Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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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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Day 1096: Lockdown

Cover for LockdownAlthough King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it is her stand-alone thrillers that have really appealed to me. I think her Folly is one of the best of its genre. However, if Lockdown hadn’t been written by Laurie R. King, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. The subject, a violent incident at a middle school, wouldn’t normally appeal to me.

The staff and students of Guadalupe school are preparing for Career Day. They have had a tough year in which one student’s sister was murdered by a gang banger, another student is a witness against him, and another student, a young girl named Bee, disappeared without a trace.

Linda McDonald, the school principal, is most concerned about whether the day will come off. She is hoping to inspire some of her mostly impoverished students with career ambitions, and hope for the future.

Gordon Kendrick, Linda’s husband, has a past that may be coming back to haunt him after he is mentioned in the publicity for Career Day. Another adult who is hoping to stay under the radar is Tio, the school janitor.

link to NetgalleySeveral of the students are clearly troubled. But 8th grader Brendan Atchison, the son of a successful entrepreneur, is plotting something drastic that involves another person.

Although the novel employs a technique that I recently found irritating in Salt to the Sea, the rapid shifting of point of view between short sections, it works much better in Lockdown, building true suspense. At first, I was more interested in the story of what happened when Linda met Gordon in New Zealand than in the plot about the school, but I finally decided that this is another fine suspense novel by Laurie R. King.

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Day 463: The Luminaries

Cover for The LuminariesBest Book of the Week! Year!

This last year I read several books that played wonderfully with structure. I’m thinking particularly of A Visit from the Goon Squad, a series of stories linked by their characters that somehow forms a whole, and Life After Life, in which the heroine’s life is repeated, with slight changes that lead to significant ones. I loved both of these inventive approaches to structure, and now I add to this list The Luminaries, the latest winner of the Man Booker Prize. This book is also my second recently reviewed novel set in New Zealand.

Walter Moody is newly come to the gold fields of the South Island of New Zealand in 1866. He has arrived in rough seas and is shaken by an apparition he has seen in the bowels of the ship. Seeking warmth and comfort, he checks into a seedy waterfront hotel and enters the parlor, where he accidentally interrupts the meeting of 12 other men.

After some initial hesitancy, the men begin telling him a series of tales, all interconnected, but the whole of which they cannot make out. The tales concern a missing trunk, a fortune found in a dead man’s cabin, the disappearance of a prominent citizen, the apparent attempted suicide of a whore. Each man at the meeting has his own part of the story to impart. Moody is able to make some sense of the story, but all go away from the meeting knowing that pieces are missing.

This section of the book is the longest, making up almost half its length. The cover of the novel, showing a waning moon, gives you a hint to its structure. It is divided into 12 sections, each one shorter than the one before but each one adding to the revelations of the original tales, until the final very short slivers of sections reveal all.

Each of these sections is also headed with an astrological chart that shows how the heavenly bodies are positioned within the signs of the 12 initial characters. This I did not understand at all, but Catton provides some indication at the beginning of the sections about what the astrology predicts.

The chapters of the novel are charmingly headed with old-fashioned descriptions of what happens in the chapter. Over time, the descriptions themselves begin to drive the narrative.

In The Luminaries, we’re presented with a novel that embodies a puzzle, a complex tale of villainy and foul crimes but also of love and loyalty. I was completely engrossed in  entangling the threads of this story. Despite its beginnings as a tale of cheats and chicanery, you may be surprised to find that you are reading a love story about two characters connected by their stars.

Day 450: The Bone People

Cover for The Bone PeopleThe Bone People is a very unusual novel, and I’m not sure what I think of it. I would give an unreservedly enthusiastic review except for one overriding facet of the plot and an ending that radically changes course.

Kerewin Holmes is a wealthy half-European, half-Maori woman who builds a tower on the New Zealand seaside. She clearly identifies more with the Maori culture than the European. Kerewin is an artist who for some time has been unable to create art and has separated herself from her family. She fills her tower with beautiful objects and oddities and stays away from people.

One day she comes home to find a young boy hiding in her house and quickly discovers he does not speak. The boy takes a liking to her, which turns out to be unusual. Although the boy appears to be purely of European descent, the man who eventually arrives to pick him up is a Maori man she has seen bragging in a local bar, Joe Gillayley.

The boy, Simon, turns out to have been a shipwreck victim as a very young child, the couple found with him not his parents. His identity has never been discovered, and Joe and his family adopted him. However, Joe’s wife Hana and son Timote died later from an illness.

Simon has an unruly streak, and Kerewin finds him spending the day with her at the tower when he decides to skip school. Kerewin feels there is something wrong about both the man and the boy, but soon begins to care about them and even tries to find out about the boy based on an unusual ring in his possession.

The blurb on this book calls it a mystery and a love story, but if you go into it with that kind of expectation, you are going to be confused. The narrative style is unusual. It is told from multiple viewpoints, although mostly from Kerewin’s, and Kerewin makes up poetry or sings little songs almost constantly. As the novel progresses, more Maori cultural references and mysticism appear.

Spoilers in this paragraph: I would normally not reveal this important a plot point, as it appears well into the book, but I feel I have to in order to explain my mixed reaction. It takes some time before Kerewin discovers that Joe, who usually treats Simon lovingly, sometimes beats him savagely in an attempt to control his behavior. Moreover, the whole town appears to be aware of this but does nothing. Kerewin is torn because she feels Joe really loves Simon and bitterly regrets these beatings, but she does not seem to realize (nor is there a sense of this in the book at all) that this is classic abusive behavior. So, no one turns Joe in to the authorities. Kerewin’s solution is to beat the crap out of Joe, as she has training in aikido, and then to make him promise not to discipline Simon without talking to her. This solution is obviously a stupid one, although it works for some time. When things come to a head, the result is horrendous.

Then the novel continues from there in another direction, which is disconcerting. I could not reconcile my feelings about what happens to Simon with my interest in the book up until that point. In fact, having the novel almost immediately shoot off in another direction was very distressing to me, and even though it eventually returns to the original events and ties everything up, the direction it goes in the closing sections seems to belong to a different novel.

If the child in peril theme is not one for you, I can tell you that the ending is unexpectedly and, I feel, unrealistically happy, and delves into the theme of a re-emergence of Maori culture. Maybe I am viewing this novel through some kind of cultural myopia, but the ending seems to me to magically wipe out a lot of problems, including legal complications. I understand that this novel was severely edited from its original form, much against Hulme’s wishes, which makes we wonder what the original novel would have been like.