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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Review of GOLDEN CHILD by Claire Adam (New Release)

3 Stars
Clyde and Joy Deyalsingh live in rural Trinidad with their 13-year-old twin sons, Peter and Paul.  The novel opens with Paul’s having gone for a walk after school and not returning home.  While Clyde waits and looks for his son, he flashes back to the birth of his sons and their early years.  Peter is the golden child who from an early age has been acknowledged as a genius destined for greatness.  Paul suffered from hypoxia at birth and was almost immediately labeled as “slightly retarded” so there are few expectations for his future.  Though Paul struggles with learning, Joy insists that the boys go to the same school so Peter can look after Paul, though Clyde feels Peter should not be responsible for his brother.   This family ends up facing a Sophie’s Choice dilemma.

The time period is not specifically mentioned but references to pop culture (like the television show Dallas) and the petrochemical industry suggest the 1980s.  What is emphasized is that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the world of the Deyalsingh family.  Because Clyde is not well-educated, his opportunities are limited and so his economic situation insecure.  There is also rampant lawlessness and corruption.  The Deyalsinghs, like everyone else, have locked gates and guard dogs though these do not prevent a violent burglary of their home.  Violence, often connected to drugs, is commonplace, and Clyde and Joy’s extended family is not untouched. 

The narrative focuses on Clyde’s perspective.  Clyde wants to be a good father; he works hard to provide for his family and stays away from any criminal activity.  He is obsessed with securing a good future for Peter, the “anointed one.”  When Paul disappears, Clyde is worried though he seems more angry; he sees Paul as a troublemaker who even “provoked the bandits” and endangered Joy during the robbery, so his disappearance after an argument is the behaviour Clyde expects.  Unfortunately, when Clyde is faced with making a life-altering choice, focus shifts to other characters so his reasoning and his psychological struggle are only superficially examined.

The perspectives of Paul and Father Kavanagh, a priest at the school who takes an especial interest in helping Paul, are also included.  Father Kavanagh disagrees with the label which has been attached to Paul, and one of Paul’s fondest memories is that of Father Kavanagh telling him, “’It’s very plain to see that you’re not [mentally retarded]. . . . Listen to me.  You’re not.’”  From Paul’s perspective we see a shy, sensitive boy.  He may be dyslexic but he is not incapable of learning.  A description of his sleeping arrangements points out his gentle nature and his position in the family.  He shares a bed with his brother:  “He only has a narrow space at the edge of the bed because Peter is taking up so much room.  He could, in theory, kick him back over to his side: that’s what Peter would do, if it was Paul taking up too much space.  But he doesn’t mind.  He likes to watch the gentle rise and fall of Peter’s back as he breathes.”  It is heart-breaking to read his observation that “Only Peter can please Daddy.  Everything Peter does is perfect, and everything he does is wrong.”

Peter’s point of view is not really given.  Including it would have given the novel more depth.  How does it feel to be the favourite child?  Does he resent having to look after his brother?  Joy’s perspective is also missing.  Considering the involvement of her brother in her family’s affairs, does she feel particularly betrayed?  Family dynamics are central to the book but insufficiently explored.

The pacing is uneven.  The novel begins very slowly and I found myself wondering about the nature of the main conflict.  Only two-thirds into the novel does this become clear, and then the pace picks up.  Unfortunately, at this point there’s a disturbing scene involving Treats and Paul that seems gratuitous.  The end comes almost too quickly but certainly leaves the reader questioning what he/she would do in similar circumstances. 

This is not a bad novel.  It could, however, be a much better novel if certain aspects were more developed.  Given its short length, this book feels almost like an outline. 

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Review of MEET ME AT THE MUSEUM by Anne Youngson

4 Stars
This novel came to my attention because it was on the shortlist for the Costa First Novel Award, the same award that last year brought us Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  Then I became more intrigued when I learned that the author wrote this debut novel at the age of 70. 

This is an epistolary novel featuring the 18-month correspondence between Tina Hopgood, a farmer’s wife in East Anglia, and Anders Larsen, a curator at the Silkeborge Museum in Denmark.  This museum houses the Tollund Man, an Iron Age man found in a Danish bog in 1950.  An interest in this Tollund Man, who has a very serene expression on his face, prompts Tina to write to the museum.  Slowly a friendship develops between her and the curator.

