Day 1186: Toby’s Room

Cover for Toby's RoomI know I’ve talked about this before, but I find it interesting to see what the blurb writer finds to comment about a book versus the book itself. In the case of Toby’s Room, the blurb says something about a family torn apart by war. Well, World War I begins well into the novel, and the family is fairly well torn apart already.

The novel begins in 1912 when, in a weekend break from Slade, where Elinor is an art student, her relationship with her older brother Toby undergoes a shocking change. She and Toby have always been close, but they have difficulty closing the gap after this incident.

Later, shortly after the war begins, the family receives a telegram stating that Toby is missing, presumed dead. Elinor feels there is something not right about the letters she receives from his commanding officer and the chaplain. Letters to her friend Kip, who served with Toby, receive no answer. Elinor asks her friend Paul, who is home wounded, to help her find out what happened.

That makes the book sound like a mystery, but it isn’t. It is more about Elinor’s unresolved feelings for her brother, and latterly about the horrors of war.

Although Toby’s Room is a sequel to Barker’s Life Studies, and I have not read the first book, I felt myself immersed in this fully realized world. This is another situation, like with The Quality of Mercy, where I was reading the novel for my Walter Scott prize project and chose not to read the first one. Unlike The Quality of Mercy, though, I don’t think my not having read the first book affected my appreciation of the second. Although I do wish the Walter Scott prize judges would stop putting sequels on their short list, I enjoyed Toby’s Room. It examines serious issues while still capturing our attention.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsYun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1182: Suzanne

Cover for SuzanneSometimes you read a book that makes you want to consider it. Maybe you feel ambivalent about its subject matter or its approach. Maybe you want to ponder the choices made by its characters. Maybe the fact that you want to think about it marks it as good. I had all these thoughts about Suzanne.

This novel was given to me to read by my French-Canadian sister-in-law. It is an imagining of the life of the author’s grandmother, a poet and painter who abandoned her family when her daughter was three.

The novel is written originally in French and translated by Rhonda Mullins. It is written in the second person in short excerpts. Suzanne Meloche was always rebellious, it seems, and when she had to choose, she chose herself. After a difficult, poverty-stricken childhood in rural Ottawa, she struck out for Montréal. There, she almost immediately was taken up by a movement of artists and writers, called Automatism, led by Paul-Émile Borduas. Many of the people she associated with became well-known Quebecois painters. Eventually, she married Marcel Barbeau, an artist.

This novel makes compelling reading, as it explores the question of how far you should go to pursue your own goals. Suzanne is an interesting character who leads a rich life, although I don’t like her very much. In fact, I think her granddaughter is a little too understanding of her foibles. Perhaps her interpretation of Suzanne’s thoughts and feelings is correct—Suzanne did after all keep the pictures of her grandchildren that her daughter sent her. To balance that, though, is the harm she did her children by abandoning them and her reception of her daughter and granddaughter the one time they went to visit her.

As a work of authorship, it’s brilliantly written and compelling. Will you like it? I suppose it depends on how you feel about the subject.

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Day 1181: The Zone of Interest

Cover for The Zone of InterestIn Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, the Zone is a Nazi factory and concentration camp in Poland. Interestingly, Amis makes this setting a source of some very black humor.

The novel is written from the points of view of several characters, mostly Nazis, but it is mainly from that of Thomsen, an officer in charge of production at the rubber factory. He is a womanizer, but he begins to have feelings for Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife.

Doll himself is a vile human being. He has his rival for Hannah imprisoned and uses threats against inmates’ relatives to force them to do things.

In fact, most of the characters are vile. And that’s the difficulty with this novel. First, is the Holocaust fodder for humor? I’m not sure it is in general, but it isn’t for me. Also, even though Thomsen is the least criminal of the characters because he’s working subtly against the war effort, these are people busily explaining away their own terrible actions.

Amis’s goal, I think, is to give some insight into the behavior of these people. Whether you want to read a novel on this subject probably depends on whether you’re interested in that insight. It made me a little queasy. This is one of the books I read for my Walter Scott Prize project that I didn’t really enjoy.

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Day 1179: In the Wolf’s Mouth

Cover for In the Wolf's MouthAnother book for my Walter Scott Prize project, In the Wolf’s Mouth is very different from the last novel I read by Adam Foulds. It is about the incompetent “liberation” of Sicily by the Allies during World War II, from the point of view of two characters. Will is a British field security officer who is ambitious to accomplish something. Ray is an Italian-American soldier who gets accidentally detached from his unit.

