Elizabeth Jane Howard || The Light Years

One might say that The Light Years is just another of those novels on a typical upper class British family that does not appreciate its good fortune. That would do no justice to Howard’s writing at all. The Light Years enchants because of the way she tinkers with family relationships, with the unorthodox, with family and friends of the Cazalets. Not mentioning the fact that Howard writes absolutely beautiful prose.

The Cazalets are a traditional upper class family that has not proven to be immune to the world surrounding their homes. Sons have been seriously wounded in the First World War, daughters-in-law die while giving birth, a granddaughter is abused by her father, another daughter-in-law is the victim of a date rape, the only daughter lives at home and takes care of her parents whilst desperately wanting to join her girlfriend. Do no expect grand gestures and equally grand prose from Howard, she keeps it small and human. Howard writes about the parents, children, grandchildren, their relations and friends with compassion.

Howard regularly changes perspective, in this way ensuring that almost all Cazalets, with the exception of the youngest ones, are the subject once in a while. This change of perspective makes for the image of a large, industrious family in which everyone has his or her place (and hardly any possibility to change this position), in which convention is more important than feeling or showing emotion. The daughthers-in-law will not ask their sons to really tell them what is going on at boarding school despite their hints that all is not well, it does not occur to anyone that a female good friend might be the love of ones live or that the talented granddaughters might thrive at school instead of being home taught (despite the best efforts of their teacher who does recognize their intellectual capabilities). Howard is unmerciful in letting her readers realize that the talented writer and actress will waste away their lives being forced to become housewives and mothers.

The Light Years is the story of a typical upper class British family showing where the conventions, family ties and the stiff upper lip lead to suffering. By having the main part of the novel take place during the summer in the country, sun-drenched, lazy and languid, Howard contrasts the peacefulness of country life to those hidden truths. I look forward to yet three more novels on the Cazalets. I hope that World War Two, despite all its atrocities, will have some Cazalets break free from convention.

Light Years

 

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Sebastian Barry || Days Without End

Longlist

Man Booker Longlist 2017

I’d not say Days Without End with all its descriptions of battles would normally have been my cup of tea. Nevertheless I really did enjoy reading it. Somewhere during The American Civil War I had had it with the battles, and then the war ended.
Days Without End impressed me for three reasons: the exquisite writing of Barry, the inevitable conclusion that violence is no good and the main character, Thomas McNulty.

To start off with the writing: Barry writes absolutely stunningly beautifully. His descriptions of the awful battles are exquisite, almost poetic. The entire novel Barry gives us exquisite metaphors, beautifully constructed sentences, almost tangible imagery. I found myself slowing down in order to fully enjoy Barry’s poetic writing. I stretched the 250 pages of the novel as long as I could.

The battles Barry describes are atrocious and cruel. Thomas does his share of fighting and killing, nevertheless he finds himself questioning more and more why people are being this cruel. Days Without End in an almost pragmatic way condemns violence against Native Americans, against fellow countrymen, against buffaloes and individuals through the doubts of Thomas.

The novel starts when Thomas is young and meets best friend John Cole. Together they perform in saloons, enlist and fight in the army. First against the Native Americans, next against the Southern States. Thomas, of Irish decent and lacking any form of education, is extremely pragmatic (“the colonel has given me the order to shoot, so I shoot”), on the other hand a born philosopher. Whilst fighting he observes and questions what is happening. He ponders on the necessity of war, on the necessity of blood shedding. He is also pragmatic when it comes to not mentioning that he and John are a couple; still as far as he is concerned there is no reason at all he should not love a man or wear women’s clothes. What I loved most about Thomas is his love for John, his entire reason for living.

At the end of the novel I was hooked. Pragmatism and the deep love of Thomas for John and their adopted daughter Winona come together in a blood-curling finale in which Thomas is to be separated from them. Do read Days Without End yourself in order to find out whether I closed it with a sigh of relieve or sadness. Suffice it to know that I was truly impressed.

Days

 

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George Saunders || Lincoln in the Bardo

Longlist

Man Booker Longlist

Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely not your average novel. Its form is too unusual. Part of the novel consists of quotes from letters, journals, newspaper articles or biographies on Abraham Lincoln; the other part of remarks, comments, encouragement by a group of the deceased staying on at a cemetery. They firmly believe themselves to be sick, to be ailing from a disease. They hope for a cure and reunion with their beloved ones. The arrival of young Willie Lincoln, who died of pneumonia, changes everything.