Initially, the letters are very formal.  The salutations are “Dear Mr. Larsen” and “Dear Mrs. Hopgood” and the closings are “Regards, Anders Larsen, Curator” and “Sincerely, Tina Hopgood”.  Gradually there is a shift in tone to “Dear Tina” and “Dear Anders” and “With all my good wishes, Anders” and “Love, Tina”.  At first the letters, especially Anders’, are dry and factual but they slowly become warm and confiding.  They express their thoughts and feelings and discuss regrets, losses, and disappointments, as well as spouses and children, music and poetry. 

Tina mentions that she writes to help clarify her thoughts:  “I am writing to you to make sense of myself.”  Later, she comments, “when I sit down to write to you it seems as if all the strings holding my conscious mind together come loose and let my subconscious leak out.”  But the letters work in other ways as well.  Tina says, “writing to you has begun to feel like talking to [Bella, her best friend who recently died]” while Anders writes about “the comfort it has given me to be able to share”.  Anders admits that he begins to pay more attention to the natural world, as Tina does, and that he listens more carefully because he wants to accurately relate what happened. 

The two correspondents are very different in many ways.  Hers is an outdoor life full of physical labour and she lives in a cluttered English farmhouse; his is an indoor, cerebral life and he lives in a Scandinavian house that could be described as minimalist.  But what they share is more important.  They are thoughtful and reflective and both are lonely. 

It is obvious from the beginning that Tina is not happy with her life.  She married young, “before it was quite the right time” and “became bogged down, almost literally, in the life of a farmer’s wife. . . . My life has been a buried one.”  She complains that the farmhouse “and all its contents are like the mud collecting on my boots as I walk the dog round the fields in a rainy season.  Holding me back, weighting me down, limiting how far I can travel.”  She speaks of feeling that she has “sacrificed my life . . . for nothing” so her life has no meaning because she has “done so little, achieved so little,” always having a sense of being “in the wrong room all my life, the room where nothing was happening.”

Tina also wonders about the road she did not travel:  “what is it that I have missed by having closed off so many choices so early in my life?”  Anders has similar thoughts:  “I wake in the night and wonder if, after all, I have wasted my chances and should have done something different with the time and the talents I have been given.”  He thinks about his archaeological work and wonders “whether it was a worthwhile way to spend a life” and asks Tina, “At least what you do produces food.  How does what I do benefit anyone?” 

The theme is that regardless of age, change is possible.  Both Tina and Anders are of an age when “there is more behind us than ahead of us,” but they conclude that “Nothing is so fixed it cannot be altered.”  A somewhat homely image of picking raspberries is used to emphasize that a second chance is possible so one does not overlook “many of the fruits in this life.”  Tina describes picking berries:  “Whenever I pick raspberries, I go as carefully as possible down the row, looking for every ripe fruit.  But however careful I am, when I turn round to go back the other way, I find fruit I had not seen when approaching the plants from the opposite direction.  Another life, I thought, might be like a second pass down the row of raspberry canes; there would be good things I had not come across in my first life.”  The two begin to speak of trying new things as picking raspberries and “the need to pick as many as possible” in the time given. 

On the surface, this is a simple novel, but its reflections on life and the passage of time are perceptive.  It is a delightful read with an ending some may not like but I think is perfect.  Its style reminded me of Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, but it has a more thoughtful tone.  Tina speaks of the Tollund Man and “his serenity, his dignity, his look of wisdom” and that description fits the book:  it is serene, dignified and wise. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Review of NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney

3 Stars
The Costa Book Awards (in the novel and first novel categories) have always impressed me.  I’ve read and enjoyed many of the winners from past years.  This year I decided to read all four nominees for the novel award.  To the first 3 I read, I awarded at least 4 stars:  The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2018/12/review-of-silence-of-girls-by-pat-barker.html) and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2019/01/review-of-from-low-and-quiet-sea-by.html) and The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/2019/01/review-of-italian-teacher-by-tom-rachman.html).   I just finished Normal People which is the last one on the shortlist; unfortunately, I can’t give it an equally high rating.  Of course, it is the book that won the award as the best novel!

The novel tells the relationship story of Marianne and Connell between January 2011 and February 2015.  They are young people who begin a clandestine romance in their last year of high school.  They then attend Trinity College in Dublin where they drift in and out of each other’s lives; they have romantic/sexual relationships with others but always return to being lovers.  

