Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Books read in April

The following are short reviews of the books I read in April. The marks I have given them in brackets are out of five.

A Special Providence – Richard Yates (3.9)
This is a tale of a mother and her son in which Alice relies on Prentice in a way that cannot be healthy and copes with setbacks by simply pretending they’re not happening. She likes to play the victim, and she avoids reality by making sculptures and living in a fantasy world. At times the novel reads as though it is floating on a cloud of valium. As a 1940s American divorcee, maybe Alice is drugged up, but hers is more probably an alcoholic fug.

In this world, men go out to work and women stay at home, keeping house and raising children in stifling suburbia. Women have long boozy lunches where they get through “round after round of relaxing Manhattans” and then drive home. Alice punctuates this inertia with impulsive gestures and hysterical pronouncements. She likes to imagine her life as a drama almost as if she has cast herself in a film or television adaptation of her life.

Prentice inherits some of this theatricality and when he goes to war he uses it as an opportunity to prove something. He feels worthy during the war and sad when it is over. “The war had ended too soon. The purpose had gone out of his life. There was nothing for him to do now but exist from day to day, enjoying the peace and the luxury that he felt he didn’t deserve.”

Existing from day to day is mind-numblingly dull in this suburban American lifestyle. The Stepford Wives element is painful and heart-wrenching to read. I feel for this generation. They may have lived in the land of plenty materialistically, but the souls of the nation are impoverished.

Sea of Poppies – Amitav Ghosh (3.5)
Nominated for the 2008 Booker Prize, this novel received favourable reviews in the more intellectual press, although I don’t understand why. The novel is diverting, but not exactly deserving. Hailed as a Salman Rushdie with a touch of Dickens, he is more like a Bryce Courtenay: not that there is anything wrong with that if you want to create a sprawling saga, but it’s not exactly literary fiction.

In the first of a planned trilogy, a boat called the Ibis is loaded with ‘coolies’ and criminals from Calcutta and shipped to Madagascar where it is intended that they work on the sugar plantations. After a rambling 533 pages, they have not reached their destination and a mutiny is planned. In other words, it’s far from plain sailing.

One of the main problems is the host of characters who may be colourful, but they are not credible. It is as though Ghosh went to a pick and mix store of stock personalities and chose one of each. The novel is packed full of detail of customs and culture from the growing of poppies and the processing in an opium factory to the court cases and burnings on funeral pyres. There are many threads to the story but none of them stand out and the result is a tangled mess.

The other issue, and it is a big one, is the language. In conjuring up some pirate seafaring patois, the author has created words whose meanings you have to guess or look up on the internet (he has his own site dedicated to it) like Lewis Carroll’s nonsense speak or some ghastly fantasy novel. I’m sure it’s all very clever, but I can’t be bothered looking up a translation – I’d really rather know what the author was talking about. Swathes of the novel are completely nonsensical.

There are some fairly obvious metaphors within the novel – the main one being a theme of equality. When the passengers are crammed into the hull of the Ibis, they are literally all in the same boat. Many of the characters assume disguises and new identities – a major theme being the possibility of reinvention or reincarnation. “They were all kin now; their rebirth in the ship’s womb had made them into a single family.” The most appealing part of the narrative is the description of the camaraderie that develops, particularly among the women on board the ship, banished below decks for the duration of the voyage.

For everyone in this story, the poppy seed is the guider and decider of their fate, and the nature of opium addiction is examined at length. Scatological violence, cruelty and perversion pervade the novel but everything just seems a little too hard; a little too hopeless which inures the reader to the suffering and lessens the dramatic impact. This first part of the trilogy concludes on the verge of the Opium Wars, so will I read the others? Probably, but I won’t be making it a priority.

Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates (4.3)
As is my wont, I had to read this book before I saw the film. It is a heart-breaking work of subtlety and dissatisfaction with characters and situations so commonplace and real that they are still powerful 50 years on. Frank and April Wheeler live on Revolutionary Road, a suburban enclave where housewives raise perfect children and have cocktails and dinner waiting when their husbands come home from work. They believe they are above this version of domestic bliss and they mock it with wry smiles and plans to move to Paris, but ultimately they discover their road leads to nowhere and they are as trapped as everybody else.

The novel commences with a disastrous amateur play. The precise descriptions are brilliant and it soon becomes apparent that everything is a façade and everyone is acting a part – some are just better at it than others. Frank’s career aims are decidedly modest as he sleepwalks through his “deadly dull job in the city and deadly dull home in the suburbs”. He looks for fulfilment elsewhere but, despite having the perfect family complete with beautiful wife, admired and coveted by all the neighbours, and the clichéd affair with his secretary, he doesn’t know where to find this self-affirmation.

His marriage to April is part of his projected persona. They don’t know, or care to know anything about each other, preferring to deal in the abstract. Frank wonders, “Was his wife unhappy? That was unfortunate, but it was, after all, her problem.” He has no idea and little interest in her daily existence as though she only comes to life in relation to him.

April’s dreams and ambition were all curtailed when she fell pregnant and their lives were changed irrevocably. When she discovers she is pregnant again she is horrified that they will have to cancel their plans to move to Paris. Frank considers his wife unnatural for not wanting another child, suspicious of her demeanour and afraid this means she might harm their existing offspring.

It is a brutally misogynistic world where women are expected to endure and if they are not entirely satisfied, there must be something wrong with them. April is born ahead of her time and unable to do anything about society’s expectations. “It is an enormous, obscene delusion – this idea that people have to resign from real life and ‘settle down’ when they have families. It’s the great sentimental lie of the suburbs.” She is simply drowning in suburbia.

In this neighbourhood numbed from reality, the residents merely tread water, doubtless assisted by Valium and Prozac to help them sleepwalk through their muffled underwater world. It is a horrifying idyll and I read it with my eyes wide open and tears of frustration on my cheeks. If the film is even half as good, it deserves the Oscar accolades.

S. – Slavenka Drakulić (4.5)
S. is a fictional everywoman who became pregnant after being repeatedly gang raped by soldiers in a Serbian prison camp. Now in hospital in Sweden she contemplates her feelings for the baby that she wishes was still-born. She looks back on her time in the camp with a sense of detachment. She was made to feel like an object when placed in the ‘women’s room’ where “She was in a storehouse of women, in a room where female bodies were stored for the use of men.”

From the moment a soldier enters her ordered world as a school-teacher and makes her leave, get on a bus and transports her to the camp, her life ceases to be her own. It is as if she is merely watching it, and this feeling of paralysis pervades the novel. It is almost bleaker to talk in generalities and assumptions like whispers because things are too terrible to mention out loud. The women don’t talk about rape because if word got around that they had been defiled they would not be able to go back home to their villages, their husbands or parents.

S. learns quickly to live only for the moment and not worry about anything that doesn’t directly affect her. It is amazing how resilient people can be and how they can adapt to even the most horrific situation. All she wants is to be left alone and survive through to the next day. She and the other women want the men to go out into the field and shoot people, turning their attention away from them.

Despite the romantic notion that women band together in times of stress, S. finds this is not the case. The first lesson of survival in the camp is selfishness; you must do whatever you can to survive; if you share food you might starve. They quickly learn to fend for themselves. “If she survives, she will survive alone, in spite of, rather than together with the other women.” They are all afraid, but only for themselves. They make decisions which have nothing to do with right or wrong, and everything to do with staying alive.
Their memories will breed hatred – their lives have been destroyed, but the future is even bleaker because the sons will seek revenge and the cycle of war will perpetuate. This is a harrowing novel and a female companion to The Tenth Circle of Hell. It may be only 200 pages long, but it is powerful and painful and gives a voice to a generation of silent women.

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