Review 2172: The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Just by coincidence, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is the second book set in Sri Lanka that I’ve read in a few months. It is part of my Booker Prize shortlist project.

It’s December 1987 and Maali Almeida is dead. He finds himself watching his body being thrown into a lake, but he can’t remember who killed him or why. A photographer, a gambler, an irresponsible and unfaithful gay lover, Maali had a purpose—to reveal the photos he’s taken of the carnage and double-dealing involved in the civil war in the hopes of stopping it.

Faced with a grotesque and bewildering afterlife, Maali is determined to get his two friends, Jaki, who is in love with him, and DD, her cousin with whom Maali was in love, to find his hidden photographs and make sure they are seen. To do this, he has to figure out the inconsistent rules of the In Between, avoid being consumed by the demon Mahakali, and learn how to be heard by humans.

As with Lincoln in the Bardo, I was not enamored of Karunatilaka’s conception of the afterlife nor was I very interested in the philosophical ramifications of Maali’s conversations with other dead people, demons, and animals. However, I was very interested in his depictions of Sri Lanka’s war and got dragged into the action almost despite myself. His humor is not mine, however.

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Review 2168: The Deadman’s Pedal

I had a few thoughts when I began reading this novel that weren’t necessarily connected with how well I liked it. One was how much male writers and critics love coming of age stories, at least if they’re about boys. If they’re about boys, they’re literary fiction (hence the James Tait Black prize win). If they’re about girls, they’re women’s fiction. Take Philip Roth, for example. He’s written the same novel over and over, and back at the turn of the century, he was the only writer who appeared twice in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Books of the 20th century. This coming of age novel was one I read for my James Tait Black prize project.

My second observation was more personal. In the beginning of the novel there is some joking around between 15-year-old Simon Crimmons and his friends. Now, I know that at this age a lot of things are said between boys to impress each other, but I found the way they talked about girls disturbing. I actually asked my husband if when he was this age, boys talked this way, and he said no. But he would have been about ten years older than these boys at the time these scenes are set in 1973. Everything they said was so objectifying, it’s no wonder young girls have image problems.

Anyway, Simon is nearly 16 at the beginning of the novel and wants to quit school and get a job. His father owns a fleet of trucks, but Simon can’t work for him until he is 18, so he ends up accidentally applying for a railroad job. His parents are very much against his quitting school, but he is headstrong. Another title for this book might be “Adolescents Making Poor Decisions.”

Simon seems to be a grounded individual who knows who he is, but even as he is getting sexually involved with his girlfriend, Nikki, he meets Alexander and Varie Bultitude and is fascinated by them. They are the teenage children of the area aristocrats, and they seem much more fluid in nature, trying on the hippie look of the times. Simon and Alexander have books and music in common, but we get the sense that to Alexander, Simon is just a way to spend time while he’s home from school. Simon and Varie, on the other hand, have little in common. She’s interested in horses, geology, and the occult. But she is beautiful and he’s fascinated by her.

Much of the novel is about class. Simon complains once that he is too middle class for his fellow railroad workers and too working class for the Bultitudes. Varie is surprised to find he lives in the largest house in his village, and she mistakes his mother for the gardener. His parents have worked their way up from the working class and are dismayed to see him going back down.

Warner seems to have captured the banter of the railway men and the dynamics of small-town Scotland, remote Scotland, too, where they are nearly at the end of the railway line.

I became more interested in this novel when it moved away from Simon’s school friends, especially the frightful Galbraith, to the working world of the railroad. However, I wasn’t much interested in the adolescent obsession with sex.

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Review 2158: Half-Blown Rose

Vincent (a woman named after Vincent Van Gogh) is living in Paris, separated from Cillian, her husband, after his latest book revealed that when he left Ireland at 15, he left behind a pregnant girlfriend. Vincent and Cillian have been married for more than 20 years, but he had never told her about this.

While Vincent is teaching writing and creativity classes in Paris and considering having an affair with Loup, who is half her age, Cillian calls constantly trying to reconcile.

I don’t usually do this, but very soon after starting this novel I tried to figure out how old Cross-Smith is. This was because at about page 2, Vincent wonders if Loup is still looking at her and thinks, if he isn’t I’ll die. I thought, is this woman 12 years old? The character is 44, by the way.

Nevertheless, I continued reading, because the situation started to come out and it seemed intriguing, even though I was dreading the hot affair that I could see coming.

Then, at about page 75 begins a series of emails between Vincent and her husband’s illegitimate son and his mother. They are unbelievably juvenile, including lots of exclamation points.

Vincent is hanging around with artists and academics, and their conversation is absolutely unconvincing. And don’t get me started on the playlists (really?) and the number of references to Vincent’s menstrual blood. This was a DNF for me.

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Review 2151: No One Is Talking About This

The unnamed narrator (possibly Lockwood herself) is a media influencer made famous by such utterances as “Can a dog be twins?” She seems to spend all her time online that she isn’t lecturing to her fans. She calls the Portal her information, and although she has a broad sense of irony, doesn’t seem to understand that most of it isn’t.

