Ann Patchett || Commonwealth

In Commonwealth Patchett shows what happens when two married adults with children meet and fall in love. The story starts off quite traditionally with the ex-husband to be. Next Patchett combines a large jump into the future with the point of view of the children who are forced into a separation through their parents.

Patchett shows the effect of a divorce on young lives. At a certain point it also becomes quite clear that a major disaster has even more influence on the lives of the families. The story not being told from a to z works; it elevates the novel from being just nice into really nice.

Commonwealth is not great, splendid or whatsoever. I suspect that the almost gurgling style of describing meetings and moments in the lives of her protagonists has added to this. The interaction between the characters is what counts, not so much what happens – despite the fact that two major moments have decidedly changed all of their lives. Sharing specific, short moments of several protagonists lives with us contributes to the reader never getting closer to either protagonist. We are kept at a distance by Patchett, it almost feels as if she allows us sneaky peeks into private lives.

By taking us along in the lives of the protagonists Patchett prepares us for the reveal of the second major event changing all of their lives. It also is revealed almost casually. As a result I found that I was interested in reading on though never getting enthusiastic about it. I liked Commonwealth, a masterpiece it is not.

Commonwealth

 

 

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Jacqueline Woodson || Another Brooklyn

In this short novel main character August looks back on her youth. Her father’s funeral and running into an old friend trigger the memories. August was born in Tennessee but moves to Brooklyn with her father and younger brother in the early seventies. In Brooklyn she meets four girls who become her best friends: Gigi, Angela and Sylvia. Together they discover how to grow up an Afro-American in an increasingly hostile, violent and women-unfriendly city. They need to be alert, to constantly remind themselves that their male counterparts see them as easy bait.

Whilst father and brother are drawn in by the Islam, August pays no attention to religion, she has her friends. They share each others secrets, they try and help each other growing up. Only one of them lives with both her parents, the others miss a mother, one way or the other. Woodson makes it clear the girls are haunted by sexual predators, their other problems are mentioned casually. In the end a boy friend causes their friendship to falter.

By having the main character tell her tale, we never get to know the other girls’ position . Reality comes to the reader through a subtle remark, a casual fact. The main character also takes along her feelings, her emotions. Another Brooklyn is not a factual novel, it is a sensitive and personal story.

Woodson’s novel shows the author knows what any young woman growing up has to face. In her novel she has made clear choices. We discover that August will go to college, we do not know how this came to be. Neither do we get a clear picture of her life in between the end of the friendship and the death of her father. Though I enjoyed reading the novel Woodson’s choice has left me feeling slightly that the novel is incomplete, still un-finished.

Brooklyn

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Jane Gardam || Old Filth / The Man in the Wooden Hat / Last Friends

It would not have occurred to Gardam when she started writing Old Filth, but reading her trilogy whilst her country is busy brexiting this does add an extra layer to her novels. The wish of many Brits to return to the heigh days of the empire can be looked upon differently knowing that it came with its consequences for the likes of Edward Feathers, his wife Betty and their nemesis Terry Veneering.

Edward and Betty are Raj-orphans, young children, 4 or 5 years old, of expats who were sent ‘home’ from whatever country in the empire in order to have a decent British upbringing, in many cases ending up being exploited in loveless foster families. A loveless youth turns out to be an integral part of the empire, many expat children ending up highly traumatized. Gardam does not turn this into drama, she has it peep around corners, subtly and sharp. Very British, indeed.

The trilogy consists of many layers: growing up outside your family, not being able to maintain friendships, the animosity between two fierce competitors – one a Raj-orphan, the other loved to bits by his father and mother whilst growing up in the slums, and a short history of Great Britain from the thirties to the nineties of the 20th century.

Old Filth and The Man, the domains of Edward and Betty, are much alike. Both written in a rather indolent style with the occasional sharp comment that sets you thinking. In Last Friends, dedicated to Teddy Veneering, Gardam appears to be ending up, tying knots. Though Veneering is the main character, he has to share the lime light with a small group of people who have been around in the trilogy. I found that annoying. I felt that drawing attention from Veneering to the group of people surrounding him and Feathers made the novel rather crowded. It did not help that there were too many coincidences: people happening to meet, happening to have known each other, too much left to chance to be feasible.

