Day 1077: Four Letters of Love

Cover for Four Letters of LoveBest Book of the Week!
I was so enchanted by History of the Rain that after finishing it, I soon looked for other novels by Niall Williams. Four Letters of Love is his first.

Nicholas Coughlin is a boy when his father abandons his career as a civil servant to paint, saying that God wants him to. For two summers, he leaves Nicholas and his mother home alone while he goes out to paint. The rest of the year, he obsessively reworks the paintings he did in the summer.

Then Nicholas’s mother dies, but stays to haunt the house. His father intends to go out as usual and leave Nicholas home alone for a few weeks, but Nicholas follows him. His efforts all along are to try to capture some of the attention of this obsessed, abstracted man.

Isabel Gore is the daughter of a schoolmaster on an island off the coast of Galway. Her brother Sean is a gifted musician, but one day after playing for hours while she dances, he has a fit and after that is mute and wheelchair bound. Isabel blames herself for Sean’s condition.

The Master sets all his ambitions on Isabel’s academic career and sends her to Galway to a convent school. But Isabel has a streak of wildness in her and sometimes walks off from school. On one such expedition as a teenage girl, she meets Peader O’Luing. He is a poor excuse for a man, but she doesn’t see that and falls in love.

The novel makes no secret that it is moving toward the meeting of Nicholas and Isabel. To get there, it tells their stories with some whimsy, some pathos, and a touch of magical realism. Although the writing style and voice are not as distinctive as that of History of the Rain, the novel is still beautifully written. I enjoyed it very much.

Related Posts

History of the Rain

The History of Love

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

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Day 616: The Rathbones

Cover for The RathbonesBest Book of the Week!
The Rathbones is a strange and wonderful novel, part gothic mystery, part magical realism, about a whaling family in the 18th and 19th centuries. Mercy Rathbone is a girl, the last of a mysterious family. She lives in a massive house only partially built that used to house dozens of people. Now only her aloof mother lives there with her and her cousin Mordecai—who stays in the attic and acts as her tutor—and a few servants.

Mercy has vague memories of a brother that her mother and cousin tell her never existed. She has not seen her father for more than ten years, although packages from him occasionally arrive. She is curious about the family portraits in a gallery, all with the names removed. She knows the names of her mother and father but has no idea who her grandparents were, or how they related to Moses, the patriarch of the family.

One night Mercy is attracted by the sound of a boy singing and ventures into a part of the house where she is not allowed, the widow’s walk where  her mother goes every night. There she witnesses her mother being embraced by a strange man, and that man chases her through the house. She finds refuge with Mordecai, and the two decide to go to sea to find her father. They flee in a little dory, pursued by the strange man.

So begins a wonderous adventure, where they encounter an island occupied only by old ladies; an island of rich, eccentric cousins with a massive collection of furniture and art; an island of birds occupied by a woman who only speaks bird language. At each stop Mercy learns more about the odd and sometimes grotesque history of her family, many of whom have a magical affinity for the sea.

I do not usually enjoy magical realism, but with this novel I loved never knowing where the story would go. It is an odd one, certainly, and probably not for everyone, but it is imaginative and unusual.

Day 464: Practical Magic

Cover for Practical MagicI’m ambivalent about Practical Magic, the first novel I’ve read by Alice Hoffman. It reminds me a bit of the Vianne Rocher books by Joanne Harris, only it is more heavy handed and less principled.

Gillian and Sally Owens have grown up in their aunts’ house in Massachusetts and have always longed for something different. Their aunts are considered witches, and people walk on the other side of the street when they see the girls. Sally longs for normalcy and tries to keep the untidy house clean and feed everyone wholesome meals. Gillian is spoiled and beautiful.

Eventually, both of them leave. Gillian runs away to begin a series of ill-conceived marriages and affairs. Sally’s brief marriage brings her two daughters of her own, Antonia and Kylie. When her husband is killed in a car accident, she flees the dark old house for suburbia and a chance for a normal life for her daughters.

Thirteen years go by before Gillian arrives unannounced at Sally’s house bringing trouble. Her latest boyfriend Jimmy is a dangerous criminal, and Gillian has accidentally killed him. His body is out in the car, and she has come to her sister for help. Together, they bury the body in the yard, but soon they are being haunted.

