No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, February 27, 2010

2010/20: The Sacred Book of [the] Werewolf -- Victor Pelevin

We feel for a man's secret heartstrings, and when we find them we play 'Ride of the Valkyries' on them, and that brings down the entire edifice of the personality. In fact, nowadays that's not so very terrible. The edifice of the modern personality is more like a dugout than anything else -- there's nothing in it to collapse, and its conquest hardly requires any effort at all. (p. 95)

A Hu-Yi is neither human, animal nor demon: she is a magical fox. (As narrator of the novel, she uses the feminine pronoun, though apparently magical foxes are sexless, because immortal.) Thousands of years old, the twenty-first century finds her working as a high-class prostitute in Moscow, hyponotising her clients into believing they've had the best sex of their lives. Meanwhile, A Hu-Yi reads a book. (She finds Stephen Hawking halfway between horror and humour, and enjoys discussing Paglia.)

There are, of course, other magical foxes around. A Hu-Yi's sister E has married an English aristocrat, Lord Cricket, who has read too much Crowley and ended up with some improbable beliefs. Chief amongst these is his conviction that the time is right for the coming of the Super-Werewolf. In fact, if he can perform the correct ritual, he may even become this mystical being.

Then A Hu-Yi (forced to advertise on the Internet for clients after an assignation goes wrong) encounters a real werewolf, and falls in love for the first time in her very long life.

No good can come of it.

Foxes think in layers: A Hu-Yi has as many as five inner voices bickering. Quite a few of her thought processes are transcribed as numbered lists. They are noted more for reflecting and repeating opinions than for having original thoughts. A fox's mind is simply a tennis racket you can use to keep bouncing the conversation from one subject to another ... let me remark modestly that my simulated thought almost always turns out better than the original. To continue the tennis analogy, my return improves on every hard shot. (p. 136) A Hu-Yi is also fearsomely well-read (she's had plenty of time); endlessly amused by humanity (she is delightfully rude about Freud: basing the analysis of your own behaviour on Freud is about as helpful as relying on Carlos Castaneda's peyote trips. At least Castaneda has heart, poetry. But all this Freud has is his pince-nez, two lines of coke on the sideboard and a quiver in his sphincter. (p.166)); somewhat prone to lecture her new-found love on philosophy of a Zen cast, and uncomfortable with what she discovers about the magic that underlies the modern world.

I'm only happy with the ending of this novel if I think of it as a fairytale. It's a rollicking read, full of a dark humour that seems typically Russian to me though I am probably basing this largely on Bulgakov and Pushkin. There are some extremely funny scenes, and I like the framing narrative, but I'm not convinced the sleight-of-hand is completely successful.

Incidentally, the title of the book is given as The Sacred Book of Werewolf on title page and in frontmatter, and I think in the actual text: the cover shows it as The Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Possibly the cover art was proofread by whoever let several jumbled sentences through in an early chapter of the book (though not elsewhere, at least not that I noticed).

2010/19: Anil's Ghost -- Michael Ondaatje

The streets were still streets, the citizens remained citizens. They shopped, changed jobs, laughed. Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale. At university Anil had translated lines from Archilocus -- in the hospitality of war we left them their dead to remember us by. But here there was no such gesture to the families of the dead, not even the information of who the enemy was. (p.11)

Anil Tissera is a young female anthropologist who returns from a successful career in America to her native Sri Lanka. She has been employed by the UN to investigate political murders, and finds herself obliged to work with archaeologist Sarath Diyasena. They discover a skeleton buried at an archaeological site, but considerably more recent than the other remains there. They codename him 'Sailor'. The quest for Sailor's identity, his story, binds them together and makes each question their own pasts. Sarath has survived years of civil war by cultivating a peculiar detachment, but his true self emerges when he's with his brother, a doctor broken by what he's seen and what has happened to those he loves, but still determined to make a difference. (in later years he would be vivid only with strangers -- in the storm of the last stages of a party or in the chaos of emergency wards (p.223))

This was a hard, unsettling novel to read. It's not wholly linear; fragments of the protagonists' pasts are interspersed with the story of Sailor, and sometimes it's hard to place a scene within the larger timeframe. The prose is arresting, vivid, restrained. I was particularly impressed by the relationship between Anil and Sarath: a lesser novelist would perhaps have framed it in more familiar terms, as a romance or a conflict. Here it is a professional collaboration.