A young one is supposed to pass on to Heaven immediately. If they linger on they will be swallowed up by a malign vegetable growth. After having been visited by his father Willie does decide to remain on the cemetery. Three adult dead decide to take the matter into their hands. It leads to a novel consisting of on the one hand facts on Lincoln and on the other one a surprising insight into the state of mind of the dead.

To start with the first: the enumeration of quotes on Lincoln has its limit. Though some of the facts are interesting, I felt that the choice of style did not work throughout the entire novel. It started to get boring.

The comments, remarks, encouragements of the dead do work. From being purely informative at the start they change into personal insights into their convictions, their fears, their hopes. It leads to beautiful almost philosophical thoughts on how to accept sorrow and death. The most convincing scenes are those in which the dead whilst trying to help Willie have to face their own mortality and their own refusal to accept death.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an interesting novel that convinced half-half. I’d say, browse through all the Lincoln-facts (which do contain some surprising ones) and focus on the beautiful ever more philosophical thoughts of the dead. They make Lincoln in the Bardo a beautiful novel on grief and refusal to accept our destiny.

Lincoln

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Angela Flournoy || The Turner House

The Turner House is about the family once living it, a large family of fifteen in Detroit. The children have gone their own way, father has died, mother who is no longer fit has moved in with her first-born, a son. Flournoy adeptly combines the question ´what to do with the house?’ with the mid-life crisis of the first-born, the gambling problems of the youngest and the economic difficulties of Detroit.

The house, that was once situated in an all Afro-American decent neighbourhood, has ended up, thanks to the banking crisis at the start of the century, in a decrepit slum with high criminality and drug abuse. The pride of those who moved, mostly from the South, to work in a decent well-paid – job has long gone. The family Turner home has become a symbol of the downfall of large American cities depending on traditional industry.

Flournoy focusses her novel on three Turner children and the first years of their parents’ marriage. It shows how Afro-Americans took their rightful place in American society, the one slightly more successful than the other. The problems they face can partly be blamed on the colour of their skin, and partly on character. The first-born is a perfectionist who expects everyone to heed his words (that is to say: do as they are told by him), the youngest sibling faces an addiction and her older brother is a spoilt opportunist. In their lives and in their family they live according to the natural roles they have adopted in their family, without realizing it themselves and without realizing that their reaction to their siblings leads them to decision they come to regret.

The Turner house is a mellow novel. Though it tackles severe stuff it never becomes harsh or edgy. It reminds me of one of those American series about a typical American family with a soft-focus lens smoothing all the ups and downs. One of those comfy series you watch dressed in comfy clothes with a nice cup of tea (or a gigantic bowl of ice-cream if you’re American) snuggled away under a nice soft blanket. It made me thoroughly enjoy The Turner House.

Turner

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Charlotte Wood || The Natural Way of Things

I would not go as far as to say that Charlotte Wood is a bad writer, on the contrary. Her descriptions of the hardships her main characters have to undergo are beautifully written, harsh and poetic at the same time, the structure of her novel is clever and strengthens the story. I do not have a clue however what Wood is trying to convey to me with this story about a group of women held captive against their will somewhere in the Australian outback.

Some twenty young women are held captive, a dangerous electrical fence makes their escape impossible. The guards are unnecessarily cruel, their labour strenuous and the food is lacking in quality and quantity. They have ended up in hell. Why they have ended up there is never revealed, we just have to guess at it. Something to do with them being sexually active and not willing to accept minor details as date rape. It appears they are all being punished for embracing their womanhood,

During their months of captivity they all fall back into behaviour which fits them personally. Three of them spend entire days removing unwanted hair growth, one searches for this one poisonous mushroom and yet another hunts for rabbits to eat. The Natural Way of Things goes with the cliché of any story in which a group of people ends up somewhere and has to fend for themselves.

What preoccupies me is why the women were taken in the first place. Could it be that the group who only wants to return to civilization is used to set off the smaller group that tries to escape in whatever way possible: by committing suicide or by choosing to live close to nature even when freedom appears to be near. Living a live that does not include nice clothes, make-up, hair or sexuality. It appears Wood considers them superior and this gives me the creeps.

I just cannot fathom what she is trying to tell: women are not supposed to be sexual creatures? We should choose lives far away from culture and civilization with all its traps? We grow to be superior by overcoming the odds? I do not know, in whatever case the measure is too bizarre to be credible. And as a result I find The Natural Way of Things just not credible.

natural way

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Ann Patchett || Commonwealth

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

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

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

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

Commonwealth

 

 

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Jacqueline Woodson || Another Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

Brooklyn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zadie Smith || Swing Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bailey´s Prize 2017: My favourite

short list

 

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

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

Stay

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

thien

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

Sport

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

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

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