A Girl is a Half-formed ThingI read this on holiday.

To be more specific, I read this while camping on a tiny Andaman island called Koh Lao Liang, sitting with my back against a Tamarind tree. Every time I looked up from this book – which was often – it was to see horizon, limestone cliffs, and the tide creeping in or out over the reef. I mention this not just to gloat, but because if I hadn’t had the privilege of reading this book on an idyllic tropical island I’d probably never have finished it.

I may be over-exaggerating. I probably would still have finished it, but I would have certainly felt altogether different about it. This is a tough read. Not because of the style – which is superb and unique, reminiscent of Joyce without being derivative – but because of the spiralling grimness of the subject matter. The mode of telling is perfectly balanced with the intensity of events: the interior world of the protagonist like a reflective surface bending, cracking and melting. A young woman, her brother’s childhood brain tumour, sexual abuse and vulnerability, and cold, wet, dark landscapes.

I’m not at all surprised that critics have described McBride as “a genius”. It’s extraordinary. I mentioned looking up from it often, because reading it feels so utterly like a deep, dark immersion into another person’s baffling, tormented consciousness; it felt necessary to come up for air.

It is beautiful and awful. If you can’t read it somewhere sunny, make sure there’s someone you can call to pick up the pieces.

photoI really thought that I liked J.K. Rowling. I read the Harry Potter series when I was just the right age to grow up with the characters. My sister and I used to re-read the books at Christmas, taking a break from proper reading. They are so readable, so zippy and skim-able; I can testify that it’s possible to get through the whole series in under two weeks if you have the time to kill. Alas, the days when I had that kind of free time are long gone.

I was curious about Rowling’s first non-Potter offering when it came out, but not curious enough to pick it up. But someone recently recommended it to me, so I figured it was time to get round to it.

I never realised how distinctive Rowling’s style is – The Casual Vacancy is stylistically identical to the Potter series. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has the same wonderful character development, the same minute details and emotional pin-point accuracy. The cast of this novel is large, and largely unlikeable – Rowling has a knack for the grotesque and pathetic, which makes for compelling reading. It is also very pacey; very easy to get through. I finished it in a few sittings, which is a recommendation in itself if you’re short on time.

My gripe with this book is with its politics, and to talk about this requires me to talk about the plot, in particular the ending. Apologies in advance for spoilers.

The action all happens in a small town, and amongst the members of the Parish Council. Certain elements in the council are keen to redraw the border of their constituency to cut loose a deprived council housing estate within their boundary. Some children from this estate attend the local schools and are more or less integrated into the social fabric of the town – albeit grudgingly. One of these children is a girl called Krystal, whose mother is a heroin addict. She has a younger brother, who she has effective sole responsibility for, because her mother cannot care for him. Krystal is frustrated not only by the almost insurmountable difficulties and various poverties of her home life, but also the prejudice and hostility that she comes up against at the genteel town school.

The ‘Casual Vacancy’ of the title is left when a Parish Councillor, who had been a champion of the estate and its residents, dies unexpectedly. This man had been a tireless campaigner for the rights of the people from the estate to enjoy the same privileges as the children of middle-class families in the town. Krystal had been close to him. At the end of the novel, Krystal and her brother also die.

Krystal and her brother, and before them the Councillor who had stood up for them, are problems for the Parish Council and the genteel little town. With their deaths the town discernably breathes a sigh of relief. Rather than deal skilfully and compassionately with the complex suffering and potential for growth of deprived communities, we have a strange and clumsy ending where the ‘troublemakers’ are removed and small-town life can continue with a clear conscience. It feels darkly comic. But that is the most generous interpretation.

Creating tidy endings where in life there are none, is the novelist’s burden. However, I cannot help but be dismayed that the smug little town and its residents are left intact at the end of this novel, while Krystal and her brother are swallowed up by circumstance. The middle classes blithely ignorant and uncaring, while real horror happens on their doorstep. Perhaps this is calculated to be shocking, and close to home. But I did not like the implication that a satisfactory conclusion can only be reached when we get rid of the messy people with insurmountable problems. I’m torn as to the intention. I will give her the benefit of the doubt and say that Rowling wants us to feel this discomfort, and condemn the ‘resolution’ of this novel. We are not invited to sympathise with the townsfolk, more to pity them: this novel is more about the hopeless complexity of human relationships and networks – and our inevitable interdependence – than social justice.

photoAfter months of:

– little bits of big books

– large chunks of course reading*

– not-quite-finishing collections of artsy short stories

– the endless churning through the LRB…

I’ve finally finished reading a novel. A whole one. The Humans. It was good. It was good because I finished it, and I finished it because it was good. A three-night read. Perfect.

