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Halfway through The Underground Railroad I went to see I Am Not Your Negroe, the documentary based on an unpublished essay by James Baldwin.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.

railroad

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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

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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

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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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Ayòbámi Adébáyò || Stay With Me

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Short List

Spoiler Alert

From the start it is clear that main characters Yejide’s and Akin’s marriage fell through. In the pages that follow Adébáyò shows us how. By switching perspectives of time and character, the reader is shown step by step what caused the separation. It also becomes quit obvious that nothing is what it appears at first sight. Furthermore Adébáyò links the downfall of one marriage to traditional Nigerian society being on the brink of moving into modern times. It is no problem that Yejide has gone to university and has become a successful entrepreneur, it does constitute a problem that she has not fulfilled her main role as a wife: to deliver baby’s, which naturally is her problem. It does not occur to either family that Akin might be to blame.

By changing perspectives of character and time, Adébáyò does not only subtly reveal the truth, she also allows the reader to penetrate into the characters of Akin and Yejide and to relate them to circumstances. A minor flaw might be that Adébáyò is slightly more critical of Akin than of Yejide, the truth being that either cannot stand up against the claims of society. Akin however does accept that his wife is blamed for their marriage remaining childless, he does set in motion a chain of occurrences he can no longer control. Or accept. Yejide is mostly to blame for being loyal, for accepting desperate measures in order to become pregnant.

Stay With Me is a beautiful novel on two difficult subjects: to have and to lose children. By maintaining a certain amount of aloofness in telling the story Adébáyò never succumbs to being tacky. She shows us the difficult choices traditional society forces upon two people who love each other, the pain and sorrow that cause man and wife to grow apart, the struggle between love and truth for both. The subject matter being sufficiently sad, Adébáyò apparently did not feel the need to put more emphasize on it. The violins are never allowed to erupt, their restraint allows Stay With Me to be a touching novel that through its aloofness shows true pain and sorrow. For those who know me by now, my type of novel. I absolutely loved it.

Stay

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Nathan Hill || The Nix

At the station I was confronted with posters advertizing The Nix for months and months. It took ages for the novel to arrive through the library, I was definitely not the only one wanting to read it. In such cases I always worry the hype might be bigger than the novel itself. In this case I had no need to worry, The Nix was worth the long wait. In it Nathan Hill links a rather far-fetched act of terrorism to the lives of Faye and her son Samuel. Hill switches effortlessly between Faye growing up in the sixties, ending up unintended in student revolts, and Samuel facing the now. Not having lived up to expectations as a promising young writer, he has to settle for being a professor at a rather mediocre college. He spends most of his time thinking of the woman he has adored his entire life, violinist Bethany, and playing a video game for hours and hours.

Step by step Hill reveals the truth behind the moment in which Faye throws gravel at a would-be presidential candidate. Each story line has a purpose, each character has a role to play in the events leading to this supposedly act of terrorism, providing Hill with a perfect stage to make us look critically at our modern age and time. The passage in which student Laura tells Samuel why she has been forced to plagiarize her essay is brilliant and could have been part of sitcom Girls easily. Gamer Pwnage is a loser in the real world, as super elf he is triumphant. He dedicates many hours to his favourite game, causing his body to fail gradually.

I loved this novel in which several story lines come together effortlessly and in which proto-type characters are developed to the point they become convincing. The people in The Nix are not perfect, they, with a single exception, are rather ordinary people trying to live their ordinary lives. Faye becomes a security risk because of intrigues and political aspirations she has no part in whatsoever. She just happens to be present when jealousy and ambition exact their toll. She is made into an example of our vulnerability in a complex society controlled by fear of what might happen.

The Nix reminded me of Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the quintessential novels of the eighties. I hope Hills debut will not be a one only. If he keeps up the good work, he might follow into the path of born story-tellers like Charles Dickens, John Irving or David Mitchell who unravel story-lines into one gratifying finale. Don’t miss The Nix, I’d say.

Nix

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Naomi Alderman || The Power

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Short List

SPOILER ALERT

Alderman has written a convincing novel about a world in which women are able to seize power by virtue of a newly developed anatomical device called a skein. From the moment women can control men by literally electrocuting them with their skein a grab for power starts. At the end things do not end well: do not think Alderman sends us the message that a women-controlled world would be perfect, on the contrary: a women-controlled world sucks as much as any world controlled by the power-hungry, the religious fanatic or the criminal. It is disconcerting to read about the disturbed schizophrenic who can become the leader of a new religion, about the politician who goes for control of the world with the help of a female ‘peace-force’ or the daughter of the ruthless criminal who steps into her father’s footsteps and starts selling a drug that makes the skein even more powerful (and drives the women using it mad).

Alderman safes one determining fact for the final pages: her novel does not start in the now but in a women-controlled society somewhere around 7017 that bears a striking resemblance to our current society. By confusing us she sends her message through loud and clear: we humans have a tendency to succumb to power and money or to listen to religious nutcases, whatever their gender.

This message is the one thing making me doubt whether The Power is an excellent novel or a very well written pamphlet. At a certain point I felt the message taking over, becoming the more important issue in the novel. Alderman became slightly pushy in sending it across, in this way making the literary quality of the novel secondary.
Alderman has written a decent novel that sends a powerful message across. Somewhere in the novel the message takes over. I was relieved to find out that the most cynical of all characters, criminal Roxy, turns out to be the one who can see sense at the end. Her skein being surgically removed might have had something to do with that, making her taking her distance from her previous power-hungry and religiously fanatic pals also slightly obvious: Alderman is once more pushing the message through too loud.