Anil learns something about herself and where she belongs. Sarath and his brother Gamini learn, or (more accurately) recognise, what lengths they will and must go to in order to do their jobs with honesty and clarity. The ending is not what one might expect: it's subtle, allusive, and it requires unlayering. Impressive, but grim: and yet there's light and warm rain and forest monasteries and simple rituals that retain their meaning amidst carnage and fear.

2010/18: Her Fearful Symmetry -- Audrey Niffenegger

She wanted to walk until she was exhausted enough to sleep. Instead she went into her office and looked out at the front garden in the moonlight. Let me go, she asked of whatever held her there. I want to die now, please; really die and be gone. She waited, but there was no response. Please, God, or whoever you are, please let me go. She looked out at the garden, up at the sky. Nothing happened. She understood then that no one was listening. Anything that happened to her now would be her own doing. (p.206)

The novel opens with the death of Elspeth, whose identical twin Edie is married to Jack. Elspeth, it turns out, has left her Highgate flat to Edie's daughters, Julia and Valentina, who are also identical twins -- mirror-image twins, in fact, Valentina left-handed, Julia right-handed, Valentina's heart on the right and reversed. They are intimately accustomed to one another, entirely codependent.

Elspeth, though dead, is not gone. She watches over her lover Robert, though he doesn't hear her yelling at him; watches the arrival of the twins, and their tentative reaching towards the other residents: Robert, who lives downstairs and spends most of his time in Highgate Cemetery, and Martin, who lives upstairs and hasn't left his flat for years. Valentina, it turns out, is rather more sensitive to Elspeth's presence than is Julia. And Valentina is drawn to Robert -- drawn away from Julia. Julia, meanwhile, finds herself trying to help Martin overcome his fear of the real world, and to reunite him with Marijke, his estranged wife who now lives in Amsterdam.

If The Time-Traveller's Wife was a literary novel with science-fiction tropes, this is a literary novel with horror (or ghost-story) tropes. Elspeth is a very credible ghost, with a reality that is independent of others' perceptions. She is determined, forceful and desperate; as trapped as any of the other characters, Valentina beginning to resent the forced intimacy with her twin, Martin terrified by the outside world, Robert lost and drifting without his lover. Everybody's on the cusp of sudden and violent change, and Elspeth's long-held secrets become a catalyst.

There are multiple layers of deception in this novel: the characters deceive one another and themselves, and the author deceives the reader in a way that reminds me of Iain Pears. It's a chillng and unsettling book that's evocative and precise about emotion, and isn't afraid to leaven the icy logic with humour. (Elspeth, watching TV over the twins' shoulders, develops an instant crush on David Tennant as the Doctor. And why not?) I'm keen to see which genre Niffenegger turns to for her next novel.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

2010/17: An Experiment in Love -- Hilary Mantel

...if I hurry I will lose the thread; or the narrative will be like knitting done in a bad temper. The tension goes wrong; you come back later, measure your work and find that it hasn't grown as you'd imagined. Then you must unravel it, row by row, resenting each slick twist and pull that undoes, so easily, what you laboured over; and when you work again you must do it with the used wool, every kink in it reminding you of your failure.
Our autobiographies are similar, I think; I mean the unwritten volumes, the stories for an audience of one. This account we give to ourselves of our life -- the shape changes moment by moment. We pick up the thread and we use it once, then we use it again, in a more complex form, in a more useful garment, one that conforms more to fashion and our current shape. (p.50)

Carmel grows up working-class Catholic in a Lancashire mill town; from the age of four her life's entwined with that of Karina, unlovely daughter of immigrants, who has the gift of finding the dross in everything. By the time they both end up at the same Hall of Residence in London, Carmel can't bear the thought of sharing a room with Karina; instead, she elects to share with sophisticated middle-class atheist Julianne, a classmate from the convent school that all three girls attended. It's the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties, and London is their oyster. This is a freedom that Carmel never dreamt of.