I enjoyed reading Old Filth and The Man, this joy diminished whilst reading Last Friends. A pity. Gardam did not do well by Veneering nor by her trilogy by ending it less subtle, less indolent. To be quite honest, I would have preferred it if Gardam had left it at Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. Together they would have done perfectly.

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Zadie Smith || Swing Time

I found myself drifting off at those moments Swing Time became too much ‘famous actress / singer look at the good I’m doing in those poor poor countries’. And was drawn back into the novel by the vivid way Smith described the personal environment and relationships of her main character.

The entire novel is told from the I-perspective. Her name is never mentioned (I checked whether I had missed it somehow). I is the daughter of a white British Mail manager and a Jamaican mother. He is content with his life and very much in love with his wife, she is perpetually striving to better herself. He ends up being a postman once more in order to take better care of his daughter, she ends up in Parliament. He strives for his daughter’s happiness, she mostly wants her to do better, to improve herself. So he welcomes friend Tracey whilst she loathes ths child of a single mother with hardly any education; not the correct friend for one’s daughter.

I and Tracey are best friends and remain best friends for a long time. Their shared passion for dance is what separates them ultimately. Tracey is admitted to a dance training, I deliberately ruins her chances of being admitted to a private school and has to do with the local comprehensive. Tracey gives it her best to make it in the world of musical (not being a good singer does not help), I kind of drifts along to a mediocre university, a mediocre job. Then through fate she becomes the PA of famous singer Aimee, this time drifting along with her whims.

I is pushed by her mother to make something of herself and appears to have become totally indecisive because of it. Tracey is supported by a mother who believes in the talent of her daughter, failing when it comes to defending her child from an abusive spouse and father. I remains the indecisive adolescent who has no clue as to what to do with her life; Tracey tries desperately to succeed, not understanding that she has to let go of the behaviour of her role models.

When Aimee decides to do well in Gambia, I is the one who flies there frequently to monitor how the sponsored school for girls is doing. Getting to know the locals she starts to question whether doing well does not lead to the opposite (government funds seem to have stopped when Aimee started pouring money into a school). She also starts to acknowledge that her western point of view might not be the one and only way of looking at things. Who are we to judge that a marriage to a strict Muslim might not be the best option for a young woman in Gambia? In contrast to a young Western woman living a clueless life?

Smith exceeds in the descriptions of I and Tracey, in their relationship. Adding a layer of doubt, who ultimately is better off, and a very visual layer of dance. The novel is laced with descriptions of dance scenes in musicals. They show that a poor skinny white boy from a slum can succeed (Fred Astaire) whilst a talented black girl from another slum is doomed to a life in the chorus line. Those descriptions make up for the occasional actress / singer good cause resemblance.

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Bailey´s Prize 2017: My favourite

short list

 

Tomorrow the Bailey’s judges will pronounce the 2017 winner. I find myself torn between two novels with a third towing behind. The other ones are, in my humble opinion, not in the same league.

I do not think Stay With Me will be tomorrow’s winner, I would not mind however. I really appreciated the novel about a couple torn apart between the need to produce offspring whereas their country hovers between tradition and modern times. Despite my appreciation I do feel that both Do Not Say We Have Nothing and The Sport of Kings are more likely winners.

Stay

I fell for Do Not Say We Have Nothing completely. I loved the way Thien handled her topic, I especially appreciated the fact that in her epic novel there are no winners. She asks us to consider Chinese past from all sides and to try and understand all sides. Thien does not judge, she merely shows that there are no easy truths, that is easier to judge as an outsider than as one involved directly in the events taking place.

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The Sports of Kings is a different matter. Cleverly written, from time to time almost exploding into words resembling epic poetry, giving a unique voice to the three main characters. C.E. Morgan does ask us to judge. He makes it very clear that racism and discrimination are wrong. The events he describes leave no room for any doubt on this topic. I did not find The Sports of Kings an easy write, it is one of those novels I feel I should reread from time in order to fully understand all that is written down.