In brief, and without spoilers, this novel is about a Cambridge maths professor who has solved a mathematical hypothesis that could change the course of human history, except it doesn’t. Something happens.

The Humans becomes an examination of human history; our behaviours and beliefs, at personal and global level. About how we often fail to see how small the big picture is. How we should really just give ourselves a break and laugh more. How madness is, often, relative. Life is short and often ugly – The Humans says – it doesn’t do to take it seriously, or to take kindness or beauty or pleasure for granted, however small. We should eat more peanut butter; read more poetry. Should also mention that it’s very unassumingly funny, and that’s what makes it excellent. As with humans.

Sympathetic. Compelling. Strange. Disarming. Read, please.

I’ve already managed to recommend this to everyone I’ve come in contact with, including – funnily enough – an Oxford mathematics Professor… he seemed interested. Here’s to spreading the love.

* just started the one-year PGCE programme at Oxford. Wish me luck.

IMG_2291Mitchell again. Having taken the plunge with the lesser-known The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, I thought I’d better read the one that my favourite Professor saw fit to have on her shelves. Cloud Atlas is in many ways a more ambitious novel than The Thousand Autumns… and it seems to be the novel that ‘made’ David Mitchell; shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2004.

I don’t want to say too much about it.

It’s roughly five stories going full tilt the whole way through. No mean feat. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that pulls off this fragmented and contrived style with such grace, seamlessness and panache. From the not-too-distant past to the not-too-distant future, we encounter diary entries, interviews, first-person accounts, third-person narration and love-letters. We travel through time through the beguilingly simple medium of individual narratives. Lives interweave occasionally, science fiction rears its head just visibly. The future episodes in particular are very well considered. Pollution, rampant consumerism, the failure of democracy and huge disparities in wealth, health and opportunities are big themes dealt with a light but powerful touch. Cloud Atlas shows us a plausible world gradually and irredeemably made toxic by the many and various permutations of man’s will to power.

Very, very readable.

IMG_2302A collection of short stories by a writer I know nothing about. I picked this off the shelf in the bookshop in Siam Paragon on the strength of the title alone (and its size – I was looking for beach reading). It made for strange beach reading, but that’s not to say unenjoyable.

All of these stories are set in non-specific suburban America, and I think deliberately made to read as if the location is unimportant or interchangeable. There is an anonymity, and flatness to these places. The people too are strangely featureless, except for their demons, neuroses, traumas, fixations, perversions, addictions… it’s not a happy bunch of folk. Often darkly funny. A damning portrait of the ‘American dream’. I particularly enjoyed the final story in the series ‘A Real Doll’ about a young boy playing covetously with his sister’s (despised and abused) Barbie. Imaginative and perverse. I would like to read more A.M. Homes, perhaps starting with the reassuringly titled “This Book Will Save Your Life”.

IMG_2020Another long novel. But this review, along with the two that follow, will be brief.

All this reading has taken place amidst quite large changes: the end of the teaching year, moving house; endings and beginnings that always seem to feature packing bags and assessment of the weight of belongings. I will be mired in textbooks very soon, so I have been making the most of the time I have left for fiction. I may have to leave some books behind when I leave Bangkok, and this has given me pause for thought. What could I jettison instead?

I’d never read anything by David Mitchell before this. I’d seen someone reading The Thousand Autumns… on the tube once, and also remembered seeing Cloud Atlas on the shelves of one of my English Professors at University. So far, so vague. It’s another weighty tome. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop in Kanchanaburi, and carried it around sweatily and regretfully for the rest of the day. But on a breezy balcony, I forgave it. It fully justifies its heft by its depth and intelligence. The plot starts at a slow amble – easing you deftly into the history (the Dutch East Indies Company), the culture (Japan in the late 1700s) and the characters that will populate the scenery for the next 500 or so pages – building pretty rapidly into a gallop that doesn’t ease off until you put it down. But don’t assume the pace compensates for poor craftsmanship. This is very impressive, well-researched, gripping and multi-layered storytelling.

