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Archive for the ‘Literary Fiction’ Category

This book, published in 2016, has an intriguing title. It is a French phrase used to describe twilight, where shapes become indistinct and it is impossible to tell the difference between a wolf and a dog. This makes it an uncertain and potentially dangerous time, and it is such a time that Blain chronicles in the lives of the major characters in this book.

The story, which is set mainly in Sydney, takes place on one day and concerns the interplay of the lives of three members of a family and one ex-member.  There are also flashbacks to some of the events that have brought them to where they are. Hilary, widow of a well-known painter and a film maker in her own right, has two daughters, Ester, a family therapist and April, a singer. The fourth member of the cast is Lawrence, a pollster, Ester’s ex-husband and father of her twin daughters. All of them are on the cusp of change, though not necessarily for the better. Hilary has cancer, though she hasn’t told her daughters. They are estranged from each other for reasons that become clear in the story. Ester might be about to start a new relationship, April to find some direction in her career. Lawrence might well be facing professional disgrace (and is definitely facing the impact of technological change on political polling. I was interested to note that this reflects reality; polling methods did change to robo polling about this time. Small irony: one section of the story turns on Ester not answering the phone because she thinks it might be a robo-poll.) The narrative is taken up by each of the characters in turn, but such is Blain’s skill that the end of one chapter seems to slide into the next, like one scene of a film dissolving into the next, as one critic has perceptively noted. True to its title, the story does not fully resolve any of their dilemmas with complete clarity, though some of the outlines are clear and others becoming more so.

The theme of shifting perceptions – maybe wolf, maybe dog – is strong throughout. The interplay of past and present is a shifting boundary. Of Hilary’s film she thinks ‘Yes, it is about death, but it is also about living – about what we cling to and what we relinquish – about how we remember.’ Ester’s professional consultations which occur throughout the day and give the story structure are also an interplay not just between psychologist and client but also between experience and the memory of it. The characters themselves are in flux. Is Lawrence really, as Ester claims, in love with the power of lying and cheating? ‘That’s what Lawrence does,’ he thinks; ‘he lies, he cheats, and he fucks up.’ But now he has lost all sense of himself: ‘he doesn’t know what wants …or what it was he desired. It’s all shifting, and he is seasick with the motion …’ Can he redeem himself, crossing back where he can be trusted?

Liminality is also inherent in the descriptions of time and place in the story. The day in Sydney is rainy; rain on glass reflects and distorts. Lawrence ‘sees himself reflected in the rain-streaked window and flinches.’ It’s still day, but ‘it’s so bloody dark and miserable outside it might as well be night’ says April. Yet the rain can also make things beautiful: Hilary, looking at the wet plants in her garden, thinks ‘The world is a place of wonder’. At the climax of the book it is twilight. ‘It is that hour’, thinks Hilary ‘Where day turns to night.’ And ‘the daylight slides away’. Metaphors reflecting the duality expressed in the title abound throughout the book.

It might be possible to argue that the problems of the characters are of the kind designated ‘First World’ problems. Blain is aware of this; Ester remembers that Lawrence says that as a therapist she ‘pedalled false hopes to a spoilt middle class. She handed out security blankets to children who should just grow up.’ It is ironic that this sentiment comes from Lawrence, who has clearly never grown up. But the story is about growing up. And the pain that Ester as a therapist and all characters in their lives deal with is real, and the issues of love, regret, aging and death are universal, even if most of the characters are solidly middle class.

When I read this book, I did not know that when it was in the manuscript stage in 2015, Blain was diagnosed with a brain tumour similar to the cancer that Hilary is suffering from in the book. Blain died thirteen months later in December 2016. As Kerryn Goldsworthy notes in her thoughtful review in the Sydney Review of Books, ‘It was difficult to read the book through any lens other than a sympathetic awareness of the situation’s terrible irony, and almost impossible, though most reviewers at the time tried honourably hard, to read the book purely as a work of fiction on its own terms, something separate from the fate of its author.’ I was fortunate to be able to read it unencumbered by this knowledge, and thought long before I included mention of her death in this review. I did so because I think the knowledge of it does add depth to an already complex and subtle story.

You can read more about Georgia Blain here. This was Blain’s eighth novel and second to last book. Her final one was a memoir, The Museum of Words, which was written during her treatment for cancer; it is reviewed here, again in the Sydney Review of Books.