An Experiment in Love is a layered novel. There's a layer that's about girls from different backgrounds being brought together in the hothouse of a single-sex Hall of Residence, Tonbridge Hall. Another layer is about control of the body; haircuts, anorexia, the Pill, pregnancy, abortion. Another layer is about Carmel's relationship with her mother. (This layer resonated strongly with me; the angry mother, the letters sent in haste and, perhaps, repented at leisure.) Yet another layer is about class and education: the opportunities open to an academically-minded working-class girl in that era. There's a layer about learning to be an adult -- if not from one's parents, then from books and from one's peers. And perhaps the novel's most important layer is about love -- not the humdrum mundanity of Carmel's relationship with her teenage sweetheart Niall, but the relationships between the girls.

Carmel is at pains to distinguish between love and sex: ...women carry this faculty into later life; the faculty for love, I mean. Men will never understand it till they stop confusing love with sex, which will be never.Even today there are ten or twenty women I love ... I would no more go to bed with any of them than I would drown myself. (p.56) She loves several of her friends in Tonbridge Hall. What she feels for Karina is altogether more complex. And what those friends feel for Carmel is entirely opaque -- to her, if not to us.

An Experiment in Love knows it's a novel ("like girls in novels that predate this one", p.138) which sits uneasily with the way it's presented as autobiography sparked by a photograph in the newspaper.

I can't help wondering if this is the Mantel novel that seemed, to a friend, a disturbingly similar rewrite of another author's book; and I wonder if that other book was Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means, which is referenced on page 18 ("we haven't the class for Girls of Slender Means," says Carmel to Julianne.) I want to read that other book now, and explore the similarities for myself.

2010/16: Magic for Beginners -- Kelly Link

"I want [the story] to be about good and evil and true love, and it should also be funny. No talking animals. Not too much fooling around with the narrative structure. The ending should be happy but still realistic, believable, you know; and there shouldn't be a moral although we should be able to think back later and have some sort of revelation." (p. 248)

The person speaking those words is doomed, doomed: they are in a Kelly Link story and ... okay, yes, some of the above are true of each story in this collection, but none of them are all true at the same time.

This is the thing she likes about backwards. You start off with all the answers, and after a while, someone comes along and gives you the questions, but you don't have to answer them. (p.249)

The narrative structure of Link's stories is seldom straightforward. Beginning, middle, meandering, looping, nesting ... the end of the story, the fates of the characters, are seldom explicit. Sometimes it's as though there's the beginning of another story instead. (Just like life.)

There's a dream-logic to some of the stories: an arbitrary task that must be done to perfection before things can be put right; something or someone that is 'really' something else, recognisable to the dreamer -- I mean the reader; that kind of almost scornful explanation of the obvious that isn't obvious at all.

And Link -- or at least The Author -- is present in her stories. "They argued -- I'm not allowed to tell you what they fought about." She's at the mercy of her characters and her narratives. She'd love to tell us more, but it's not permitted.

The stories are peppered with casual brilliance ("Life, like red hair or blue eyes, is a recessive gene"): occasionally I was too distracted by the details to concentrate on the whole. And I was never quite sure if I'd actually understood anything. But ... yes, I think back later and have some sort of revelation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2010/15: The Lions of Al-Rassan -- Guy Gavriel Kay

"My faith? I would put it differently, my lord. I would say, my history ... Our sages, our singers, the khalifs of the eastern world. ... Every people has its zealots. They come, and change, and come again." (p. 457)

Though labelled as 'fantasy', this is not a typical fantasy novel. No magic, no mythical beasts, no overt action by gods: no great prophecies to be fulfilled, no quest, no plot tokens. The Lions of Al-Rassan is, instead, an alternate history: Kay's approach to writing about medieval Spain, with its complex interactions of Moor and Jew and Christian, by transplanting the situation to a world with two moons where the Asharites, the Kindath and the Jaddites pace out the measures of an uneasy dance.