A historical novel with elements of the magical. A seafaring novel played out mainly on land. ‘Beautiful’ is not a word that I like to use often, but it applies here. As with all great novels, it felt like it ended much too soon.

photo-2When I started reading this book I was living in London, working in a dead-end job where reading at lunch time was what got me through. I took it on holiday with me over Christmas, came back to London having discovered it’s not a beach book. I was still reading it the Christmas after that, in December 2013, in London again preparing for a move, doing a million other things. Now it’s April 2014 and a few weeks ago I finished, on a balcony in Bangkok. Life goes on. A big book will tend to make you pay attention to the passing of time in this way, I find.

I’ve mentioned on this blog before that I’ve been reading other things alongside Infinite Jest, in the year and a half that I’ve had it on my mind, my shelves, my bike. It’s not portable, is it’s major downfall. While I was reading it and making this complaint, several people suggested I get it on a Kindle/e-book device… here’s the thing; I like paper, but more than that, I honestly feel like you need the physicality of this book – it’s an important part of the experience of reading it. Thumbing dutifully back and forth to the footnotes, sometimes only to be given a crumb of reward by the author, isn’t something you could replicate without paper, and it’s part of the point. It’s a joke. I’ve tried to explain this to many people and nobody else seemed to find it funny, but bear with me.

There’s no way I can give even a comprehensive overview here, but I’m going to talk about the experience of reading this monster, and some of the themes that occur to me along the way.

If I said that this was a novel about tennis, addiction and rehabilitation, set in a dystopian future American superstate… I’d have to clarify a little to hold your attention, I’m guessing. The professional tennis academy plays host to most of our main characters – it’s an almost military operation, honing young bodies into tennis-playing machines, with grossly over-developed playing arms and uncanny ability with pure maths, physics and philosophy, but not much else. It’s one of the nerve centres of the novel. The founder of the tennis academy is also the creator of a fatally entertaining and contraband film, which the novel is named after. The other main stage is a narcotics rehabilitation centre not very far from the tennis academy, where another large chunk of the action takes place. Here is the yin to the tennis academy inmates’ yan; ruined, desperate, broken people each with a saga of personal suffering and strangeness behind them. Foster Wallace gives his novel the space and time to ensure we get to know almost everyone on these two stages, and much more besides, very well indeed.

The film, or ‘entertainment’ that the novel is named after is a good way to illustrate the quirks and conent. Anyone who watches the film becomes unable to do anything else, and invariably dies in front of this utterly compelling film; fixated, dehydrated, starving, in their own excrement and possibly surrounded by the similarly prone bodies of people who have tried to rescue them. The passive-to-pathological relationship that we have with entertainment is being played out here in a gruesome and unambiguous manner. But yeah, so what? what do we learn from this huge novel about entertainment, addiction, depression, healing and faith? I suppose we learn a lot about Foster Wallace, and that’s no bad thing.

I’d like to come back to humour, to put an end to what could be a very long, rambling, badly structured essay. I feel strongly that humour is the linchpin of this novel and to confuse oneself into thinking because of its size it must be serious is a huge mistake. It’s clever, yes, and serious about its subject/s, but it’s also very, very funny. Not all the way through, and there are moments of genuine horror, too – grotesque and horrifying and hopeless chapters that deepen the story and make it what it is – BUT the overall tone, I think, is… jest.  This is a novel about self-love and self-annihilation, the relationship between the two, and the stupidity of both. The whole way through you’ve got someone or something digging you in the ribs. Those footnotes that say “Perhaps.” or “He thought.” after you’ve flicked through 300 pages and broken your train of thought just to see what could be added are infuriating, but also entertaining – every time it happens you can picture Foster Wallace having a little chuckle to himself. Did you expect to be entertained? For the book to lay itself out for you neatly and as it should for you, the sovereign reader? Life is more complicated than that, it says. Try harder, look further.

You get laughed at. You get spun around in circles. You get teased and frustrated. You might resign yourself to just not reading the footnotes for a while. But you keep reading. Because when it comes down to it, it’s a bloody good novel about big, timeless human stuff by a lucid, ingenious writer. If I hadn’t been genuinely enjoying it every time I picked it up over the past year and a half, I would have given it up as a bad job long ago. It’s heavy, the print is small, have I mentioned that it’s unwieldy? Like an unhealthily intense love affair, it takes up too much space, makes you feel a bit guilty for seeing other books. But like that heady, maddening love affair it also makes you see god, just often enough to keep on keeping on. I won’t tell you to read it, because really who has the time? but maybe buy a copy, and see if it intrigues you enough one day to make a start. It’s worth it.