Jessie Greengrass || Sight

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Does anything happen in Sight? No, hardly. Does it matter? No, Sight is not just a novel, Sight is foremost a beautifully written philosophical insight into relationships. Between mothers and daughters, between husband and wife. Backed with historical information on Freud, Röntgen and the Hunter brothers, anatomical surgeons who discovered the correct anatomy of a human body and foetus.

The main action in Sight is our main character, name unknown, being pregnant and starting to contemplate because of her pregnancy. Contemplating her relationship with husband Johannes, her young daughter, her unborn, her relationship with her mother, the relationship of her mother with her own mother, Action is restricted to the death of her mother, summers spent with her grandmother, a holiday in Italy, visits to museums. All in service of the philosophy.

Greengrass elaborates on Freud, Röntgen and the Hunters. At first I did not really understand why and then I finally got it. Our main character dissects her every thought, the four men mentioned dissect as well, though in a different way. This link gets more and more obvious when the novel gets to the ending. Our main character is searching for certainty by dissecting her thoughts and feelings. Where the four scientists got their security up to a certain level our main character concludes that the only security she can get is accepting change.

Why should you read this novel? Not because you want to read a novel that has you speeding through the pages because of the many thrilling moments. Not if you want to quickly read something in between whatever. This novel requires tranquillity and contemplation. I almost felt guilty about reading it whilst commuting.

This is your novel to read if you are open to a philosophical treatise that has been beautifully written. I do not know whether I understood every thought of our main character, I do believe Sight is the kind of novel you need to keep close in order to browse through it from time to time, discovering new insights every time. Maybe I will also get the paperback and allow myself to underline and pinpoint beautiful thoughts.

Sight

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Imogen Hermes Gowar|| The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

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Gowar takes us along into a Britain somewhere in the 1800’s. Her’s is a novel about change: of society, social acceptance, economy. The mermaid and mrs Hancock are the symbols of this change.

Mr Hancock is a trader who sends his ship into the world looking for goods he can sell for a profitable price. The future mrs Hancock has been the mistress of a wealthy man for years, upon his death she is to return to being a prostitute or has to find another man who will support her. Their worlds collide when Mr Hancock is brought back a mermaid. It will change his world in more than one way.

Mr. Hancock is a level-headed man, the future mrs Hancock is flimsy, not altogether bright, living for the day. Their lives are entirely different, without the mermaid there would have been no chance at all of them ever meeting. His is the world of the hard-working god fearing working class, hers the world of those abusing their fellow creatures, of those depending on gullibility and greed, preferably of those with plenty of money.

Gowar takes us along into a colourful world. She paints livid pictures of the gloom world Hancock inhabits and the lively though harsh and cruel world of mistresses and prostitutes. Mr Hancock is definitely not in mrs Hancocks league, in her world she is amongst the best. Them getting married is a matter of shattered dreams, hope and deception. Their marriage is also a sign of times changing. Mr Hancock is coming along nicely in the world, mrs Hancock comes to accept that a decent life does have its advantages, that a plain, hard-working man can have his attraction.

Lots of people inhabit The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. It makes for the novel being livid, it also slows the novel down. It took me some 200 pages to be finally drawn into the novel. Before that I kept on thinking ‘well Dickens already wrote about that, and Sarah Waters or Charles Palliser’. What can Gowar add? Well, change. We see mr Hancock changing from a too careful tradesman into a decisive businessman; we see the typical personalities in their world having to go along with the times (or not making it); we see mrs Hancock changing from a rather silly girl into a responsible woman who accepts her fate.

I did not like the future mrs Hancock to start with, she was too supercilious, too silly, too egotistical. I liked her growing into a responsible person (though one who would never forget her fun-loving part). The mermaid added an extra layer, enforcing growth on the Hancocks. Her’s is a personality entirely different, adding an element of mysteriousness to the novel, showing that not everything is as we might imagine it should be. And showing that some things just should not collide: the human and the mermaid world should remain apart.

I liked The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. I liked it for introducing the element of change to a Victorian world, for having two worlds collide in an acceptable way.