This story is told in a fairy tale style, and despite several setbacks, we are in no doubt that everything will turn out all right in the end. Characters fall madly in love on sight, and the troubles between both sets of sisters are worked out. The final removal of the spirit requires the assistance of the aunts themselves. Of course, it turns out that Gillian didn’t really kill her lover.

I guess I felt as if everything was tied up too neatly in this story. It’s a romance novel lightly disguised as magical realism, and I haven’t much patience for either.

On the one hand, I found myself mildly enjoying the novel. On the other hand, I found it too cheerfully immoral. We are supposed to accept through most of the book that Gillian killed her lover, however accidentally, and that it is okay to cover it up. Finally, the law officer who tracks them down while looking for Jimmy is required to fall in love with Sally on sight so that he can help cover up their crime, despite his being perfectly straight-laced up to that point. Even if the “murder” turns out not to be as big a crime as they thought, now he has committed a crime, too, which everyone immediately forgets so that they can live happily ever after. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Day 431: Butterfly Winter

Cover for Butterfly WinterI have to start right out by saying that Butterfly Winter was a poor choice for me. W. P. Kinsella is beloved by many, and I know that people are excited that this is his first novel in fifteen years. However, I should have known better than to select a book by the “master of magical realism,” as one reviewer put it, because I have a problem with magical realism. It is a very tough sell for me. I have to be fully bought into the realism before I can accept the magic. In the case of this novel, though, I don’t even think it can be called magical realism, because the realism was left out.

This novel is about baseball. That shouldn’t be a problem, although I am not a sports fan. I was willing to be wooed by The Art of Fielding into at least grasping that it can be pretty fantastic. But Kinsella doesn’t try to convince us of that. He just posits that it is wonderful and magical and obviously thinks everyone should agree with him.

I think I could have dealt with either of these two issues, but the first chapter of this novel, where the Gringo Journalist is trying to interview the Wizard, and the Wizard refuses to answer his questions but goes off on a bunch of tangents, is the most annoying piece of writing I have ever read. The novel picks up a little in the second chapter when it changes to a narrative style and picks up again every time it returns to that style, but unfortunately the irritating voice from the first chapter is the novel’s primary narrator. The tone of the novel is arch, to me a little forced, and the humor unsubtle.

http://www.netgalley.comNow to the story. Julio and Esteban Pimenthal are twins who play baseball in their mother’s womb (a wince-inducing image). One of them is born with cleats on, and the other with a baseball glove. (I think it is safe to say that only a man would have thought of that.) They are inhabitants of Courteguay, a fictional country wedged between Haiti and the Dominican Republic where magic is commonplace. (Silly me, when I read “magical Caribbean island” in the blurb, I was thinking scenery and beauty.) When Julio and Esteban are ten years old, they travel to the United States to play pro ball. But first we hear about the Wizard and how he came to the island in the late 19th century and introduced baseball to it.

I have to admit, I did not finish this book. I’m sure that many will think it delightful, but I found the narrative style too annoying to continue. This novel was the wrong one for me to choose to become acquainted with Kinsella.

Day 361: The Circle of Reason

Cover for The Circle of ReasonBest Book of the Week!

Although magical realism is often mentioned in reference to The Circle of Reason, as Amitav Ghosh said himself in an interview for the New York Times review, there is nothing fantastical that happens in the book. Still, it continues to be compared to the works of magical realists such as Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie.

These comparisons may be because of the book’s rambling narrative style or its peculiar characters. The main character is Alu Bose, but we get to him only slowly through his uncle Balaram, a scholar turned teacher in a small village in India who develops a mania for the pseudo-science phrenology and worships Louis Pasteur. As Alu’s head is covered with odd-looking bumps, like a potato, he provides a subject of endless study for his eccentric relative.

Later, Balaram becomes obsessed with cleansing the village and begins a campaign to convince the villagers to coat every object with carbolic acid. His feud with the local politician combined with his obsession results in disaster, and Alu ends up fleeing India because of being mistaken for a terrorist. He is pursued by a policeman named Jyoti Das, who would rather be an ornithologist.