Although the plot of this novel is disjointed, it hinges upon the use by the American army of Sicilian exiles in its capture of Sicily. Unfortunately, some of these exiles are mafioso who fled the island 20 years before under threat from the Fascists. Ciró Albanese is one of these men, and under the auspices of the American army, he begins taking charge of his old activities. He considers Angilú one of his enemies, as the ex-shepherd took over his job and his house after he was kicked out. He also wants his wife back, even though she has remarried after thinking him dead. Eventually, Will gets wind of his activities.

Although this story is coherent enough, Ray’s story has very little to do with it. His is one of a soldier suffering from too much exposure to violence. His story is loosely connected by place and a link to the Princess, daughter of Angilú’s employer. This looseness gives the novel a disjointed feeling. After enduring a certain amount of tension through the problems of Angilú, we end with a fizzle, with Ray.

Finally, none of the characters are very knowable. We only really see one or two facets of their personalities. The sense of place depends on a few descriptions and a general aura of confusion. Although the novel kept my interest, I felt frustrated by it.

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Day 1178: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingWhen Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress was so popular, I was not a fan. I disliked how the two male college students patronized and abused the girl, even though she won through in the end. I also vaguely felt that the events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were being trivialized, even though I was not really sure about the facts. Reading Do Not Say We Have Nothing confirmed that I was right.

Marie is a young immigrant Chinese girl living in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1991. She and her mother are confused and grieved, because after the family escaped from China, her father, Jiang Kai, first deserted them to move to Hong Kong and later committed suicide.

Marie’s mother receives a call from China, from Ling, the wife of Jiang Kai’s beloved teacher, Sparrow. Ling says that her daughter, Ai-Ming, has had to leave China because of involvement in the Tiananmen Square protests, but she has missed the amnesty offered by the U.S. Ling asks that they give Ai-Ming a home.

Ai-Ming becomes an older sister to Marie. She tells her stories about her family—her great uncle, Wen the Dreamer, who courted her aunt Swirl with chapters from a forbidden book called the Book of Records; her grandparents, Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute, wandering musicians; and her father Sparrow, a composer of music. Ai-Ming tells of the days of her father, her cousin Jhuli, and Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, at the Shanghai Conservatory. Shadowing all their lives is the Cultural Revolution and its horrible excesses—murder and exile of intellectuals, forced denunciations of relatives, ransacked homes, humiliation and ruining of the innocent.

At first, I was irritated by the style of Ai-Ming’s story, which feels a little like a fairy tale, but it was not long before I was completely absorbed in it. The novel is a heart-rending tale about identity, music, love, and political destructiveness. This was another excellent book that I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1177: Song of a Captive Bird

Cover for Song of a Captive BirdI have this little quirk. I’ll pick out a book, but when I actually get around to reading it, I don’t look at the blurb to remind myself what it is about. If I’d done that, I would have known that Song of a Captive Bird is about an actual person, and that knowledge may have affected my reaction to it. On the other hand, a novel should stand or fall on its own merits, not because of what you know or don’t know about it before you begin reading it.

In the 1950’s and 60’s Iran, Forugh Farrokhzad is having a difficult time with the strictures of her culture. She wants to be a poet, but the role of women in her country is still only that of a wife and mother. She has always been a difficult child, and as a young woman, her first act of rebellion is in trying to select a husband for herself. She chooses her cousin Parvez because of a shared interest in poetry.

She marries Parvez but at the cost of losing the regard of her father, a powerful general under the Shah. But marriage isn’t what she expected. Instead of staying in Tehran, her husband takes her home to his small village where they live with his disapproving mother. In the village, her every action is scrutinized.

link to NetgalleyThe novel follows Forugh as she pursues her career as a poet and later a film director despite being slandered, attacked, and viewed as a prostitute by most of Iranian society. It is interesting in its evocation of this time and culture, especially the details of everyday life and the build-up to the Iranian revolution. However, something was missing for me. The novel did not seem particularly successful as an inspiring and moving story of one woman’s courage.

I think my reaction was because of Darznik’s choice to write this novel in first person. There was something about that perspective that didn’t work, particularly at the end of the novel. Although I think I would have ordinarily been touched by this woman’s story—she was certainly gifted and courageous—something about the novel kept me from getting fully involved.

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