Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Nutshell must have the most curious narrator I’ve come across in many years: a nine-month old foetus, pompous and opinionated, yet strangely beguiling. And surely a unique opening sentence:

So here I am, lying upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.

nutshell

Told from his point of view in the first person, the story line pivots around the foetus being privy to a forbidden relationship and a dastardly plan the couple has devised.

I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, I make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.

A few pages into the book, I wondered how McEwan was going to get away with writing about a foetus who is so knowledgeable about the world and its affairs, but he rather glibly pulls it off by having the unborn baby listen when his mother tunes into the radio, or when she listens to podcasts and audio books, or plays classical music. He learns about good wine when his mother drinks (which she does fairly often) and pontificates in a snobby way about the merits of a good burgundy or Sancerre. He knows contemporary politics, and surmises things he has not seen, such as colours and lightning.

Thus the foetus talks to us in an adult voice, as a reluctant observer to the plot that is unfolding within earshot and about which he can do nothing to prevent.

The plot is a familiar one to those who know Hamlet, and the epigraph is a quote from Hamlet that gives the novel its title. The mother, Trudy, has kicked her husband, John, a gormless poet, out of the house (John’s family home), even though she is pregnant with his child. She is now  in a relationship with Claude, John’s banal brother, described by the narrator as thus:

This is Claude as in property developer who composes nothing, invents nothing. He enjoys a thought, speaks it aloud, then later has it again, and – why not? – says it again. 

The narrator listens to Trudy and Claude plot against his father, for whom he has developed a tenderness, and whom he is unable to warn. John still visits Trudy at his house, trying to woo her back in a meek manner, oblivious to the plan being devised against him. The narrator, in his distress, mentally pens a letter to his father, finishing it with:

Don’t come down the stairs. Call a carefree goodbye and go. Or if you must come down, decline the fruit drink, stay only long enough to say your farewells. I’ll explain later. Until then, I remain your obedient son … 

The book ends with the narrator being born at home, Trudy crying, Claude panicking in disgust, too late to call an ambulance. The birth is described fantastically,  the narrator describing his agonising journey into the world:

I travel a section where I know a portion of my uncle has passed too often the other way. I’m not troubled. What was in his day a vagina, is now proudly a birth canal, my Panama … not casual cock can compete. For a stretch, I’m deaf, dumb and blind, it hurts everywhere. But it pains my screaming mother more as she renders the sacrifice all mothers make for their big-headed, loud-mouthed infants.

What I enjoy about McEwan is that no book he writes is like another; the story lines differ and so each new book of his is a new adventure. I had a sense throughout this book that McEwan had fun writing it and enjoyed creating this unusual, sometimes irritating, often endearing, narrator. His prose is as smooth as ever and he has retold a classic tale in the most masterful, imaginative manner.

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Two books about prisoners: A Book of Memory and A House in the Sky

This has not been an intentional reading theme; it just so happened that I read two books in a row that were about prisoners. The first was a novel, The Book of Memory, by Petina Gappah, and the other was a memoir,  A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout, co-written with journalist Sara Corbett.

book-of-memory

Petina Gappah won The Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of short stories, An Elegy for Easterly. The Book of Memory is her first novel and it is a powerful story of a Zimbabwean woman sitting on death row for the murder of her adopted father, a rich white man. It had been waiting on my Kindle for a long time; I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to reading it sooner because the opening sentence alone is enough to captivate one:

The story that you have asked me to tell you does not begin with the pitiful ugliness of Lloyd’s death. It begins on a long-ago day in August when the sun seared my blistered face and I was nine years old and my father and mother sold me to a strange man.

Memory is an albino woman who grew up in a poor township, spending her childhood being teased and bullied by other children, playing with her siblings, and avoiding the sun. This book is her way of remembering and interpreting her past, and of trying to gain an understanding of why her life followed the trajectory it did, leading up to her sitting in prison as the only woman on death row. Memory’s narration skips from past, to present, to way, way back, to the immediate, and carries on circuitously, as memory itself does.

