Day 1250: Pigeon English

Cover for Pigeon EnglishBest of Five!
Once 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 1243: Dear Thief

Cover for Dear ThiefBest of Five
Dear 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 1219: In a Strange Room

Cover for In a Strange RoomBest of Five!
It’s not clear to me whether In a Strange Room is a novel or three slightly linked short stories. I’ve seen it referred to as both. The linkage comes from journeys, as each section deals with a journey the narrator takes with different people.

This narration is complex. South African novelist Galgut himself is the narrator, but he speaks both in first and third person, the one hinting at intimacy, the other, more often used, at distance.

The first section, or story, “The Follower,” deals with a journey in the early 1990’s with a German named Reiner. The narrator meets him on another trip, and although they do not know each other well, they correspond. Eventually, Reiner comes to Africa, and the two take a journey through Lesotho. It’s difficult to understand what the narrator sees in Reiner besides good looks, and eventually the trip becomes a battle for control.

The second section, “The Lover,” starts with Damon latching on to a group of Europeans traveling in Africa after he leaves the group he started with. He keeps running into them when he is with the first group and offers to help them when they are turned away from the Malawan border for not having visas. Damon and Jerome are attracted to each other, but they can barely communicate, as Damon doesn’t speak French and Jerome barely speaks English.

In “The Guardian,” Damon takes his old friend, Anna, on a trip to India. She has recently been hospitalized for mental illness, and Damon finds it increasingly difficult to deal with her.

I didn’t really enjoy Galgut’s novel about E. M. Forster, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this novel for my Booker Prize project. But I am happy to say that I found In a Strange Room powerful and touching. It is sparsely written but completely involving. Even though it doesn’t explicitly express emotion, it still evokes an emotional response. I am happy to have changed my mind about Galgut.

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Day 1218: The Singapore Grip

Cover for The Singapore GripThe Singapore Grip is the third of J. G. Farrell’s Empire trilogy, which takes a sardonic look at various parts of the British Empire. The Siege of Krishnapur is set in the nineteenth century during the Sepoy rebellion. Troubles takes place in Ireland during the Troubles in the early 20th century. The Singapore Grip is set during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in World War II.

The novel begins in 1939. Walter Blackett is a powerful Singapore businessman whose sole concern is the profits of his company, Blackett and Webb. Despite the Allies’ need for rubber, Blackett is concerned with keeping the price up and spends his time fixing prices and manipulating the market.

His senior partner dies, and Walter awaits the arrival of Matthew Webb, his partner’s heir. Although Walter’s beautiful daughter, Joan, spends her time tormenting various young men, she readily agrees to help her father’s ambitions by marrying Matthew.

Matthew is a naive and feckless young man, whose ideals have been somewhat battered during his work for the League of Nations. Although he is chubby and unprepossessing, Joan makes a dead set for him, dismaying Ehrendorf, the previous favorite. But Matthew is more interested in Vera Chiang, a Eurasian girl who may be a prostitute or possibly a Communist or maybe neither.

This novel is peopled with Farrell’s usual peculiar characters, including a figure from Troubles, Major Brendan Archer. As Singapore begins descending into chaos, the Major attempts to organize a volunteer fire department. But his efforts are hampered by a lack of interest, as the Singaporians concentrate on selling things and the Blacketts focus all their activities on a Jubilee celebration of the company.

Farrell’s cynical look at the last years of the British in Singapore is occasionally hilarious, with a dark and deadpan humor. It also contains much to consider, as various characters discuss the benefits of colonization (whether there are any), theories of commerce, and other ideas that obsess them.

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Day 1214: When They Lay Bare

Cover for When They Lay BareA mysterious woman moves into the empty cottage on property belonging to Simon Elliot. She has with her a set of old plates depicting the verses of a ballad, and she spends a lot of time immersing herself in the story told by the plates. The thing is, this cottage was last occupied by Jinny Lauder, and the plates were hers. And Jinny Lauder was Sim Eliot’s lover, the woman he was tried for murdering.

So, who is this woman? Could she be Jinny’s daughter? Whoever she is, she seems half off her head, and she is clearly plotting revenge against Sim Elliot.

But the person she meets is Sim’s son, home in the Borderlands to introduce his father to his fiancée, Jo. David finds this wild girl, who first identifies herself as Mary, fascinating, and he is just as interested in his father’s guilt or innocence as Mary is. In fact, he despises his father for betraying his mother.

Greig used the conceit of retelling an ancient ballad in Fair Helen, an idea I really admired. Here again, he brings in an old ballad and the feuding families of the Borderlands, but I don’t think it works as well. In particular, the focus on the plates becomes tedious. After a while, each time the girl went back to look at the plates, I sighed.

Still, Greig’s writing is gorgeous, and his settings are evocative. Greig examines the concept of fate in this novel. Are the Elliots and Lauders doomed to pursue their feud?

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