  1. There’s one passage – among others- that struck me as particularly relevant to someone of my age. It is an illustration of Hilary’s concern about what we remember and what we forget. She acknowledges that her grandchildren will miss her ‘for a while’. ‘And then life will go on, and I will be someone they remember occasionally, with fondness, but with no real substance to the recollection. And that’s the way it should be … And then there’s a fainter imprint left behind, a period in which you are remembered. After that you are gone.’ How important it is to have someone say this.
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Published in 2017, this book deservedly won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Quite randomly, a character in the book wins a Pulitzer Prize. ‘It’s not Pew-lit-sir’, he says. ‘It’s Pull-it-sir’. That’s an in joke. Perhaps if you want to be deeply moved or challenged it’s not the book for you. But if you want to forget for a while the awfulness of things, you’ll love it.

Arthur Less is a middle aged, middle brow writer. He lived for a number of years with Robert Brownburn, doyen of the Russian River School of writers in California; he’s the one that wins a Pulitzer. (The Russian River Writers Guild is real; Robert sounds a bit like the ‘beat’ writer Alan Ginsberg.)  Arthur has more recently been living with Freddy, but they have split up, and Freddy is about marry someone else. Though he is of course invited, Arthur cannot bear the thought of being anywhere near the wedding, so he accepts a swag of invitations that will take him overseas – to a teaching post, a conference, a travel article, anything … He plans to spend time in Mexico, Italy, Germany, France, Morocco, India and Japan. What could possibly go wrong? The book is the story of his travels, with flashbacks to earlier events; it is also an exploration of getting older, and what it means to love.

Arthur’s surname, Less, is an aptronym, a personal name aptly or peculiarly suited to its owner; think of Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind. Less is – or at least he feels he is – less of a writer, less of a person, less loveable than other people. He is, he says, ‘Nobody’.  When his most recently published book is praised in Italy – having been largely ignored in the United States – he thinks it must be because the translator ‘worked his mediocre English into breathtaking Italian’. Believing he must have been mistaken for someone else and is in the wrong car, he ‘readies himself for full mortification’. Asked to read from the book in Germany, he thinks he is being set up for a ‘writerly humiliation planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.’ In France, criticism from another writer leads him to think not just that he is ‘a bad writer … a bad lover, a bad friend, a bad son. Apparently the condition is worse. He is bad at being himself’. In India, he thinks ‘What an ass he is, everywhere he goes.’

The book is suffused with a gentle, wry humour. Often this arises when things go wrong. He’s (naturally) lost his luggage; ‘he is well acquainted with humility. It is one piece of luggage he has not lost’. What he has lost ‘will circle the globe to no purpose, like so many travellers.’ Sometimes it is because of the disjunction between Less’s catastrophizing and what actually happens; when, for example ‘life has pardoned him at the scaffold steps’.  And sometimes it’s just in the writer’s understated observations, as in ‘the restaurant … is very old and water stained in ways that would delight a painter and trouble a contractor’.

Less’s most recent manuscript has been rejected by his publisher, and one of his hopes for the journey is that he can somehow fix it up at a writers’ retreat in India. This doesn’t happen quite as he hoped, but he does get to revise it. His agent says it is ‘Too wistful. Too poignant.’ Arthur realises ‘with a joy bordering on sadism’ that he can ‘deglove every humiliation’ of his character ‘to show it’s risible lining’. And ‘somehow bittersweet longing begins to appear in the novel … It changes, grows kinder … our benevolent god grants his character the brief benediction of joy.’ ‘If only one could do this in real life!’ And this is exactly what Greer does for Less.

The book opens with an unnamed narrator saying: ‘From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad’. And Greer gives him some victories. Another character says to him ‘You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool, you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won.’ Arthur’s response is of course that he doesn’t feel victorious, he feels defeated. But he isn’t, in fact, the terrible, undeserving person he thinks he is. We know he is a good person from the narrator, who seems to have an overview of Less’s life. I didn’t think much about this narrator at the beginning; it was as if it was just Greer writing about Less. But as the story goes on and Greer inserts the narrator more and more, he or she takes a bigger and finally crucial role. I didn’t guess who he or she was until almost the end of the book, though looking back there are clues there for the more astute reader. These post-modern conceits might in less sure hands – pun intended – have been annoying, but here I think they work very well. As the narrator says, it is a love story.

