Monday, 29 November 2010

Let The Geat World Spin by Colum McCann

I’m finding it difficult to actually summarise what Let The Great World Spin is actually about. It actually includes a fictionalised account of Philllipe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre, but it’s not really about this. It is actually a series of stories about a rather large cast of characters, all of whom ether witnessed, or were in some way involved in Petit’s daring stunt. The stories are all set in New York, and although we are presented with a ‘no holds barred’, gritty overview of New York, particularly its darker, grubbier side, this book is not really about that either. It is more about the personal stories of the characters themselves and the connections between the characters, although in the majority of cases they are connections they are not aware of.

Although the action takes pace mainly on the day of the high wire walk itself, with each character, we get a view of what they are doing on the day, usually interlinked with their history, so we discover the situation they are in now, as well as finding out how their life has panned out to get them there. It is difficult to detail the connections as that is part of the beauty of this novel, the connections between the characters do not become apparent until the latter half of the book. We start with an Irish Jesuit priest living in the Bronx, being a friend to the prostitutes and struggling with a personal dilemma involving his vow of celibacy and falling in love. There are also stories involving a drug addled bohemian couple, at least one of who’s life is turned around in a car accident, a prostitute telling her story from jail, and her daughter (also a prostitute), as well as a group of women all grieving the loss of children in Vietnam, and a judge presiding in court the day the tightrope walker is brought in.

All of the lives detailed in the book are precariously balanced, an obvious parallel to the walker high above the city, precariously balanced himself. I think thats what I liked most about this book. All of the characters have some horrendous things thrown at them, whether through circumstance, their own making, or a little of both, yet somehow, they seem to carry on, in some way or another. They all seem to find ways of coping with heartbreak or grief, and most of the characters seem to find a point or meaning to their lives. They are all characterised so well, and in a way they all seem so individual, yet the ordinariness of their lives and their daily struggles seem so universal, even though most of their situations are alien to me. To each character, their life is all they have, and all they are fighting for, yet as a reader, with the knowledge of all the characters, it was fascinating to see how small events and small kindnesses in fact can have an impact on someone else’s life. It is almost managing to convey that life is so small, but also so big both at the same time.

I think there is so much more in this book than I could possibly write about here. I loved it. I think I loved everything about it. From the troubled Irish Priest to Tillie, the career prostitute, I loved them all, I was rooting for them all. Tillie particularly was heartbreaking. Her voice telling her story from prison, lamenting the fact that her daughter ended up in the same position as her, even though she promised her she never would. Somehow, through all their faults, and all their bad choices, I felt so much for these people. And of course, the tightrope walker. I need to know more about him. I did read a bit about him here, but I think I will be searching out more about him, and this event in particular. And of course, it was interconnected stories, always a hit with me anyway, especially with the gradual reveal that makes everything come together at the end.

Favourite bits.

“It had never occurred to me before, but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing is as strange as the last, and connected.”

“We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don’t attribute it to God or sentiment. Perhaps it’s chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to convince ourselves we are valuable.”

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

I usually try not to read books when everyone else is reading them (or writing about them), mainly because I think too much information previous to reading a book will always lead to a sense of disappointment when I do actually read it. But I really wanted to red Room, so tried to avoid as much as possible anything written about it, and come to it as fresh as I could. This wasn’t altogether successful, but it didn’t matter in this case, because I loved this book!

The basic concept I think everyone knows by now, that Jack and his mother are imprisoned in a single room by Jack’s Ma’s kidnapper, and Jack himself was born into the room (or Room as he knows it) so has never known anything else. Room, and everything in it, is his world. He does watch television although only in small amounts, but he believes everything he sees on TV to be pretend, an idea given to him by Ma, so that he doesn’t feel he is missing out on anything.

This could have been a depressing, almost unreadable book, if not for the fact that it was narrated by Jack himself. I thought the way he narrated the story, and the language he used, particularly giving each object in Room a proper name really gave an insight into how he saw the room as the world. It was ‘Bed’ ‘Wardrobe’ ‘Plant’ etc, just as we would say school, home, work. And once in the outside world, his actions and thoughts are indicative of exactly how difficult it will be for him to adjust to living in society, and how many apparently simple things he will have to learn that come naturally if you’ve grown up in ‘Outside’, as Jack calls it.

