Review 1643: Girl, Woman, Other

Readers who prefer traditional narrative styles beware—there are hardly any periods in Girl, Woman, Other. Although I often enjoy more experimental novels, this bothered me at first, because it forces Evaristo to start a new paragraph almost every sentence, if you can call them sentences—many are more like lists. After a while, I got used to it.

Girl, Woman, Other is about the lives of British black women, twelve women who each has her own chapter. The plot, which is minimal, centers around a play about black female warriors named The Last Amazon of Dahomey, written and produced by Amma, a radical feminist gay woman. The novel is divided into four parts, each devoted to the lives of three women who have some type of relationship to each other. But there are more relationships within the book, some of them surprising.

The novel is fresh, the stories interesting, many of the characters justifiably angry. I wasn’t sure how much I liked it, though, until the Epilogue, which was touching.

All-in-all, Booker prize winner or not, I would call this novel of linked stories a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style. It is at times a little didactic through characters’ speeches, but it does tell some powerful stories about the experiences of black women, women’s sexuality, women in general.

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Review 1611: Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was unusual, but Flights is in another category altogether. It is an attempt to escape the boundaries of the conventional, linear novel.

It is written in snippets. Some of them are stories, some little vignettes or descriptions, some philosophical discursions, some lectures. Some of the snippets are observations from the narrator, an unnamed Polish woman who likes to be constantly traveling, often to visit museums of curiosities, particularly those that show the workings of the human body. Others are stories about people she meets on her journeys or just stories about people. Some of the threads recur in the novel; most do not.

Anchoring all this is the theme of movement. Most of the stories are about people on their way somewhere else, occasionally to another stage of being.

This novel was widely acclaimed by reviewers and won the Man International Prize. How it will strike ordinary readers is hard to guess. It’s not easy. I found parts of it interesting and other parts, particularly the lectures on travel psychology, which I doubt anyone would ever listen to, incomprehensible, as if someone were reading from a dense professional manual.

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Review 1591: Ducks, Newburyport

The unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport is a 40-something Ohio housewife who works from home making pies and cinnamon rolls for restaurants. She is a survivor of cancer, and she and her husband Leo are both working very hard to pay off her medical bills. She has four children, a sulky teenager, Stacy, from her first marriage and three young children from her second.

Ducks, Newburyport consists mostly of her mental ramblings as she goes about her day, a timid woman who rarely speaks her mind and is obsessed by her failures as a parent and daughter and by violent incidents in the news. The book almost completely consists of one 1,000-page sentence, if you can call a bunch of phrases beginning with “the fact that” or sometimes just lists of words a sentence. Periodically, this monologue is broken by a few paragraphs about a female cougar and her cubs.

Ducks, Newburyport breaks just about every rule connected with literature. It breaks the Strunk and White rule about not using “the fact that” about 50 times per page. It uses no traditional sentence structure or paragraphing except in the lion sections. It breaks notions of narrative. (It’s not stream-of-consciousness.) And it has a plot, sort of, but not in the traditional sense. I’m not sure if the novel is an elaborate joke or just Ellman thumbing her nose at the rules and winning awards while she does it. Lots of people have compared it to Ulysses, but Ulysses is more poetic. The narrative style alone may drive you nuts.

I noticed that Ellman gets a few things wrong. Some are to do with the age of her character, who makes lots of cultural references, many of which are too old for her. Certainly, the narrator is interested in old movies and songs, but the mistakes I’m talking about have more to do with Ellman being closer to my age than her narrator’s. She talks about everyone having their tonsils out when she was young, but that’s a 50’s or early 60’s thing rather than an 80’s. And similarly, she says just about every woman in America is on hormone replacement therapy, but that wasn’t even being prescribed as much when I was hitting menopause, and I’m older than Ellman. Some of her verbal habits, like calling underwear me-oh-mys just seem ridiculous and old-fashioned. Of course, this last could be characterization.

I also thought Ellman has been living in the U. K. too long to get an American housewife quite right. Just a small example is her repeated references to Bath Oliver biscuits. I doubt if many Americans know what those are, even if they’ve eaten them. I had to look them up, and I have eaten them. In general, as well, Americans don’t eat beans on toast, a phrase that she repeats excessively. Of course, again, that could just be a phrase that’s lodged in her head.

These are small things that you’d think her editor would have caught, if editors even edit anymore.

