Nicole Krauss || Forest Dark

In Forest Dark the lives of Jules Epstein and a nameless, famous writer are joined by the mere fact of being in one and the same novel. Both go to Tel Aviv in search of their Jewish identity. Though they walk similar paths they never meet. Only in the very last instant does the eye of the writer catch an image of Epstein.

Epstein is rich and succesful. He is a major influence in Jewish-American society. He has always taken things for granted, enjoying life and the art that he has bought, truly appreciating each object he has bought.

Our writer has writer’s block and senses she is missing something. An incident in the Tel Aviv hotel she has spent many a vacation in, makes her decide to there and (try to) write. In Tel Aviv she meets an old man who tells her Kafka did not die in Europe but moved to Israel (Palestine in those days) secretly. He continued living there for years, a suitcase filled with papers must collaborate this story.

The lives of Epstein and our writer deviate in two major ways. Epstein’s Jewish identity almost gently brings him into a state of contemplation. In this phase he sharply observes, knowing how to separate the right from wrong, remaining his own realistic self all the time. His old life no longer suffices, what’s next has to become clear.

Our writer thinks a lot about what she has to offer as a writer. How by merely writing things down they become true. She is being tiresomely philosophical and is influenced by the metaphysicalness of Kafka (which I by the way have never read). Her chapter could – as far as I know – could have been written by Kafka himself: magical-realism, reality and phantasy intertwine.

I have to admit Krauss could have skipped the writer as far as I was concerned. Her story kind of made me feel Krauss was foremost trying to show us how clever, philosophical, well-read she is. Tiresome, showy and strained. Epstein’s story on the other hand had me gripped from the start. Beautifully written, with philosophical and spiritual elements that spoke of Epstein. His search for his true self was realistic and poetic at the same time.

Is Forest Dark a master piece? Do I agree with all the raving critics? No, not really. I would have wanted that much more Epstein, because writing about him Krauss excelled. In the other chapters she was too busy showing off.

Forest

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Maggie O’ Farrell || I Am I Am I Am

For those who are acquainted with the work of O’Farrell it will not come as a surprise that her autobiographical description of 17 brushes with death is vintage O’Farrell. Well chosen words, beautiful well-constructed sentences, a structure that enhances words and content, the small intimate and at the same time encompassing.

In I Am I Am I Am O’Farrell describes 17 brushes with death, some more imminent than others. Whilst reading one is consoled with the thought that she probably has survived all those brushes, she could hardly have written this work otherwise. Still, she does convey in a precise and sensitive manner what went through her at those moments. Revealing quite a lot about the person Maggie O’Farrell and how she came to be who she is now.

In the first chapter for instance she recognizes the threat of the man she encounters during a walk, because his behaviour reminds her of the bullies of her youth. She escapes through blabbering incessantly. When she reports the encounter to the police she is not taken seriously. Two weeks later this same man rapes and kills another young woman, leaving O’Farrell with mixed emotions about her escaping his violence.

Only at the end, in the final chapter a close encounter with death threatens not to end well. O’Farrell and her husband are racing through Italy trying to reach a hospital where their daughter, suffering from a severe anaphylactic attack, can be saved. Her fear for her daughter, the fear she has been having since finding out their daughter is allergic to about everything, it comes to a climax in this race against the clock. All the emotions of having to watch their child suffer day in day out, having to find her way in a world that can face fashionable intolerance to food but has little sympathy for someone truly in danger of dying.

I have been impressed before by the way O’ Farrell makes small, human things palpable. She is of those writers who has a talent for describing the worries we encounter every day. She transfers greatness to small things. In I Am I Am I Am she does it again. Hers is an autobiography written this well it could easily have been a work of fiction.

I am I am

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Min Jin Lee || Pachinko

Pachinko is a family saga; the writer takes us along from the thirties in the 20st century to the first years of the 21st century. Subject: the history of a Korean family, starting with Sunja and her mother. Pachinko by the way is a very popular game in both Korea and Japan. Many Koreans earn a decent although not always legit living with this game, the Japanese despise them for it.

Sunja falls fort he charms of Hansu, a rich Korean who lives in Japan. He seduces and offers to maintain her when she becomes pregnant. She refuses. In stead she marries, Isak, the preacher lodger who has come to live with her mother and her. They leave for Japan where they join Isaks’ brother and sister-in-law. Son Noa is joined later by another half-sibling, Mozasu.

Pachinko has a double layer: it is as much a family saga as a novel about Koreans living in Japan. That is an inseparable given. The lives of Sunja and her family are totally dependent on the chances they are given by the Japanese, very few. Japan looks down on Korea and discriminates those Koreans working and living in Japan. The effect can still be felt: Noa at a certain point denies being Korean an starts a new life pretending to be Japanese. Mozasu has learnt to live with his Korean restrictions, nevertheless earning loads and loads of money. His child lacks only the respect of the Japanese.