You can read more about the author and his other five books – four novels and a book of short stories – on his website.

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I admire J.K. Rowling. I love the way she uses her fame to support social justice causes and to call out sexism and racism; see for example her tweets lambasting Donald Trump. After a tentative start with the first couple of Harry Potter books, I enjoyed the series. (Everyone loves the Harry Potter books, but I think they improved as they went along.) I am also very much enjoying Rowling’s crime series written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith; here’s my review of the first one. But The Casual Vacancy? Not so much.

This book (2012), the first she wrote after the Potter books, belongs in the category of adult social comedy, though like many books so categorised, it is certainly not funny unless you like you humour very black. It is set in Pagford, a small, post-card-perfect town in the West Country. The town is run by an elected Parish Council (a local government term, nothing to do with the church). The Council is also responsible for the maintenance of a rather squalid housing estate, known as The Fields, just outside the town; it is largely inhabited by welfare recipients. The Council is divided between those who believe that the residents of The Fields benefit from their association with Pagford, and those who want to be rid of any responsibility for them. The casual vacancy on the Council arises when one of the elected representatives, Barry Fairbrother, a keen supporter of The Fields, dies suddenly, leading to a bitter campaign between the two factions to fill the vacancy.

There is a large cast of characters; Wikipedia lists twenty main ones, rather too many in my view, making it hard, at least initially, to remember who is who. While the main plot centres on the battle over the vacancy, all the characters have their own stories, for most part concerning relationships between husbands, wives, partners and friends, and parents, their children and their friends. And there is not a really happy person amongst them.

I have no idea what her intentions were, but to me this book reads as if Rowling, having written only children’s books up to this time (albeit wildly successful children’s books), decided to show she could write about people in ways other than the black and white characterisations we find in the Harry Potter stories. With this in mind, she makes sure that almost every character has both good and characteristics, motivations or actions. This of course reflects reality. The problem I have is that she pretty much emphasises the various ways in which the characters are unpleasant to each other, to the point I found it hard to much like anyone in the book. This undermined my enthusiasm for reading on, and after the account of a particularly miserable dinner party about half way through, I started skipping to find out what happened, rather than seeking to understand the situation of all the characters. A member of my book group thought Rowling was perhaps challenging the reader to go beyond initial dislike and look more deeply at the human condition, but if so, I failed the test.

Some characters have no redeeming features at all, like the Chair of the Council, Howard Mollison, and his wife Shirley. Theirs is not a Voldemort take-over-the world-style evil; it is petty malice, snobbery and racism expressed through gossip and inuendo – a distinction I expect Rowling was consciously making. Others, like their daughter-in-law Samantha have some redeeming features, whereas others again, like Kay Bawden, are basically good, though with insecurities and terrible judgement that get in the way of happiness. Of the five teenagers who play a significant role, four – Krystal, Andrew, Sukhvinder and Gaia – are kids trying to find their way in varyingly difficult circumstances. But Stuart, aka Fats, with his possibly realistic but nevertheless nasty lack of empathy, his calculating selfishness and his self-justifying glorification of a warped existentialism, seems to me to have little going for him. Only Barry Fairbrother, dead by page 4, seems to have been a genuinely nice person, and even then his wife resented the time he spent helping other people. (His grief-stricken wife and children seem more or less ok too.)

As you would expect from Rowling’s juxtaposition of Pagford and The Fields, the book touches on a number of social issues including racism, addiction, theft, domestic violence, rape and child neglect. And the writer being who she is, it is not surprising that while residents of Pagford might like to think that these are issues only in The Fields, they are also issues in middle class Pagford, though manifested in somewhat different ways. Class is also an issue; I was a little surprised that Rowling emphasised the class difference between the Pagford and The Fields residents so starkly in the language they use – standard English versus lumpen argot – but maybe this is an accurate representation of reality. And if the poor characters come off worse, then that’s a reflection of reality too. Given the complexity of these issues, and the minefield of personal relationships between the characters, it’s not really surprising that there isn’t a happy ending for any of them; for some there is tragedy, deserved or undeserved, while for others there is the merest vestige of hope.