Mermaid

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Jeff Vandermeer || Annihilation

 

In Annihilation a group of scientists sets of into a restricted are where strange things are happening. Things did not go well with previous groups. Something has happened in the world which has made Area A contagious, forbidden.

Main character is a biologist, her name is never given. We only know that she is an extremely private person, that she prefers spending time observing shallow pools. Her husband turns out to be one of the victims of a previous expedition.

The novel is a mix between psychology and horror. We are taken along into the character of the biologist;her motives and her personality are revealed to us. The other scientists remain professions, they are what they are meant to do in Area A: the psych, the linguist, the surveyor. The horror element is in the threatening, aggressive animal life, strange sightings, the fate of the previous expeditions.

The expedition is confronted with a strange tunnel, which our main character stubbornly refers to as a tower. On exploring the tunnel they find signs of a foreign type of life, the crawler. The main character gets intoxicated with it early on, she feels herself changing. This change influences her every action from that moment on.

I am not sure what Vandermeer wants with Annihilation. I found exploring the character of our main character interesting, I felt at a lost with the Science Fiction part of it. I honestly did not get it. Maybe Vandermeer has tried to parallel the exploration of the main character with the exploration of Area A. Maybe I am just trying to read too much into it, I really do not know. I just know that I found the novel weird, too weird. The exploration into the main character’s psyche would have sufficed for me, I could have done without the mysterious crawler.

Annihilation

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Arundhati Roy ||The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

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I have a confession to make: I did not finish The Ministry. I felt so overwhelmed by the chaos Roy presented me with that I started postponing reading her novel:  ‘I’ll read one of the shorter Longlisted novels first because I need to have a novel for my blog next Sunday, the hardback is too heavy, it is too cumbersome to take along on my commute, let’s wait for the shortlist’.

Excuses excuses excuses. The reality of it is that I did not enjoy The Ministry, the novel did not present happiness to me but had turned into hard work.

But do you love colourful descriptions of Indian life? Do you enjoy experiencing the look and feel of India through words? Do you like a lot of historical facts? Do you like a narrative style that boldly uses association and links one tiny fact to yet another tiny fact to yet another and so on and so on? In that case you might enjoy The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I regret never finding out what is going to happen to its main character, a Hijra, an Indian hermaphrodite. I must admit that he/she did go under in the ocean of information. I had not gotten further than a casual acquaintance. Let me know how he/she fares if you do manage to finish the Ministry.

Ministry

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Daniel Kehlmann || Tijl

(I am not sure this one has been translated, other novels by Kehlmann have been translated from German into English).

Though Tijl is the main protagonist in Kehlmann’s novel, he is not what Kehlmann wants us to acquaint us with. Tijl escapes from the reader’s attention time and time again whilst this reader gets to know his world of continuous war, religious fights, superstition and the first scientific (albeit ludicrous in our 21st century eyes) approach to knowledge and disease. I am not totally convinced by the novel, some chapters I loved, others made me yawn.

I was absolutely smitten with the first chapter. Kehlmann sets the tone: Tijl and his father, the miller, do not fit at all in the world of their villagers. A world in which faith and superstition are equally important, in which a careless remark can be your downfall, which is dominated by hunger and chaos, the war always being close. Tijl is a weakling who occupies himself with weird things like walking on a rope; he is bullied by the servants, not noticed by his father.

Father Uilenspiegel is obsessed by knowledge, he obsesses on why the moon appears at a different place each night, when grain starts to be a bushel and no longer an individual thing. These questions are his downfall when two Jesuits visit the village. They believe him to be a servant of Satan. Both Jesuits are also in search of knowledge. Their reasoning, though ridiculous to us, is logical, which did not keep me from laughing when they were explaining why a dragon’s blood can heal. Through them we are taken along into the first steps of scientific discovery, the healing of diseases.

Kehlmann also confronts us with atrocities: once the hangman has gotten a hold of you, you’ll confess to anything: serving Satan or having watched the neighbour fly away on a broomstick. Fortunately Kehlmann only hints at the torture, he does not go into detail and merely describes the bruises and wounds of victims. When Tijl ends up in a battlefield the descriptions do get more explicit, not my cup of tea.

