A small Appalachian village and the Americans as we think we know them through film or series are the centre of Above the Waterfall. The sheriff who allows certain small crimes (accepting a small fee that is to be used as his pension), who being born and raised in the village knows everyone and everything. The entrepreneur who started a resort using the unique selling point of nature and fishing water, the misfit who had to accept a job in the resort, the park ranger who is trying to come to terms with her past through nature and poetry and finally, the old lonely widower who is accused of having poisoned the fishing water. But also the drugs-addicted nephew of the old widower having his eye on his inheritance, his crack-addicted girlfriend and the coke-laboratories sheriff Les and his men find and close on a regular basis. Life in North-Caroline is no longer just about nature and agriculture. Rash switches between the harshness of modern life and the beauty of nature by changing the topic every other chapter. Les describes everyday life, Becky takes us along in the way she experiences nature. Whereas the chapters focussing on Les are written in an almost neutral stark style, those on nature are poetic, lyrical. Who has poisoned the water is not the real issue, Rash shows us how people deal with modern life, their past, their future and the path they chose. Sometimes it means taking the side of your neighbours, sometimes it means being strict and stern. I was pleasantly surprised by Ron Rash who was an unknown to me. The lyrical chapters aren’t always easy to grasp, they do convince through the beauty of their language. The contrast with the stark language in the other chapters makes Above the Waterfall special.
The Mandibles is a dystopia. In a few years the US of A will go broke, shares and bonds will become worthless, money cannot be printed quick enough. The Mandible family is one of those families suffering from the consequences. Going from (extremely) wealthy to penniless (or rather dollar cents-less) in a few months time. No longer spacious houses, nice bottles of wine and excellent food, they are forces to live together in one small house and have to eat whatever is available in one of the rather empty stores, running the risk all the time of being robbed or forced to leave their small home. Family members deal differently with their worsening circumstances. One just keeps going on, another becomes a zealous survivor, the professor in Economy keeps on saying that things will get better again and one of them turns out to be a natural, realistic leader. Shriver shows how the USA change into one of those countries that provide cheap labour, former immigrants return to their prosperous home countries, property and companies are being bought by foreign companies, the US’ youth is doomed to work in tedious and ill-paid jobs. All of this could have become an interesting novel, something I did expect from the author of the rather brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin. The Mandibles unfortunately never comes near the depth of that novel. The family members remain clichés, all doing what is expected from their stereotype. None of them shows an interesting, deviating development. Shriver for some reason felt that she had to add loads and loads of financial and economic information which made me feel I was reading The Financial Times, which I to be honest avoid. I am sorry to say I was not impressed by The Mandibles, family nor novel.
Not a lot happens in The North Water, and at the same time an awful lot happens. Main character Sumner accepts a job on a whaler, travels to the North Water and returns while looking back on the reasons he had to leave India, where he was stationed in the army. Sumner’s story is also the story however of that person whose efforts to succeed fail, because ‘the powers that be’ make sure he cannot succeed. So he is faced with deception and disillusionment and becomes more and more aware of the glass ceiling society and the greed of the wealthy have placed between him and success. This time furthermore he is literally in danger of losing his life: his captain is supposed to shipwreck the whaler, in return for a nice share in the insurance. Surrounded by the scum of the whaling world Sumner drives away his deception with large quantities of opium. It is a true miracle he does manage to hang on to some semblance of humanity. Then the ship sinks (including all of the opium) and Sumner is faced with survival in the bitter cold. He is lucky and ends up at a missionary post where he is taken care of. He himself seems to have forsaken his humanity howeer. At the end of the novel one might only hope his hardships have caused mere physical injuries. The temperature in The North Water is literally and figuratively below zero. The beautiful descriptions of the stark nature strengthen the down-hill development of Sumner. The North Water is definitely not a cheery novel, on the contrary. You are not exactly left with the hallelujah-feeling that mankind is good. At the end of the novel survival has become a matter of sheer luck. I fear for the future of Sumner, Ian McGuire on the other hand could be in for a great career as a writer.
