Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Legend of a Suicide

As much as I loved this book, I find it very difficult to organise my thoughts about it, never mind write anything sensible! I actually read this about a month ago and have been putting off writing about it in the hopes that my thoughts might organise themselves into some kind of coherent order without me having to try to do it. But unfortunately, no such luck, so here goes!

Roy is the central focus of these stories, and the narrator of most of them. And the suicide of the title is that of his father. I suppose now is the time to say that David Vann himself suffered the suicide of his father, so he is writing these stories from personal experience, even though he does himself say they are fictional. The first story, iythycology, seems to encompass a large portion of Roy’s life including his father’s suicide, and his reactions afterwards. We then move on to stories that detail his fathers disastrous relationships with his wives, both Roy’s mother and Rhoda, who came after, as well as a story that concerns itself with Roy’s mother’s string of relationships, none of which last long. The central story Sukkwan Island is a bit of a ‘boys own’ adventure, describing a year that Roy and his father spent living completely self sufficiently on an Island in Alaska. Followed by two very different, more philosophical stories, with Roy considering his father as flawed and why he was the way he was.

Sukkwan Island is a much longer story than all the others, and for me, delivered the moment when it became clear that everything was not as it seemed, and it was possible Roy was inserting himself into his father’s life, in various situations, and drawing on elements he remembers to create various alternate histories. I’d love to say more about it, however it is a real bombshell moment, and the story really needs the shock aspect those few lines provide. But I defy anyone who reads this not to put the book down in horror at this point!

There is however so much more to this book than a series of stories. Even though all these stories are different, they are sort of interlinked. At first I thought they were all describing the same event, and in a way they are, but in another way, they are definitely not. This is where the Legend of the title fits in. These are all stories of a suicide, but they are just that. They are the stories of the child left behind, almost interpreting the facts in various ways. There is the odd phrase or event that turns up in more than one story, but always in a different context. And obviously I don’t think it spoils too much to say that the suicide occurs in each story, but never in quite the same way. Sukkwan Island is by far the best, but the other stories are needed to frame this one. The idea of this being the crux of the book is only enhanced by the sudden change of tense from first person to third person in this story.

I think this is what I liked so much about this book. The reader is very much left to figure it out for themselves. What is true, what is not, whether any of it is true at all! Trying to match up the pieces was part of the fun of this book. If fun is a word that can be applied to a book that is essentially writing about a suicide! Repeatedly! Having said that, I did enjoy the stories up to and including Sukkwan Island better than the final two. But as I have already mentioned the shock factor to this one, it is almost understandable that anything that came after would be an anti-climax.

What makes this book work so well is the emotion contained within the writing. The structure of the book s crucial in making this the raw, emotional read it is. The intensity in each story makes the inevitable suicide shocking, even when we know it happens. Somehow, it still manages to come as a surprise. Without this repeated jolt the stories would have less impact, apart from Sukkwan Island, which would always be shocking. As I mentioned previously, David Vann knows what it’s like to suffer a father committing suicide, and his grief and attempts to deal with this comes across vividly and makes this an uncomfortable read in places. It really does express the difficulties of trying to develop a father/son relationship if circumstances are less than ideal, and the effects that parents actions can have on a child. It was brilliant!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes

Based on recorded events, Arthur and George is a novel spanning the lifetimes of two men, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji. We all know who Arthur is, but George is less well known, the son of a Parsee Vicar living in Staffordshire. Myopic, shy but hardworking, George keeps himself to himself works hard at school and eventually becomes a solicitor as well as becoming mildly famous in law circles for writing a book on railway law for the layperson. All in George’s life is not as idyllic as it seems though. George’s family is persecuted by an unknown letter writer, as is another family in the village, all be it to a lesser extent. With seeming disinterest from the police, it continues, running parallel with some horrendous mutilations on animals occurring in the village. George is arrested for the crimes, yet even with some pretty flimsy evidence, is convicted and incarcerated.

The novel is narrated in alternating sections, those that describe George’s life, and those describing the early life and career of Arthur Conan Doyle. They lead totally different lifestyles and come from totally different backgrounds. Arthur trains as a eye doctor, moves from medicine to writing, marries, has children and generally insert himself into society. We come to know a lot about is own personal character and morals, particularly after his wife falls ill, and he falls in love with another woman. I think the overriding character trait apparent in Arthur is his belief in doing what is right and honourable.

However, the crux of this novel is the fight to prove George innocent, and the efforts of everybody surrounding him to achieve this, both during and after his incarceration. Both the police case against him, and his defence is clearly se out during the investigation and trial, although it is made fairly clear to the reader that his prosecution was manipulated by the police for their own ends.

Once Arthur is involved, it becomes interesting how differently the two men approach the case. George just wants to be able to live his peaceful life, and to be able to work again, whilst Arthur wants to make a big noise and expose he corruption for what it was, as well as prove who did actually commit the atrocities. I really enjoyed this fictional Arthur using the skills he attributes to Holmes in his books to meticulously go over the evidence to produce his own take on George’s case. Even though e goes to great pains throughout the book to state he is not Holmes, he can just write a good mystery!