We are also introduced to the courtly world, in this case the impoverished queen of Bohemia (the daughter of the British king). Her world shows political conflict, losing one’s position in a jiffy, only one person being honest to you, the jester – Tijl Uilenspiegel. On the other hand we get to know the man behind the jester for short moments when he is with Elisabeth and her husband Ferdinand. He leaves the jester be and becomes the man Tijl, leaving us with some of the most touching moments in the novel.

Tijl is a vehicle for Kehlmann which allows him to show us his world. Kehlmann never sets out to have his reader get to know Tijl, a major difference in approach. I felt the novel was too violent at times containing too many historical facts. I was absolutely impressed by those chapters in which the world of superstition and official religion clash, in which Kehlmann makes the lack of food, the poverty, the dirt and smell almost tangible. The one person who could have been the one at a distance, the queen, is the one who changes from concept into a person.

Mixed feelings about Tijl. I felt the novel remained too much at a distance, too narrative. Which is a matter of taste. I do acknowledge that Kehlmann did a superb job describing Tijl’s world in all its diversity. That I could have done with more of those personal glimpses of Tijl is my thing.

Tijl

 

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Rachel Seiffert || A Boy in Winter

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I was slightly disappointed in A Boy in Winter, especially since I know Seiffert as a writer who can make us feel and know her characters through small things. That did not happen in this novel, maybe because she tried to show us the actions of too many people whilst confronted with history.

History is the deportation of Jews from a small Ukrainian village at the start of the Nazi-campagne in Russia at the start of World War Two. By choice or not, the Jews are brought together by the Nazi’s and killed cruelly after a few days of waiting. Seiffert shows us how people in and outside the group react to villagers being taken prisoner. She acquaints us with the SS-commander, engineer Pohl who is responsible for constructing the road meant to transport troops and means, the young peasant girl Yasia, her fiancée Mykola, the parents of the boy in the title and of course the boy himself, Yankel.

Her approach makes it possible for Seiffert to introduce us to different point of views, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The chapter for instance in which she describes Ephraim and Miryiam, Yankel’s parents waiting amidst a growing group of Jews for the Nazis to bring them elsewhere is chilling. Their concerns and fears are palpable, their pragmatic approach worrisome: ‘just do as they ask, as we have always done, we can start elsewhere’. The chapter on the other hand in which we learn how Pohl, in order not to have to enlist and fight, decides to become an engineer for the Nazis kind of resembles a chapter from a history book. His way of thinking probably an example of many a sensible German in those days.

Yankel is the rebel who does not allow the Nazis to determine his fate. Yasia, the peasant girl who has her heart decide. Her family and friends are used to Russian occupation, to partisans demanding support, the Germans are just the next group. Yasia is not really interested in the fate of the Jews, she is too busy worrying about her marriage to her fiancé. A direct confrontation with Yankel and his younger brother have her act in a decent way impulsively.

The above makes my issue with A Boy in Winter clear. Seiffert does not offer us persons, she makes do with clichés. The decent though not entirely brave German, the SS-commander, the pragmatic Jewish father, his rebel son, the peasant girl acting from the heart. Sometimes an unexpected side pops up, unfortunately not often enough. The overall image is of a group of characters embodying different aspects of the problem to face. Yankel himself does not speak a word, the group builds his character.

A Boy in Winter appears to be the result of Seiffert wanting too much, wanting to show too many sides of an issue, in this way not delving deep enough, not giving the novel the sharpness it needed. The novel has become a collection of clichés. On those sparse moments Seiffert has one of her characters go beyond the cliché, her ability to lift up those characters shows. The novel is a chilling episode in the Holocaust, I would have loved to have come to better know the people behind the episode.

Boy

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Sarah Schmidt || See What I Have Done

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In the USA this story will be known: Lizzie Borden kills her father and stepmom with an ax. A cruel murder that shocks 19th century America. Lizzie is not convicted of the murder, by lack of evidence. Schmidt has written an intriguing version of the story in which for me ‘nature or nurture’ is the focus.