Maggie O’Farrell never fails in delivering novels about daily human tribulations. What happens to her main characters might happen to you and me. Main characters Daniel and Claudette fall in and out of love, their marriage has ups and downs, family members die, others cannot conceive children and have got to go through the process of adoption, it is what happens in an ordinary life. The most exceptional about This Must Be The Place is the fact that Claudette is a self-chosen recluse, a former famous actress who prefers life in Donegal over a life of fame and glamour. The novel is not told linearly, O’Farrell skips through time having main characters and even casual encounters tell how Daniel and Claudette came to fare as they did. In one chapter the auctioned possessions of Claudette tell the tale of her becoming a famous actrice. This set-up works, because it allows O’Farrell to look into the lives of Daniel of Claudette at various moments in times as seen by different people. It is only at the end that I felt that she had been stretching it too far, that she should have come to a conclusion sooner. The set-up started to come over as a trick, never a good thing.
As far as I am concerned O’Farrell shines in describing emotions: demure and using the correct words. O’Farrell never becomes corny. In This Must Be The Place she has sister-in-law Maeve describe her emotions on not being able to conceive, on finally feeling that her adopted daughter is hers. She chooses words that make you feel she is saying what you might have wanted to say, just better. This also goes for the chapters in which Daniel is dealing with the murder of his daughter Phoebe. Though the subject is tough, O’Farrell turns it into exquisite writing. O’Farrell excels in the small recognizable gestures. Her talent for choosing the right words make for honest emotion, never for tackiness. It is why I keep on reading her novels, because I know I will be delighted with her delicate way of putting things.
In Homegoing Yaa Gyasi deals with slavery and its long-term consequences on the lives of many people. She starts her novel in the 17th century in the Gold Coast of Africa. Not with the original start of slavery, she would have had to go back a long time I’m afraid since Fante and Asante both possessed slaves. She starts with the large-scale exploitation of slaves resulting from Europeans creating demand. Both Fante and Asante see possibilities to increase power and wealth and co-operate with British, Portuguese and Dutch. The situation creates winners and losers: families contribute by taking captive and trading slaves, they become victims of the trade themselves. It is a trade and all parties involved cross lines. Homegoing starts with the history of Effia and Esi, one sold in marriage to a British officer, the other caught and sold into the Americas. Gyasi has chosen to divide her novel into chapters describing events in one person’s life in one chapter. How they get on in life is made clear in the chapters describing their children or grandchildren. This makes for a structured novel which provides a precise picture of racism and discrimination. It also makes for a novel in which those people do not gain depth, they remain clichés. They are meant to show the life of slaves, of the struggling free African-Americans, of the ones slowly gaining rights. Sometimes the time given them is just too short. Some of the characters would have deserved a novel of their own. In the former Gold Coast, present Ghana, Gyasi chooses to concentrate on the magical. One of Effia’s descendants has visions that show her that something bad has happened in the history of her family. She is seen as the mad woman and is shunned by her village, her son is taken away from her. He takes on a teaching job in the States after he has been reunited with his mother. As a result present day Ghana is merely the place the final descendants Marjorie and Marcus visit after they have become an item. Time appears to have stood still there, which is certainly not the case.
Homegoing is a well-written novel that shows where things have gone very wrong in the past. I hope Gyasi in a next novel confirms her quality as a writer by providing her characters with more depth.
