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 1195: The Long Song

Cover for The Long SongSeveral years ago, I greatly enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island. So, I was happy when I saw that The Long Song was in both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects.

July is fathered upon her slave mother, Miss Kitty, by the overseer on Amity, a Jamaican sugar plantation. It is early in the 19th century, so July is a slave, too.

July and Miss Kitty are field slaves, but when July is nine years old, the master’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, takes a fancy to her. She takes July away from Miss Kitty to train her as a house slave and calls her Marguerite. The novel is written as July’s memoir, as she recalls the final days of slavery on the island and its transition to freedom.

At first the tone of this novel bothered me. It seemed too sprightly and playful for subject matter that is sometimes appalling. It really tears into its white characters, too, who are portrayed at best as hypocrites but more often much worse. Eventually, though, its sly sense of humor got to me, and I laughed out loud. Still, I did not feel as involved by this novel as I did with Small Island.

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Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun 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 1178: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingBest of Five!
When 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 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeBest of Five!
For me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for How to Be BothSince I’ve just posted my last review of books on the shortlist for the 2014 Booker Prize, it’s time for my feature, If I Gave the Award. In my opinion, many of the books on the 2014 shortlist are overrated. The winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, is sidetracked by a deeply uninteresting illicit love affair, while J by Howard Jacobson is overwhelmed by its obfuscation and sly jokiness and a deeply uninteresting licit love affair. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others is more powerful than either one of those novels.

Cover for We Are Completely Beside OurselvesHowever, my preference goes to one of the other two novels. How to Be Both by Ali Smith is more inventive than the other novels in its structure and more subtle in its message. But for its ability to keep me glued to the page, I have to say that over all the others, I preferred We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Day 1128: C

Cover for CC is a novel that is as enigmatic as its title, which I assumed at first was a reference to the main character’s name, Serge Carrefax. But late in the novel we learn that the Egyptians had a symbol that looks like a C, representing life.

The novel follow’s Carrefax’s life from the age of two until he is in his twenties. Serge seems to view objects as intersections of shapes and angles, but we’re told repeatedly that he can’t see or draw perspective. As a child, he has a strong, competitive relationship with his older, brilliant sister, Sophie. After a tragedy, though, he doesn’t seem to care. Although the book blurb says he is haunted by this relationship, I saw little evidence of that.

The Carrefaxes run a school for the deaf and a silk manufactory. Simeon Carrefax is a micromanager of the school while letting his children virtually run wild. Serge’s mother runs the silk factory. Because of this upbringing among deaf children, I suppose, Serge often misunderstands what is said to him.

The novel is not without humor, including some hilarious descriptions of the school’s yearly pageant, which sounds both impressive and ridiculously pompous. However, Serge’s distance from everything lends the novel a kind of heaviness.

The novel moves through Serge’s fascination with messages, an adolescent obsession with the wireless, to his air force work in World War I, and finally ends with a seemingly pointless posting to Egypt. Throughout the novel, there are many unanswered questions.

This was another novel from my Walter Scott Prize list that was also on my Man Booker Prize list. Although I found the novel interesting, I also found it too detached and perplexing, and the main character not that fascinating, to like very much.

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