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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 ( and From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan ( and The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman (   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.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Review of MILKMAN by Anna Burns

4 Stars
This experimental novel won the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Reading it is tiring because it requires considerable concentration.  I found I had to take frequent breaks, but I couldn’t not finish it. 

An unnamed narrator looks back to her life when she was an 18-year-old living in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s and experienced what she calls “the downfall of myself.”  She is identified only as middle sister, one of a Catholic family of ten children living in a district which is home to “renouncers-of-the-state.”  She is apolitical and tries to ignore her milieu by reading-while-walking.  She even insists on reading only nineteenth-century books “because I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century.” 

The narrator’s life becomes chaotic when a senior paramilitary figure, known as the milkman, takes an interest in her and starts accosting her in public places.  She does all she can to avoid him and never mentions the unwelcome encounters with him, fearing “trying to explain only to be misunderstood, or of trying to explain only not to be taken seriously.”  Nonetheless, rumours spread that she is having an affair with him.  She refuses to answer any questions, but that gains her accusations of “displaying an unamiable Marie Antoinetteness by being stuck-up.”  She chooses to ignore the gossip and innuendo but that doesn’t stop “more gossip, more fabrication, more elaboration on the deterioration of [her] character.”  She realizes that “no matter what I would have done or could have done, those gossips wouldn’t have stopped, never would they have ceased and gone away.” 

She “had never been demonstrated to in the healthy delivery of thoughts, needs and emotions,” so she internalizes her feelings, deciding “it was imperative to present myself as blank and empty.”  There are consequences to this approach:  “my seemingly flattened approach to life became less a pretence and more and more real as time went on. . . . an emotional numbness set in.”  She comes to realize she had been “thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.  Also by the community, by the very mental atmosphere, that minutiae of invasion.” 

Her community is never specifically identified.  I assumed she lived in Belfast  in Northern Ireland which she calls a statelet oppressed by the military from ‘over the water’.  There is also the land ‘over the border’.   Her movements are restricted to her district so she can avoid the enemy, the defender-of-the-state paramilitaries from ‘over the road’.  There is no reference to Catholic and Protestant, only ‘their religion’ (the wrong religion) and ‘our religion’ (the right religion).  No one has a name; characters are identified by descriptors such as “first brother-in-law” or “third sister” or “wee sisters” or “the real milkman” or “the pious women”.  It is as if characters do not exist as individuals.

The milkman does not appear very often but he is a creepy presence.  He is “one of our highranking, prestigious dissidents” and “one of our major influential heroes” so he has a status that the young woman cannot ignore.  He appears unexpectedly when she is alone because he “operated best in cases of isolation.”   Though he says little, he does make clear what about her behaviour (reading-while-walking and running) he does not like.  He knows all about her:  the members of her family, her workplace, her routines.  Only the subject of her night class does he identify incorrectly:  “this was the only thing, ever, in his profiling of me that the milkman got wrong.”   He never directly threatens her but she knows “he had a plan, some workable agenda.”  He never directly threatens anyone else either, though he does describe a car bomb killing a car mechanic and then asks for confirmation that the woman’s maybe-boyfriend is a motor mechanic.  He doesn’t even touch her and that causes a problem too:  “having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there?”

The book shows the realities of living in a society torn by protracted civil unrest.  She lives in an “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian district” in a society “overladen with heaviness and grief and fear and anger.”  Everyone is expected to conform so even something like reading-while-walking is behaviour that is considered eccentric and inappropriate.  There is a great deal of “communal policing” so people live in constant fear and trust no one.  In a lottery, the woman’s maybe-boyfriend wins a supercharger from a dismantled Bentley and he is suspected of being an informer because another part from that car would have had a flag from the country ‘over the water’ on it.  The woman describes her teen years as “paranoid times.  These were knife-edge times, primal times, with everybody suspicious of everybody.”

It is not surprising that the narrator draws some attention to the role of women in her society.  When the milkman first approaches the woman, he identifies himself:  “he knew my family for he’d named the credentials, the male people of my family.”  When he tries to slow down her running, she finds the pace too slow for her but “I could not say so, however, for I could not be fitter than this man, could not be more knowledgeable about my own regime than this man, because the conditioning of males and females here would never have allowed that.”  Women were considered insolent if “they did not defer to males, did not acknowledge the superiority of males, might even go so far as to contradict males.”  When the woman rejects the advances of Somebody McSomebody, he blames her for attracting his attention:  “You started this.  You made us look at you.  You made us think . . . ”.  A group of women who gather to discuss women’s issues becomes known as the issue women:  “These women, constituting the nascent feminist group on our area . . . were firmly placed in the category of those way, way beyond-the-pale.  The word ‘feminist’ was beyond-the-pale.  The word ‘woman’ barely escaped beyond-the-pale. . . . Awful things were said about these women with the issues in our district, not just behind their backs but to their faces as  well.”