I had been planning to read The Girls for quite some time; the novel, loosely based on the Charles Manson group including the brutal murders, got praise all over. Usually I am slightly wary of novels that are being hyped. Often they lack qualities on either content, structure or style. It turned out I had nothing to worry about: Cline knows how to write and effortlessly combined those three elements. Cline writes beautifully, combining complex sentences and imagery; her choice to have grown-up Evie look back on her period with the cult works; the main characters have sufficient depth to convince. I had no problem whatsoever to envision Russell, the cult leader: a weak egocentric conceited man who gets a kick out of controlling young people. In his cult he is the leader of a group of young women who worship him, despite the fact that he obliges them to have sex with other men and instructs them to neglect their children. Cline show us how Evie is drawn into the group, making very clear that Evie is a perfect victim, as would any insecure 15-year old have been. Evie has many doubts and is as yet not capable of seeing the many flaws of the cult. She merely sees what she wants to see. Strangely enough the cult’s main attraction is not Russell but Suzanne, one of the women ultimately committing murders for Russell. Suzanne is everything Evie would want to be. The reader gets to know a woman who no longer has a mind of her own, who has her life controlled by a man who stuffs her with drugs. Evie on the other hand sees a self-assured young woman who does not care about common standards in society and who lives a free life with a group of like-minded people. Even when the cult runs out of control Evie refuses to acknowledge the drug abuse, the filth, the hunger and Russell’s madness. She still wants to be with Suzanne. A single lucid moment of Suzanne prevents Evie from being involved with the murders. Evie, as an adult, is very aware of the fact that she became very close to having killed herself. The strength of the novel lies in the fact that Evie is no exception, any girl could have become one of ‘the girls’, under the influence of a Russell or Suzanne . The Girls could easily have become a tear-jerker. Cline’s talent makes for a complex well-balanced novel that combines style structure and content.
How to stress a wrong? By exaggerating and turning things around. Having said so in The Sellout the main character is charged with the possession of a slave and he is trying to improve the self esteem of the African-American inhabitants of Dickens LA by reversed discrimination. He literally brings back the boundaries of Dickens by painting it on the road, he challenges youngsters by advertising for a new private school (costing loads of money) and makes his friend Honorée, the voluntary slave, happy by placing a sign in the bus: give your seat to the disabled, the old and the white. From that moment on the customary aggression in the bus ceases to be. Turning things around and exaggerating works: Beatty leaves no doubt discrimination and racism are wrong. He also shows that there are self-proclaimed victims amongst African-Americans as well, Beatty does not condone them breaking the law. He says things as they are (he refers to African-Americans as blacks and niggers throughout his novel). I can imagine The Sellout becoming a major novel in (African-)American literature. By taking the jiffy out of the situation he stresses the difficult position of many African-Americans. Does this make a good novel? At times. I was promised a novel that would have me laugh my head off. That never happened. I was mostly irritated by the incredible speed Beatty uses to share information with me. I can best compare it to the enormous amount of words your average stand-up comedian uses. In the prologue the overdoses of words and facts made me wonder what on earth I was reading. Later on, when Beatty slowed down slightly, I finally became involved with Dickens, LA. I am afraid I might not have finished if Beatty had kept on the speed. Nevertheless, The Sellout is a novel that confronts and does not easily go away. I would not be surprised if it were to win the Booker, though in that case it might be for its message and less for its literary merits.
Short list 2016
In the eighties it became clear that communist China was not all it had proclaimed to be. The first flaws in its image were shown. Mao and his cultural revolution had managed to ruin the country in stead of improving it. It became clear – even to the average not overly interested or well-informed Western civilian – that a powerful clan had been repressing ‘the people’. Fear, poverty and starvation were omni-present. Madeleine Thien’s main character shares her father’s story with us, the readers. He was a classically trained pianist who after having left China never ever touched a piano again. He was a child of the revolution, oppressor and victim all at the same time. Thien makes a veritable case for Mao and his gang brainwashing the Chinese and turning them weary and frightened, by brutally separating families or by demoting people to meaningless jobs in remote areas. Thien paints a downright sobering and shocking image of the Red Brigades. Mao’s young guards are agitators who have been roused by the officials, in the main time being scared to death to appear to be insufficiently patriotic. They play a mayor part in blaming and shaming sessions that usually end with the violent death of the accused, just the one exception being able to remain his or her dignity. Apart from being a good reflection on China’s turbulent past, Thien’s novel is also exceptionally well written. She combines the magnitude of a county’s past with an almost intimate picture of two families. Though she describes horrible things, she still manages to make us feel close to those families. She is involved with her characters, she makes sure that they are real flesh and blood people. In doing so Thien confronts us with our own humanity. Who are we to blame those not daring to confront the government, would we have dared to be different? Through Thien we experience what it must have been to be one of the people under suspicion, to be one of those people who happen to be on the right side – sometimes forever blaming themselves for not defending their loved ones. Thien’s characters are ordinary people, she does not judge them, she does not absolve them. I loved this novel, it is my favourite for the Booker.
