January 2020 Reading: Old Filth; The Beggar Maid; The Yacoubian Building; Lullaby; Flights; The Friend; Heads of the Colored People

Old Filth by Jane Gardam (2004)

This book is a wonderful example of how to build up a portrait of a character, in this case the eponymous ‘Filth’ (which stands for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong), real name Edward Feathers, a retired judge who grew up as a ‘Raj orphan’ and has recently become a widower. The novel flits back and forth between his childhood and adulthood, and we gradually learn more about his life in a way that is both engaging and naturalistic. There is a playfulness to the overheard conversations, presented as scripts, which give us other people’s views of Filth, and these contrast nicely with the more straightforward narrative of his life.

At the heart of the book is the repressed trauma of the absence of parental love – his mother died giving birth to him, and his father, a district head in Malaysia, sent the young boy to England, as was the custom. The subtle tragedy of being taken away from his Malay nanny is poignantly and beautifully depicted at this point in the book. The adventures of Feathers’ life are both eccentric and engaging, and Gardam never leans too heavily on comedy or farce, as might be the temptation with such a deliciously old-fashioned creation. This is a clever, quiet book, and I was pleased to learn that it is the first in a trilogy – I shall certainly be reading the rest.

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro (1972)

There’s always another Munro collection to read, and it is always a pleasure. This one, subtitled ‘Stories of Flo and Rose’, is more novel-like than previous collections I have read. Spanning nearly forty years, it explores the complex relationship between Flo and her stepdaughter Rose, though the focus is more on the latter. These linked stories are, as I have come to expect from Munro, insightful and true, and helped me to define what it is that I find so extraordinary about her work. Nothing is simple or universal in Munro’s world: every interaction is unique, a product of the whole of the characters’ histories, everything they are and that has shaped them.

I find myself wondering how on earth she writes with so much truth – is it by keeping her subject matter close to her own experience, following the infamous advice to ‘write what you know’? Whatever the secret, reading a Munro story is like reading a document of reality rather than anything that could be termed mere fiction – a very special experience indeed.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswarmy (2002; translated by Humphrey T. Davies in 2009)

Considering that I spent a fairly large portion of my childhood in the Middle East, I have read shamefully little Arabic literature, something I mean to rectify. This bestselling Arabic novel has been sensitively and effectively translated by Davies, and presents an insight into life in Cairo, showing characters from different walks of life, flicking between them in an almost cinematic way. The building at the heart of the novel is a literal representation of the split between the upper classes, who inhabit its posh apartments and offices, and the working class who form a community in the former storage units on the roof. From Zaki Bey, a womaniser in his sixties used to the finer things in life, to Taha, the pious son of the doorman, whose involvement with a militant Muslim group has an easily traceable cause after he is tortured at the hands of the Egyptian police, characters appear and disappear, sometimes too quickly, their tales presented in short sharp bursts that occasionally left me slightly frustrated. However, I feel I learned an awful lot about a place I didn’t really know anything about, and for me, that is always an exciting way to feel about a novel.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani (2016; translated by Sam Taylor in 2018)

Let me begin by saying that you do not want to embark upon reading this novel at 1am when you can’t sleep, fooled by the title into thinking that it might help you nod off. The horrific opening makes this crystal clear: “The baby is dead.” From the very start, we learn that the nanny, Louise, has murdered the two children in her care; as such, this thriller sets itself up as one of motive rather than a who-done-it. Quite apart from the fact that I now never want to leave my kids’ side ever, ever again, I found it very hard to get over the horror of the premise, which jarred with the clipped, almost terse tone of the narration. I never felt that the book came close to explaining Louise as a character – the third person narration kept her firmly at a distance, and by the end, I felt that nothing had been resolved, and I was left wondering why I had endured the horrors of this story. (I also went straight into the kids’ bedroom to check on them, obviously).

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (2007; translated by Jennifer Croft in 2017)

This book, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, has been compared to the work of W.G. Sebald, for most a ringing endorsement, but enough to put me off had I known it before I began reading. Luckily, it is far more playful than Sebald’s work, offering vignettes and musings on modern-day travel, interspersed with historical sections, often based on real figures from the past.

The narrator, the author’s alter-ego, has some insightful things to say about travel, such as a passage in which she perfectly describes that seemingly endless hour before a plane lands in the early morning. There is also an intriguing fascination with anatomy, and details of dissections, preserving methods and collections of body parts tread just the right side of gruesome to be interesting. There were one or two points where the disjointed nature of the book annoyed me, such as when the thriller-ish story of Kunicki, whose family disappears on a Croatian island, was interrupted and ‘cut out’ for many, many pages. But that is the kind of book this is – not a single, cohesive story, but a wide-ranging and brilliantly imaginative project. It gave me the impression of having access to a highly polished writing notebook, as if all those midnight scrawlings and 3am ideas had been given space to breathe and develop, but not corralled into a conventional narrative shape. There are moments of sheer brilliance here, which is the pay off for such a bold experiment.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2018)

There is also something of the writer’s notebook, perhaps even more overtly, in Nunez’s novel, which depicts a woman mourning a friend and fellow writer who has committed suicide. In a set-up which sounds irresistibly comic, he leaves her his Great Dane, despite the fact that she lives in a tiny rented apartment. Despite the potential humour of this situation, what is wrought instead is a poignant and deeply moving meditation on the nature of grief, the writing life, and friendship. This is a thought-provoking and philosophical book, written in a careful and deliberate tone, though it still maintains elements of humour and a deep sense of empathy. It is perhaps the only book I have read which also does not trivialise our relationships with our pets, understanding instead that humans’ relationships with animals can be just as profound as their relationships with other people.

Heads of The Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires (2018)

This short story collection is full of self-awareness and a cool irony, delving into the needling questions of what it means to be an upper-middle-class black person in modern America. Set apart as much by privilege as by race, the characters in these stories find themselves the only black students at a private school, in a yoga class, and so on. The humour here is biting – in the letters between two highly educated mothers of private school girls, Thompson-Spires flirts with total parody, and in a later story, she manages to make a story about a woman with a fetish for amputees very funny indeed. Social media references abound, with one story in particular, ‘Suicide, Watch’, exploring the Instagram lifestyle in full comi-tragic glory, posing the question of what it means to be ‘black’ when there are so many other identities to worry about these days. The collection as a whole is strengthened by recurring characters, and I found it full of a refreshing sharpness, zesty and full of life. I hope to read more by this author.

I’m already slightly behind my goal if I want to read 100 books this year, so will be speeding through as many works as possible in February. If you have any reading suggestions, please let me know in the comments!

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