July 2019 Reading: Something Fierce; His Monkey Wife; The Girl on the Train; Washington Black; Solar; Sing, Unburied, Sing; You Are Having A Good Time

Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre (2012)

This book, subtitled ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter,’ is the true story of the author’s extraordinary childhood and adolescence. Aged 11, Carmen returns to South America from exile in Canada along with her revolutionary mother and her partner, as well as her younger sister. Between 1979 and 1989 the family leads a nomadic existence, living in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

Aguirre’s voice is honest, searching and darkly funny; she is careful to tell her own story and not try to analyse the thoughts and feelings of her family members. There is also no sense of judgement on her mother and (largely absent) father for dragging her into this way of life -indeed, she later joins the Resistance in her own right – although as a reader, I felt enormous relief for her when she is finally released from duty and able to begin a ‘normal’ life, freeing her from the Terror that clutches at her even as she tries to be brave beyond her years. Carmen is a sympathetic, engaging narrator, who loves fiercely – countries, friends, family members, lovers. She is told by one superior that all experience is good experience, and she seems to live by that.

This is a moving, informative, truly remarkable book – I am not sure how it ended up on my bookshelf a few years back, but I’m very glad I finally got round to reading it.

His Monkey Wife by John Collier (1930)

I bought this strange novel years ago in Daunt Books, without knowing anything about the book or the author. I was merely intrigued by the title, and the book itself lives up to its oddness. Collier takes a ridiculous idea and runs with it to the fullest extent: a highly intelligent chimpanzee falls in love with her British owner, Mr Fatigay, and travels with him to London, keeping the full extent of her mental capabilities under wraps, where she tries to make him see that marrying his flawed fiancee is a mistake.

Emily, the ‘monkey’ in question, is finely drawn, and her heightened sensibilities are evident in every sentence. This is a parody, of course, poking fun at the idea of the ‘new woman’ among other things, but it is sensitively done, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. The sentences are wonderfully convoluted, and deserve to be puzzled out; what’s not to love about descriptions such as the following:

“As the tormented water sinks into a momentary quiescence when the cold egg is cast in, so Emily’s seething heart subsided into a hot stillness at these words, that she might better catch the answer.”

The book is chock-full of racism, sexism and colonialist attitudes, and yet if you manage to keep your politically correct hackles from rising, this is a brilliantly entertaining novel. Collier throws himself into his absurd conceit so fully, you can’t help but be swept along.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015)

I don’t make a point of snootily avoiding bestselling sensations, but I do like to come to them a little later, when all the fuss has died down. I can see why Hawkins’ novel was so successful. It is gripping – I read it in less than 24 hours. The short chapters and many twists and turns kept my interest, and although I did figure out who the ‘bad guy’ was quite early on, it didn’t spoil the fun.

I thought that Rachel’s alcoholism was a rather convenient way of creating mystery in the plot, but to be fair, it was also well-depicted, and a fairly unique character trait for a female protagonist. The three first person narrators, Rachel, Megan and Anna, all had very similar voices, and I would have liked a bit more variation. I wasn’t sure I needed to hear from Anna at all, and it was slightly wearisome to follow three very flawed women who defined themselves in terms of their relationships with men. The denouement left me a bit cold – I wanted more of an ‘ooh’ reaction, where things suddenly make sense. A solid read, but it didn’t wow me.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)

The protagonist of this novel, ‘Wash’, is born a slave on a plantation called Faith in Barbados. He is (slightly ambiguously) rescued by his master’s brother, Titch, who takes him on as his assistant in scientific investigations. The story is far-ranging, as we follow Wash from Barbados to America to the Arctic, and later to Canada, England, Amsterdam and Morocco. Edugyan has created a very clever, intriguing mix of literary and adventure genres, rejecting out-and-out realism in favour of a kind of imaginative freedom for her character.

Parent/child relationships are explored in various iterations in the novel, beginning with Wash’s bond with Big Kit at the plantation. The fact that I almost wanted more of the plantation section before Wash set off on his travels created an interesting conflict/guilt in me. Wash also wrestles with guilt over his freedom, though it is not without its fears: the bounty hunter who stalks him, his abandonment by Titch and so on. The scientific elements of the book were particularly quirky and interesting, from Titch’s ‘cloud cutter’ to the Goffs’ interest in marine biology – the book is rich in more than just geographical reach. It also has a lot of humour in it, which contrasts again with the traditional ‘slave narrative’ from which Edugyan liberates her protagonist.

Solar by Ian McEwan (2010)

More humour in unexpected places – a comic McEwan novel came as something of a surprise. Following the farcical misadventures of an ageing physicist, Michael Beard, Solar sticks very closely to its protagonist’s point of view, which is, in my opinion, unfortunate, as Beard is unpleasant company: bloated, self-interested, an excessive consumer of everything from booze to food to women. With five marriages and multiple affairs behind him, I found it hard to see why he is so irresistible to seemingly intelligent women.

The novel spans nine years, and is divided into three parts, each chronicling his larger-than-life career and personal mistakes. The science is convincing, and never feels shoe-horned in – it is an extension of how Beard thinks. For me, the ending was a disappointment, but I am not sure how I could have found it otherwise – despite his many lucky escapes (including from a polar bear in the Arctic), I never found myself rooting for him, and I am not sure I cared what happened to him one way or the other.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017)

Although this tells the story of a modern black family in Mississippi, there is a timeless quality to the book; you can feel the weight of a history of struggle behind it. Jojo, the first narrator, is the most sympathetic character in the book, and his relationship with his little sister Kayla is beautifully drawn. His mother, Leonie, is also given a voice – I found her a very difficult character to process, due to her lack of maternal feeling. Neither she nor her partner Michael seem to know how to be parents, although they never fully abandon their children (who are mostly in the care of Leonie’s parents) – the couple are blinded by their love for each other, which eclipses their sense of responsibility to their children.

Jojo’s grandfather, Pop, is haunted by his time at Parchman penitentiary, where Michael is doing a stint at the story’s opening. Leonie, too, has visions of her dead brother, Given, when she is high. This echoing of the past is an important theme, and as the book progresses, the ghosts in the novel become more real, until one, Richie, appears as a character and a narrator. The past, in this book, intrudes upon the present constantly, as if the lives lived before us are overlapped onto the now. There is a dream-like quality to Ward’s writing in this lyrical and evocative novel that makes even the familiar tropes of the family road trip or the police pulling over a black driver feel fresh, new and unsettling.

You Are Having A Good Time by Aimee Barrodale (2016)

This book of ten short stories is unlike anything I’ve read – eerie and spiky, the stories tell of a deep weirdness that runs parallel to, and sometimes overspills into, our everyday lives. The first story, ‘William Wei,’ introduces Barrodale’s spare, bare prose, with short descriptive sentences giving hard, boiled-down nuggets of information. A few of the stories are interlinked: ‘Animals’ contains a screenplay that is later brought to life in ‘The Imp’, but for the most part the feeling is one of short, sharp shocks of strangeness barrelling at you as you read.

These funny (Barrodale is a former staff writer for The Onion), original, unsettling stories possess a kind of Twin Peaks oddness that gets under your skin. They are courageous and brutal – it takes a special kind of honesty and bravery to lay bare such a strange and subversive imagination, and I am full of admiration.


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