When I was reading this portion of the book, which is related in a sort of stream of consciousness, I realized that I was officially a geezer, because I didn’t understand a lot of what she was talking about, didn’t like her sense of humor, didn’t get her world view or sensibility. The book didn’t seem to have a plot and was mostly made up of her musings on a vast array of subjects, particularly the Internet.

Then a family crisis occurs. The second half of the book suddenly gains a plot and becomes meaningful in a way the first half wasn’t. I was deeply touched by it.

I read this novel for my Booker project.

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Review 2142: A Passage North

Readers looking for a fast-paced novel will not find one in Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North. Instead, they’ll experience a novel that’s meditative and introspective.

Krishan returned several years ago to his native Sri Lanka after living away in India during his education. He returned when his relationship with Anjum ended determined to help his people in northeastern Sri Lanka after the end of the Tamil rebellion. However, after two years, he has retreated to the city of Colombo, where he lives with his mother and grandmother.

At the beginning of the novel, he learns of the death of Rani, a woman who had been caring for his grandmother and had helped her come back from a mental and physical breakdown. Rani herself had been severely depressed after the death of both her sons as a result of the war, and the work with his grandmother had begun as a help to her state of mind as well as his grandmother’s comfort. However, after Rani returned for family business to her village in the northeast, she kept delaying her return and finally died by falling into a well.

Krishan decides to attend Rani’s funeral, and this long trip into the northeast of his country gives him ample opportunity to dissect his relationship with Anjum, his own motives in returning to Sri Lanka, the possibility of Rani’s suicide, and many other issues.

Arudpragasam likes long, involved sentences with many clauses, embedded in paragraphs that sometimes continue for pages. His prose is dreamy and meandering. Krishan spends so much of his energy considering all the ramifications of everything that even though he acts, he seems oddly inert.

I found the sections about the recent history of Sri Lanka very interesting, but Arudpragasam assumes a knowledge of the situation there that I do not have.

I read this book for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 2139: French Braid

In 2010, Serena and her boyfriend James run into her cousin Nicholas in the train station. James is surprised that Serena isn’t quite sure it is him and doesn’t seem to know much about her Uncle David’s family. French Braid explores the roots of this division in the family, beginning in the 50s or 60s.

It begins with a family vacation, the only one the family every took. Robin Garrett isn’t very at home on the lake. He is interested in gadgets but finally finds a fellow vacationer to talk to. Mercy Garrett gets preoccupied with her painting, and neither she nor Robin seem to think there is anything wrong with their 15-year-old daughter Lily hanging out with a college-age boy. Silly Lily thinks her new boyfriend is going to ask her to marry him. We see most of this holiday from the point of view of Alice, the older girl, who is worried about Lily. Mercy is at least attuned to her youngest, eight-year-old David, and notices that something has happened while Robin was teaching David to swim.

As with other Tyler books, the attention isn’t always focused on Alice. The next section is about Mercy and how she gains her independence after David leaves for college. Both his sisters are now married, but Lily has decided she picked the wrong man. Mercy looks for word from David, but he begins his separation right after he leaves for college, and we don’t find out why until the end of the novel.

Tyler employs some of her tropes here—the work-obsessed husband and the ditsy wife for one—and is occupied with the same generations she usually deals with. But her characterizations are always rich and empathetic, her stories always interesting. This one is right up there as she explores the intricate connections of family life.

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Review 2137: Summerwater

Summerwater is a novel composed from brief vignettes that at first seem so disconnected as to be short stories. However, connections appear slowly.

Staying in a collection of cottages on an island in a large Scottish loch are a group of disparate people. The novel alternates point of view to tell their stories over one very wet day. In between each of these chapters is a shorter vignette about what is happening in the surrounding forest.

Justine has an obsession for running, possibly to get away from her family. But she has a secret about her running. David and Mary, an elderly couple, are navigating Mary’s growing decrepitude and memory loss. Milly and Josh are an engaged couple working on their sex life, but Millie would just like a bacon sandwich. Lola, a young girl, takes out her father’s xenophobia on a little Ukrainian girl. Alex, about fourteen, stays out in his kayak a little too long. Becky, his older sister, is so bored she wants to burn the place down. Claire is so unprepared when her husband gives her a break from the kids that she can’t figure out what to do with it. And so on.

We’re told at the beginning that there will be a death, which adds to the tension. A couple of the vignettes got old—the one about sex, even though it was funny, and the thoughts of indecisive Claire. Despite the activity, I found the work slow moving and contemplative.

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Review 2131: Literary Wives! His Only Wife

Today 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!

My Review

The death of Afi’s father years ago moved her and her mother from the middle class to poverty. Her uncle refused to give them a home even though Ghanaian custom decrees that a room in his house belongs to them. If Aunty, a wealthy local businesswoman, had not taken them in, they would have been homeless.