Sport

For me the big difference between the two novels is the way they touched me. Thien touched me emotionally, I started to feel understanding for the difficult position many Chinese were put in during the cultural revolution. I almost wept when some of the main characters became the victims of a ruthless state. Morgan’s novel felt more like an intellectual feat. Though I felt moved when things went very wrong for the main characters, my emotion was superficial. I was mostly swept away by the daring style of writing defying any attempt to categorize The Sport of Kings.

Not being able to chose myself I find it hard to predict tomorrow’s outcome. Suffice it to know that I will be pleased when either one of my favourites is pronounced the winner, I will be equally miffed if the jury in its wisdom decided to go the completely other way. Let’s hope they will chose wisely.

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Emma Flint || Little Deaths

From the moment Ruth opens the door for the police they know for sure that she has kidnapped and killed her children. Who ultimately has killed her son and daughter does not really matter, Flint acquaints us with a chilling world of prejudice, presumptions and corruption.

In the early sixties Queens is not ready for a beautiful young woman who exudes sexuality and who is not prepared to become buddies with her neighbours. She wants more out of life than just marriage and the children she loves to death. Keeping up appearances, not showing her grief, it is used against her by women all over New York and more importantly by the police force.

Flint sets out strongly with a chilling and dark description of Ruth’s life and her surroundings. Queens accepts you if you concede to the customs, you are rejected when you want more out of life. The police force is how you know it to have been half a century ago: prejudiced, highly opinionated as far as women are concerned and corrupt. Later on in the novel Flint does not manage to maintain this darkness. By changing the focus more towards journalist Pete she could have added an extra edge. I found his change from reporter telling the tale of a wanton mother to desperately trying to find the murderer too inspired by his own feelings for Ruth. Thereby not seeing her as a person but as a stereotype of attractive wife and mother.

Little Deaths though dealing with the vicious attack on two young children is not a crime novel. Not the finding of the culprit but the process that has started the minute Ruth asked for help of the police is what counts. I liked the dark, edgy atmosphere Flint created, I felt a nosy visitor to a neighbourhood watching the women gossip and condemning the one who did not acquiesce. I would have preferred however it if Flint had spent less time on Pete more on Ruth.

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Colson Whitehead || The Underground Railroad

Halfway through The Underground Railroad I went to see I Am Not Your Negroe, the documentary based on an unpublished essay by James Baldwin. In this documentary carefully selected images and well-formulated texts came together forcibly. As a result the impact on me was great. Back to The Underground Railroad I noticed that it lacked the eloquence Baldwin used again and again to make his point. Both documentary and novel show us a world in which ‘black and white’ do not manage to live together, the documentary demonstrating the force of language gave me goose bumps.

Baldwin takes us along in recent history (the last 50 years); when he states that ‘history is the present’ he puts the finger on one of the open wounds. Whitehead shows us how the wound came to exist in the first place. He describes the life of an Afro-American woman, starting as a slave, through her escape managing to become a free woman. I was expecting a considerable amount of explicit violence, it turned out I was shocked most by the ways whites implicitly managed to bind their freed fellow Afro-Americans. Ever since watching Roots in the seventies I knew slavery had come with inconceivable cruelty and violence, I had never known that in states where former slaves could live as free Americans they were lured to undergo sterilization, that in those states slaves were bought by the government, switching them from privately owned to public property.

The Underground Railroad was one of those novels needed to be written, which also goes for The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasis. They add important chapters to history. I do not add Colson Whitehead to the list of authors who indelibly impressed me by combining eloquence and content. Whitehead’s sentences are too basic, his metaphor of a physical railroad too concrete, his style too fixed on explanation and sharing historical facts. Whitehead had a message to share with us not a literary masterpiece. I applaud him for writing this confronting, important part of history, I hope that a next novel will also wow me for its literary qualities.

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Stephen Orr || The Hands

Anyone who has any romantic ideas about running a cattle farm in the Australian Outback should read The Hands, you will soon get rid of those notions. The heat, the years of drought, the un-relentlessness of Outback nature, the family scandal controlling the Wilkie’s family, they do not make for easy living. When wife Carelyn dies in a car crash, the lives of the others start crashing as well.

