initial indifference to it.

Day by A.L. Kennedy (2007)

As soon as I finish a book, I like to read reviews of it and compare them with my own opinion. I don’t know if this is a kind of insecurity, making sure I’ve ‘got it right’, but I am noticing more and more that my own view does not necessarily match up with that of the illustrious critics. Perhaps I am starting to think for myself (shock, horror)? Anyway, it seems that the high wizards of literary criticism weren’t too impressed with this offering, and I thoroughly disagree with them. So there.

Alfred Day, a former RAF bomber, is taking part in a reconstruction of a German POW camp for a film being made in 1949. He isn’t sure why he has agreed to come, he knows it will trigger traumatic memories, but something in him couldn’t resist. Through his fractured stream of consciousness, hints of his past emerge, passing through shifts in register and accent (his Staffordshire roots are betrayed by his use of dialect in moments of extreme emotion). Alfred is a fascinating character, by turns sympathetic and repelling, and the extreme circumstances he has lived through give him a chance to show every facet of himself. I am always impressed by a novelist who can inhabit their first person protagonist so fully, creating an entire consciousness with words, and even more so when the character’s experiences are so far removed from the writer’s own.

The best parts of the novel involve Alfred’s reminisces about his crew: the banter, the intense friendships, the sense of ‘family’ more real to him than his own. If I were to succumb to the critical reviews, I might grudgingly agree that the withholding of key details in order to create suspense betrays the artifice somewhat, detracts from the stream of consciousness – if Kennedy had resisted the lure of plot, it may have elevated the novel even further. And it is true that Day’s mother and his lover are both presented as a kind of ‘ideal’, never really developed beyond paradigms of female perfection, but then we are embedded in Alfred’s point of view, so if this is how he sees them, perhaps fair enough. I certainly didn’t nitpick at the time of reading – I just enjoyed the ride.

The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro (1982)

Why, oh why, has it taken me so long to get around to reading Munro? I have been missing out – but at least I can now look forward to reading her many other works. I picked this collection of her short stories at random, figuring the important thing was to start somewhere, and from the first story I was hooked.

There is a deceptive simplicity to her stories; they seem small in their scope, but they contain so much truth and quiet beauty that it is impossible not to be moved by them. The opening two stories, the two-part ‘Chaddeleys and Flemings’, describe the aunts on both sides of the narrator’s family, drawing powerful contrasts and exploring the narrator’s sense of connection (or lack thereof) with her family members. ‘Mrs. Cross and Mrs. Kidd’, set in a care home, is a beautifully nuanced and detailed depiction of forming friendships in old age, and seemed to me to be something I hadn’t seen before. The ending of my favourite story, ‘Labor Day Dinner’ is stunningly effective – endings are something I struggle with when I attempt to write short stories: here is a masterclass in how to do it perfectly.

The level of detail in these stories is astounding. Even seemingly trivial things like the descriptions of the clothes worn by the (mostly female) characters help you to see them in your mind so clearly, as if these snapshots of their lives have been captured on film. At their heart, the stories are about trying to understand oneself, and each other, and I was struck by the many examples of characters showing respect for the differences between them. These ‘small’ tales articulate such achingly beautiful truths about love and human interaction that each one has the depth of a novel. I can’t wait to read more of Munro’s work.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (2015)

I was blown away by Groff’s short story collection, Florida, earlier this year, and this full-length (and then some) novel had me similarly impressed. Divided into two sections, it tells the story of the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot) and Mathilde, who meet in college and get married within weeks. The first half, ‘Fates’, focuses on Lotto, who is born in Florida. His father dies when he is young, and after some delinquent behaviour, he is sent to boarding school, where he is miserable. At college, he discovers acting and meets Mathilde, and they move to New York for him to pursue his ill-chosen career. Eventually he discovers that his true talent lies in play-writing, and success finally follows.

This first section is inventive, surprising and uplifting, full of the bright shining light that seems to emanate from Lotto. He is flawed, but he is also endearing and mesmerising, and I fully understood Mathilde’s protective attitude towards him. Groff’s language is fierce and beautiful – her prose is so luminous and delicious, it feels edible, making my mouth water with her dazzling turns of phrase and linguistic acrobatics. She moves between poetic and natural registers with ease, and I was left breathless by some of her sentences.

I wasn’t quite as taken with the second section of the novel. Mathilde deserves her turn to be heard, hovering in the wings as she is during Lotto’s gorgeous performance in the first section, and I can see what Groff was trying to achieve by showing the two sides of the marriage. However, the heaped-on revelations that are catapulted towards the reader by Mathilde’s much darker narrative, thick with tragedy and secrets, overpowers the realist mode in which the first half of the novel mostly operates, and threatens to tip the novel into melodrama. We know there are secrets to be aired, but there are touches of heavy-handedness, including the hiring of a cartoonish private detective, and the unbelievable uniqueness of Mathilde’s own personal story detracts from what could have been a deeply insightful exploration of the ‘two sides to every story/marriage’ theme.

Groff originally wanted to publish the two parts as two separate novels, and I think if she had, and I had only read ‘Fates’, or if she had dripped Mathilde’s story into the first section, marrying (another pun, sorry) the two ‘modes’ more seamlessly, I would be declaring this one of the best novels I have ever read. Even still, I am in awe of Groff’s immense talent, and am looking forward to the next few books of hers already loaded on the kindle.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016)

Warning: I am about to make one last terrible pun, this time about Vinegar Girl leaving a sour taste in my mouth. There. Done.

I’m still cross with this book. I have never read any Anne Tyler, but the woman has won a Pulitzer Prize, for crying out loud, so I was expecting great things. I should not have started with this novel, which was commissioned as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which eminent novelists retell the bard’s stories (Margaret Atwood’s version of The Tempest, Hagseed, is well worth a read, by the way). Tyler chose or was assigned The Taming of the Shrew, not a play I know well, and arguably one of the trickier ones to update, with its convoluted, misogynistic plot concerning a daughter being forced to marry against her will. How do you transplant this to modern day America? Tyler has the answer: greencard marriage.

I had so many issues with this book, it is hard to know where to start. Kate, the protagonist, is both unrealistic and utterly unlikeable, not so much defiant as an odd mixture of downtrodden and immature. She keeps the household ticking along, in the absence of her late mother, for her ‘brilliant scientist’ father, who takes advantage of her at every turn, yet despite her domestic competence, at work she is unprofessional, rude, and almost as childish as the four year olds she looks after (and there are far too many pointless scenes set at the preschool where she works). When her father suggests she marry his lab assistant in order to keep him in the country, she is all too briefly horrified before she reluctantly agrees. The whole farce that proceeds is, admittedly, mildly amusing at times, and the assistant, Pyotr, is quite endearing in his way (and provides the best jokes), but it is all just so implausible that I found myself scowling at the pages as I read. In all honesty, if you’re interested in a modern version of this play, you’d be far better off watching the film ’10 Things I Hate About You.’ (Don’t knock it, it’s a great movie.)

Fair enough, Tyler is doing the job she has been paid to do, using an old-fashioned plot and trying to fit it into a modern story, but it feels like hack-work, as if she is trying to get the commission out of the way as quickly as possible so she can get back to her ‘real’ work. Which I will read one day, but only when I’ve calmed down.

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