Now Afi has agreed to marry Aunty’s son Eli, a man she doesn’t know. His family hopes that a marriage to Afi will get him away from his Liberian girlfriend, with whom he has a child. They claim she must have bewitched him.

Afi marries Eli in a traditional wedding by proxy because he is away on a business trip in Japan. His brother Richard stands in and also takes her to her new home in a modern apartment in Accra. But Eli does not appear for some weeks. Afi has nothing to do except clean the apartment (even though there are people to do that) and shop. So she, who worked as a seamstress back in her village, decides to study fashion design.

Eventually, Eli comes to the apartment, but it is clear he is living elsewhere. However, Afi begins to fall in love with him and becomes determined that he will treat her as his wife.

This novel posed difficulties for me, and it was hard for me to tell if they came from cultural differences or not. The biggest was with the treatment of Muna, the girlfriend, referred throughout the book as “that woman” or “the Liberian woman.” After all, Muna came first and has Eli’s daughter, but Afi never once acknowledges that Muna has a prior claim, presumably because Eli hasn’t married her. Afi, after all, entered the marriage knowing she exists.

Second, most of the action of the novel revolves around a weak man who tells lies to avoid conflict.

I realize the novel is about Afi learning who she is and how much she owes to her family as opposed to herself, but after all, she ends up with a business that was essentially funded by her husband. She learns to stand up for herself but at the expense of Muna and her daughter.

There are other things in the novel that are interesting, such as the tension between tradition and modern marriage. Also, the writing is lively and engaging. But if Medie intended to write a feminist book, as I might assume from her Gender Studies background, she doesn’t really succeed.

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

Afi, coming from a small village and a traditional marriage ceremony, arrives in Accra seeming to expect a traditional marriage, as evidenced mostly by her concern to always have food prepared for Eli even though he never tells her when he’s coming and her attempts when he is there to wait on him. She also has constant tension between what is expected of her by her family and what she feels comfortable providing. Because of the unique situation she married into and also some culture shock, she has a hard time getting her bearings in the big city, especially as Eli doesn’t talk to her about things like money, what he’s doing about his girlfriend, and so on.

Although Eli doesn’t seem to want Afi to wait on him hand and foot, like she tries to do in the beginning, he isn’t honest or open with her and (major spoiler!) we infer from the ending of the book that he was planning a polygamous marriage as soon as his mother died. How he could think this solution would be acceptable to Afi is hard to grasp.

It’s hard to understand whether the aridity of Afi’s early married life is because she is wealthy or because of the differences between living in the modern big city and the traditional countryside, but it was a relief when Afi started with her studies.

Later on, when her marriage becomes more “normal” after the birth of her son, the novel isn’t very specific about the couple’s day-to-day life, but Afi seems to spend very little time with child-rearing or house management and most of her time running her business. Her relationship with Eli is better, but he still doesn’t tell her the truth or speak with her about important things. He also at one point tries to order her to behave a specific way. Theirs may be a modern marriage in terms of Ghanaian culture, but it certainly isn’t by our standards.

Review 2124: A Train to Moscow

A Train to Moscow is Elena Gorokhova’s first novel, coming after two memoirs. Although its story is similar to that of A Mountain of Crumbs, including where it ends (which I found frustrating both times), I still found it affecting.

Sasha grows up in a small Russian village with a nose and disdain for mendacity, which, as it is the Stalin years, is dangerous for her. Her best friends are boys—Marik, who is her same age and shares her interests, and Andrei, who is two years older and disapproved of by her mother. When she is a pre-teen, she discovers her Uncle Kolya’s diary hidden away in the attic. Her uncle never returned from World War II, and the family has heard nothing from him, but his diary describes a war unlike the patriotic and courageous venture she learned about in school. Periodically, the novel includes excerpts from this diary.

When Sasha hears a play on the radio, she realizes she wants to become an actress. As she nears graduation from secondary school, she knows her family won’t approve her decision to try out for drama school in Moscow. Nor will Andrei, who is now her boyfriend and has just lost his parents and home in a fire.

This is a strong novel about family and hidden secrets, about being true to oneself, and about an abiding love.

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Review 2121: Young Mungo

Twice recently I’ve had the same unusual experience with my reading. I was looking forward to reading a second novel by an author who wrote a book that I loved, only to find the second novel seemed to be very much the same as the first, as if the writer was stuck somehow. This happened with Young Mungo.

Mungo is a caring 14-year-old Glaswegian gay boy with an alcoholic mother, a sister planning her escape, and a violent brother. Sound familiar, those of you who have read Shuggie Bain? The novel begins with Mungo being packed off on a camping trip with two men his mother barely knows from her AA meetings. He is poorly clad and equipped, the men are drunk, and a feeling of dread is the immediate effect. In between chapters that continue this story, the novel returns to scenes from Mungo’s past.

Set in the 1990’s, the novel is similar to Shuggie Bain except that Mungo is older and the novel is even more grim and violent at times. Still, it is compelling and becomes less like the other novel as it goes along. I ended up liking it but not so sure I want to visit that world a third time.

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