Power

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Maria Sempre || Today It Will Be Different

I read on the internet that Today It Will Be Different will be made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. I dare wager a bet that she’ll run around with uncombed hair, no (visible) make-up and clothes that would have had her sent to Trinny and Susannah or Stacy and Clinton in real-life. How else to show that main character Eleanor is having a hard time of living life? With her caring husband, her failed career, her growing son, the energetic younger parents of his class mates, her pushy friends, the not-cool city she has had to move to and mostly, herself. Oh dear, life does get tricky when gravity takes a hold on your body, when wrinkles appear and no longer can be made to disappear and when younger males do no longer consider you flirt-worthy. I was supposed to have been charmed and amused by Eleanor and her efforts to improve life. Sorry, I found her obnoxious and too into herself. She only got interesting when Sempre started revealing the facts about her troublesome relationship with her younger sister. At that moment Sempre, who can actually write very well, got me and I wanted to keep on reading for the first moment. What a pity about 1/5th of the novel was dedicated to Eleanor and her sister, 4/5th is mainly a struggling main character not accepting a fairly good life. What a pity the publisher did not advice Sempre to focus on the two sisters, that could have been a promising novel. This one did not do it for me.

Today

 

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Michael Chabon || Moonglow

Moonglow is a feel good novel. Chabon takes his readers along in the life of a sympathetic engineer, type act first think later, with a rather inflexible focus on things. On his deathbed he talks about his life whilst his grandson, an author, is listening and taking notes. The truth about certain aspects of the family history is finally revealed.

Granddad, who is after all dying, does not tell his story chronologically, he rather jumps about the place. His grandson copies the account, rambling and all. Though I am convinced Chabon put much thought into the structure of his novel, the result as far as I am concerned is that I am continually leafing through the novel trying to get back on track. That Chabon is sidetracked continually, deviating from the main story, associating all the time sharing rather irrelevant information does not make it any easier to keep track. I was happy to be reading a paper copy that made leafing through the pages possible.

Granddad does have a certain roguish charm. In those episodes he, at a pretty advanced age, starts chasing a python eating pets in the compound for the elderly in order to impress a possible love interest he makes you want to cuddle him. His French-Jewish wife who has come out of World War 2 with an unhealthy fascination for a skinless horse which makes her end up in psychiatric care several times fascinates. I would have preferred it however if Chabon had stuck slightly closer to their story.

Moonglow could be considered a sturdy and serious variation on the theme that became quite popular with a certain Swedish guy leaving through the window. Chabon does take his readers along in the horrors of World War 2, the difficult decisions that are required of countries and individuals in a period of war and the grandfathers’s fascination for rockets. That does not make for a literary masterpiece, as it was acclaimed in one of my country’s most popular television shows (making the sales of the novels they discuss go sky high). Moonglow is entertaining, nothing less nothing more. I’d advise you to read the novel when you have some time on your hands and to use a paper copy, it does make it simpler to leaf through the pages.

Moonglow

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Annie Proulx || Barkskins

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To be frank, I’m not sure Barkskins is a stunning novel. I personally am not that fond of historic novels with lots and lots of enumerations. And given the fact that Proulx embarks on a journey spanning four centuries of family history, from the first settlers in Canada till now, enumeration is what you get. I was just not taken with the way Proulx had us catch up with family members: in a few pages she summarized life and death of several Sels or Duquets (paying special attention to the gruesome way in which most of them died in accidents or of diseases long forgotten). When Proulx decides to spend more time on one character that person comes to life, making me thoroughly enjoy that particular chapter.

Barkskins is not just a family chronicle, it is also the history of the forest on the Northern-American continent. I would even go so far as to say that the forest is the main character, not the Sels or Duquets. The ruthless manner in which settlers started cutting down the forest is downright upsetting, especially bearing in mind that their mentality is still very much alive. Profit is what counts; environment and nature lose. Forest after forest after forest is cut down to still the desire for material: ships, houses have to be build, wheat has to be grown. Many trees are cut down, woods are burnt down, complete areas left open to erosion. Those who start to think of preservation are seen as nitwits who just do not get it. Or barbaric natives who do not grasp what the Good Lord expects of them: hard work, use the material the Good Lord has provided you with. To live respectfully of what nature has to offer? The lazy bums, no wonder they have never amounted to anything.

The Native-Americans in the novel dying of disease, addiction, poverty, violence and years and years of hatred is no surprise but still confronts. Proulx shows how some Mi’Kmaw survive by retreating into the real wilderness. With their knowledge of plants and wildlife they can make do. Proulx also shows civilization coming closer and closer, leaving the Mi’Kmaw no choice but to incorporate Western methods into their lives. Those who go for the easier profit tend to get the most dangerous jobs chopping trees, are killed in terrible accidents or get addicted to alcohol. Those who remain loyal to their life style make ends meet, just.

Barkskins is an ode to the forest and a call for action to respectfully treat the few original forests that remain. I felt the novel overall was too long-winded due to the many enumerations. In those chapters Proulx gave over to her love for writing she effortlessly showed her talent. Those chapters and the ode to the forest may not make for the best novel ever written, they do make for an important one.

Barkskins

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