Thus begin Alu’s adventures, first in the Middle Eastern port of al-Ghazira, where he develops his own obsession for cleanliness, and then moving farther west, ending up in Algeria. On the way, readers encounter a myriad of other characters and stop to hear the stories of their lives or learn a little bit about weaving, say, or the history of al-Ghazira.

I was less reminded of magical realism than of One Thousand and One Nights, the tales of Scheherazade in which, in the middle of one tale, another begins. I attempted to read them at one time but despaired that I would ever get to the end of a tale or keep the various stories straight. Luckily, Ghosh’s narrative is a little more coherent, although not much. It is purposefully rambling, running off in delight to tell one fabulous story after another.

The novel is wonderfully well written, beautifully written, but sometimes I wondered where it was going or what the plot actually was. The feeling was only momentary, however, because I was always compelled onward. The ending is actually satisfying and less chaotic than I expected.

When I read that Ghosh wanted to write something like Moby Dick, that explained a lot about the novel’s narrative style. Fortunately for us, Ghosh’s style is a lot more accessible than Melville’s. Still, I prefer some of his more recent novels, particularly Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke. The Circle of Reason is Ghosh’s first novel, and he keeps getting better and better.

Day 257: Galore

Cover for GaloreA whale comes ashore at the remote coastal town of Paradise Deep, Newfoundland, in the early 19th century. The people, who have been starving all winter, come out to scavenge what they can of the meat. When Devine’s Widow, an old Irish “wise woman,” cuts open the belly of the whale, a man falls out, pale as an albino, mute, but still alive. Although he stinks like a fish, the Devine clan gives him room in a shed and calls him Judah. Nevertheless, he is treated with dread and superstition until he goes out fishing one day with Colum Devine and they take a huge load of fish in waters that have been barren that season.

The Devines have been at odds with the powerful King-Me Sellers since he proposed marriage to a young Irish bondswoman years ago and she refused him rudely, then went off to marry Devine, practically the first young man she met. Their relationship was not improved years later when King-Me’s daughter Lizzy married Colum Devine.

When King-Me’s spite turns against Judah, the only way the Devines can save him is by marrying him to Mary Trephyna Devine, Colum and Lizzy’s daughter and King-Me’s granddaughter.

Michael Crummey’s multigenerational novel captures the relationships between these two families along with the history of the town, with all its eccentric characters, ghost stories, myths, and tall tales. The novel is fascinating, unusual, and beautifully written. I don’t usually enjoy magical realism, but in this novel it is handled so well that I accepted it and was engrossed in the story. Galore is probably unlike any novel you are going to read, although in its focus on a sea-going people and its occasional feel of a sea tale, it reminds me a bit of We, the Drowned  by Carsten Jensen.

Day 189: The Girl with No Shadow

Cover for The Girl with No ShadowI just reviewed Chocolat recently, so I thought I’d continue with a review of The Girl with No Shadow, Joanne Harris’ sequel to that novel.

The wind is blowing trouble toward Vianne Rocher, now running a small chocolatierie in Montmartre in Paris. The trouble is coming in the form of a con woman with many names, whom Vianne will know as Zozie de l’Alba.

Vianne herself has another name. She is going by Yanne Charbonneau because of some problems that developed after the birth of her second daughter, Rosette, now four. Vianne has been doing everything she can to avoid standing out. Anouk is now known as Annie. Gone are the red dresses with bells hanging from the hems. Yanne is demure and nondescript and doesn’t use her magic, even to know what a customer’s favorite chocolate is.

Annie, at eleven, is unhappy with school and with the changes in their lives. Soon more seeds of discontent are sown. As Zozie weasels her way into their lives and prises away their secrets, she decides that when she leaves, she is taking Annie with her. So, she does her best to encourage Annie’s rebellion against her mother.

Again, Harris combines the gentleness and kindness of Vianne’s temperament with a fair amount of suspense. As we learn more about Zozie’s past, we find out just how dangerous and devoid of conscience she is.

As usual the writing is beautiful, sprinkled with the scents and flavors of the chocolatierie and a dash of magic.

Another novel about Vianne and her family is just out, Peaches for Father Francis, so I guess I had better get reading!