Despite the serious subject, there is humour which is used to emphasize the absurdity of the situation.  For example, it is discovered that a woman has been murdered, and people do not know how to react:  “Ordinary murders were eerie, unfathomable, the exact murders that didn’t happen here . . . because only political murders happened in this place. . . . Any killing other than political and the community was in perplexity, also in anxiety, as to how to proceed.”  The narrator’s mother worries, “’We’re turning into that country “over the water”.  Anything happens there.  Ordinary murders happen there.  Loose morals happen there.’” 

As I mentioned at the beginning, this book presents a challenging read.  Sentences are very long, as are the paragraphs and the chapters.  Sometimes it feels as if the reader is trapped inside the narrative and I guess that is a way of emphasizing the theme.  Short sentences often employ inverted structure:  “Completely therefore, was I thrown by this new line of talk.”  The narrative is not linear but moves back and forth through time.  The narrator repeats and digresses, this disordered narration suggesting her anxiety and confusion.  There are several lists; for instance, there is a list of over 60 names that are banned in the community.  No attempt is made to include realistic dialogue:  when asking if her daughter is pregnant, a woman says, “’Have you been fecundated by him . . . Engendered in.  Breeded in.  Fertilised, vexed, embarrassed, sprinkled, caused to feel regret, wished not to have happened – dear God, child, do I have to spell it out?’” 

This is an unconventional book that demands concentration.  Some reviewer described reading this novel as a “dense reading experience” and I would agree.  I recommend this book but I advise people to have some light reading on hand to alternate with sections of Milkman.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Review of THEN SHE WAS GONE by Lisa Jewell

3 Stars
If you’re looking for a quick, undemanding read, this psychological suspense novel might be the answer.

Ten years after her 15-year-old daughter Ellie went missing, Laurel Mack begins a relationship with Floyd Dunn.  When she meets Floyd’s precocious 9-year-old daughter Poppy, Laurel is amazed at how much Poppy resembles Ellie.  As she sees more and more of Floyd, Laurel discovers a connection between Poppy’s mother and Ellie.  And then it seems that Floyd is not being totally truthful.  Is Laurel so desperate for answers about her daughter’s disappearance that she starts imagining things, or do Floyd and Poppy hold the key to what happened to Ellie?

Though the focus is on Laurel’s perspective, the book is narrated from multiple points of view.  Suspense, however, is maintained because information is revealed very slowly in short snippets.  There is more than one ghostly narrator, and I’m not a fan of that technique, but they do serve to fill in gaps.  Narration also moves between the present and various times in the past.

Some of the events are rather improbable and they detract from the novel.  For instance, there is a conception which science does not support but which could be seen on a soap opera.  I also object to the portrayal of police as incompetent.  Police would have read Ellie’s diary, especially if they thought she was a runaway, and so would have identified as a suspect someone whom they apparently never questioned.

An element I really liked is the depiction of Laurel’s relationship with her other children after Ellie’s disappearance.  Laurel’s grief has left her feeling directionless and has strained her relationship with her other children, especially Hanna, the older daughter.  Ellie was “her golden girl, her lastborn, her baby, her soulmate, her pride and her joy” while Hanna is described as “Her middle child.  The difficult one.  The tiring one.  The one she wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island with.”  How Laurel and Hanna find their way back to each other is very realistically developed. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, this is not a demanding read.  Much of the plot is predictable; the interest lies in determining if one’s assumptions are correct.  The book is not great literature, but it is a better example of escapist fiction. 

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Review of THE ITALIAN TEACHER by Tom Rachman

4.5 Stars
I saw this title on the Costa Awards shortlist for best novel and then learned that the author was raised in Canada, so I just had to read it.  I’m glad I did.

The protagonist is Pinch Bavinsky, the son of a world-renowned artist, Bear Bavinsky.  We meet Pinch at the age of 5 and it is immediately clear that he worships his father.  In fact, throughout his life, Pinch craves his father’s attention and approval, always making choices that he hopes will bring him closer to Bear.  His artistic endeavours come to naught, and he ends up teaching Italian at a language school.  Only later in life does he try to escape from his father’s shadow.

