Review 1777: In the Eye of the Sun

Recently, I remembered liking Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, so I decided to see if she had written anything else. What I turned up was In the Eye of the Sun, which her Wikipedia page confusingly calls her debut novel, even though she wrote one earlier.

In the Eye of the Sun is the story of the maturing of a young Egyptian woman, told over a period of 13 years. The daughter of two university professors, Asya wants to get a Ph.D. in English literature and teach at Cairo University. The novel looks back to 1979 when she is studying for her General Certificate of Secondary Education before beginning at the university and follows her until shortly after she finishes her Ph.D.

Although the novel deals with many subjects—cultural collision, Near Eastern politics, family, sexuality among them—it primarily concerns Asya’s relationship with Saif, who eventually becomes her husband. Asya meets Saif early in her university career and falls madly in love with him. The two want to marry, but her parents insist that they wait until she graduates. They don’t even allow them to become engaged for a couple of years.

At first, their relationship is intense, even though it does not involve intercourse because Saif wants to wait. However, Asya feels him pulling away from her as soon as they are engaged. She has caught him in a few pointless lies, but she doesn’t challenge him with them. However, he stops wanting to discuss anything of substance. Asya does not attempt any kind of discussion of these issues, though, before they are married. Nor does she discuss them with anyone else.

At their marriage, things become even more complicated, because Asya finds sex so painful that after a few attempts Saif stops trying. They never fully consummate their marriage. Even when Asya begs him to try, Saif seems more content to treat her as a sort of doll, picking out clothes and buying jewelry for her. Their marriage becomes even more difficult when he takes a job in Syria while she goes to attend a university in Northern England. There, she finds the surroundings cold and uncongenial and her studies in linguistics difficult.

This novel is quite long, but it is involving and extremely honest. Although a primarily sympathetic character, Asya can be quite annoying in her personal contradictions, for she doggedly continues intellectual disagreements while seldom broaching personal issues. She is brilliant while being occasionally terribly neurotic. I strongly felt that this was an autobiographical novel. If so, Soueif’s honesty is extraordinary.

The Map of Love

The Wife

Under the Lemon Trees

Review 1776: Strangers

Anita Brookner is a writer I’ve sometimes considered reading but never have until now. I read Strangers for my James Tait Black project.

Paul Sturgis is a 72-year-old bachelor who leads a routine life. He has always wanted a family, but after his last girlfriend, Sarah, left him, he resigned himself to bachelorhood. Since his retirement, he has felt lonely and purposeless. He routinely visits an elderly cousin, but he always feels that he bores her. She asks him no questions and constantly talks about her social engagements.

He takes a trip to Venice and meets Vicky Gardner, a woman some years younger than he. In London they meet again and develop a sort of acquaintance that is characterized again by her talking about herself and asking favors but not asking about him. She is a free spirit of no fixed abode who asks him to take charge of some luggage.

He also meets his old girlfriend Sarah again. She is now a widow, and although she is 10 years younger than he, she has changed from an active, decisive woman to an old lady who is always thinking of her health. She also never asks him any questions.

Most of this novel is concerned with Paul’s ruminations about his situation and the past and his yearning for real company and a different kind of life. Although it is well written, it seemed slow moving and repetitive. The cover reviews refer to its wry humor, but I guess I missed it, because it just seems sad. Paul is eventually galvanized into action, but it takes a long time, and I’m not convinced that the new life he chooses will be much different from the old one.

Sweetland

The New Sweet Style

Outline

Review 1775: My Lover’s Lover

At the beginning of My Lover’s Lover, I thought O’Farrell was writing an updated version of Rebecca, and indeed she references the movie early in the book. However, if she had that in mind at all, she moves away from it.

Lily meets Marcus at a party and feels an attraction to him. When he mentions that he needs a flat mate, she asks if she can take the room. However, when she goes to see it, she is surprised to find it still full of another woman’s possessions. She takes the room in the renovated Victorian warehouse with Marcus and his friend Aidan, but she becomes obsessed with Marcus’s old lover, Sinead. Although he refuses to talk about Sinead, Lily understands him to have told her Sinead is dead. Once Lily and Marcus become lovers, Sinead begins haunting her, appearing in the flat.

But Sinead isn’t dead. Once Lily finds that out, she goes to see her to ask her what happened. Then the story is told of the beginning and the end of their relationship.

This is another beautifully written, insightful tale by O’Farrell. Sadly, I think I have now read all her books. I’m going to have to wait for the next one to come out.