If I knew the history of medieval Spain better I'd have found more layers in this novel -- which is not to say that it doesn't work without in-depth knowledge, because it's a powerful novel about faith and pragmatism, loyalty and honour. Kay focusses on three protagonists: Rodrigo Belmonte, Jaddite soldier; Amman ibn Khairan, Asharite poet and diplomat; Jehane bet Ishak, Kindath physician, who finds herself fascinated by both men and by the precarious friendship between them. There are a host of other memorable characters, including Belmonte's wife (the redoubtable Miranda) and Alvar de Pellino, a young soldier whose loyalties are sorely strained by the exigencies of war. Kay's desert zealots, the Muwardi, are a weak point, though: they're primitive, unlikeable, credibly motivated but without redeeming features.

Kay doesn't attempt to disguise the historical origins of his story. Why transplant it to an imagined world? Perhaps to avoid offence; perhaps for the freedom to invent viewpoint characters and rewrite incidents as they should have happened.

The Lions of Al-Rassan starts slowly and with a little too much info-dumping, but once the protagonists had been introduced I was eager to see how their lives would entwine. Kay's style is resonant, poetic without being overwritten, very visual. He has a taste for misdirection (or at least letting the reader go along with the characters' perceptions) which vexed me slightly at the end of the novel. Overall, though, extremely readable and well-written.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

2010/14: The Paper Eater -- Liz Jensen

Who would use red biro to address a letter? I'm not used to colour. Who would write in that stagey way, all loops and squirls?
A woman, that's who.
A marauder.
I chew over this thought, and others: dreams, fears, ghostly detritus, stray memories, and wild wishes; my mental cud; the unfinished and unfinishable business of a graunched heart. (p.44)

Liz Jensen's novels (at least the ones I've read: My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax) could be described as 'SF for people who won't read SF'. The Paper Eater is no exception: there's an artificial mid-Atlantic island (Atlantica) run by an AI (Liberty), a bureaucracy imploding under its own weight, consumerism run amok, people who exist only as data ...

Harvey Kidd is a prisoner on a penal ship, bound for Atlantica, where there will be a Final Adjustment -- an execution. Harvey's afraid it'll be his cell-mate, serial killer John. He seeks distraction in his hobby, which is making papier-mache the old-fashioned way: chewing up paper (in this case redundant criminal dossiers) to make the pulp. Harvey chews and muses: he remembers his family, his life on Atlantica, and Hannah Parks, the industrial psycho-statistician who questionnaired him after his arrest.

Meanwhile Hannah -- who is Not Good With People -- is trying to make sense of the data she's been given, and of her elevated status within Atlantica's bureaucracy, and of her relationship with her mother. (One of these things is doomed to failure.) It's beginning to make a horrid sort of sense ...

I'm not sure I buy the motivation behind Harvey's arrest (why not just invent?) or the rapidity with which his story's accepted by the mob. An enjoyable read, though: The Paper Eater is full of wry wit, some neat tricks and some sharp social observations.

2010/13: The Weight of Numbers -- Simon Ings

The voice of Mission Control comes through uncluttered by translation: We have loss of signal as Apollo Eleven goes behind the moon. Velocity 7,664 feet per second, weight 96,012 pounds. We're seven minutes and forty-five seconds away from lunar orbit insertion.
Seven minutes and forty-five seconds later, the means and timing of Anthony Burden's departure from Lourenço Marques have all been dealt with, quickly and without fuss. The false name on his documents sounds the only unorthodox note. Otherwise he might be any other independent traveller signing aboard a tramp steamer.
Apollo Eleven, Apollo Eleven, this is Houston, can you read me? (p. 228)

The Weight of Numbers is told from a number of different viewpoints -- an anorexic actress, a rootless sailor, a refugee psychiatrist, a tortured genius -- though only Saul Gogan, activist and aid-worker transformed by his experiences in Mozambique to something darker, gets first-person narration. Everything is interconnected, everybody is linked: I spent an hour or so flipping through the novel and mapping relationships. D is the child who was abducted by G, who was accidentally shot by N, who ...