Gappah
Petina Gappah

It sounds like grim stuff, which of course it is, but Gappah has created the most wonderful character in Memory, whose voice is suffused with humour and a marked lack of self-pity. I enjoyed every minute of the book –  the plot itself, but also Gappah’s writing – her descriptions are so vivid that I could imagine the prison, almost taste the mangoes and smell the dusty Zimbabwean roads. Never is Memory’s albinism used as a pity-point, though when it’s brought into the text, it brings home the awfulness of the condition,  with the descriptions of her skin blistering and bubbling, and the merciless teasing from others. In the same way, the murder of which she is accused is not the central pivot of the book and we only find out about it right towards the end because this is not a book about an albino, nor one about a murderer; it is, as the title says, a book of memory.


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A House in the Sky is also about a prisoner, though this time it is the true story about a young Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held hostage in Somalia with her ex-lover for 460 days. Amanda Lindhout also grew up poor, squashed into rooms with her siblings, listening to her mother being beaten up by a younger boyfriend. As a means of  escape, Amanda would buy old copies of National Geographic – with money from scrounging for recyclables – and lose herself in the photos of strange and exotic countries.

Once old enough, she waitressed in high-end clubs to save money to travel and as soon as she could escape, she ventured into countries she’d always dreamed of visiting in South America, Africa and Asia. The book starts off a bit like a travelogue, with accounts of Amanda’s travels to various destinations, none of which are ‘easy’ countries to visit. After travelling on and off for a couple of years, while waitressing in between to save money, she visits Afghanistan and Iraq and starts a semi-career as a war journalist, albeit a very naive one.

 

AM
Amanda Lindhout

 

In the beginning, in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the captors, Amanda persuades Nigel to convert to Islam and, for a while, this tactic works as she is treated with respect and taught the Koran. Her kidnappers are young, and unfamiliar with women, especially Western women, and she describes them in such a poignant way I almost started to feel sympathy for them. After an escape attempt (for which Nigel believes she must take the blame), however, her captors begin to torture her through isolation, rape and beatings. In a vividly described section, she is even taken to the desert one night and is led to believe she is about to die, as a man holds a serrated knife to her neck.

Somalia

Amanda survives by creating ‘a house in the sky’ and escaping to happier places in her mind when her body is being treated worse than an animal’s. With an incredible inner strength, she manages to reach a place of understanding and empathy for her captors. Although she and Nigel are kept separate, they remain in touch by leaving notes in the bathroom and even creating Christmas presents for each other out of scraps of rubbish.

They both are freed after their families manage to raise a fraction of the amount of money initially demanded and Amanda begins to piece her life together again in Canada. She has started a philanthropic NGO to enable women in Somalia to get to university and, when asked why she would want to help people in the very country where she was taken hostage and abused, she replied:

“You can very easily go into anger and bitterness and revenge thoughts and resentment and ‘Why me?'[…] Because I had something very, very large and very painful to forgive, and by choosing to do that, I was able to put into place my vision, which was making Somalia a better place[…] I’ve never questioned whether or not it was the right thing to do[…] What else to do after the experience that I had, than something like this?”  

This memoir reads as smoothly and beautifully as any good quality novel, and I felt privileged to have read it, to have been given an insight into such an intimate, frank account – yet devoid of self-pity – of a woman’s experience to hell and back. Amanda Lindhout is an incredible woman to have been able to go through this experience and to survive it with forgiveness and goodwill in her heart.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

I had been warned that this book was terribly gruesome and harrowing and that made me hesitate to read it. I should remember not to be put off by other people’s warnings and only make my judgement once I have started reading a book – this is an incredible novel. It won the Man Booker Prize last year and the chair of the judges, AC Grayling, said: “Some years, very good books win the Man Booker Prize, but this year a masterpiece has won it.”Cover 1

Yes, it is hugely harrowing and people who lived through World War Two, or those who cannot face brutality, may well not want to read it, being about Australian prisoners of war who worked on the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. At times I had to take breaks from reading about the abuse suffered at the hands of the Japanese; it is told in horrifyingly graphic detail with no description spared, yet I feel it is important to know all this to understand the depth of the novel and, if nothing else, for the reader to know the realities of what went on in that part of the war.

