Book reviews written for my old STB website.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia MarquezSantiago Nasar is going to be killed, and everyone knows about it, except him, until that final moment of course. This book follows the story of how and why it happens, as seen by an unnamed outsider. Somewhat like a journalist he goes around the town and gets each person's version of the events in question, and along the way gives a fascinating insight into the culture and attitudes of the community. The two young men who commit the murder do everything in their power to avoid doing it, they really don't want to kill him, they agonise over the prospect, but feel bound by duty and honour to do it. They tell people wherever they go of their intentions in the desperate hope that someone will prevent them, and all the other people seem to know they must prevent it, that it would be a simple matter to prevent it, but mostly assume that someone else will take the responsibility for preventing it.
The book is almost funny it is so surreal. You find yourself willing someone to intervene because you can see the whole picture and where it is inevitably leading. As an outsider I could not relate to the way the people act and react, but you are not invited to judge what happens, only to observe that within the context of their cultural background their actions and reactions cause the events to take the course they do. I liked this book because it deals with the minutiae, and that is what makes the story and the characters so real. The style is very informal, you feel as if you are listening in on conversations. You feel as if you come to really understand people's concerns and motivations. It also raises bigger questions about actions and consequences, and the idea of inevitability; the death is inevitable, because of course it has already happened, but as you watch the story unfold you can see that it is also inevitable because of the characters in the story and the culture they are part of. The word 'foretold' brings to mind in me the idea of prophesy, and that is almost what it is, that the death is an inevitable consequence of the course of events and the choices of the people, and as such was unavoidable. Interesting stuff, and Marquez won the Nobel Prize in 1982 which I would consider is recommendation enough.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Published by Picador
ISBN 0 330 28095 3
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This is definitely one of those books that stays with you. I have a few books like that in my life. There are so many that you read and then they drift away, not leaving anything very much behind, and then there are the few that imprint themselves on your consciousness and won't leave you. Sometimes they just speak to you about something very personal, and sometimes they give you a glimpse of something you can hardly imagine and hope never to experience. We Need to Talk about Kevin is one of the latter. But it does not stay with me because it is shocking, but because it is so vivid. For anyone who missed the hype, Kevin commits a high school massacre. I can say that because it's not the kind of book that leads you up slowly to an unpleasant climax, you know right away that something really horrific has happened, but, although I had inklings, the twist at the end was still shocking. Eva writes the book as a series of letters to her husband. She obviously thinks it is a story he doesn't know, at least not from her perspective. The book lets you see her in all her humanity, weaknesses and insecurities abound, and yet I felt that her strength was the unspoken part of the story, the fact that she is able to tell it in the first place. She does not love Kevin, she does not even like him, she struggles to be a mother and to make sense of the way he feels about her in return.
As a parent it is a profoundly unsettling story because it has you doubting everything you thought you felt or might feel about your own children. Kevin is not likeable, he is vicious and destructive, but you only have his mother's word for this, or rather her interpretation of his behaviour. She is plagued by the idea that she has caused her son to be the person he is, and almost makes you think it too. The style is so informal and intimate you come to think of her as a close friend, with all the sympathy that implies. She tells the whole story, mixing up recent events with the history of her relationship with her son, his childhood examined in minute details, exactly as you imagine a mother would when faced with needing an explanation for such an act. For me the one weakness of the book occurs when she is visiting him in prison and Kevin makes some little aside to his mother about the need to get her attention. It felt uncharacteristic of the rest of the book, because it feels like the worst kind of cliché. Potentially, with a poor writer this book could have been packed with clichéd characters and emotional reactions, and it isn't. Confrontational would be a good way to describe it. It asks some pretty big questions about human nature. It really challenged all the smug complacent feelings I have ever had about the adults my children might turn out to be.