It’s a long book. I think it might have benefitted from some judicious editing. I preferred some of the Harry Potter films to the books because the films were rather more condensed, and the same may well be true here. Fans of the book – and there are many – can point out that every character has important interactions with other characters, so none could be left out. And I do agree that underneath the verbiage Rowling weaves a very good plot. This is her great strength; she engaged me so that I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen, even if I finished up not reading every word. But books I really like I know I’ll read again, and this won’t be one of them.

You can read more about the book – its characters and plot, and its critical reception – here. You can read more about J.K. Rowling here. The Casual Vacancy was made into a three-part TV series in 2015.

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Published in 2008, this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. And deservedly so in my opinion. I recently reviewed the 2014 winner – Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – and this one is, if not a better book, then without some of the flaws that made Tartt’s book so frustrating at times.

I also recently wrote that I preferred books with a strong narrative thread. It is obviously foolish to generalise in this way, because this book does not have a strong narrative thread, and the structure still works well. It is essentially thirteen interconnected short stories, a form that allows both sustained development of character and setting, and the quick insight of short stories. Olive Kitteridge, her husband Henry and to a lesser extent their son Christopher are the main characters in seven of the stories; Olive’s role in the other six varies from significant to just a mention. The two in which she has only a mention are perhaps the weakest links of the thirteen, lacking the connection the Kitteridge family gives to the whole . With one exception, when Olive goes to New York to visit her son, they all take place in the small town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine; the book presents a slice of small town American life, as well as a portrait of Olive from mother of a young child to a 74 year old widow. No dates are specifically mentioned, but the sequence begins when Christopher is quite young, in perhaps the 1970s, and ends during the presidency of George W Bush. We know this because Olive is concerned about ‘another’ terrorist attack and is horrified to find that someone she is getting know and like voted Republican.

The stories all deal with events of everyday life in families and the community. People go to work, plant tulips, have breakfast at the marina, walk their dog. They are faithful or unfaithful to their partners, good friends or sometimes not. They gossip. They have people over for tea. Underlying these ordinary activities are the themes of public and private grief, loneliness, aging and death – though not all who die are old. In several of the stories there is some sort of betrayal. This makes the book sound depressing, but it isn’t. I think this is because of Strout’s humanity; she shows deep empathy with all her characters and their situations, even the unpleasant ones – and that includes Olive at times. Ultimately Strout seems to be suggesting that people do what they can to cope with life. Olive knows that things aren’t fair: ‘Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right’. But she ‘had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life had increasingly become’. And Olive does ultimately does find some comfort. The prevailing tone is bitter-sweet.

The book begins with Henry, a good and kind man, looking back at the joys and sorrows of his life as the town pharmacist and husband of Olive, who teaches maths at the local junior high school. After this, the Kitteridge family chapters are dominated by Olive’s point of view. She is anything but good and kind; she is often combative and angry, her judgements harsh. She is as one critic says, both fierce and thwarted’ .People are morons, simpletons, snot-wats. As she later acknowledges, she never says sorry. But we also see a different side of her; her humour, her love of people, her acute self-awareness and her a concern for others. In several of the other stories she is a source of comfort.

Strout’s empathy is amplified by the form of her writing. She uses ‘free indirect speech’, in which a third-person narrator adopts the words or tone a particular character might use. At her son’s wedding, for example, Olive ‘drops her gaze so as to avoid getting stuck in one more yakkety conversation’. The use of ‘yakkety’ is very much Olive’s word, as is the word ‘ridiculous’ in ‘The tulips bloomed in ridiculous splendor’, though both are narrative statements. We are seeing the world from in this case Olive’s perspective. This means Strout never takes an authorial overview which can make use of a wry or sardonic perspective to deprecate a character or point of view*. There is no satire in the writing but what the characters impart; mostly there is an honest realism about people’s feelings and relationships, even when they are deluding themselves, or hiding their feelings behind polite nothings. This, coupled with the small town environment, might make it sound like the writing is folksy, but it isn’t. There is the bitter as well as the sweet.