Marianne, who comes from a wealthy family, is very intelligent but has poor self-esteem and is a social outcast in high school.  Connell, who is raised by a working class single mother, is also very intelligent; though he is shy, he is very popular because he excels at sports.  In university, the tables are turned.  Connell finds life lonely because he has “no reputation to recommend him to anyone.”  It is Marianne who fits in and her relationship with Connell opens doors for him:  “To be known as her boyfriend plants him firmly in the social world, establishes him as an acceptable person, someone with a particular status, someone whose conversational silences are thoughtful rather than socially awkward.” 

There is not much to the plot.  The two are romantically involved and then some misunderstanding results in their breaking up and finding alternate partners.  Then they reconnect until another miscommunication causes a rift.  For example, Connell moves back to his hometown for a summer because he doesn’t have the money to pay for rent and he’s too proud to ask Marianne if he can live with her.  Marianne, who has access to money, doesn’t think to ask him to move in because in her financially secure world people do what they want.  As a consequence, they end up apart, each thinking the other wants a break.  Sometimes it seems they don’t communicate at all.  For instance, it is not until two-thirds of the way through the novel, after they’ve known each other for 4 years and even though Connell’s mother once worked for Marianne’s mother, that Marianne finally talks to Connell about the real nature of her relationship with her mother and brother?  For two people who are supposed to be so connected, they are often disconnected.  They certainly have difficulty communicating clearly and understanding each other!  I was reminded of a soap opera where it is obvious two characters are meant to be together but they have an on-off relationship because of constant misunderstandings. 

Characterization is problematic.  Connell and Marianne are not especially likeable characters.  Connell strikes me as weak because of “how savagely he had humiliated [Marianne]” by a choice he makes at the end of high school and has an “inability to apologise or even admit he had done it.”  His later criticism of other men who behave boorishly suggests a lack of self-knowledge.  Marianne is too submissive; though we learn there is a reason for her pliant behaviour, one would expect her to stand up more for herself.  The physical and psychological abuse she keeps accepting from her brother Alan makes no sense.

Other characters are unrealistic.   Connell’s and Marianne’s mothers are foils; one is the “good mother”:  loving, kind to everyone, and wise.   The other is the “bad mother”:  emotionally distant and actively encouraging of Adam’s abuse of his sister.  One has no negative qualities; the other has no positive ones.  The young men all seem to be sexually exploitative; the young women are needy, always valuing themselves only in relation to men and being willing to do anything to be loved.  The various young people are not differentiated and so are interchangeable and unmemorable. 

I’m sure some readers will like the novel’s attention to detail; the book is like a microscope being used to magnify the thoughts and feelings of two people and to dissect their relationship.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of extraneous detail.  For example, there is a lot of description of preparing tea:  “She started to fill the kettle, while he leaned against the countertop” and “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch” and “The kettle started to warm up and she took a clean mug down from the press” and “She takes two teabags from the box and tamps them down into the cups while the kettle is boiling” and “She fills the kettle and takes cups down from the press” and “She gets up to fill the kettle.  He watches her idly while she tamps her teabag down into her favorite cup” and “The kettle clicks its switch and she lifts it out of the cradle.  She fills one of the cups and then the other.”  And do we really need a lesson on how a corkscrew works:  “Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. . . . Connell unpeels the foil from the top of the bottle . . . He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards . . . He folds down the arms of the corkscrew and lifts the cork from the neck of the bottle”?!

The theme of the novel seems to be that “people can really change one another.”  In case the reader misses it, the theme is carefully detailed at the end:  “He would be somewhere else entirely, living a different kind of life.  He would be different with women even, and his aspirations for love would be different.  And Marianne herself, she would be another person completely.  Would she ever have been happy?  And what kind of happiness might it have been?  All those years they’ve been like two little plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions. . . . They’ve done a lot of good for each other.”  Yet Marianne remains submissive and Connell still seems weak!

I’m not the appropriate audience for this book since I have little interest in the sex lives of Millennials.  To me, the novel seems little more than a romance trying to be literary.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review of BLEAK HARBOR by Bryan Gruley

3 Stars
Danny Peters, an autistic teenager, disappears and his kidnapper demands $5.145 million.  His mother Carey and his stepfather Pete both have secrets involving their own less-than-strictly-legal activities, so as they try to raise the ransom, they each fear that they bear some responsibility by bringing criminal people into their lives.  Carey approaches her mother Serenity, the very wealthy matriarch of the town, and Pete speaks to a rich businessman who once fired him.