The action moves from Sixties America to London during the Blitz to Mozambique mid-coup to desolate marshland. What goes around comes around: people meet and part and meet again, not recognising one another, not knowing how their lives have affected other people's lives. There's chances met and chances missed -- Kathleen, another mathematical genius, misses her chance to be part of Britain's war effort through over-zealous security; conversations are interrupted just before the meaningful fact can be uttered ...

I'm not sure whether it all comes together in the end or not. Is this a novel about missed chances, or about coincidence, or about the experiences (harrowing or trivial) that turn around a life? Is it, in the end, about the infinite variety of human life and the precious fragility of life on earth? Is it about one's sins finding one out? And where do the numbers come in?

Beautifully written but I don't think I -- ha! -- connected with it: I came away with a sense of hollowness at the heart of the novel. Perhaps that's simply because I didn't like any of the characters: they are all complex, shaded and nuanced, wonderfully human (warts and all), but I didn't warm to any of them.

Friday, February 12, 2010

2010/12: Lucky You -- Carl Hiaasen

Grange, which initally had impressed Squires as a prototypical tourist-grubbing southern truck-stop, now seemed murky and mysterious. Weird vapours tainted the parochial climate of sturdy marriages, conservatively traditional faiths and blind veneration of progress -- any progress -- that allowed slick characters such as Bernard Squires to swoop in and have their way. (p.379-80)

JoLayne Lucks buys a winning lottery ticket; unfortunately, so do a couple of rednecks, Bode and Chub, who really don't want to share the jackpot, especially with a Black woman. JoLayne's in luck, though: veteran news reporter Tom Krome has been assigned to write a cheerful human-interest story (which will run with an alliterative headline playing on JoLayne's surname) about her win, and it turns out he's a good man to have around when the going gets tough.

Needless to say, in Hiaasen's hands this turns into an epic chase, with all manner of personable (though not necessarily likeable) local colour cheering or booing from the sidelines. I read and enjoy Hiaasen's crime novels for a number of reasons: the humour, the characters (especially the women, who are tough and self-assured), the ecological angle (less central here than in some of his others), the odds-on chance of a happy ending.

This isn't a novel packed with mindless violence, unless you count a vicious attack by an enraged crustacean. Nobody gets murdered. (Well, there's a murder-by-omission if you squint.) There is redemption (Shiner), closure (Mary Andrea), justice (Judge Battenkill). There are turtles! And religious visions! And the protagonists, despite -- as far as I can tell -- never really working out what's going on around them, do the right thing, triumph over malice and chaos and sheer stupidity, and come out smelling of roses. Great fun: nobody else does it quite like Carl Hiaasen.

2010/11: History Play -- Rodney Bolt

This book has not been an attempt to prove that Christopher Marlowe staged his own death, fled to the Continent and went on to write the works attributed to Shakespeare. It assumes that as its starting point... By assuming the seemingly preposterous I have hoped to shake up our notions of the possible, or at the very least to look a little more sharply at how we construct truth. I have done this in a spirit of fun, and with the intention of a little saucy iconoclasm. (p.314)

Witty, erudite and curiously credible alternate history, if that's the right word for a book that purports to document and analyse the post-1593 career of Christopher Marlowe.

Bolt is open about his sources, real and fictional -- there are extensive end-notes -- and doesn't have to stretch the truth too much to make a narrative as coherent as the thing we call history. Bolt does invent a few supporting characters, the most vivid of whom is Oliver Laurens, an old schoolfriend of Marlowe's, who aids, abets, couriers and comments. And he does give into the temptation to have Marlowe encounter everybody who was anybody (from Monteverdi to Cervantes, Rosencrantz to Rubens), though there's a good case to be made for Renaissance Europe being quite a small network of scholars, poets, artists, and other riff-raff.