Did I like it? As soon as I got a feel for what the novel would be like, I assumed I wouldn’t finish it and kept waiting to decide to stop reading. But I found it oddly hypnotic, and I finished it. I found the narrator annoying as well as unreliable. She says she doesn’t remember things, but 80% of the novel is her memories. She also says she doesn’t remember her dreams and then relates them to the tune of several a page sometimes—another rule broken—which I found irritating, because I don’t like reading about dreams in fiction.

Would I read it again? No way. Does it deserve two (at least) prestigious literary awards? I have no idea.

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Review 1577: There but for the

I have enjoyed most of what I have read by Ali Smith, but at first the premise of There but for the seemed a little too absurdist for me. The novel is really four separate stories that are related to the event in the first story and share characters.

In “There,” Anna is summoned by Gen Lee to Gen’s house, because Gen found Anna’s contact information in Miles’s jacket pocket. At a dinner party at Gen’s, Miles, whom Gen does not know, locked himself in a guest room and refuses to come out. At first, Anna barely remembers Miles from a trip to Europe when she was 18, 30 years before, but then she remembers his act of kindness.

In “But,” Mark Palmer, who took Miles to the Lee’s dinner party, recounts his initial meeting with Miles, notable for Miles’s kindness, and invites him to Lee’s party. Some of the conversation of the party is marked by astounding stupidity, rudeness, and bigotry by some of the guests, so much so that I found it hard to believe, especially as a mixed-race child was there.

In “For,” a dying old lady is determined not to be sent to a depressing nursing home she visited long ago. After the death of her youngest daughter, she has been visited every year by one of her daughter’s friends, even though she doesn’t like him. This year he doesn’t come, because he is Miles, locked up in the Lee’s spare room, outside of which has formed a circus-like gathering of observers. But Miles has sent a substitute.

In “The,” Brooke, a precocious nine-year-old who also attended the party, recounts her ideas and memories, particularly a meeting with Miles.

Almost despite myself, I got caught up in this novel even when impeded by its verbal gymnastics, which were sometimes amusing but often annoying. I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the semi-stream-of-consciousness approach to the last section. At first, it was fun, but eventually I got tired of it and felt it could use some editing.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project and found it inventive but a bit overwhelming. Too many ideas are thrown out to us, in the end.

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Review 1516: 4321

As we go through life, we make choices and have choices made for us that open up possibilities to us while closing down others. What if we could see the results of taking some of the paths not chosen or those resulting from different circumstances? In 4321, Paul Auster explores this theme.

Archie is the grandson of a Russian immigrant whose name was recorded as Ferguson by an immigration official. 4321 follows Archie as a boy and a young man leading four different lives.

Some things about Archie remain constant while others change. He has the same parents, but in one story they’re happily married, in one a parent is widowed, and in one they are divorced. His father’s business is bought out or burgled or burned down. As a result of the fate of the business, his family is just hanging on to the middle class or wealthy, they live in New Jersey or New York. He always loves Amy Schneiderman, but in one story they are lovers, in another cousins by marriage, in another stepbrother and sister. He goes to college at Columbia or Princeton or not at all. He is a writer—a journalist, a poet, a literary fiction author. And so on.

It is very unusual for me to take more than two weeks to read a work of fiction, but this was the case with 4321. I was reading it for my Booker project, so did not acquaint myself with it before I started. That meant that I had a tough time getting started until I caught on to what was going on with Chapter 1.4. (The chapters are numbered with subsections to help you keep track of the four Fergusons.)

Then, I found myself alternating between being interested and slogging through the book because of my own determination to finish, possibly because I am not that interested in the inner lives (or outer ones) of adolescent boys, and Archie’s story ends at the age of 22. And in fact, the story is uneven. There is way too much information about certain subjects, the political situation at 1969 Columbia University being one, baseball another, Archie’s juvenile fiction, which we get to read (shudder), a third.

I also haven’t seen any references in reviews (not that I read them all) to Auster’s writing style, which is verbose, with long chapters (averaging more than 100 pages) broken down into long paragraphs (often a page or more) and very long, not to say run-on, sentences.

Was this book worth reading? Yes. I was more engaged at the end than in the middle. And spoiler: This book has an interesting ending, as in the last few pages you find out you’ve been reading a work of pure metafiction.

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Review 1454: Milkman

Best of Ten!
Middle sister, the unnamed narrator in a novel where no one has a name, has a stalker. Actually, she has two. She lives in the 1970s in an unnamed city that is clearly Belfast, and at 18 she has no way to explain what is happening to her and no one to tell, anyway. The man she’s worried about is known as the Milkman, rumored to be a powerful renouncer-of-the-state. This stalking begins with him driving up next to her and offering her a ride. She knows not to get into his car.