Simply put, this is a novel about war and love, yet it’s also about good and evil, about power and submission, and about cowardice and bravery. The protagonist of the book is a man called Dorrigo Evans, a doctor who enlists at the beginning of WWII and whose unit surrenders to the Japanese in Java. As a colonel and a surgeon, Dorrigo becomes the leader of the prisoners and is hailed after the war for his bravery, becoming a famous war hero. He tries as best he can in the camps to look after his men, often intervening with the Japanese generals.

POW

Dorrigo is a flawed hero; a reluctant leader, he often feels he has no place to be the one to have been put in that position in the camp, and he is a man deeply in love with his uncle’s wife, with whom he had an affair before the outbreak of the war. His love affair with Amy haunts him constantly. Dorrigo marries after the war, knowing he does not love Ella, and spends the rest of his life in a suspended state of reality, unable to feel anything at a meaningful depth.

Flanagan shows us the lives of those soldiers who survived the war, the hopelessness that pervades their lives and the effects of what would now be called post-traumatic stress. He also takes us into the minds of the Japanese generals after the war and we see the justifications made by them for their behaviour, believing what they did was simply in service of the Emperor and the greatness of Japan, although they fear reprisals.

Flanagan skilfully takes the reader backwards and forwards in the book, from the war camp to Dorrigo’s childhood, to the camps and back to his love affair, from his marriage to his post-war empty life – it kept my mind sharp but never confused me. His writing is beautiful, even when he writes about the utter horrors of the war camp, and I spent most the book feeling haunted by his words; still do, in fact.

I feel I have barely touched the surface of this novel, it’s one I need to go back to and read again to appreciate Flanagan’s expert handling of the story. I have also barely touch the surface here in this review; there is so much more complexity to the novel, such as the poetry taken from a 17th-century Japanese poet called Basho (the title comes from one of his haikus).

Flanagan

I would warn anyone wanting to read it that this is a book of brutally graphic descriptions of cruelty and suffering, yet that they would miss out on a masterpiece if they don’t.

Two great books I’ve recently read: Road Ends and The Signature of All Things

Road Ends by Mary Lawson

ImageIn this novel, Mary Lawson writes about small town life in Canada, concentrating on one particularly dysfunctional family that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The eldest boy in the family, Tom, lost one of his best friends to suicide and eighteen months later, Tom is still too numb to do anything other than live at home and drive a snow plough clearing roads as a job. He barely talks to anyone anymore. His mother has had another baby, despite being advised not to by doctors, has retreated into her own world and totally ignores the rest of the family. Then there’s Meg, the only daughter, the one who has kept the family together and the household running. The father, Edward, is either at work or in his study and avoids his children as much as possible; he seems quite unable to parent. And last of all, there’s dear Adam, who is little still, and totally neglected. He reminded me of a stray dog, desperate for love.

Meg, however, decided she must leave home and goes far away to London where she creates her own working life in a hotel. The household descends into squallor and chaos without her around and, reluctantly, Tom is faced with having to confront just how bad it is and has to learn to deal with the world and responsibilities again. Eventually he writes to Meg and asks her to come home.

I’ve related that in such a bland way; believe me, the book is so much better than the synopsis I’ve just written. It is so tender at times, while mirroring the unintentional cruelties that family members can inflict on each other. It also reflects well the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of a small town, where everyone watches Tom deal (or not deal) with his grief. It’s a great read.

 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I haven’t been so pleasantly surprised by a book in a long time – what a great read. I didn’t like Eat, Love, Pray; found it cloying and cringe-worthy, so I didn’t look kindly upon this new novel of Gilbert’s. It is also another tome (why is there such a trend at the moment for extremely long books?), which put me off for a while.

But the minute I started the first paragraph, I knew I was in for a wonderful story written by a very accomplished author. Image

Alma Whittaker, the book’s protagonist, is one of the best characters I’ve met in a long time. She’s not beautiful, she’s not graceful or dainty but my heavens, would she have made a great feminist. Brought up from a young age by her parents to speak her mind, she is intelligent, educated, and constantly curious. The book is set in the 1900s, starting with the story of her parents, and then spanning Alma’s life. It ranges around the globe from London to Peru, Philadelphia to Tahiti and then Amsterdam. Her father, Henry, is an extremely rich man who made his money through the acquisition of rare botanical specimens, while her mother is extremely knowledgable about botany and so Alma grows up in a world of science and exploration, with finally focussing her studies on all kinds of moss.

