Day 1250: Pigeon English

Cover for Pigeon EnglishOnce again, I’ve been charmed by the unique voice of the narrator of Pigeon English, Harri Opuku, an eleven-year-old boy from Ghana living in a rough area of London. Harri is such an eleven-year-old boy, fascinated by bodily functions but still repelled by the realities of sex, exuberant, funny in a crass boy way, strong in family feelings and the joy of life. He has a hilarious command of English and is liable to comment “Everyone agrees” just when he comes out with the most ridiculous bits of misinformation.

The big news in the neighborhood is the stabbing death of an older boy. Harri and his friends are fascinated by this crime, and one of their games is to investigate it, picking up fingerprints with cellophane tape and watching people for signs of guilt. This situation is one to which the readers know the answer but the boys do not.

Harri is also flirting with the idea of joining the Dell Farm Crew, a local gang that seems to have lots of advantages. But his essential niceness makes him fail the gang’s tests.

This novel makes you laugh while creating a growing sense of dread. For Harri’s world is violent, and he seems singularly unprepared for it.

The only part of the book that didn’t completely work for me was the role of the pigeon, a bird Harri decides is his, who makes occasional comments that are much too sophisticated for Harri (or a pigeon, obviously). The pigeon acts as an omniscient narrator or perhaps more like a Greek chorus.

This was another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1248: Literary Wives! First Love

Cover for First LoveToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

There is no conventional plot arc in Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which won this year’s James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Among other things, it shows scenes from a dysfunctional marriage between a writer, Neve, and her husband, Edwyn. It also provides some insight into Neve’s upbringing—her bullying father and her detached mother, whose smile Neve describes as baring her teeth.

What does the title mean, though? We see no evolution of a relationship, only a few scenes of tenderness, but mostly shattering scenes of badgering and bullying from her misogynistic husband. Neve continually reminds herself that her older husband is ill and must feel terrible, but he treats her shamefully.

We see almost more of her previous relationship in her early 20’s with Michael, an American musician. He breaks up with her over a trivial incident and then returning, years later, entices her into a declaration of her feelings only to drop her again. Is this her actual first love? Because she sure doesn’t seem to love her husband. Are we to understand that her damaging first love destroyed her self-esteem to the extent that she puts up with this husband? I don’t know. Just some points to consider.

I’m not sure how much I liked this novel. It certainly provides insight into a classic abusive relationship, but there seems to be no end to this dire situation.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Literary Wives logoNeve seems to be drawn to manipulative, cruel men. Although there is some affection in her marriage, it seems to be dependent upon her completely submerging herself to his needs and demands. Edwyn is verbally abusive and on one occasion, physically abusive. The novel blurb describes them as an unsuited couple, but I can’t imagine anyone getting along with this man. Pity and fear seem to be the only things keeping Neve in her marriage. I think this is one of the worst marriages we have studied in this club.

Neve’s role in this marriage seems to be to cater to her husband’s every whim and make no demands. When she tries to reason with him out of his abusive ideas, her arguments are thrown back at her as bitchery and whining. Instead, she fares a little better if she holds her tongue. It is difficult to understand what Neve gets from this relationship.

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Day 1247: The Return of John McNab

Cover for The Return of John McNabAndrew Greig seems to like to base his novels on Scottish texts, legends, or history, and The Return of John McNab is no exception. This novel is a reworking of a classic novel by John Buchan, John McNab.

I am not familiar with this novel, but I got the idea right away. In the original, three men announce they are going to go poaching, that is, catch a salmon, shoot a grouse, and shoot a stag on three different estates and deliver the game to the grounds of the estate. (I know this isn’t the proper Brit terminology. I’m using “estate” in its American meaning of a large property owned by a wealthy person.) This wager is meant as a protest against the ownership and use of large portions of land in the Highlands for only a few wealthy people. These men call themselves John McNab.

Neil Lindores proposes to do the same thing, aided by his friends Murray Hamilton and Alasdair Sutherland. He does not count, however, on attracting the attention of Kirsty Fowler, a local journalist.

With plenty of close calls, the adventure begins, but the men’s final target is Balmoral. The Prince of Wales is in residence, and the security people are apt to believe that the well-publicized challenge is a threat hidden within a stunt.

This novel is an earlier book by Greig. It is entertaining enough, but it does not feature the brilliance of some of his later works. It’s strictly an adventure/romance novel.