That is all it takes for rumors to begin flying about that middle sister is having an affair with the Milkman. Eldest sister, egged on by her husband, who has been letching after middle sister since she was 11, arrives to berate her for this supposed affair with a middle-aged, married man.

But middle sister’s strategy for keeping safe in a dangerous world is to tell nothing about herself. That, and her mother’s constant queries about why she isn’t married yet, have caused her to keep secret her real relationship with maybe-boyfriend. It is the maybe part of this relationship that decides her not to tell maybe-boyfriend about the stalking either, when it progresses to the Milkman joining her while running and making clear that he knows every aspect of her life.

She does finally tell her Ma the truth, but her Ma is too busy upbraiding her for bringing shame upon the family with the affair and calls her a liar. So, middle sister is left to cope with her fears alone.

This sounds like a grim tale, and at some times it is, but it is told exuberantly, in a torrent of words, ideas, stories, asides, and circumlocutions. To give you an idea, about page 80 middle sister steps into an area called the ten-minute zone because it takes ten minutes to cross it. She describes the ten-minute zone and an explosion within it, then she goes into what she calls “the provenance of the eeriness of the ten-minute area” from which she relates a discussion with Ma about her asking weird questions, tells about her father’s history of depression and her Ma’s “hierarchy of suffering,” discusses her bafflement in “shiny people,” those who go around looking happy, finds the head of a dead cat and decides to bury it, compares cats and dogs and tells about an incident where the state killed all the neighborhood dogs, has another encounter with the Milkman and then with one real milkman, and so on until page 139, when she steps out of the ten-minute area. I would include an excerpt, but a short one would seem nonsensical and a long one would be, well, long.

Above all, the novel is funny, dazzling, gleeming. I was absolutely entranced by it. It is about more than middle sister and her adventures, it is about the effects on society of everyday terror, paranoia, gossip, constant attention to the behavior of your neighbors. This is a stunning novel that won the Booker Prize. It deserves it.

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1312: Autumn

Cover for AutumnAutumn is the first of Ali Smith’s planned Seasonal Quartet. I believe Winter is already out. The first is about, among many other things, Brexit.

Daniel Gluck may be dying. He is an elderly man, over 100, and he dreams, among other things, that he has become his younger self and that he is turning into a tree. At his side reading to him is Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-two-year-old lecturer who has known him since she was eight. He taught her how to invent stories, approach the world creatively, and think critically. He always greets her with, “What are you reading?”

As Elisabeth walks around the village where her mother lives, she observes the various attitudes about Brexit. Some people are exultant while others are horrified. Her mind goes to A Tale of Two Cities, which she is reading to Daniel: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

It’s beyond my powers to provide much more than a suggestion of this novel, which touches on so many subjects, among them British pop artist Pauline Boty, Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal, our experience of time, the relationship between mothers and daughters and brothers and sisters. I’ll just say that I found the novel both intellectually challenging and touching. I read it for my Man Booker 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 1137: The Rehearsal

Cover for The RehearsalThe Luminaries was one of my favorite books several years ago, so when I ran across a copy of The Rehearsal at Powell’s a few months ago, I snapped it up. The Rehearsal is Eleanor Catton’s first novel.

The novel focuses obliquely on an affair between a high school student and her teacher. Although those two characters hardly appear in the novel, it is about how the discovery of the affair affects the girl’s younger sister, Isolde, and others in the all-girls’ school the two sisters attend.

At the nearby drama institute, the freshman students decide to design a play around the affair for their first-year project. This conceit and the nonlinear organization of this portion of the narrative have the effect of blurring reality, making it hard to tell which scenes are part of the novel’s “real life” and which are part of the play rehearsal. I had to admit to being confused about whole story lines.

There are clues. Characters sometimes break out into astounding monologues or remarks that people would not make in real life. The saxophone teacher, an unnamed character, is very important in the novel but often makes these kinds of remarks. I took this to mean that the teacher was often in the play—and in fact that is signaled at times by references to who is playing her or lighting changes and so on. Sometimes I wondered if in terms of this novel she was entirely fictional, that is, just a character in the play.

The afterward tells how Catton originally wrote a monologue for the saxophone teacher, using the position of her sax as body language. I did note as I read that the positioning of the sax seemed to be important, but either I have little visual imagination or this is something you have to see, because I could make nothing of it.

Dealing with themes like sexual identity, victim and perpetrator, and coming of age, the novel is brilliantly written and very inventive. But sometimes I felt as if it was not altogether successful, perhaps its originality being pushed too far and getting in the way of itself.

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