There is a major plot twist which I found implausible.  The person responsible for Danny’s disappearance is a mastermind who has planned for possible problems and sees everything that Carey and Pete do.  Then in the end, this person’s motives are rather unclear.

Characters are not fully developed.  One reason is that the author withholds information so as to misdirect the reader and create suspense.  Everyone (e.g. Danny’s biological ex-con father, Pete’s employee at his medical marijuana dispensary, Carey’s boss, the policewoman searching for Danny, the F.B.I. agent who joins the investigation, Serenity’s personal assistant, a barkeep) seems to have a secret and a personal agenda.  Some characters, like Serenity, are just caricatures. 

Danny is a highly functioning autistic and the portrayal of someone with that diagnosis is interesting.  People tend to make assumptions about him, some even calling him “retarded”, but it is obvious from the beginning that he is very intelligent. 

The town of Bleak Harbor, Michigan, is holding a Dragonfly Festival when Danny disappears, and the dragonfly, one of Danny’s obsessions, serves as a metaphor.  Though they are pretty and seem harmless, there is repeated reference to their “cruelly efficient jaws and serrated teeth” and “terrible jaws, their knives for teeth”. 

The book is an easy read, though trying to remember everyone’s agendas does require some focus.  The novel is fast-paced with a lot of dialogue so is also a quick read.  It initially keeps the reader’s interest, but as the mastermind’s manipulations pile up, I became annoyed because credibility is sacrificed.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review of LAST NIGHT IN NUUK by Niviaq Korneliussen (New Release)

3 Stars
This is the first novel I’ve ever read written by a Greenlander, so I was really looking forward to it.

The main characters are five young Greenlanders who live in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.  Fia; Inuk, Fia’s brother; Arnaq, Inuk’s best friend and Fia’s temporary roommate; Sara, Fia’s love interest; and Ivik, Sara’s partner, spend their nights engaging in partying and excessive drinking.  Each of the five receives a chapter where we learn about his/her struggles with gender and/or sexual identity.

The five young people have much in common.  Each experiences self-loathing, shame, fear, confusion, and depression.  All feel very alone and engage in self-destructive behaviours.  All yearn for love.  Despite the prevalence of negative emotions, hope is not entirely absent.  The suggestion seems to be that if people find their true identities and accept themselves, they can transform and be reborn. 

The hopefulness I tended to find a bit too earnest.  Were there not some hope, this would be a very depressing novel, but the problem is that some of the characters experience figurative bolts of lightning which transform them.  For example, one woman witnesses the birth of her niece and her immediate, almost overpowering love for this child and her innocence motivates a total change in outlook?  Another character experiences love at first sight and it brings about an epiphany? 

I have not experienced struggles of the type described in the book so had some difficulty identifying with the characters and wondered about how realistically characters’ conflicts were portrayed.  For instance, one character is in a lesbian relationship but a dislike of being touched sexually leads to the conclusion that she is transgender.  Is this a realistic description of gender dysphoria?  I imagine the novel would definitely appeal to people from the LGBTQIA+ community.

This is a contemporary novel and the narrative style reflects that.  Stream-of-consciousness, emails, text messages, hashtags, and social media postings are used.  Stream-of-consciousness predominates; the problem is that the same chapter will have sections that are very unstructured and other passages that are grammatically structured.  For instance, Fia’s chapter begins with “Peter.  One man.  Three years.  Thousands of plans.  Millions of dinner invitations.  Vacuuming, dishwashing and cleaning, rushing on forever towards infinity.  False smiles turning uglier.  Dry kisses stiffening like desiccated fish.  Bad sex should be avoided at all costs.”  This is an interior monologue style.  This is followed by properly punctuated dialogue.  Then there are pages that read like this:  “steak, soda water and fruit, oh, did you remember our membership card, back home in a stinking bus filled with people who smile and greet you, iggu, baby, you’re ever so sweet, he says, my lips smile, my brain’s about to explode; another part of my mind says stop smiling . . . ”.  It would have been more logical to use a different style for each character/chapter. 

The setting is primarily Nuuk, Greenland, but the events could in fact be taking place in any small city anywhere.  Nothing differentiates the culture of Greenlander young people from that of young people elsewhere in the world?  This is perhaps the author’s point, but I would have liked more sense of place.

Though the style is not traditional, the book is not a difficult read.  I can’t say that I disliked it, but it just didn’t resonate with me.  I would recommend it to those interested in young queer culture.  

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.