We were a small but nonetheless very engaged group on Tuesday last and had a really good discussion both on the chosen book, Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and then on the current state of the novel in general, inspired by Louise telling us that in a recent lecture at Goldsmith’s College, Will Self had announced the death of the Modern Novel.
Firstly, the book itself. A brief synopsis – the protagonist, Sofia is an anthropologist and offspring of ill-matched and now divorced parents. Over the years her mother has developed a problem with her legs leaving her unable to walk. Mother and daughter go to a specialist clinic in Spain to try to discover whether mother’s inability to use her legs has a physical cause.
In the course of their visit they run into an exotic assortment of characters – the suave, impossibly expensive doctor (is he a quack ?), an over-helpful bisexual embroiderer and her executive trainer boyfriend. None of these characters are fully developed and in the course of this short novel (217 pages) exasperation sets in (in the reader that is). There is a sense that the author is working through a tick box of requirements – mother/daughter relationships, daughter/father relationships, feminism, hypochondria, gender fluidity. There’s a fair amount of obligatory psychobabble too – “You are using your mother as a shield to protect yourself from making a life.” So overall there was a sense that Deborah Levy was trying too hard to produce a book with global appeal, quirky enough to get on a major literary prize longlist, and it didn’t quite come off.
Which led us on to consider whether contemporary novels try to cram too much in, leaving the reader with indigestible content ? Is there a hidden list of issues which authors feel they need to introduce in order for their work to be relevant. And is the all-pervading tone of “elusive ambiguity” – never knowing quite where you are with any character – the dominant theme of current writing ? Answers in the Comments Please !
We did Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection Unaccustomed Earth a while ago to general approval so I was keen to read The Lowland when it was chosen. Lahiri won the Pulitzer for her first short story collection and she is clearly a very accomplished short story writer. However I question whether she has developed the technique required for a 350 page family drama/post-colonial epic.
Synopsis-wise this is the story of two brothers, their differing paths through life and the ripple effect of their decisions on those around them. The novel is divided into VIII Parts. The action takes place in both India and the USA.
Initially it is set in India at the time of the Naxalite Insurgency – this was early 1970’s and the Naxalites were a Maoist Group seeking radical change through violent means. We then follow one of the brothers as he moves abroad, and we are in the well-trodden (for this writer) territory of the South Asian diaspora. The sense of isolation, dislocation and of not remaining true to one’s roots permeates Part II and is well drawn. From then on the action moves between both places right up to the present day. The wide sweep of history over the last 70 years is good.
As a short story writer Lahiri knows how to distill incident down to its essence, create tension and empathy in the reader and leave you with that feeling of recognition of a situation that is a satisfying part of the reading experience. Examples of where this works well are Part VI Chapter 1 there’s a tutor/student relationship with an original twist. And a particularly effective very tightly drawn mother/daughter confrontation Part VII Chap 5 – tension builds up well to this and it has great emotional truthfulness.
But my problem with the book overall is that although Lahiri has an engaging writing style her characterization can be unconvincing. These are very shut-down characters emotionally and I suppose it is hard to write about emotional numbness and elicit any interest. But the net result is there is no developing momentum and it’s hard to feel involvement with characters.
For example although intellectually I know that maternal disinterest might follow from the experiences Gauri has had to face I’m not convinced by the story telling. The whole section where Gauri moves to America loses pace, the relationship with Subhash lacks conviction. For me, those telling little details which make a situation outside my own experience believable are lacking – it’s all very theoretical. The author has a coherent reason for the maternal disinterest but fails to flesh it out.
And now I have gone and copied an annoying trait I found in the book! I have suddenly started naming characters without any context !
Another issue I have is she doesn’t signpost her changes of time well and in a non-linear narrative this is vital. I like novels with time shifts, but darting about chronologically is disconcerting when there is ambiguity in the time period of events and it interrupts the reading flow.
This was one of those books where I ploughed on through duty but the payoff was very late in coming and I’m not sure it was sufficient for the effort of reading thus far. Essentially this is a short story writer attempting an epic novel and it has not quite come off.
Great review of the first story in Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. One caveat however – not every story in the collection reaches this high standard.
The first sentence: “Now that they are out of world affairs and back where they started, Peter Frazier’s wife says, ‘Everybody else did well in the international thing except us.'”
I know, I know, let the protests begin: this is a short story, and not a novel — which I’ve led you to believe is the subject of review on this blog. However, this premier short story in Gallant’s publication is not enough to lead in to the whole collection. Though its sense of intangible tragedy is a reoccurring theme throughout the series, my respect for Gallant and concordant opinion on the nature of short stories limits this post just to a preview of story numero uno. Gallant writes, at the end of her collection (spoiler alert!) that short stories should not be digested one right after another, that they are not like chapters of novels. “Read one,” she…
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First published in 1954, The Tortoise and the Hare is a forgotten gem. At first glance it appears to be a quaint period piece set in a rather unsympathetic milieu – upper class 1950’s. Why bother with a group of people whose world view could be summed up by “man as meal ticket” and the NHS allows “the lower orders to malinger for free” ? My answer would be that Elizabeth Jenkins is a very fine writer and that these issues haven’t quite gone away, so to have the spotlight of 60 years ago shone on them gives a new angle.