Bear Bavinsky is a character who cannot be ignored.  Like his huge paintings, he dominates a room with his presence.  His talent and charm make him the centre of attention at social gatherings.  But behind that charm hides the truth:  he is a supremely arrogant narcissist.  He rails against those who do not recognize his talent and allows his canvases to be purchased only by museums and art galleries, not individual collectors, because he believes his work should be seen and admired by everyone.  “Bear destroys paintings that he deems unfit” because he cannot let the public see anything that would not show him in the best light. 

As a father, Bear is best described as “a deadbeat dad who flew the coop.”  He is a womanizer who has several wives and “Several of Bear’s families overlapped, including a few wives.”  One of Bear’s seventeen children warns Pinch, “’Everything’s always about his art . . . He doesn’t actually care about his actual creations. . . . The human ones.’”  At one point, Bear leaves Rome for work in New York but “Pinch finds out only after his father has left.”  Even Bear describes himself as “a lousy sonofabitch.”   Once Bear has moved on to another wife, Pinch writes to his father “with all sorts of questions” but Bear may not respond for months and then his letters “rarely connect to his son’s questions.” 

Pinch does become Bear’s favourite child, but there’s a price.  Bear wants someone who sees him as he sees himself, someone who confirms his opinions.  One of Pinch’s siblings summarizes, “’He loved us when we were cute, right?  Not so much when we developed opinions.’”   And Pinch realizes, “Total allegiance is what you demand, with the hint that one of us might become your favorite.  And, Pinch realizes with self-disgust, I won that contest.  Few of Dad’s other kids are even allowed his private phone number.  But I kowtow.  I’m his servant.  So I was chosen.” 

Pinch is a foil for his father.  He is shy and insecure.  He is socially inept and has difficulty making friends.  His romantic liaisons are few.  It is heart-wrenching to see Pinch try so hard to connect with his father.  A girlfriend describes him as “a grown man who acts like a worshipful little boy around his father.”  His artistic tastes are just imitations of his father’s:  he “revered Caravaggio because his father does.”  Pinch tries to paint and though his mother begs him to keep his work, he does as his father does:  “Bear destroys paintings that he deems unfit, however, so Pinch must do the same.”  After Pinch finally shows his father one of his paintings, Bear tells him, “’So I got to tell you, kiddo.  You’re not an artist.  And you never will be.’”  After this rebuke, Pinch decides he will study art history and write his father’s biography:  What . . . if I wrote the biography of Bear Bavinsky?  A rush of optimism as he foresaw Dad’s approval, not to mention the hours they’d talk and debate.  What if I even become famous for it?”

Pinch eventually realizes that “this life has hardly been his own” and “If he had been born to another father, they would consider Pinch’s achievements perfect respectable.  But relatives are judged relatively.”  I found myself hoping that Pinch would finally move beyond his “needy ambition.”  He is eventually left in charge of Bear’s legacy and he feels “that makes him almost important,” and he doesn’t want to sell his father’s paintings because “If he cedes control, what has he got?”  I cheered when he finally decides to leave his individual mark on his father’s legacy in a very original way!  One critic comments that “’Bear redeemed himself in the purest way:  through art’” but it is actually Pinch who redeems his father and himself. 

Though the focus is on the father-son relationship, there is also a mother-son relationship.  Natalie is a single mother for most of Pinch’s life.  He admits to her that “’When I was growing up, you were by far my closest friend.’”  Unfortunately, Pinch’s obsession with his father means that he relegates his mother to the background.  He spurns her, “never explaining the source of his anger:  that she had encouraged him, had adored his painting, had stoked his hopes, telling him, “You are really very good.”’”  Pinch dismisses her opinion because it doesn’t match his father’s.  Natalie struggles to be a ceramicist but Pinch disregards her efforts:  “Yet he does not praise Natalie, instead launching into a silly dance to draw her attention, an intrusion he’d never have contemplated when Bear was painting.”  Later, he thinks, “She has skill and knows her craft.  But he wishes she would stop hurting herself in this attempt to be an artist.  It’s so effortless for Bear, so beyond her.”  It is tragic that the one person who loves Pinch without reservation is the one whom he avoids. 

The novel also has a lot to say about the art world.  Who decides whether a piece of art is worthy of esteem?  Pinch “supposes that this is how culture works:  The taste-makers call something important until it becomes so, making themselves important in the process.”  Gallery owners also manipulate.  Pinch’s actions at the end can be interpreted as a type of vengeance on the self-serving art purveyors and art critics.

I loved this novel.  The characterization is outstanding and the twist at the end provides added satisfaction.  It is very deserving of the Costa Award.