In 2014 a mini-series of four episodes based on the book were shown on American TV to universal acclaim. I hope they didn’t glamourise Olive too much. In the book she is large and not particularly attractive; it is part of what makes her a compelling character. The Wikipedia entry on the min-series describes Olive as ‘misanthropic’ so I guess it doesn’t. Her part is played by Frances McDormand, who won various prizes for her acting and also co-produced the series, so hopefully it was well done. It was shown in Australia (but not free-too-air) in 2015. You can read more about the mini-series here, and about Elizabeth Strout and her work here.

 

*I don’t mean it is a bad thing to have a satirical authorial voice – some of my favourite books and all that – it’s just that the free indirect speech give a different result.

 

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Questions of Travel (2012) won the prestigious Miles Franklin award in 2013, and has been highly praised by many reviewers – see for example this long review in the Sydney Review of Books, or this one from Frank Moorhouse in the Guardian. I read it for my book club, and though there are things to like in it, overall I found reading it a chore. Why don’t I respond to it like the judges and reviewers?

I can’t write about this book without disclosing important aspects of the story, so it’s a case of spoiler alert, though the book isn’t plot driven and other reviewers seem to have no qualms in revealing much of what happens. You’d probably call its form picaresque, a term I recall from English 101 many years ago, in the sense that it’s a series of loosely connected episodes. De Krester describes this form of writing as ‘like walking down a corridor and you find a niche in the wall or a door might be open and you can go into a room or peer in, and sometimes the door is closed but you know there is a space in there’. The book follows the lives of Laura Fraser and Ravi Mendis over about forty years, in more or less alternating chapters. In the first half, Laura leaves Australia to travel, living in Naples and London; Ravi lives in Shri Lanka. In the second half, Laura returns to Sydney and gets a job with a company that publishes travel guides. Ravi comes to Australia on a tourist visa and seeks asylum after the politically motivated murder of his wife and child in Shri Lanka.  He works for a time at the same company as Laura, though the pair scarcely know each other.  Along the way are many people and places, some social satire – which I don’t find very funny – and some tragedy, which is truly tragic.

The judges and reviewers are right that the book reflects on major aspects of Australian life. The experience of living in Sydney runs throughout the second half of the book for both characters, though of course they experience it in different ways. The harbour, the bridge, Waverley Cemetery, Sydney’s weather are all lovingly evoked. Laura’s life seems dominated by a series of unsatisfactory sexual relationships, which aren’t distinctively Australian, but Ravi’s experience as a refuge in Australia does throw light on important issues. De Krester says she didn’t want to make Ravi, as the refugee, all good, and Australians all racist; his situation is indeed much more nuanced. He does experience racism, both visceral and casual – how can he claim to be a refugee if he wasn’t in detention? – but he also experiences kindness and support. This is a subject well worth exploring.

But more than the book’s specific Australian content, its theme – as you might expect from the title – is travel, away from and towards Australia and Shri Lanka; ‘travel of all kinds: colonial expansion and its postcolonial manifestations, migration, exile, tourism’, as one reviewer notes. The book is dotted with clever little aperçu about tourists and travel: ‘Time after time Laura would learn that she had missed the moment; to be a tourist was always to arrive too late’. Tourists from the former Easter bloc countries were ‘serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held’. ‘The twentieth century was best represented by an unwilling traveller … people who don’t belong where they end up and long for places where they did.’ ‘There’s no past in tourism. It’s one thing after another.’ ‘Tourists see invisible things.’ When tourism promoters try to give customers an ‘authentic’ experience it is written off as ‘spectacle and show’. And producing travel guides removes all romance. At the end of the book, Ravi returns to Shri Lanka because he doesn’t want to be ‘a tourist in his own country’, even though he has been granted asylum in Australia and faces possible death in Shri Lanka. And Laura travels to Shri Lanka to get away from her life in Sydney; both arrive on the day of the 2004 tsunami and an unknown fate. I guess de Krester wants us to see both sides of travel. Here is how she sums it up:

Travel connects us to the world and brings us closer to other cultures … But it’s possible to spend a very pleasant three weeks in another country and come away with no idea of what life is really like for people who live there. The native lives in history and there is no suspension of knowledge, but as a tourist you do have access to wonder.