(I confess I laughed out loud at Bolt's Kit Marlowe (in disguise as a Fleming) telling Monteverdi to skip the classics and instead have as subject of his new-fangled 'opera' thingie the tale of a mad Moor. Hold your horses, sir: Verdi doesn't get around to Othello for nearly 300 years ... and anyway, someone has to write the play first.)

Bolt's Shakespeare is an overreaching fellow, ambitious without talent, only too happy to pass Marlowe's plays as his own (and make occasional unauthorised amendments, to Marlowe's disgust). Bolt is not very kind to Shakespeare, as is evident from his chosen Foreword, allegedly by 'Sam L. Clements D. Litt.' (it's a slightly-adapted reproduction of chapter three of Mark Twain's Is Shakespeare Dead?). If Shakespeare had owned a dog ... we know he would have mentioned it in his will. If a good dog, Susannah would have got it; if an inferior one his wife would have got a dower interest in it. (p. xvi)

Incidentally, Bolt is rather kinder to Thomas Kyd, who swore under torture that some incriminating papers in his room dated back to Marlowe's presence two years before. We must reserve judgement on a man who had not tidied up in two years. (p. 198)

There's cunning use of anagrams, ciphers, allusion and echo: Bolt traces the hand-to-mouth life of an exile, complete with creative crises, extravagant love affairs, and a dose of the clap, through references to 'Shakespeare's' plays. I spotted one or two minor glitches, which probably means there are others. For instance, Bolt seems (p. 63) to read 'not yet two score' as 'under twenty': it's 'under forty'. On the whole, though, the fiction's well-constructed, and there's no difficulty separating genuine historical fact(oid) from flight of fancy.

I am not a Marlovian (though Bolt raises a couple of good objections to Shakespeare as Onlie Begetter etc: no eulogy for Elizabeth? No ode for her successor James? Not a single book in his possession at his death?). I don't believe in the story set out here -- but I have suspended disbelief, and to an extent engaged my enthusiasm for story, because of the sheer sparkling bravado of History Play. Play's the thing!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

2010/10: Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon -- Lisa Goldstein

"... What you call magic is all about us, to be seen by everyone. The world of the Fair Folk and our world are the same ... and more and more people are coming to see that. London becomes daily more fantastical." (p.214)

London, 1590. Alice Wood is a sensible widow of fifty who sells books in St Paul's Churchyard. She had a son, Arthur, but she hasn't seen him for years, and has grown accustomed to thinking of him as dead -- then a strange man comes asking after him, saying that he and his people owe Arthur a great debt.

Some of Alice's friends and acquaintances (that riot of young men, Nashe and Kyd and Marlowe, "very much like the plays they wrote, glorious and fantastical but not really fit for daily use" (p. 19)) have mysteries of their own to solve. Who is plotting against Queen Elizabeth? Can an intelligencer's work ever be over and done with? Is Gabriel Hervey worth apologising to?

And out past Finsbury Fields, a court in exile is gathering.

This is very much Alice's story, and the quiet grace of the prose fits her well. Through her eyes the alchemical marriage of Oriana and the Red King, the nature of the boy she raised as a son, and the arts of her cat-loving friend Margery are given a human dimension. The petty nastinesses of everyday life -- institutionalised sexism, a spurned suitor, London in the heat of a plaguey summer -- are obstacles that Alice is equipped to overcome.

I wanted to like this book more: I probably shouldn't have read it so soon after Elizabeth Bear's account of Faerie's interaction with Elizabethan playwrights. Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is a more measured work than Bear's, subtler, less headlong and less packed with plot: I didn't really feel that her characters -- except Alice Wood and Tom Nashe -- came to life.

2010/09: The Gate of Angels -- Penelope Fitzgerald

"Why should a young woman, or any woman, have to account for her comings and goings? Why should she know her name if she doesn't want to? All that we have the right to ask is, do the higher elements in her nature predominate? Are her feet on the path to joy? Is she in harmony with the new century?"
"I'm not quite certain, Mrs Wrayburn," said Fred. "What did she say herself?" (p. 68)

Set in Cambridge, 1912, in the imaginary College of St Angelicus (motto 'Estoy in mis trece': "It is translated as 'I have not changed my mind', but 'nothing doing' might be nearer." (p.17). Fred Fairly, son of a country rector, joins the college as a junior Fellow, and finds his faith -- and his belief in the soul -- waning in the strong light of Rutherford and Thomson's ideas about the atom. His life is not immune to chaos, though: on a dark night on the Guestingly Rd, Fred is involved in a bicycle accident and encounters Daisy.