Schmidt has the story told by four characters; Lizzie herself, her sister Emma, Irish maid Bridget and psychopath Benjamin. By introducing four different point of views Schmidt does not have us doubt whether Lizzie actually killed her parents, it has us looking for the motive. Is Lizzie a psychopath who looks at the murder as the consequence of them not treating her correctly? Or is she the result of a cold, heartless father, an overprotective sister and spoiling stepmom, her own mother dying at her birth? Schmidt manages to have her reader think about this.

I liked the introduction of Benjamin, a person who historically does not take part in the Borden murders. Benjamin, though himself born into an unhappy family, is definitely a psychopath. He really has no clue as to the rightfulness of killing people. In this way his character parallels Lizzie whilst at the same time introducing the possibility that somebody else killed the Bordens.

Lizzie is not portrayed as the loving girl next door. Schmidt focusses on her lack of empathy, her selfishness, putting herself in first place always. Bridget’s perspective shows the way Lizzie manipulates and tries to have everyone do as she pleases. Bridgets homesickness, her longing for her warm Irish home contrasts nicely with the rather nasty Borden family.

The novel is almost feverish in style, one wants to hurry through it. The style accentuates the doubts about the murder, the cruelty of what has happened. Schmidt also succeeds in making the 19th century almost palpable. You can smell the spoiling mutton broth that gives everyone food poisoning, the smell of the bodies in the house, Lizzie tasting the blood she licks almost like a predator.

See What I Have Done is not a crime novel. Schmidt is more interested in the psychology of the probably murderer. Lizzie talking and thinking about the murders is absolutely intriguing.

See

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Hari Kunzru || White Tears

Sometimes a writer wants too much. Kunzru as far as I am concerned is a good example. He portrays the USA with its growing gap between have and have nots in a stunning way, he finds it necessary to introduce the spiritual world, the ghosts of the long dead.

Carter and Seth are unlikely friends. One is born into an extremely wealthy family with lots of influence, the other is the shy second son of a family torn asunder. They have found each other in their passion for music, their ability to create new sounds by combining existing takes with samples they have recorded themselves. They have a succesful studio, financed by Carter (or as it turns out, his family in an effort to keep the black sheep out of trouble). They also share something else which neither of them acknowledges: they both suffer from a psychological disorder resulting in obsessive behaviour.

Things go badly when Seth, without realising it himself, whilst walking through New York records an entire blues. Carter is obsessed by it and starts a search for the singer. He creates his own version of the blues and puts it on the internet, where it goes viral. When Carter and Seth are approached by an old man who is convinced the song is a real track, an authentic single, things run out of hand quickly.

Reality and the spiritual world are thrown together, a search for the singer starts. In some fragments of the novel his spirit appears to have taken over Seth. The truth about the blues is revealed, I found myself wondering whether Kunzru could not have done without the spiritual world. The truth about the blues might have been revealed shifting between time and perspective. Kunzru’s choice made the novel too weird for my taste.

The thing with the singer’s ghost took away the attention of what Kunzru does brilliantly. I loved the way he pictured the gap between Seth, Carter and his crowd. paralleling it in the life of the singer on an even bigger scale: the gap between poor and rich, between Afro-American and WASP. Imagery, beautifully crafted sentences, they contribute to a realistic, grim image of American society.

Seth starts to suffer more and more of depression and psychoses. I doubted whether the singer’s ghost was not his personal demon. I am afraid Kunzru did seriously introduce the spiritual world into the novel.

Kunzru has me in mixed feelings about White Tears. I found that his mingling of the real and the spiritual world distracted me from the core of the novel. I was thoroughly impressed by the grim depiction of have nots in the USA. That would have sufficed for me. The theme depicted on the cover, ‘may two white guys grab authentic Afro-American music?’, appears to have been added because of discussions on the topic in the real world not because it was of major importance in the novel itself.

white tears

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Meena Kandasamy || When I Hit You: or a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

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Let me be very clear: I consider Kandasamy to be a very talented writer. She has written a novel that shows her capacity to write, to structure, to add layers that provide more depth. She also knows how to change the mood: from playful, funny to grim, brutal to hopeful, full of prospect. At first I liked her novel, when the mood became grimmer and grimmer I found myself hesitating to read on.