Reviewers have commented at some length on de Krester’s prose, which is sometimes unashamedly lyrical, full of what one reviewer calls ‘baroque flourishes’. Her Atlantic Ocean is ‘slow as a slattern that smears its grey rags along the shore’. Australians ‘succumb to chicken parmigiana and to sex’. ‘Surfers with eyes like blue fish.’ Sydney ‘squinted over its brown back at Africa, at India.’ In Melbourne, ‘the balloon-like faces of people dressed in black float down laneways’. I agree that the water imagery – beginning on page 1 with Laura almost being drowned by her brothers and ending in the last with her probably being drowned by a tsunami, give structure to the story it otherwise lacks. This is fine if you like this sort of thing – which can only be appreciated in retrospect- but for me there are just too many words. In other places her tone is satirical, but I seem to detect a note of superiority in the unkind humour. The thought she gives to Laura about Australian literature – that ‘She approached Sydney gingerly in fiction. Was it really up to literature, even the Australian kind? … What if the performance came over as provincial and amateurish, or blustering and self-important?’ – is simply smart-ass. And having Laura vote informal at an election without apparent interest in or knowledge of politics? Too cool for school.

It’s always difficult when I fail to enjoy a book that judges and reviewers have found extremely rewarding. Am I failing to appreciate fine writing? Making facile judgements? Or is it a matter of taste? I think I found the book difficult to read for two reasons. First, I don’t really like the picaresque form. I prefer a clear narrative thread. I can’t keep track of all the characters; on the odd occasion that someone turns up from the past, I’m scrabbling to remember who they are. Characters fall out of the story. The incidents, more particularly in Laura’s case, don’t add up to anything, and are fundamentally unmemorable. Perhaps life is like that. But it doesn’t make for pleasurable reading.

The second reason is that I can’t engage with either of the main characters. I know you don’t have to like characters to find them compelling. And as I noted above, de Krester wants her characters to be realistically flawed. But above all they do have to be interesting, and as far as I’m concerned, Laura isn’t. Despite the occasional flashes of self-knowledge she is allowed, she is self-centred and entitled, her travel is drift, her relationships are superficial, her lack of desire to do anything with her life is pathetic. No doubt there are people like this, but I don’t want to read about them. Up to the point where he loses his wife and child I felt much the same about Ravi. The numbness with which he is inflicted afterwards is no doubt realistic; it presumably explains his often perverse behaviour, though his thought processes remain obscure to me. By the end, I didn’t much care what happened to him, though in his case, I’m probably more frustrated than bored with him.

But probably the overall reason I didn’t like the book was that it didn’t offer me any hope. De Krester seems happier mocking than affirming. There were people that she presented as good and kind, but they were outweighed by those she chose to present as selfish and shallow. The message the main characters portrayed was one of misery and emptiness. Her vision may be true to what I read in the daily press, but I look for something a bit more inspiring in literature.

You can read the very little there is on Wikipedia about Michelle de Krester here. Most of the quotes from her above come from this interview. I note that she has a new book, The Life to Come being released this October. I read that it eschews ‘conventional narrative structure’ and is ‘beautifully elliptic’, so it’s probably not for me, even though it is reported to be ‘ultimately hopeful’.

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Where do I begin? The Goldfinch, which runs to around 770 pages, was published in 2013 and won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which recognizes distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.The judges called it ‘a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart’. Sometimes I just wanted to put it down and leave it, other times I could have gone on reading it all night.

The story is a bildungsroman, a story of growing up. Theo Decker is thirteen when his mother is killed in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He survives, but his life changes dramatically; almost all subsequent events flow from here. In the aftermath of the explosion a dying old man presses on him a painting that has been blown from its frame; it is The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Theo takes it with him as he escapes the crumbling building. He also carries a mental image of Pippa, the girl who was with the old man; she becomes his unattainable ‘missing kingdom’. (The book is sometimes described as ‘Dickensian’, and I thought often of Estelle in Great Expectations, though of course she is unattainable for different reasons.) He lives briefly with family friends, but his father, who had deserted him and his mother, takes him to live in Las Vegas. He returns to New York and eventually becomes an antiques dealer. He carries with him a sense of irreparable loss and of self-blame. I can’t tell you any more without giving away the plot.