Pachinko the family saga is written well though not exceedingly well. Pachinko, the mild accusation, surprised. To be honest: mostly because of my limited knowledge of Korea. It restricts itself to knowing that the South is hard-working, prosperous, traditional and has good food. The North is a communist dictatorship with different, obligatory, traditions and hardly any food at all. I did not realise Koreans had been living in Japan for years, being considered second-rate citizens.

Pachinko is well-written and interesting. It is not a masterpiece, Min Jin Lee repeating herself too often, not being exceedingly masterful with her words. Pachinko did arouse my interest in Korea and the Koreans.

Pachinko

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The Golden Man Booker

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I have a problem with the short list of the Golden Man booker: the novels included are just not my choice. Going through the list of winners, not bothering about dividing them into five decades I come up with an entirely different list. If I were to present my short list it would look like this.

Iris Murdoch || The Sea The Sea
Iris Murdoch is one of those writers who has managed to astound me time and time again. I was at the same time taken with and extremely annoyed by the main character of The Sea The Sea. Through his lack of sensitivity, his enormous sense of self he ruined other people’s lives. I do not think I need to specifify that Murdoch’s quality of writing was sublime.

Salman Rushdie || Midnight’s Children
Not the easiest of novels but I was hooked from the start. The mix of India and personal lives did it for me. Rushdie does not take his readers for nitwits, he demands attention. I gladly gave it.

Pat Barker || The Ghost Road
Being Dutch my knowledge about World War 1 was limited to my grandmother living in Germany and not having had enough to eat. Parker was the first person who made me realise the enormous effect that war had in Great Britain. Beautifully written, giving a face to all those men dying in the mud.

Hilary Mantel || Bring up the Bodies
To be honest: Wolf Hall ended up on my secondary book shelf. Not to be thrown away, not enjoyed enough to claim a place in my living room. Bring up the Bodies zoomed in on the personal life of Thomas Cromwell and all of a sudden that historical figure came alive. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Eleanor Catton || The Luminaries
A terrific combination of structure, style and writing. I was totally impressed by this complex history of New Zealand. I loved the way Catton construed it, loved the way she played with language and characters.

 

 

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Laurie Frankel || This Is How It Always Is

Laurie Frankel has written a novel which is not about her transgender child but about Claude/Poppy, an imaginative transgender child. I am not so sure This Is How It Always Is qualifies as a terrific novel. A recent newspaper article in a major Dutch newspaper about a transgender not being allowed to go to the toilet of preference at a school in Pennsylvania shows the urgency of the subject matter.

Rosie and Penn have four boys, their youngest shows a preference for being a girl at a very young age. His parents, though at a loss at first, decide to go along with his wishes and Claude becomes Poppy. A move from their home town to Seattle, supposedly a city which is less judgmental allows Poppy to be a girl. On arriving Rosie and Penn decide not to mention she is a boy, this decision comes back with a vengeance when the truth is discovered.

It is quite clear from the start the novel about this transgender child has been written by someone close to the topic. The loving way the transgression from Claude into Poppy is described, the love from the parents for this child which literally exudes from the pages, the slightly judgmental undertone which asks of the reader ‘why is it so difficult to accept this child the way he/she wants to be accepted?’.

It is also clear that Laurie Frankel is a decent though not an extremely talented writer. Her style is rather plain, she uses lots of ‘if only they had listened to their oldest son …, if only they knew what is still coming for them, …’. When Poppy and Rosie go to a clinic in Thailand (Rosie is an expert ER-doctor who has become a general practitioner because of her son) Frankel turns into a downright advocate of aid. The reader is given a long list of all the things that are wrong at the clinic, one almost expects Frankel to add the account one can donate money into.

In Thailand at the clinic Rosie and Poppy meet K, a ‘ladyboy’ who has no doubts about who she is, a transgender. She helps Rosie realize the next step to take. Poppie has found his inner peace (she is 10 by the way) by becoming a Buddhist and because of being accepted as a person by the children she teaches at the hospital; one can hear the violins in the background.

This Is How It Always Is can help people learn to accept that some people just do not have a definite gender. As such the novel and its writer should be treasured. I cannot help that I find it lacking in the style of writing, the quality of the novel as a novel. The fact that I can see it being turned into one of those American movies that scream ‘this will end well though the main characters have to go through hardships’ does not really help.