Through her studies, she meets a man who becomes her husband, a man who brings great sorrow into her life and causes her to finally leave the house she grew up in and go in search of answers to his peculiarities. With these travels, she slowly develops a theory of evolution that equals Darwin’s. 

Gilbert must have done  an incredible amount of research, both scientifically and historically, for this book, but never once does it sound didactic and I was totally absorbed in Alma’s totally believable world. She is such a rounded character, robust and capable and yet very vulnerable and aware of her physical shortcomings (she’s large with wild red hair, big hands, ‘comely’ one might say). 

I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time. It’s not as detailed as The Goldfinch (although about the same length) and perhaps not as skilfully written, but it’s a fantastic story. 

 

 

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

This is a book about war. A first novel, it has been met with acclaim and won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction, as well as the 2012 Guardian First Book Award. But ignore all the accolades and read it just for what it is because it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read and will become one of the great books about war. 

The Yellow Birds is about the US occupation of Iraq, written from the point of view of a young soldier, John Bartle. It centres around a single, tragic incident in a small village involving him, his brutal sergeant and another vulnerable soldier, Murph, and then the resultant psychological damage that John Bartle has to deal with when he returns home. The book does not try to describe the war itself, it serves to bear witness to the sensitivity of the soldiers involved and the horrific decimation of human life. The style is detached and non-sensational. It is not for the faint-hearted but everything it describes has happened in war before and will again.

ImagePowers himself spent time in Iraq as a US soldier, and this reflects in the tiny details (such as the flowers growing in a field) he includes when describing war – whatever war is, since it seems so senseless by the time you have finished reading this book. It is written in a lyrical style that brings beauty to the horrors and yet brings them alive in front of your eyes. I have already gone back and reread parts of the book because of the sparse, perfect use of words and the rhythm of his sentences.

This is an important book, and I seldom describe books as that. I think people who glorify war should be made to read it, or youngsters who are filled with a misinformed sense of nationalism. War all so pointless after all and so damaging on those involved in it. I haven’t stopped thinking about the book since I read it. Image

May we be forgiven by AM Homes

Forgiven

I haven’t read any other books by AM Homes who made a name for herself with her novel The End of Alice. I will read more by her, however, since I have read May We Be Forgiven. It is a read that starts on a roller-coaster ride of horrific events and ends up as a depiction of the tenuous strands of communication that keep us working as families and as a society. 

At the start of the novel, we meet Harold Silver having Thanksgiving dinner at his brother, George’s, house. George on the surface has it all – prosperous job, beautiful wife, two adorable children, yet Harold shows us how disconnected they really are. Harold lusts after Jane, the children sit and play on their small screens during the meal and George shovels food into his mouth, bombastic. Jane gives Harold a long passionate kiss in the kitchen – ‘The kiss was serious, wet and full of desire. It was terrifying and unexpected‘. 

A couple of hours later, Harold gets a phone call to fetch George from the police station. We never get the details of the car accident, but George has killed people. He get put in a psyche ward in hospital and, with him there, Harold stays with Jane in her house. When George gets discharged, he comes home to find Harold in bed with Jane and kills Jane with a lamp. 

All awful, yes, but told with a delicious dark humour that kept me smiling through the depiction of dreadful events. After this climactic beginning, I began to wonder where on earth the book could go. It slows down after this, yet retains its dark humour, focusing on Harold’s life in which numerous bizarre events happen.  He moves into George’s house, adopts his children and has to learn the delicacies of parenting  grieving teenagers, takes on the dog, loses his wife. He explores internet dating, he takes the children to South Africa for Nate’s bar mitzvah, has two grandparents move into his house, takes custody of the child whose parents George killed. 

The pace slows down and the writing becomes more reflective, focusing subtley on the disconnected relationships around him. It’s a curious read, one I was fascinated by even if sometimes I had to reign in my disbelief at the plot. 