Some of the fifteen or so years the story covers are dealt with in great detail; others are left almost blank. Reading the book I found this a bit frustrating. Why, for example, did we have to hear in such detail about Theo’s drunken and drug fuelled-life with his friend Boris in Las Vegas? But by the end, I could see by the balance of the story why Tartt had chosen to write at such length about it. There are other set pieces that are quite long, but all serve a purpose. Maybe Tartt could just overall write with more economy; there is an awful lot of detail – some might say padding – in the book, though maybe this is just a question of taste. But best of all in terms of the plot, there was for me a real ‘wow I didn’t see that coming’ moment, a moment that both pulls together and undercuts the action. There are not many books that have done this so powerfully for me; Tartt is a great story teller.

But much as I ultimately came to see the strength of the plot, it is Theo’s thoughts and actions that dominate the book. Although he was already testing the limits – he and his mother had only dropped in at the museum on their way to a meeting to discuss Theo’s suspension from school – the death of his mother and his own narrow escape dictate his future choices. He has survivor guilt – ‘the why did I and if only that had wrecked my … life’. His wild behaviour arises from his narrow escape from the exposion; sometimes he is manic, ‘with a self-propelling recklessness … that I associated with having narrowly missed death’. But at other times he feels he has ‘suffered a chemical change of the spirit … [that] leached the life out of me in aspects impossible to repair’. His possession of the painting sometimes makes him feel ‘tainted and worthless and wrong’, but at other makes him feel special and different, not bound by the same rules as other people. ‘How could I have believed myself a better person, a wiser person, a more elevated and worthy-of-living person on the basis of my secret …?’ he muses. ‘Yet I had.’ I guess this is a thoughtful even brilliant picture of a boy placed in just such a situation. But at the same time I found some of his terrible choices over- the- top stupid; it was then the bond between reader and character weakened and I stopped wanting to read on. But there’s a good chance that this reflects more about the reader than the book.

And then there are the big ideas in the novel, about the enduring qualities of great art, the search for meaning in life and death, fate and choice. If Tartt comes to any conclusions about these, I’m not sure what they are. Perhaps a second reading would make them clearer.

Unsurprisingly for a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, it has received many rave reviews. I find it interesting, though, that a few of the most highbrow literary critics have pushed strongly back against this tide of approval. Here are some quotes taken from an article in Vanity Fair discussing the literary controversy. From James Wood, in the New Yorker: ‘Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature’; he considers it  ‘a book stuffed with relentless, far-fetched plotting; cloying stock characters; and an overwrought message tacked on at the end as a plea for seriousness’. In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, ‘for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language … and [it contained] passages that were bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase’. Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, writes that ‘A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them … It coats everything in a cozy patina of “literary gentility.” ’

This kind of criticism is hard to deal with because it makes you feel that if you like the book, your judgement is immature. Well perhaps mine is. I can agree with a few of these criticisms, but not most of them. I didn’t find the plotting far-fetched; I thought the connections Tartt establishes were a major strength of the book. I did find Theo’s behaviour over the top at times, but am not convinced that someone in his position would not in fact act as he does. As for clichés in the language, the book is written from a young person’s perspective, and this is how they think and speak. I do agree that the language is over-lush in places. I don’t really understand Theo’s justification at the end of the story, and find it – in so far as I do understand it – remarkably self-regarding. But I’m not sure what the highbrow critics want, if not this. It seems to be an argument about what constitutes not only good writing, but serious literature, a question that can often only be answered by the passage of time. For me, it’s probably a question of whether I want to re-read the book, and in this case, despite my reservations, I certainly do.

Donna Tartt is a very private person and there is little about her on the internet. Here, however, is a quite revealing interview she gave to the Sydney Morning Herald after the publication of The Goldfinch.

 

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After reading some of Mitchell’s recent books, I’ve gone back to the beginning to read his first one, published in 1999. It’s probably just as well I enjoyed some of the later one before trying Ghostwritten, because without some understanding of his work, I doubt if I’d have got beyond it. I would probably have admired his prose, but given up entirely on the content.