Living in one small house with more generations and family members on a farm heavily into debt is no sinecure. Granddad Murray is no longer fit to run the farm, both physically and mentally, but stubbornly refuses to hand over the deeds to his son Trevor. He finds him lacking in every aspect and not capable of making the right decisions (that is, go to the bank for another loan instead of considering a worthwhile offer). Trevor is feeling the pressure of having to run a farm that only costs money, watching the cattle die of hunger. Sons Aidan and Harry start to realize that there is a huge difference between the romance of cattle runs and effectively running a farm.

Talking about problems is for sissies, not for tough Outback families. As a result no-one ever talks about this one son deserting in World War 1, about his father committing suicide, Murray’s wife getting kicked to death, Carelyn dying or the financial problems. All is well if it is not spoken about.

In the novel the family problems and the challenge of the Outback come together beautifully. Orr has the family members speak in short, level-headed sentences meanwhile describing nature elaborately with a flourish. The contrast works well.
The Hands is a beautiful novel about a family coming to understand the true values of tradition and romantic notions. Trevor, Aidan and Harry decide to leave behind their lives, Murray will stick around to the very end. He cannot grasp that change can be a good thing.

hands

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Gwendoline Riley || First Love

short list

Bailey’s Prize Short List 2017

Things did not go well between Gwendoline Riley and myself. I kept falling asleep while I was reading First Love. It might have been hayfever which caused me to be more tired than usual, it might also have been the topic and the way Riley approached it.

Main character Neve is the product of a destructive relationship between two dysfunctional parents. She tries to stay away from her parents but cannot prevent ending up with a man, Edwyn, who resembles her father. He might not be physically abusive, his verbal anthems are just as bad. He blames her for mistakes, in the meantime he leaves the reader thinking ‘you are an incredible manipulative bastard’. Because Riley choses to write from the perspective of Neve, it jars that she is not capable to free herself and leave this completely dysfunctional relationship. She does not appear to realize that she has married her father.

Large parts of First Love consist of conversations: between Neve and Edwyn, between Neve and her father, between Neve and her mother. As a result all the nastiness hits the reader directly, which is quite something to achieve as a writer. The second result however was that I felt no desire whatsoever to keep on reading. I was annoyed, almost nauseated whenever Edwyn was talking. Fortunately for me, First Love is not hefty, I reached its last page sooner than expected.

Mixed feelings about this novel. I recognize the quality of what Riley has written. It is undoubtedly a quality that you can piss your readers off. First Love is well written, I would have preferred it if I had enjoyed reading it.

First love

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Linda Grant || The Dark Circle

short list

Bailey’s Prize 2017 Short List

The Dark Circle sets off vibrantly. Grant introduced twins Lenny and Miriam, two cocky slightly common Londoners of Jewish decent. After WW2 they have picked up the pieces and have started to live life to the fullest, to be brought down unexpectedly by a severe case of TB. They have to leave London and set out for a clinic in Kent. Originally for private patients only the NHS has made the arrival of the likes of Lenny and Miriam possible: those who previously would have had no choice but to die out of sight, at home.

The Dark Circle is not just the story of Lenny and Miriam, it is also a tale of the fight against TB and of the clash between the upper classes and the streetwise lower classes who have started to claim their rightful place in society . Lenny and Miriam cause an upheaval in the clinic, new arrival Pretski, a Yank, stirs things up completely. The once accepting patients all of a sudden start to grasp at life, causing a serious case of unrest with the staff that would have preferred to stay in the medieval times as far as a cure for TB is concerned. A new successful medicine is reluctantly introduced, strict rules are loosened. The end of the clinic is near.

Grant does not manage to keep up the dynamics of the first chapters. The last part especially completely lacks the initial vibrancy. In the final chapters Grant takes us along in the lives of Lenny and Miriam after having been cured. Those chapters feel like a kind of obligatory round-up in order to show that those born in the slums do have a chance at a better life. By then it has become quite clear that those suffering from TB were treated in an appalling way before an effective cure was found. It has also become quite clear that society is about to change dramatically. The proof does not add to the quality of the novel, it diminishes. The dull final part does not do justice to the dynamic twins at all, a pity.

Dark

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