In When I Hit You the female protagonist compares her married life to a movie or novel. It becomes clear quite soon that this comparison is her strategy for surviving a brutal marriage. Her husband, a hero to everybody else, abuses her. At first just verbally, a few months into the marriage also physically. Kandasamy has her reader experience all his and her thoughts. And believe me, that is not necessarily something you want to experience. Especially when the husband becomes more and more violent.

I found myself thinking ‘why don’t you leave him? You’re a smart educated woman, leave!’ at the same time correcting my own thinking ‘easier said then done when you are not in this situation. You are not a Tamil wife in India who is a victim of both her husband and society. You are not the own who will be frowned upon for leaving a good husband’. I found myself in an increasingly uncomfortable situation whilst following the progress of the marriage.

Those who have followed my blog know that I do not like explicit descriptions of violence. I do not like it when the author finds it necessary to emphasize the bare facts of abuse. I definitely prefer a more subtle style. I have read many novels in which a mere reference sufficed to make me cringe for the main character, I do not need a sledge-hammer to convince me of a wrong. I do not need to be taken along a rape verbally. It makes me want to unhook.

I was glad When I Hit You did not end in total despondency. Kandasamy has written a chilling tale that hits a nerve and that might be extremely truthful in its description of marital violence. I did not mind being taken along a frightening journey, I did find the descriptions of the verbal and physical violence too extreme. As such the novel might serve as an effective vehicle to convince that a husband does not have the right to abuse his wife. Forgive me for liking it less and less.

Hit You

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Jesmyn Ward || Sing Unburied Sing

Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist

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What an incredibly sad sad story. It depicts the long-term effects of racism and drug abuse in a family of combined background: white trash American, native American and African-American. Combined with a complete lack of mother instinct and spiritualism it makes for a potent, breath-taking novel.

Jojo, the main protagonist was born into a family of mixed background. He and his toddler-sister Kayla are practically being raised by their grandparents Pop and Mam, mother Leonie is addicted to drugs and her husband Michael. Mam is a ‘voodoo’ priestess, Leonie and her children can see ghosts. Their uncle Given has been killed in a racist incident by Michael’s nephew, police have called the incident a hunting accident. Given’s death has an enormous impact on his sister and parents, his sister’s need for drugs can (partly) be explained because of it.

Sing Unburied Sing centres around two events taking place in real-time: grandmother Mam dying and Leonie setting out with the children to pick up Michael who is to be released from prison. Harsh drug addict life and the spiritual world come together in these events.

Two ghosts are given a role in the narrative: Given and Ritchie, a brutally murdered inmate of the prison who hopes Pop can help him cross the line and go ‘home’. I was shocked by the depictions of prison life. Not just the fact that the white guards are cruel bigots, also that they used the most depraved of prisoners to guard the other inmates. The situation is totally sick. In the novel Pop is the one who manages to survive prison life through sheer chance of him being able to handle the bloodhounds, Ritchie is the one who at a mere twelve years old does not survive.

Sing Unburied Sing is told by Jojo, Leonie and Ritchie. Ward in this way manages to reveal relevant parts of family history. It also enables her to shed some light on Leonie’s struggle. Through her love for Michael and drugs she has become completely self-absorbed, unable to perform even the most basic tasks of motherhood. Ward has taken us along in the mind of a drug-addict and it is not a pleasant journey.

Ward describes life in a poverty-ridden part of the US. Lack of education and jobs, racism and drugs work together in making a decent life hard to get. Though Afro-Americans are no longer slaves, white community still treats them like shit. Pop and Mam being able to remain decent people is almost a miracle. Sing Unburied Sing is a story of fleeing into cruelty, of escaping through drugs and spiritualism. It is also a story of finding solace in family life and values, in trying to do one’s best.

Jojo is one of the most endearing protagonists I have come along in a long time. He is struggling to take care of his sister, we watch him drift further and further away from his mother. Sometimes one forgets he is just a kid. Leonie and Michael can no longer be saved , the final sentence gives me hope that all will be well for Jojo and Kayla: Home, they say. Home. Sing Unburied Sing could be a story of despair, I chose to see it as a story of hope, a steady glimmer of it. A definite must-read.

Sing

 

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