I have a slight problem with Deborah Levy. I find that she writes exceedingly well and structures her novels excellently. For some kind of reason however she fits three to four very complicated characters into one novel. It makes me long for at least one uncomplicated person, someone who goes around carrying normal human baggage. To be clear: I am absolutely convinced that we all go through life with our own personal burdens, In Hot Milk there are just too many people with too heavy burdens. It feels kind of far-fetched and articifial that they all meet in one mere month. In this case Sophia and her mother Rose have travelled to Almera in order to find a cure for Rose. She is a hypochondriac who can hardly walk though there seems to be no apparant reason. She swallows pills for almost any complaint anyone in her fifties might suffer from. Daughter Sophia is continually repressed by her mother and her situation; she does not come around to leading her own life. Sophia being your typical modern twenty-something incapable of making any choice does not help things. I felt rather old reading about her and her going-ons. I kept wanting to tell her to get a grip and go on with her life. Because of the people Sophia meets and a visit to her father in Greece – he is a religious fanatic who has decided to leave his wealth to the church and not his daughters and second wife – she finally starts to see what must be done. Sophia starts to entangle herself from her mother and decides to go on with her life, finally deciding to continue her studies for one. At the end of the novel Levy hints at the true ilness of Rose, one diagnosis Rose had never considered. This diagnosis finally offers mother and daughter the opportunity of normalizing their relationship. As said, Levy writes well and portrays her characters well, I would have loved it if she had added just the one boring plain person.
Sometimes a novel grasps you, right from the start. Could it be the first sentence that sets a dreamy almost fairy tale context: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars …”? Followed by a discussion on the ownership of the fourth leg of a racehorse which subtly ends with “He had a hand on her leg”. Thereby effortlessly creating the required tone of intimacy. This intimacy continues throughout the novel. Swift takes us along in what turns out to be the last moment two lovers spend together. He, well-born, about to marry into money, she the maid working for the neighbours. Though born in different classes their relationship, which lasts for seven years, bears in it an element of equality. It might be the independence she shows in not caring about the consequences, it might be the way he grants her his house on this sunday just before he gets married. Or it might be that they were just made for each other in bed.
Swift describes how he gets dressed, than has her move about the house naked and without any sense of shame or urgency. By varying in the length of sentences and by subtly moving between past and present, Swift creates a contemplative almost poetic sphere that fits the moment of saying goodbye. And the knowledge that she, Jane, will go on to work in a bookshop and start writing novels herself, successfully. Jane being the one who looks back Swift can make her look at the people she encounters daily as potential characters in a novel, which they eventually become in one of her novels. Reality and fiction start to intermingle.
As the novel continues Swift changes focus from the lover’s bed to the succesful career Jane has. He has her ponder on novels that influence her, the meaning and role of words, her love of certain words. Mothering Sunday changes from a mere tale about two lovers into a coming of age novel. It evolves into a novel about finding one’s place in society, about making choices, for language and literature in this case. Swift being a talented writer who expertly chooses words, structure and topics makes for a beautiful novel. I loved Mothering Sunday, I can imagine people finding it too dreary, too contemplative though. I enjoyed it immensely. I loved reading about Jane on this one particular Sunday.