This

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Emma Straub || Modern Lovers

 

Modern Lovers definitely does not centre around action, it is about the relationships between the main characters. Not a lot happens, which does not mean that the two main couples and their children go through life without a worry. They have their share of them.

The two modern couples in the novel go through a fair amount of relationship, educational, midlife and work-related problems. Zoë and Jane have grown apart, divorce is imminent. Their restaurant is their main link. Daughter Ruby is rebellious and is failing at school. Elizabeth and Andrew, a hard-working real estate broker and a in between jobs trustfond stay-at-home dad, lead their quiet lives when the past suddenly interferes. Their son Harry, the perfect child, is influenced by Ruby and starts misbehaving for the first time in his life.

Modern Lovers is about investing in your relationship, about keeping faith in each other. Lots of therapy going on, or not. Long friendships are thwarted, secrets from the past create problems. The one succesful song the band Zoë, Elizabeth and Andrew were part of in their past comes back to haunt them.

I’ll not tell you whether all ends well. Modern Lovers may not be the best roman I’ve read in a long time, it is pretty decent and definitely worth reading. Straub hit perfectly on popular Brooklyn and the comfortabele couples having their own personal worries. The novel is in a nice American way laid back and relaxt.

Modern

 

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Joanna Cannon ||Three Things About Elsie

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Main character Florence is 84 and suffering from dementia. Cannon shows us her fears, her doubts, her sorrow upon changing into someone who can no longer live her own, independent life. Cannon adds a layer of mystery by introducing Ronnie Butler aka Gabriel Byrne. His history is interwoven with that of Florence and best friend Elsie.

Florence has her own small flat in a complex for the elderly. Her dementia growing worse she is threatened with the prospect of having to move to a nursing home, her worst nightmare. When Gabriel Byrne comes to live in the complex she is convinced he is not Byrne at all but Ronnie Butler. Small problem: Butler drowned many years ago. She is convinced he is toying with her things, friends Elsie and Jack worry that management will conclude Florence has got to leave.

The novel starts with Florence lying on the floor, she has taken a fall and can no longer rise. Only at the end of the novel are we to know whether help is on the way. The fall adds another layer to the novel, as readers we can safely assume that Florence will be taken to hospital and a nursing home, that she can no longer live in her flat.

What I loved about Three Things About Elsie is not the mystery aspect of it. Though quite nice it mostly serves to reveal more and more facts about Florence and Elsie. We are taken back to their youth, to events determining their lives. Ronnie Butler aka Gabriel Byrne is kind of like the cream that makes everything just this much smoother, he is not essential. Towards the end more and more secrets come to light, Cannon saves the most important, touching one for the very last.

Cannon writes beautifully about the process taking place within Florence. She is poetical, philosophical and sometimes downright level-headed. She has perfectly hit upon a person changing into someone else and fearing every step on the way, not being able to prevent it.

Cannon could not have known that her novel became quite personal for me. My mother fell and broke her hip at Eastern, we have been told she cannot return to the house she has lived in for over 55 years. Cannon has given my mother words as well. I thank her for that. I would like to give her the ‘four ladies named Annie’ in return: four feisty ladies, including my mother, who have met whilst recuperating and who show you can have fun in the hardiest of conditions.

Elsie

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And my winner is …

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Picking a winner from this year’s shortlist turned out to be something of a challenge. I find that I cannot chose between two novels.

My shortlist would have been a different one to start with. Having read all the novels I would have swapped The Idiot for H(a)ppy, I have no clue what the first is about, I loved the novelty of Barker’s novel. I might have been in doubt about Eleanor and See What I Have done, in which case When I Hit You would not have been added.

All in all I find that four out of six novels are contenders. Sorry, Elif Batuman and Meena Kandasamy you are not. In the one case not having a clue and in the other having the clue beaten into me with a sledge-hammer. No can do.

I liked The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and in a year with less fierce competition would have gladly accepted it as a winner. The competition turned out to be too big however. I also loved Sight. It is one of few novels I would love to have next to my bed, just to browse in occasionally. The philosophy of it was unexpected and refreshing.

That leaves us with Sing Unburied Sing and Home Fire. Two strong novels about right and wrong, about society failing too many people. I loved the way Ward combined realism and spiritualism, her pinpointing that being poor can be taken up with or without dignity, that the effects of slavery are still lingering on. I was equally impressed by the way Shamsie showed us that society and government can ruin people’s lives by judging them on their father’s actions. She made it very clear who the bad guys were and who their victims.