“There’s something going zzzzz, I look in the flowers an it’s the most amazing thing, an alive bee that’s huge with yellow and black bits, it’s dancing right inside the flower. ‘Hi’, I say. I put out my finger to stroke it and- Arghhhhhh,”

I liked Jack’s insight into this whole story. And it really was what saved it from being too heart wrenching to read. When the focus is totally on Room, and Ma’s efforts to entertain and educate Jack, it is easy to forget the torment she must be going through cooped up in a small space, repeatedly raped, and being forced to have Jack sleep in the wardrobe, in order for him never to see her kidnapper. But what would her mental state be when they do finally make it out of captivity? And how difficult would it be to read her conversations when she actually has someone else (other than a six year old) to talk to them about.

However, because everything is seen through Jack’s perspective, and because this is so well written, any of the issues and traumas that might be affecting his mother are seen through his eyes. That is, with total bewilderment, and mainly relating to how this affects him, and how he is going to deal with this totally new world in which he has found himself. Issues that she might face are briefly touched upon, and suggested, but filtered through Jack’s odd, stilted language, they become issues to ponder, rather than have it spelt out.

Even though this book is told totally through Jack’s eyes, there is still a strong sense of love that comes through. Jack loves is mother unconditionally, as he would, as he is he only person he speaks to. But the sense of total and unconditional love that ma feels for Jack is portrayed so well, even when the narrative is written from a child’s perspective. Love for Jack is what keeps Ma going, and it is amazing to me the imagination she put in to keeping her child entertained and educated all day, everyday in such a small, claustrophobic space. I think that says lot about the nature of love and motherhood, and in a way, society as a whole.

I can’t really praise this book enough. It kept me gripped all the way through, I was constantly picking it up ‘just to read that little bit more’, and left me thinking bout the whole situation, and about love, and motherhood, and what it really means.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna

The Birth of Love is really four different stories, two set in the present and one each in the past and the future. There are slight connections between the stories, but really they are just four different perspectives on childbirth and motherhood. We start in turn of the century Vienna with a man named Semmelweiss imprisoned in a horrific lunatic asylum for daring to suggest that many more women could survive childbirth if doctors washed their hands between performing autopsies and attending births. We then move to Brigid, just beginning to feel early contractions with her second child in twenty-first century London, and from there on to Michael Stone, a reclusive author struggling to deal with the publicity involved with the publication of his first book, which happens to be about Semmelweiss, and struggling to decide whether to visit his aging mother whom he has not spoken to for many years. And finally, a story set in 2153, when climate change has caused irreversible destruction of the planet, and all reproduction is carried out in laboratories. Women are harvested for eggs at eighteen and the forcibly sterilised. In the midst of all this, a woman somehow gets naturally pregnant and escapes from the compound, although this story is told through prisoner interviews once the escapees have been recaptured.

The running theme throughout the novel is of motherhood as a powerful force in nature. The women in all of the stories are dealing with different aspects of childbirth and motherhood, but they all feel an overwhelming urge to have children, and protect their children. The women in the first section are terrified of the hospital for fear of losing their own lives, and that of their babies. Brigid constantly talks in terms of her body doing this to her whilst she is in labour, Michael feels the need to visit his mother a final time, even though she will not really know f his presence, and the women in the final section feel unfulfilled and incomplete because of their forced sterility. And obviously, the child born from a supposedly closed womb is an obvious symbol for the natural and all-encompassing nature of motherhood.

It is difficult to say which of these was my favourite thread, because they were all interesting, and very different. I found it difficult to understand how such a simple thing as hand washing could be refuted, and fascinated by the different theories that the doctor in charge of childbirth hospitals came up with to avoid having to wash their hands. And the images of the treatment/incarceration at the lunatic asylum were difficult to read .Childbirth in the past was obviously a much more dangerous procedure. Brigid’s story was pretty graphically described, and not pleasant reading in places, as it spares no details about the nature of childbirth, but the realism in he description was necessary to get across the impression of childbirth as all consuming, and a powerful experience. And the sparse almost robotic language used in the interrogation of the prisoners in the futuristic section contrasted well with Brigids section as it makes clear that this force and power is what they are missing from their lives. With familial terms replaced with words such as egg and sperm donor, and progeny of the species, all human ties with reproduction have been severed and what we are left with is an emotionless, businesslike society, but without love.

I did enjoy the slight moments of interconnectedness between the various threads in this story (but then I always like that in a novel), however, I think it was the differing experiences of childbirth and motherhood that I found most appealing, however difficult they were to read. Giving birth today is described in full detail, but as much as childbirth is painful I think we have it lucky. I can’t imagine a society where just going into hospital to give birth is a life and death situation, or conversely, a situation where childbirth and family relationships are stripped away altogether. I really hope we never end up in such a dystopic society.