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Day 1243: Dear Thief

Cover for Dear ThiefDear Thief is one of the first books I read specifically for my James Tait Black Prize project, and it is an unusual one. The entire novel consists of a letter that we suspect will never be sent to its recipient.

The unnamed narrator addresses her letter to her friend Nina, whom she has not seen for 18 years. Although not exactly plotless, the novel is concerned with the narrator’s memories of their friendship, imaginings about how Nina is living now, and thoughts about the events that destroyed their friendship and broke up the narrator’s marriage.

Beautifully written, sometimes stunning, the novel is a meditation on memory and on the need for connection. It is an examination of the complexities of relationship, for the narrator both wishes to see Nina again and hopes she will destroy herself.

The focus of the novel is of course on Nina, or Butterfly, as she was named by the narrator’s son when he was small. Harvey makes readers understand Nina’s allure, a beautiful, scarily intelligent woman who seems to be on a path of self-destruction.

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Day 1240: The New Sweet Style

Cover for The New Sweet StyleI’ve had The New Sweet Style on my reading list for a long time now, ever since reading a glowing review. I’ve also heard Aksyonov referred to as one of the best contemporary Russian writers. (We’re being flexible with our definition of contemporary here, since this book was written in 1998.)

Sasha Korbach is a dissident theatre performer in Soviet Russia who is kicked out of the country in 1982. Famous in Europe, he comes to the United States expecting a rousing reception. However, because of a mistake about the date of his arrival, he ends up subsisting with a group of underemployed Russian immigrants. A move to Los Angeles results in an even greater comedown in the world.

Then Sasha falls in love with Nora Mansour, the daughter of a wealthy fourth cousin. Sasha scrambles to earn enough money to continue his bicoastal affair.

Told in a jokey, ironic tone, this story seems as if it’s supposed to be funny. Maybe something got lost in translation, because I didn’t find it funny at all. For some reason, we’re meant to have sympathy for this character, who seems to have no personality at all but just lets himself be helplessly battered by the plot. Even upon his first arrival, he makes no effort to contact anyone in the American theater scene and sneaks out of a performance of his own work, and he won’t accept help from his wealthy relatives. At one point, he prefers to become a drug dealer. The plot veers from the realistic to the absurdist. There is a description of his theater act that makes it sound manic and ridiculous rather than amazing, as it is received. There’s nothing really to grab onto with no sense of character, no interest in the protagonist’s adventures, just a lot of pointless mockery.

For some reason, the tone of the novel reminds me of Nabokov, with lots of literary allusions but without his breath-taking prose. Instead, the English is sometimes awkward and often sexist. Sadly, I have to report that I did not finish this novel, although I read more than half of it. It just wasn’t interesting enough to me to finish it.

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Day 1237: Little Fires Everywhere

Cover for Little Fires EverywhereOne Saturday morning, Izzy, the youngest Richardson child, sets fire to the house and leaves. As in her previous novel, Ng begins with the end of the novel to show how it comes to pass.

We don’t really get to Izzy right away, however. We start with Mrs. Richardson and her duplex house in Shaker Heights. Although the family doesn’t need the rent from the duplex, Mrs. Richardson likes to think she is helping someone worthy by leasing the apartments to the right person. In this case, she rents one to Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl.

Mia and Pearl have lived a wandering life, settling in a city as long as it takes Mia to finish a project and then moving on. Mia makes some money from her work and occasionally takes a part-time job to supplement their meager income. Upon arriving in Shaker Heights, however, Mia has unexpectedly announced that they can stay. She also reluctantly accepts a part-time job as a house cleaner and cook that Mrs. Richardson pushes on her.

The plot gets moving around a situation that seemingly has little to do with either Mia or Mrs. Richardson. Mrs. Richardson’s friend Mrs. McCullough is close to adopting a little girl of Chinese heritage when the baby’s mother, who has been searching for her, sues for custody.

When Mrs. Richardson figures out that it was Mia who told the mother who had the baby, she begins investigating Mia. It is her self-righteousness as well as her misunderstanding of some of the facts she gleans that mount up and provoke Izzy’s outburst.

At first, I was a little impatient with this novel. Ng certainly understands the adolescent psyche, but in many ways, this novel seemed too similar to her previous one, Everything I Never Told You. She knows how to tell a story, however, and she understands complexity in relationships, so ultimately I was swept up.

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Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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