Chosing between these two turns out to be an impossibility. Even whilst writing this blog I find myself in doubt. I would be in shock if either one of them did not win the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 (I would not be surprised if Kandasamy would win “for writing such an honest novel about such a brutal topic”). If I really really had to decide on a winner I think it would be Sing Unburied Sing. I find it more subtle in its approach, it’s topic less obvious. Shamsie was able to pull out the big guns, Ward had to stick to major impact of minor acts. To be honest, I will be a happy woman if either one of them wins tomorrow.

 

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Kamila Shamsie ||Home Fire

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Shortlist

Before I started reading Home Fire I had picked up that the novel was vaguely based on a Greek drama. A drama I saw as an opera only recently in the theatre. Still when I started reading I had forgotten all about it and was surprised by Shamsie. Wanting my readers to be surprised as well I’ll try to stay clear from revealing significant facts about the novel.

Home Fire is about two families, both Pakistani-British. One family of orphans whose youngest, a twin, have been raised by their sister Isma. The novel starts when this sister finally decides to live her own life once more. She leaves for university in the United States. Younger sister Aneeka remains in Great Britain, brother Parvaiz is out of sight. He has made a personal choice at the cost of his two sisters. It remains unclear for a long time what that choice has been and how in making this choice he steps into the footsteps of his father, an Al Queda terrorist.

The other family is that of politician Karamat Lone who has forsworn Islam in his personal life and has made choices that his countrymen do not necessarily profit from. His son Eamonn is on a sabbatical in the States. He runs into Isma by chance, they become friends. Whether their friendship could become more is hanging in the air. When Eamonn returns home and meets Aneeka they fall in love. Their relationship remains hidden, because Aneeka does not want their differences to come in between them.

The choices of the fathers turn out to influence the lives of their children. Imsa, Aneeka and Parvaiz will always have to face the fact that their father was a terrorist which has them under scrutiny from the government. The choices they make are a result of trying to cope with their father’s legacy. Eamonn is the son of a politician who has made challenging choices, he has forgotten he is a father as well. A father who can hardly hide his disappointment in a son who has failed in the success department.

Home Fire is a novel that has many layers; with the exception of Eamon everyone is given a separate part. In this way Shamsie shows how choices influence the lives of loved ones. And how ruthless ‘the system’ deals with individuals. Whether it is the British authorities that has three young people suffer for having a terrorist dad. Or extremists that tempt young adults to fight with them. Or the politician whose career always comes first.

Home Fire shows there is no one truth. The four children try and lead their lives, she does not judge them. She is quite clear though in her disgust, her loathing of political and religious stakes outweighing personal ones. Nevertheless, by portraying Parvaiz as a stupid, stupid boy who is being pulled into a cruel world she also has us know that there is not one truth about acclaimed terrorists. Because of Shamsie I only felt sorry for him, I abhorred the man misleading him.

Shamsie has construed her novel well. She reveals facts step by step, building up the tension gradually. It culminates in an explosive chilling ending that exemplifies the madness of religious and political stakes. The lives of Eamonn and Aneeka are made secondary, inferior to those stakes. Fortunately I was at home when I read the final page, I cried out in horror and was left in a shock that lasted the rest of the afternoon.

Do you want to know why  I was in shock? Do read the novel. I was already impressed by Shamsie, Home Fire has me in awe of her.

Fire

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Elif Batuman || The Idiot

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Did I dislike reading The Idiot? Well, no. Was it badly written? Well, no. Do I have any clue as to what Batuman has set out to communicate with me? Well, no.

The main character of The Idiot is Selin, a Turkish-American girl who goes to college. She meets new people, falls in love, goes to classes and is your typical first year student. She lacks a burning ambition, she wants to do something with language, with writing, with cinema. She applies to some courses she would love to do, but accepts not being accepted rather passively. She opts for linguistics and Russian as her second choices.

In Russian class she meets Ivan, a Hungarian student. She falls in love with him; it becomes never really clear whether he is in love with her as well. For him she leaves for the Hungarian countryside in order to teach English to children. Her final weeks of summer she spends with her family in Turkey, suffering from a broken heart.

Selin does not appear to stand out at first sight. She is just your average student who down-sizes her real talent. She has a gift for writing and shows her talent in her essays and in the emails she sends Ivan. Her insecurity fits her age, she still has to find out about the essentials.

I must admit that I had had it with our main character somewhere in Hungary. There is only a certain amount of adolescent behaviour I can tolerate apparently. Did Batuman set out to exemplify the uncertainty, the inertia, the indecisiveness of young adults who still do not have a clue? I have no clue, sorry.

The Idiot takes place in the nineties, so I cannot even blame my lack of understanding on not grasping the youths of today. I can merely conclude I have just finished reading a novel about not having a clue. Our main character changing majors in her second year, she has had it with language, merely states the obvious: she still does not have a clue.

Idiot

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