Homes

A few books I have read over the past year

I haven’t written on my blog for ages – life got in the way – but I have done tons of reading. When my mother was really ill, I found that I could only concentrate on short stories or magazines, and only recently have I started books again. However, here are a few that I have enjoyed over the past year. Only a few, as I can’t remember the titles of the others.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: at times confusing, this is a novel based on the question ‘what if?’. Ursula is the main character and Atkinson writes her life differently each couple of chapters. Such as, what if Ursula hadn’t got married, or what if this had happened to Ursula instead. It is brilliantly conceived, well written and Atkinson holds the plot together well.Image

Dominion by CJ Sansom: It wasn’t so much the quality of the writing that I liked in this book than the idea on which it was based – what if Germany had conquered England in World War II? A novel full of intrigue and spies, a real war story.

Ancient Life by John Banville: an exquisitely written book about a man remembering the illicit affair he had with his best friend’s mother when he was a teenager, and the same time dealing the memories of his daughter’s suicide. The first sentence says it all: “Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.”

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: not nearly as good as I thought it would be, but it was gripping nonetheless.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: this is one of those cross-over books that can be read by both teenagers and adults. It is a bit schmaltzy (about two dying teenagers), but pretty good in a tearful sort of way.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifke Brunt: a wonderful tale of love, art, family life and betrayal.Image

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel brought me back to viewing Kingsolver as one of my favourite authors. Based on the flight of the Monarch butterflies from Europe to Mexico, it has a fascinatingly ‘ordinary’ main character and a good depiction of a small town affected by an outside source.

Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey: Part fairy tale, part love story, part family tale, this was a wonderfully poignant novel, well worth a read.

The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton: This is not the sort of book I would usually read (sports biography) but I found it utterly fascinating. Tyler Hamilton rode with Lance Armstrong in his team for Tour de France and here exposes the extent to which doping was (and probably still is) going on. Mind-blowing.

The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese: he wrote Cutting for Stone and this book is in no way similar. One of his earlier books, it is a memoir about tennis, friendships, relationships and drugs. Not as well written as Cutting for Stone, but a fascinating read.

Thinking of a Hurricane by Martinique Stilwell: why this book has not received more press, I don’t know. When Martinique was young, her father decided that their family would sail around the world, so she, her twin brother and her parents got onto a sailing boat and set off. Her parents had never sailed before. Seven years later, Martinique got off the boat and went back to school in Alberton to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. A quite extraordinary tale – I don’t know how the family survived.Image

Heft by Liz Moore: A wonderful story about the unexpected relationship between a morbidly obese professor and a teenage American football student. Poignant but an easy read.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver: although I disliked the main character (the brother) immensely, this was a fascinating look into the world of obese people and their relationships with those close to them. It is loosely based on Shriver’s own brother who died of obesity.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: Simply the best book I have read over the past year. It’s long, a bit too long, but worth the read. She is a phenomenally good writer.

Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: beautifully evocative story about two brothers set in India and America.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty: it reminded me a bit of Gone Girl, in that I expected more from it, but it was a good gripping read nonetheless.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: Alternating between American and China, this novel focuses on a woman going in search of her father who left when she was little. Her search takes her to China, where she discovers things about her father she never knew. An easy read, but rewarding.

Perfect by Rachel Joyce: I loved this book (despite it being called Perfect, because how does one live up to that title?). In 1972, two seconds were added to time and that made all the difference in 11-year-old Byron’s life – an accident occurs that affects him and his family’s life. I’m still not sure why it was titled Perfect.Image

Wave: Life and Memories after the Tsunami by Sonali Deraniyagala: only read this if you like reading about death and extreme tragedy. I do, and so I was fascinated by this book (in a bit of a ghoulish way, I suppose). A mother loses her children and husband in the tsunami and this memoir relates how she overcomes what has happened to her.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: I also felt this novel went on a bit too long, but it was beautiful and tragic, as his books always are.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: As spooky and eerie as ever. I thoroughly enjoyed rereading it.

Short stories: I’ve read a variety of collections, mainly by Flannery O’ Connor, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, DH Lawrence, Raymond Carver. A great collection called Bloody Satisfied (local). This is How You Lose Her by Juno Diaz. Short stories are making a come back, at last. They are greatly under appreciated.Image