This is the portrait of a marriage of a high-flying barrister and his compliant younger wife, the characterisation (even of minor characters) is deft and the use of language original. The threat to the stability of the marriage comes from a “Miss Fixit” neighbour who is the polar opposite of the wife and possesses that ultimate boy’s toy, a purring Rolls Royce!
Strongest piece of characterisation in the whole book is Evelyn, the alpha male QC. Despite being overbearing and insensitive, the author draws him with sympathy and there is no hint of the idea that he might be a control freak (almost obligatory in contemporary writing) which leaves us free to speculate how complicit his wife, Imogen is in her infantilisation. A lot of readers today will be aghast at Imogen’s assessment of her role – “there was never a doubt in her mind that to meet his demands was the most absorbing and the most valuable end to which her energies would be used p.31.”
Elizabeth Jenkins is spot on in the analysis of the subtle elements of marital contempt
“he scolded Imogen for any admiration of natural beauty which disregarded usefulness and sense …..he was irritated by her sympathy with the travelling deer that ate young shoots in plantations and with the rabbits and squirrels that every sensible person regarded as pestilent.” Imogen responded tentatively – “I do see that, I do really” she said earnestly “but that squirrel seemed to ripple along, it was outlined in silver light…” “Blanche Silcox is shooting something” said Evelyn “I hope it’s squirrel.” This passage on p.39 sets the tone of the whole novel. Two people with widely differing philosophies of life. An unequal power balance. “Evelyn’s intimidating good humour …..seemed to encase him like a brilliant armour of glass p.180.”
Contemporary readers will take exception to a retired major’s treatment of Imogen “he ran his eye over her bosom, waist and legs in as thorough and practised a manner as if she had been a mare p.176” but it gives a piquant account of how women were regarded by men in the 1950’s.
Other passages too may be a little hard to take for the modern reader for example the dinner party in Chapter 14. Here the transformational effect of love on one character has a touch of Mills & Boon about it.
But despite a few flaws, the central idea that physical attractiveness can be a hindrance is well-explored. I believe Elizabeth Jenkins has written a novel which you can savour awhile after finishing. A worthy candidate for a bit of “deep reading.”
Update 7 May 2014 Excellent review here which captures the essence of the novel without plotspoiling
In ‘Life After Life’, Kate Atkinson plays with the concept of ‘eternal recurrence’ or ‘eternal return’ expounded by Nietzsche amongst others; and Atkinson quotes Nietzsche in her preface:
‘What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’….
Ursula, the book’s central character, does indeed return to relive her life many times, each repetition taking a different course and having a different ending. In exploring multiple versions of Ursula’s life, and her sometimes shocking death, Atkinson seems to be reminding us of the fragility of life, and the randomness of history.
However in my view the book would succeed almost as well as a beautifully written, straightforward family saga, without the inclusion of Ursula’s ‘eternal return’. Starting in 1910, it spans the period up to and beyond World War II. In the early chapters Atkinson depicts the almost-idyllic childhood of Ursula and her siblings – a large, comfortably-off Edwardian family living at Home Counties ‘Fox Corner’ with their alternately devoted and grumpy servants. These sections vividly portray the minutiae of domestic life, interpersonal dramas and sibling rivalries with perception and humour.
Later, of course, darker events overtake the family – especially, two World Wars. Atkinson’s unflinching descriptions of the London Blitz are very powerful – not least because of their matter-of-fact tone, and the stoical, low-key courage of the central characters. Characterisation is indeed one of the strengths of this book – Atkinson deftly brings to life even the most minor of characters.
In a recent interview Kate Atkinson said that she believes writing is a craft that has to be learned and practised. In my view, ‘Life After Life’ demonstrates how impressively she has mastered her craft.
Tributes have has been pouring in since Elizabeth Jane Howard died last week. The obituary writers are all agreed on her importance in British 20th century fiction though her reputation did seem to suffer from being in the shadow of her third husband Kingsley Amis.
She has enjoyed a late career revival over the last couple of years and in response to this, the reading group did a double bill in December 2012.
The example of her fiction we chose was Falling, actually based on a true life experience of a conman who contacted her after she appeared on Desert Island Discs. A cautionary tale of a lonely woman completely taken in by a compulsive liar. It’s to her credit that she could craft such a riveting work of art from a very painful experience.
Slipstream, her autobiography was the second of the books we read. She shows a degree of honesty and self-awareness unusual in a genre more often given over to self-aggrandisement. In her discussion of the break up of her marriage to Amis she made me see how much courage it takes to leave a failing marriage.
Both works amply rewarded the time and effort I took to read them.
So Farewell, Elizabeth Jane Howard – you have left an enduring legacy in the shape of your novels.
And for the last word, here is the writer herself in typically upbeat form
“One of the good things about living longer is that we have more time to learn how to be old. It’s clear to me now that inside the conspiracy of silence about age – because of the negative aspects of the condition – there is the possibility of art: that is to say that it can be made into something worth trying to do well, a challenge, an adventure. I don’t want to live with any sort of retirement, with nostalgia and regret wrapped round me like a wet blanket. I want to live enquiringly, with curiosity and interest for the rest of my life.*”