As well as the mystery as to who did actually commit the crimes, which is really I think what kept me reading, the portrayal of the characters, both major and minor is what makes this novel so compulsively readable. There is a very strong flavour of what it was like to be an Indian in this time in Britain, and the way people who both knew them and didn’t now them, but knew of the case reacted to them. As an added bonus, the details of Arthur Conan’s Doyle’s life, although woven into fiction, were fascinating.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Timoleon Vieta Come Home by Dan Rhodes

This is a really odd book! I can’t think of a more descriptive term than that I’m afraid. Trying to describe what it’s actually about is just as difficult. It’s sort of about a dog, the Timoleon Vieta of the title, but then again, sort of not really about him at all! The book is in two definitively separate parts, and they could almost be two different books.

Since that really wasn’t helpful I’ll start again! Timoleon Vieta is the dog of Cockcroft, an elderly British man, who currently lives in Italy. Cockcroft seems to get through dogs and lovers (male) at an alarming rate of knots, the lovers disappearing and the dogs either dying or disappearing, usually both. Timoleon Vieta loves Cockcroft, and in his way he loves him, although, he is cajoled into doing the unthinkable when he falls for a Bosnian that turns up on his doorstep, responding to a brief invitation from Cockcroft at some foreign party.

The Bosnian, as he introduces himself, is obviously looking to hide somewhere, and chooses the unpleasantness of paying his rent by sexual favours as an easy way to hide out in the Italian Countryside. Cockcroft immediately falls in lust with this man, but more than anything, he appreciates having company. Most of the first part of the book is concerned with Cockcroft reminiscing about various lovers that have graced his life, all be it only for a short period of time. And the Bosnian just wants to be bored somewhere quiet. All in all, it seems like a perfect arrangement, except for two things. One is that both men are gradually revealed to be not quite what they seem, and the second is Timoleon Vieta. The Bosnian can’t stand him, and eventually persuades Cockcroft to abandon him in Rome, which he duly does.

This is the end of the first part of the book, and although we learn a bit about what the to men are pretending to each other to be, we don’t get their true stories until they are gradually revealed in little bits throughout the second half of the book. After his abandonment, Timoleon Vieta attempts to make his way home, coming into contact with various people along the way. Each chapter is like a snapshot of a person’s life, usually a love story of some sort, and all depressing! The ending is no less depressing although Timoleon Vieta does eventually make it home, and in fact it seems as if Cockcroft has finally found some happiness although based on his track record, it is unclear how long this will last.

This book is definitely showing the darker and gloomy side of life. As the stories of Cockcroft are revealed they definitely show the underside of society, and these two men become more and more dislikeable as the story progresses. They are never particularly likeable in he first place however, but my impression of them just degenerated the novel progressed.

I enjoyed this book immensely, but it is quite hard to say why. A much as I enjoyed the stories of Cockcroft and The ‘Bosnian’, particularly the unravelling of their stories as the book progresses, I think the melancholy and slightly surreal stories of the relationships in the second half were my favourite. This was when I felt the book really came alive for me. He author seemed to be able to draw me into these stories, and they could almost have been books in themselves. They definitely packed a punch, and they all seemed to end on a pretty shocking bombshell. But as to whether I liked the novel, or the author’s obvious skill with short stories, I’m still not sure. Worth reading though, especially the second half

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God was brilliant! I just thought I'd start with that before I go any further. Janie Crawford is a black woman, living in the early days of black emancipation in America, struggling to find her place in the world. She is raised by her grandmother after her mother deserts her, although this is after a brutal rape, of which Janie is the product. The grandmother herself escaped from slavery at its very end and raised both her daughter and her grand-daughter in the home of a sympathetic white family. Janie herself has a contented childhood, not even realising she is black until seeing a photograph of herself with the other children in the household. Her Grandmother, however, is very conscious of this fact and is determined to push Janie towards a life where she will not be used and abused.

That, in a nutshell, is Janie's back story, but that is not where this novel starts. It starts with a middle aged Janie returning to Eatonville (an all coloured town in Florida), and sitting on her porch explaining her life to her friend, and how she ended up returning. Throughout her life, Janie has had three marriages, two unhappy, and the third finally fulfilling her hopes, but ending tragically. The first marriage is arranged by her grandmother, but ultimately does not fulfill Janie and she leaves, and runs off with Joe Stark, which is when she ends up in Eatonville. Joe is business minded, and transforms Eatonville, sets up the shop, post office and eventually becomes mayor. In effect, this is the point when Janie has what her grandmother wants for her, but she is stifled by her husband. She is the mayors wife, and can do nothing unless he permits it, or tells her to do it. When he dies, she runs off a much younger man, named teacake, and finally becomes happy, although she comes down in the world to achieve this. She is by this point a fairly wealthy woman, and owns property, but she is happiest working on the plantations with Teacake, simply because she wants to spend as much time with him as possible.