It reminds me somewhat of Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child which has a very similar theme. I read this one whilst pregnant, and would definitely not recommend doing that. The mother in The Fifth Child has a baby who seems, right from the start, to be in conflict, not just with her but with the whole world. She tries very hard to treat him like her other children but his presence destroys the family that she worked so hard to create. In the end she is forced to abandon him, or rather to accept that he will not be what she wants. I read this many years ago but recently found, trawling through my mum's bookshelves, one called 'Ben, in the world' which is a follow up to his story. It is sitting under the bed in the pile of ones waiting to be read.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Published by Counterpoint 2003
ISBN 1 85242 889 9
Tehanu by Ursula le Guin
I only recently discovered that there was a fifth Earthsea book, even though it was published several years ago. So, it being many years since I read them, I decided to re-read Tehanu, which is the fourth and supposedly last Earthsea book and go on to read the fifth one. For people not familiar with the original Earthsea trilogy ... tough ... go read them. I read them as a child and loved them. I have singularly failed to get any of my children to read them, though a dramatised tape of 'Wizard of Earthsea' was one of our favourites for many years until it got mangled and I was unable to replace it. Tehanu was written apparently for the original audience of the Earthsea trilogy, having been written and being set about 20 years or so after the other books. It is a much more 'adult' book, not that I would characterise the original trilogy as 'children's' books. They have wizards and dragons in them, but are about as far removed from the ubiquitous Harry P. as it is possible to be.
Tehanu is a quiet book, without big events. In it we return to the isle of Gont, where the whole story began, to Tenar (from the Tombs of Atuan) who is now a middle aged widow. Into her comfortable, routine life comes a young girl, horribly scarred by fire, whom she takes in without question. Her life takes new turns with the death of Ogion, the subsequent return of Ged and then of her son, but there is the undercurrent of magical 'corruption' behind the scenes which intrudes disruptively into the story.
What I love about Ursula le Guin's writing is that her world is so complete and her characters are so real. She assumes her readers already know what is going on, she doesn't explain anything and references to the previous stories are within the context of real conversations. She draws you right into the world with quite long descriptions of the ordinary people and their lives and their society, they have a real culture and a real history, of which you are made to feel that the story is only a very small part. For a book that was supposed to be the final part it is quite open ended, so I am glad to find I now have another.
Tehanu - Ursula Le Guin
Published by Puffin 1992
ISBN 0 14 034802 6
Send in the Idiots by Kamran Nazeer
This book is subtitled "stories from the other side of autism" and is on one level just the story of five people who had been at a specialist school together when very young, and what had become of them as adults. But on another it gives such a fascinating insight into how autistic people perceive and interact with the world. Autism is something I knew very little about, I have known a couple of autistic children, but I found this book completely absorbing. The interviews that Kamran does with his former classmates are a mixture of reminiscences, accounts of their daily lives, chats with family and friends and his own interjected explanations of how autism affects them. It was interesting to get a glimpse of a totally different way of understanding the world, and to see the lengths that these people had to go to so that they could function as independent adults.
Kamran explains at great length in the first chapter the way 'conversation' works. As he says there, "Striking up conversation with strangers is an autistic person's version of extreme sports", so for him, understanding the nature of conversation was obviously something he had worked hard at. I have never thought about it much myself but realised as I read that of course you have to analyze the process if you are going to 'learn' how to do it. What was very striking was how autistic people have to actively learn how to do all sorts of things that come naturally to most people. Despite the apparent success of the young men (they live independently and support themselves financially), you are also getting a picture of what is going on underneath the surface, the techniques they use to stay in control of unfamiliar circumstances and the strain their autism puts on their family and friends. Kamran was at pains to dispel some of the myths that surround autism, that they are all mathematical geniuses, for example. One of the men, Randall, writes poetry, but doesn't want it to be admired as 'autistic' poetry, he wants it to be just poetry. The people in the book are interesting not because they are special in some way, but precisely because they are quite ordinary.
In the final chapter Kamran meets his former teacher and the principal of the school, both of whom still work with autistic children. The principal comments to him that he is "not autistic", meaning I think that on the surface his behaviour was not distinguishable from 'normal' people. The father of Elizabeth, who committed suicide, also comments, "Why did you get better?" He acknowledges that although there is no cure for being autistic, with the right education, it is possible to 'get better'. Part of my thinking wants to object to the notion of behaviour modification, that it is wrong to take a child and force them against their nature to fit in with the rest of society, but when you read the story of Elizabeth and recognise the struggle that she endured to try and live in the world, and that in the end she could not do it, I understand that it is not quite that simple. Autistic children are in effect trapped in their own world, overwhelmed by their environment and unable to understand what is going on around them. If education is about anything it is about helping you live as full a life as possible, and the people in this book certainly manage to do that.
Send in the Idiots by Kamran Nazeer
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 97807475 8565 7
The Cap or The Price of a Life by Roman Frister
"I knew that by writing the truth and nothing but the truth I would not only hurt the feelings of other survivors but also contradict the academics who have written many important books about the extermination of six million bodies - but very few about the extermination of a single human spirit."