After You’d Gone

The Distance Between Us

This Must Be the Place

Review 1771: Umbrella

Some of the reviews of Umbrella refer to modernism, as in “a magnificent celebration of modernist prose.” This kind of encomium shivers me timbers. And then I think, isn’t modernism over? Aren’t we into postmodernism now? Apparently not.

Umbrella has a plot, but don’t expect the book to leap into action, because it’s more concerned with its devices. Self uses few paragraphs, and the ones he inserts aren’t necessarily making the expected division, some of them positioned in the middle of a sentence. Self uses three points of view, but they shift without warning, sometimes in the middle of a word. Stream of consciousness is used abundantly and confusingly, and Self loves his allusions, most of which I did not get. What Self isn’t very concerned with is being easy on his readers.

The novel is inspired by Oliver Sach’s Awakenings. In 1971, psychiatrist Zack Busner realizes he has a group of patients who are post-encephalitic, and they are stuck repeating activities that are meaningful to them but at such fast or slow speeds that they are difficult to detect. He gets permission to administer L-DOPA to them, and they unfreeze, or wake up. Among them is Audrey Death, the oldest patient in the mental hospital.

Aside from following Dr. Busner as a young psychiatrist, we also follow him as an old man. We see from Audrey’s point of view as a girl and a young woman and from her young brother Stanley’s during World War I.

Sometimes the narrative gets carried away into ridiculous flights that last for pages, such as the one involving Stanley falling into a subterranean existence. I didn’t know what to make of it. Although critics have foamed at the mouth in admiration of this novel’s style, I’d call it self-indulgent. I had to make two attempts before I finally managed to read this novel.

This is one of the books I read for my Booker prize project.

Ducks, Newburyport

There but for the

As I Lay Dying

Review 1763: Jack

Jack tells more fully the story of Jack Boughton, whose tale was first alluded to in Robinson’s Gilead and whose fate was more fully explored in Home, which takes place chronologically after Jack. Jack is the hapless ne’er-do-well prodigal son in Home, but Jack explores his relationship with Della Miles, a romance with a young black woman that is forbidden in 1950’s Missouri.

Jack is living in St. Louis at the beginning of the novel, just barely hanging on to the fringes of society. He is drunk part of the time and owes money that he can’t repay. He is fresh out of jail and living in a cheerless rooming house.

He has already met Della at the beginning of the novel and has fallen instantly in love with her, but he is minutely aware of himself and his unsuitability. She is a young woman, educated, a schoolteacher, and she is black. It’s against the law for him to consort with her, and just being seen with him will ruin her reputation. For his part, he’s an older man, an ex-con, a bum.

Della gets accidentally locked in a cemetery one night where he sometimes sleeps. So, the first part of the novel is a long conversation at night.

Robinson is finely tuned to the condition of the human heart, as becomes obvious as we watch Jack, overly sensitive to every nuance of a situation. True to his upbringing by a devout Presbyterian minister, Jack frequently engages in theological discussions odd for an atheist. We watch Jack try to defeat his feelings for the sake of his beloved and fear that any small disappointment will send him on a downward spiral, for he is so fragile.

Robinson is a wonderful writer with a deep understanding of human nature. Although these Gilead books can be difficult, they are rewarding.

Gilead

Home

Lila

Review 1759: White Tears

You may think you know what’s going on in White Tears, but you don’t. Kunzru provides a few clues to that effect, but it’s easy to glide right over them.

Seth is a nerdy outcast in college when he meets Carter Wallace, a good-looking, popular rich kid. The two bond over sound and music. Seth has been immersing himself in techno when Carter introduces him to the gritty sounds of old-time Black country soul on vinyl and even older 45s.

After college, the two form a recording company, with Carter as the face and Seth doing the creative work and sound engineering. They are beginning to become famous for an old-fashioned sound, produced entirely by analog instruments. But Seth notices Carter losing focus and becoming more engaged with collecting.

One day, Seth is indulging his hobby of walking around New York recording noises when he catches someone singing part of a blues song, “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” He plays it for Carter, who becomes obsessed with it. Carter uses the fragments from Seth’s recording to make what sounds like an old-time record, complete with cracking noises. Then he mocks up a picture of a 45, invents a singer, Charlie Shaw, and advertises the fake record on a collectors’ website.

What starts out as a seemingly harmless prank has serious consequences. Soon, apparently meeting a collector who wants to buy the fake record, Carter is severely beaten and left in a coma. Seth finds out his company and their apartment are both owned by the family corporation, and he is immediately dispossessed, the family claiming he is just a hanger-on. But Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie want to know what happened to Carter.

