Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Geraldine Brooks, who has also worked as a foreign correspondent for publications like The Wall Street Journal, starts all of her fiction with a kernel of historical fact. Here, the voluntary quarantining of a Derbyshire village, Eyam, in 1666 that is beset by plague. The novel, through the narrative voice of a young maid at the local rectory, explores the villagers response to this immense crisis.
The premise; what happens to a village where more people have died of plague than still remain, was always going to be ripe for good story telling potential. But Brooks really lets rip and through her amazing eye for detail and imagination brings the village to life, from the people, to the muddied streets to the sickening manifestation of the bubonic plague itself. And she weaves the whole story together in 300 pages. As a complete aside, I have recently read another novel by a former journalist, Snowdrops by AD Miller, a more different story to Year of Wonders I can't imagine, but my point is, that I really liked how Miller crafted his narrative arc too. In both cases the novels begin at almost the end, and then describes how the heck the narrator got there.
Anna Frith, the rectory maid and narrator of Years of Wonders is a beautifully balanced character. From the beginning we learn that her life was devastated in the year before the plague, when her husband was killed in a mining accident. We also quickly learn that Anna's two young children fall early victims to the plague. This is Anna's story and how she manages to hang on through the devastation and create some sort of life for herself.
A central theme to the story is exploring human responses to the unknown. In 1666, there was no science to explain the plague, so no one understood why this hideous disease had come to the village, how it was spread, or how it chose its victims. Fear, suspicion and prejudice, combined with grief and trauma make for a devastating mix in the village, as everyone is forced to confront their own death.
Anna also bears witness to the unmasking of many of the villagers. Brooks fully explores the theme of crisis revealing an individual's true, core character. And there are plenty of surprises to this end right up until the conclusion of the novel. Brooks makes her point very well, that there are so many layers to a person, and sometimes it is only when everything is taken away true nature is revealed.
In more recent times Brooks has written the much acclaimed Caleb's Crossing. Year of Wonders is the first novel I have read by her and I can't wait to read the others. Her writing is exquisite and sensitive, and she evokes a magical sense of place. If you like historical fiction then I would encourage you to give Year of Wonders a go.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Nemesis is set in a Newark community in the summer of 1944. War is raging in Europe and the Pacific, and a polio epidemic has broken out in the US. The story focuses on Eugene "Bucky" Cantor's response to the polio outbreak. Bucky is 23, and a dedicated physical education instructor running a summertime recreation program for the local kids. Unlike all of his friends he is at home during wartime because of extreme shortsightedness, which prevented him from signing up.
This is Bucky's story, and explores how the horror of the polio outbreak, that apparently randomly strikes down children and young people in their prime, literally devastates his life forever.
I appreciated Roth's writing; the reading is effortless, and he maintains good tension from beginning to end. I felt like every word had been carefully selected and used to maximum effect. There are subtle touches too that demonstrate the precision he wields with his words. For instance, throughout much of the narrative, Bucky is referred to as Mr Cantor, which signifies how he sees himself, as responsible for, and an example to his young charges.
The novel realistically evokes what it must be like when an incurable disease breaks out in a community. Roth describes what happens when fear and ignorance take hold and uncontrolled emotions erupt from normally rational people.
There is a clear singular message from the novel, and that is how an individual is ultimately shaped by the meaning they attribute to events in their life. Bucky was an ordinary, earnest young man of his generation, determined to do the best he could for his community and his loved ones, but his attempts to grapple with uncontrollable events destroyed his future.
My understanding is that the idea of events shaping lives, is a theme that has emerged in Philip Roth's more recent work. I found it interesting, well written and very serious. To be honest I am usually looking for a bit more humour or wit in a novel, but there was certainly no place for either here. I was moved by Bucky's story and I daresay the echo of it will remain with me for some time.
I would love to know what others think of Philip Roth's work? What are your favourites by him?
Friday, August 26, 2011
Saturday, August 20, 2011
I can see why this novel has received acclaim. It is very well written, with an economical sharp style, and the narrative is exquisitely structured. The story is told in the first person by Nick, the lawyer, as a written confession, to his, soon to be bride, about his time in Moscow. He begins the account by describing his reaction to coming across a human corpse that has been revealed with the spring/summer thaw. The title of the novel "snowdrops" is the Russian slang for such a body that has been hidden by the winter freeze only to be discovered, much later in the year, when the temperature rises.
This is the sort of novel that is deceptively simple, but reveals more and more on later reflection. I felt that Miller captured well the free fall, and cast adrift feeling that often accompanies living away from your home country for extended periods of time. Like many, I have been in that situation myself, but certainly did not live anywhere quite so, apparently hedonistic and corrupt, as Moscow. Miller paints an alarmingly disturbing and depressing portrait of life in modern Russia. The most frightening element is that Nick who is in his late thirties during his time in Moscow, and initially seems no more apathetic or self centred than the next person, becomes involved in a sequence of tawdry and ultimately murderous events.
The novel is about moral free fall, and it is very cleverly done, so that like Nick, the reader is seduced, step by step, into thinking that each new slip or dodgy element is really not so bad, or, it is at the very least, understandable. It is not until the conclusion of the novel, once you have put it down, that the full implications of Nick's complicity and self delusion is made horrifically clear.
I can't wholeheartedly say I enjoyed the novel although I admire it greatly. There is no, even tiny, glimmer of hope in this story. It is a tale of moral bankruptcy, with the associated economic and societal elements. I found it shocking and depressing. Don't get me wrong either, the novel is not off putting in a violent or gratuitous way, it is more subtle and unusual than that. I will be sure to read any future novels by Miller, as I appreciate his writing style. He really knows how to craft a story, leaving all but the necessary out. No doubt his journalism background helps with that.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
From that point, the novel gradually opens out into something quite unlike any crime novel I have read, or indeed any crime novel one could imagine. To start with, Beszel, which is described as being on the outskirts of Eastern Europe, is no ordinary city. What the reader slowly and teasingly learns is that Beszel shares space with an entire other city, Ul Qoma. The cities don't so much co exist, it is far more complicated than that, and learning how this extraordinary state of affairs effects general life for the citizens of both cities is one of the real joys of this novel so I will not say more.
The joy of Mieville's writing is the precision and detail of his ideas. I have also recently read The Scar, by Mieville and found this true for that novel also. His novels are awe-inspiring in their conception and meticulous follow through. The writing is first rate, and I think certainly fits that mercurial description of literary; you have to work a little, there is no spoon feeding. It is probably contentious to put the description literary to science fiction or fantasy but I certainly believe the work of Mieville fits that bill.
This is not a novel that is driven by strong characterisation or aiming for the usual type of emotional engagement from the reader. It is an intellectual exercise, and one, I found to be breath-taking and fascinating. I guess too, my enjoyment of this book surprises me as I would have thought I needed a strong connection to character to see me through a novel. I have learned that is not the case. I do have an emotional response toMieville's work, and it is simply, a jaw dropping "wow!"
The cityscapes that Mieville creates in The City and the City, will remain with me, and not just because they are so original and brilliantly realised. It is because he has used this setting to construct a complex and powerful metaphor of modern life. While there may not be a lot of emotional engagement with any one particular character, the whole sweep of the The City and the City evokes a strong sense of the disparity and contradictions that exist in our modern world, and that struck me at a human level. It is clever and captivating writing, and I look forward to reading more.