I had never read a holocaust memoir before and this is so much more than a holocaust memoir. Roman Frister is a renoun jounalist and writer and this autobiography weaves together his family's pre-war and wartime history with his own post-war life. The impact of the holocaust is never insignificant but it affects people in very different ways and Frister is very honest about his own experience. Despite all we might think we know about the holocaust only the people who went through it can ever understand how fundamentally the humanity of it's victims was undermined. How do you you react to such inhuman treatment? Frister reacts by refusing to bow to it. He cheats what should have been inevitable death on several occasions, by pure chance. 'Survivor guilt' destroyed many people in the years after the war, but Frister can recognise that there is no implicit moral judgement in his survival, he is not a better person than any that died, just luckier. His is essentially a selfish survival, his own life is the driving force behind all his actions and decisions. He admits to a terrible act, the one which gives the book it's title. He steals a cap from a fellow prisoner, leading directly to the other man's death. And yet you are left unable to judge him by normal standards; who amongst us can be sure we would not have done the same. He says, interestingly, at one point, reflecting on the person he might have become had not the war intervened on his father's plans for his education, that he accepts all that he has been forced to experience, that these experiences formed part of the person he is now and that is the person he wants to be. The book makes you examine your own motivations and acknowledge your own human weaknesses. Despite the horror of much of the story it is an incredibly life affirming book that tackles first hand the moral ambiguity with which we are all so often forced to live.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
It wasn't until I looked in the flyleaves of this book that I discovered he is the same David Guterson who wrote 'Family Matters: why homeschooling makes sense', not that this influences my admiration for this novel. On the surface it is a murder mystery, yet underneath it is a web of real human relationships and detailed historical context. The people in the story live a life focussed on the sea, they expect the sea to bring death, but when a man dies they look for someone to blame and undercurrents of prejudice surface and old quarrels are rekindled. It is told partly through the story of Ishmael, the editor of the local paper, and we are taken back into the history of his relationship with the accused man's wife as he gets involved in the search for the truth. The book paints a picture of an insular island community, the people who inhabit it and the intricacies of their closely intertwined relationships. You find yourself getting drawn in by the details of these people's lives, people you can't help liking in spite of, or perhaps because of, their human weaknesses. The cedars and the snow are an ever present aspect of their lives and the image of them runs as a thread through the story, the cedars symbolic of the stability that is threatened by the death and the snow a reminder of the importance of the forces of nature in their vulnerable existance. It examines too the forced enternment of Japanese families in America during World War Two and the long term impact that the war had on young men who fought in it. It is a truely intense novel that runs the gamut of your emotions, including a graphic scene where Ishmael is involved in the invasion of a Pacific island, as terrifying and uncompromising as the landing scene in 'Saving Private Ryan'. Not a book for the sentimental but at the same time it follows a real voyage of self discovery for the protagonists.
Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier
Set during the American Civil War this book follows the story of Inman and Ada, not a couple but bound together by shared experiences and an unspoken bond. The author uses alternate chapters in which to tell their respective tales. Inman's tale starts with him as a wounded soldier and takes you back through the recent past from his meeting with Ada, his experiences through the war and on to the long and dangerous journey he makes to return to her. Ada's tale is one that tells of the transformation of her life, caused by both the war and the death of her father, from one of relative ease and luxury to one of toil and struggle. She is joined by a strange girl called Ruby and together they work the farm and she develops a self reliance formerly unimaginable. The book has so many aspects that make it a brilliant read. The author is obviously drawn to the region where the story takes place and has a passion for the natural world which he describes in loving detail. His historical research draws you right into the period, both in terms of domestic details and the attitudes of ordinary people and the military and political situation. But it's not just the characters that hold you, nor the wonderful picture he draws of their experiences and environment, it's how he writes that makes this book verge on the poetic. To take a scene towards the end of the journey, Inman has been joined by others travelling the same road; "The men stood together blowing from the climb and looked at the two paths ahead of them. Their breaths hovered about them as if in concern, and then the vague shapes lost interest and vanished." (p. 345) This phrase struck me so hard that not only did I remember it but I could find it in the book with only a moment's searching to repeat it here. It is not often you find a book that combines all the aspects that make a story worth reading, and this one I could not recommend more highly than that.