Like Cloud Atlas (2004), which I reviewed here, and The Bone Clocks (2014) – hereGhostwritten is a novel in a number of parts – nine in this case. Each part has a different narrator, a different location and a completely different feel to it. The first and the brief coda at the end have the same narrator, Quasar, who is a member of a millenarian doomsday cult responsible for a gas attack on the Tokyo subway, based on a real terrorist incident. The second is about Satoru, a young Japanese jazz lover working in a record shop in Tokyo. The third is a monologue narrated by financial lawyer Neal Brose, who is part of a money laundering scheme in Hong Kong. The fourth is told by an old Chinese woman who runs a tea house on Mt Emei, the Sacred Mountain, and who has lived through and suffered under the warlords, the Nationalists and the Communists. But heaven forbid that Mitchell be considered a realist writer; the fifth section is told by a disembodied spirit, a ‘noncorpum’ which survives by inhabiting living hosts. This section takes place mainly in Mongolia, where the spirit is trying to trace its origins. The sixth section is set in St Petersburg, where Margarita Latunsky is a museum attendant in the Hermitage Museum; she is also working for a gang of art thieves. The seventh section features Marco, a part-time drummer and part-time ghostwriter in London. In the eighth section, Mo Muntervary is a physicist studying quantum cognition; she returns to her birthplace in Ireland in an attempt to evade American officials who want to use her work to create intelligent weapons. The ninth section is the text of segments of a talk-back radio program in New York, where the announcer is contacted by an entity, Zookeeper, that seems to the reader, though not to the host, to be a disembodied artificial intelligence. The brief coda returns to the Tokyo underground.

As one might expect from having read other of Mitchell’s books, these sections have some links, with characters from one having walk-on roles in another. Thus Neal Bose sees Satoru and his girlfriend in Hong Kong, his maid is the granddaughter of the Chinese tea house keeper, a backpacker staying at the tea house goes to Mongolia as the unknowing host of the noncorpum, Marco shoves Mo Muntervary out of the way of a taxi, the man whose life story he is ghostwriting knows one of the art thieves in Moscow and so on. A few of the characters appear in some of his later books.

These ‘coincidences’ highlight one of the major themes of the book – the importance of chance. Quasar has been given a code phrase and number to ring after completing his mission but the cult has betrayed him and the number connects to a random phone – that of Satoru’s record shop. But in going back after closing up to answer the phone and hear the, to him, meaningless message, Satoru meets the girl he is already attracted to and they begin a relationship. Marco’s section deals overtly with chance. His band is called the Music of Chance. He speculates on a possible pregnancy arising from a tear in a condom he has used: ’Weird. If I’d bought the pack behind on the shelf …’ Then there is his own identity. ‘Why am I me?’ he muses. ‘Chance, that’s why. Because of the cocktail of genetics and upbringing fixed for me by the blind barman Chance.’ And he visits a casino, just to rub in the point. Mo Muntervary’s quantum cognition also raised the issue of chance: ‘Quantum physics speaks in chance, with the syntax of uncertainty’, she thinks.

But are these encounters and actions coincidences? There is also a counter theme; that of design. Some actions are controlled by a non-human intelligence, either the noncorpum – as when the backpacker decides to go to Mongolia – or by artificial intelligence in the radio talk back section. It seems that Mo Muntervary – from the previous section – has designed this artificial intelligence to conform to four ‘laws’. But there are circumstances in which it is impossible to comply with all of them at once. So has design failed too? I found the radio talk back section deeply confusing. A check of comments about the book on the internet confused me even more; see for example this one, which tries to trace the supernatural connections through all the sections.

So what is Mitchell trying to do? His deliberate refusal of coherent narrative, and the themes of chance and design, suggest he wants the reader to approach perceived reality with scepticism. And maybe this is where the title comes in. Marco, the ghostwriter, is talking to the man whose ‘autobiography’ he is writing; the man says ‘the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.’ Marco replies ‘it doesn’t seem very honest. I’m not writing what really happened.’ ‘We’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us’. ‘So where does that leave us?’ Marco asks. ‘How well does the thing read?’ is the answer he receives. Hmm. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Nothing that I’ve said takes away from the undoubted power of Mitchell’s writing, though I think it is even better in some of his later books. But I might not have gone on to read these, based on this one. This is because I found it pretty depressing. The hopeful sections seem well and truly cancelled out by the hopeless ones. Mitchell sees a dystopian future, and, it seems to me, no chance of avoiding it. But given how opaque it all is, I might be quite wrong. Do tell me what you think.

David Mitchell doesn’t seem to have a web page. But here’s a review of the book – not that it helps all that much.

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