In essence, this is the main discovery Janie has to make in this book. As a teenager she discovers what she wants and what love is through lying under a pear tree.

"She saw a dust bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch cramming in every blossom and frothing with delight"

Immediately after this she kisses a local boy, which sets in motion the train of events that lead to her grandmother to arrange her first marriage, which she grudgingly submits too, hoping love will come whilst at the same time not seeing how this will happen. Janie is constantly searching for her own pear tree moments in all of her husbands, and she finally finds this in Teacake.

Teacake is a fantastic character. Talking in rhyme, no pretences to be what he's not and so wonderfully in love with Janie. And Janie with him. Her Grandmother may have wanted her to be protected from the will of men, and that is totally understandable considering what she suffered in her life, but Janie just wanted happiness. And that is the major contradiction. Whilst trying to do her best for Janie, the grandmother forces the unhappiness, but she really was just trying to do her best for her beloved grand-daughter. Janie is such a strong woman, she seems to develop as the story progresses and eventually hold out for what she really wants, despite what people may think. The love she and Teacake feel for each other is total, and beautifully evoked that as readers we never doubt their feelings for each other. For example, when Teacake asks her to come and work with him in the fields, not as a submission, but just because he doesn't like to be apart from her, it is totally believable, and only enhances what we feel about the depth of their relationship.

I don't really know how Hurston manages to do this, but I think the reality of the situation is expressed mainly through the use of dialect. Janie tells the majority of the story herself, using a thick black-American dialect, which was difficult at first to interpret, but got easier as the novel progressed.

There is so much to this novel, I think it is one I would get more out of on subsequent readings. But as an insight into life as a coloured American in troubled times it's fantastic. Also a brilliant love story, a quest for personal fulfillment, with or without love, and an exploration of what makes happiness and contentment. In this case, it ends with a packet of flower seeds expressing hope for the future.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

My Cleaner by Maggie Gee

My Cleaner is the story of two very different women, living two very different lifestyles, with very little comprehension of how things are different for each other. Vanessa Henman is a white, middle class single mother living in London, although her son is an adult, but has sunk into a deep depression and very rarely leaves his room. Mary Tendo is a fiercely proud Ugandan woman who was previously employed as Vanessa's cleaner, and unofficial childminder, but who returned to Uganda many years since.

Struggling to know how to deal with her son, Justin,Vanessa writes a desperate letter to Mary, asking her to return and work for her again as 'nanny' to Justin, in an attempt to raise him from his depression. Surprisingly, Mary accepts the offer and returns, although she is motivated primarily by the monetary reward, although her love for Justin comes across strongly in her conversations. The dialogue between these two women, and their differences and similarities make up the bulk of this story, with the added thread of Justin's recovery and reasons for his depression, and a more sombre storyline involving Mary's own child, who went missing in Libya a few years before the events in this book, and who Mary fears is dead.

The book is generally a small story about these two women, and the complexities of their relationship, but it would be impossible to write this story, and make it authentic without including some background about the wider worlds in which both women live. I think this is done better with Mary's descriptions of her life in Uganda, but maybe that is just because it is less familiar to me. The descriptions of a busy, working mother in London and a busy working woman in Africa are compared wonderfully, along with occasional references to the low paid status of African people living and working in service to British people. The bias of this book seems to be that Mary's hard but fulfilling life in Uganda is of a better quality than Vanessa's superficial one in London, but there are small hints that it is not all it seems.

At first reading, the differences between the women come across more obviously than any possible similarities. Vanessa is a high flying college lecturer and author who spends most of her time working and has no time for Justin, or her home, whilst Mary seems to have all the time in the world for this boy. Mary cannot stomach what she calls all the 'white food' that Vanessa serves up, and soon takes over the kitchen, producing some very vividly described meals using fresh, usually African vegetables.

The women are characterised wonderfully, both through their own actions and their conversations with each other. they at times seem to be at cross purposes and both seem to feel they have the upper hand. This book is obviously raising issues of gentle racism, as Vanessa is repeatedly written voicing sweeping assumptions about Africans in general. it is definitely a not very subtle dig at middle class racism, with Vanessa constantly assuming that Mary is grateful for the supposed better quality of life that Vanessa is providing for her, and allowing her liberties, because she is African, the implication being that she doesn't know any better. Yet, in a much more subtle way, the racism can be seen to work both ways. Mary is viciously proud of her status as an African woman, and makes reference to this herself as something that is superior to Vanessa. Neither of the women seem to have any sympathy for each other, and each other's lives, and although life for Justin comes together well at the conclusion, which was the whole purpose of Mary's stay in London, the two women part with their lives just as much in turmoil as they were at the start.

I think what makes this book work so well is the gentle humour that is used, both in the author's narrative and in the two women's conversations with each other. The conversations they have are seen from either one perspective or the other, occasionally both, and the different ways they both view the speech and actions of the other is told with such a humorous slant that you can't fail to be amused by the culture clash and complete lack of understanding. It's quite a sad subject to treat with humour, but it's probably the only way it could be told.