Daisy is working-class, alone in the world, and has recently lost her position as a nursing probationer due to a well-intentioned flouting of the rules. She is in Cambridge to seek work at the mental hospital run by a Dr Sage -- and, perhaps, to undertake a baser kind of bargain.

But Fred is in love ...

The eponymous Gate of Angels is the gate in the south-west wall, which nobody has authority to open or close. On two occasions, points out Dr Matthews (the Provost of James', and given to writing ghost stories to be read aloud after supper) the gate has been found standing open: on the 21st May 1423, and once in 1869. Dr Matthews finds this suspicious. "If it were to stand open, who or what do you imagine might come in?" (31)

And thereby hangs the tale: a tale which on the page is slight and inconclusive, yet which suggests a larger story happening around it.

Fitzgerald's writing seems bland at first, but she makes every detail count, even if the significance isn't at first apparent. The reader has to work, too, and not be distracted by Dr Matthews' grisly tales or the deftly-drawn minor characters. Or by the thought of Rupert Brooke as Mephistopheles, which I suspect I enjoyed more than poor Daisy: "Of Doctor Faustus, however, she did not know the words." (155)

2010/08: The Virgin Suicides -- Jeffrey Eugenides

A photograph survives of that night (Exhibit #10). The girls are lined up in their party dresses, shoulder to square shoulder, like pioneer women. Their stiff hairdos ("hairdon'ts", Tessie Nepi, the beautician, said) have the stoic, presumptious quality of European fashions enduring the wilderness ... the photograph still conveys the pride of attractive offspring and liminal rites. An air of expectancy glows in the girls' faces. Gripping one another, pulling each other into the frame, they seem braced for some discovery or change of life. Of life. That, at least, is how we see it. Please don't touch. We're going to put the picture back in its envelope now. (p. 119)

First novel by the author of Middlesex, a novel which I enjoyed and admire. Not so impressed with The Virgin Suicides. The haunting, humorous and tender story of the brief lives of the five Lisbon sisters, says the blurb: perhaps I'm losing my sense of humour, but the only humour I found here was pitch-black, mordant, gallows humour.

The story's a simple one, set in suburban America around, at a guess, 1970. After the death of Cecilia Lisbon, her four older sisters are permitted by their overprotective parents to go out on a date. Needless to say, things don't go according to plan; the girls are withdrawn from school and forbidden to leave the house; see title for summary, though it's not wholly true.

There are two narrative idiosyncrasies about this novel: first, more trivially, that it's a book that signals its ending in title and on the first page, so that the reader knows what happens but not the how and why of it. (Whether the how and why are any clearer at the end of the novel is left as an exercise for other readers.) Secondly and fascinatingly, it's written in first person plural: the narrative voice is 'we', a hive-mind of the boys who watch the rise and fall of the Lisbon sisters, who clutch magpie-like to the relics of their lives (LPs, postcards, the memory of a brassiere draped across a crucifix, anecdotal evidence about the treasures concealed in the girls' shared bathroom) and remain obsessed by the memory of the Lisbon girls twenty years later. The narrative voice never names itself, though it refers to parts of itself -- Mark Peters, Demo Karafilis, David Black.

The novel's also about the breakdown of the neighbourhood: the devastating effects of Dutch Elm disease (without trees there were no leaves to rake, no piles of leaves to burn (p. 244)), the decline of the American auto industry, the spiritual bankruptcy of capitalism, the death of the American dream et cetera. Perhaps if I were American it would resonate more strongly with me, the Lisbon girls as metaphor for a generation or a way of life or for the innocence with which they were observed, the hunger with which their memory was pursued, by the nameless 'we' of the narrative.