This novel is dark and unexpected. At first, I wasn’t so interested in the story about Carter and his fanboy Seth, neither of whom are that likable, but eventually I got sucked in. Again, it’s a novel I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but I read it for my James Tait Black project.

Utopia Avenue

Telegraph Avenue

Mortal Love

 

Review 1752: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak is one of the most widely read Turkish women writers. I have only read one of her books so far, so when I saw 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World on my Booker prize list, I was interested to revisit her. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think of this unusual novel.

The convention of the first part of the novel is that Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, has been murdered. Her brain is active for 10 minutes and 38 seconds while she revisits scenes from her life, each chapter representing a minute of brain activity. These chapters are separated by short sections about the lives of her five friends, who all in some way live on the fringes of society.

My first reaction was an impatience with this idea, that 10 minutes was to be represented by nearly 200 pages of text. I have a real problem with attempts like this in fiction to represent a short amount of time with several hours worth of reading. In this case, though, I got used to the idea but felt that the sections introducing the friends are an inelegant solution to our barely seeing them in the first part of the novel while the second part deals with how they handle the aftermath of Leila’s death.

And the change of tone in the second part is what bothered me most. For, we go abruptly from an elegiac tone in the first part while we learn about Leila’s difficult life to one of almost madcap comedy as a bunch of lovable misfits try to give Leila an ending she deserves. To me, this felt like a grinding change of gears.

It is brave of Shafak in her country to write about violence against women, especially since I understand she is being investigated by the Turkish authorities for it (or was when I read this months ago), but her supporting characters seem almost like caricatures to me, possibly because we don’t see that much of them in the first part. I felt like the second part of the novel almost undercuts the first part.

The Bastard of Istanbul

The Towers of Trebizond

Dance with Death

Review 1751: Last Friends

This final novel in the Old Filth trilogy gives us the last pieces in the puzzle of the complex relationships described in the first two books. It tells of the origins of Terry Veneering, the lifelong rival of Edward Feathers (known as Old Filth) who finally became a friend.

Last Friends begins in the same place as Old Filth, with the memorial service for Edward Feathers. Much of this novel is presented through the eyes of two minor characters in the trilogy, Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith. Veneering is a mysterious figure in the other two books of the trilogy, his origins unknown but subject to many rumors. It turns out that Fiscal-Smith has known him from boyhood in a northern manufacturing town, the son of a schoolgirl and a Russian dancer rumored to be a gentleman, who was badly injured as a young man and had to be supported by his wife.

This final tale is enthralling and brings a fitting ending to this great trilogy.

Old Filth

The Man in the Wooden Hat

The Singapore Grip

Review 1746: The Hand That First Held Mine

It’s the mid-1950’s, and Lexie Sinclair has already made arrangements to leave her family home in Devon when she meets Innes Kent. He is a stylish magazine editor whose car has broken down on their road. When she tells him she is coming to London, he asks her to look him up. Instead, he looks her up.

Lexie takes up an exciting life as part of the Soho art scene. She and Innes are the loves of each other’s lives even though he is married. His wife has, however, taught her daughter Margo to hate Lexie even though she and Innes have been split up for years.

In present-day London, Elina and Ted have just had a baby. The birth was difficult, and Elina is having a hard time coping with the pressures of motherhood. At the same time, Ted, whose memory is notoriously poor, has begun having flashes of memory that do not correspond to what he understands of his life. Slowly, these two stories connect.

Maggie O’Farrell is always wonderful, I find, but this novel had me sobbing. It is beautiful and tragic as it explores the themes of motherhood and family secrets.

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Review 1739: Oh William!

In Oh William! we meet again Elizabeth Strout’s alter ego, Lucy Barton. Lucy’s second husband David has recently died. She considers her own grief in addition to the state of mind of her first husband, William, who begins to experience some shocks in life.

First, William’s third wife, Estelle, leaves him abruptly. Then William begins to find out some family secrets, particularly about his mother, Catherine. Lucy, who has remained on good terms with William, reflects upon her relationships with him, Catherine, and her own family as she tries to help him.

link to Netgalley

As usual, the story, which is told as a series of apparently random recollections and incidents, is written in lovely prose. What stands out for me even more than that in the Lucy Barton books is Lucy’s gentleness and the loving, accepting way she approaches the world and the other characters. Although Strout’s novels are not strongly plot driven, once you start one, you just want to keep reading.

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