Where the Crawdads Sing

Looking at the Goodreads page for the novel Where the Crawdads Sing, this month’s choice in my occasional visit to the Germany book club, I was struck by how highly rated the book is. 4 and a half stars out of five from nearly 50,000 reviews is a stonkingly high commendation, definitely the highest I’ve ever seen on that website.  So the big question is, does it live up to the hype?

Happily, on the whole, yes it does. I only gave the novel 4 stars as it happens, but then I’m a hard taskmaster and something of a curmudgeon.  And it is easy to say that the book is beautifully written, especially for a first novel. The author Delia Owens has a lovely, almost poetic prose as she tells the story of the ‘Marsh Girl’ Kya Clark, an abandoned girl who lives in the marshes on the edge of town and leads a solitary life among the plants and animals.  Some reviews have criticised the slow pace of the early part of the book, focusing too much on descriptive passages instead of story, but I enjoyed the scene setting and the rich evocation of the landscape.

The book develops into a back-and-forth narrative between a coming-of age tale as Kya grows up and falls in love, and a murder mystery surrounding the unexplained death of a local white student, Chase Andrews.  Both strands are dealt with convincingly.  The latter was reminiscent to me of two other classic examples of courtroom drama surrounding racial injustice, A Time to Kill and the great To Kill a Mockingbird. For this book to be mentioned in the same vein is its testament. It has all the great hallmarks of the genre, genuine suspense, evidence that swings you one way then the other, and a verdict that is difficult to predict. I’m not going to give away the ending here but the twists on the final pages don’t feel deceitful and raise many questions about the validity of what has come before. A book that will have you discussing and arguing its outcome long past completion can only be a great one.

It’s not all judges and juries though. The coming-of age tale is one that could easily slip into cliche, so well worn are its tropes. But Owens manages to pull it off with instantly believable characters who, whilst not necessarily the nicest, are always honest and hard to dismiss. Kya walks the tightrope of doubt and loneliness and whether to give in to her desires with a balance that is eminently relatable to anyone who had a powerful yearning for someone as a teenager (which we all did, let’s face it).  Even when she makes poor decisions you can see the reasoning behind them, and her relationships, especially with the odious Chase, are very well drawn.

If there are gripes, I would comment that some of the developments that raise Kya out of poverty seem easy to come by.  If it was that straightforward to become a published author I would be shouting it from the rooftops of my penthouse suite in the Caribbean.  Kya does also seem to adapt remarkably well (and quickly, it must be said) to the loss of both her mother and brother when they walk out on her. But it all hangs together enough not to completely smash the suspension of disbelief.

As I said at the top, the strengths of the novel are enough to warrant its remarkable rating. I finished it a week or so ago and find myself thinking about it at random moments. Such is its power, and its quiet beauty.

Unreliable Memoirs

On the whole I find memoir a tricky genre to read and interpret. Any memoir seems to be at the mercy of two elements it seems to me – the memory of the author and how they select, reflect and analyse said memories. Whether the event’s of one’s past can be looked at with honesty and self-reflection, without falling into pity or an unwillingness to admit to mistakes.

Clive James wrote the first volume of his memoirs, which shares the title of this post, when he was coming up for his 40th birthday. Which was interesting for me as I am at a similar age, and I can safely say my memory is shocking. I have very little recollection of my early childhood and some of the memories beyond that are almost seen through smoke, so hazy are they.  And non-linear, too.  I would find it impossible to piece together everything into a coherent and threaded narrative.  So writing memoir is fraught with danger from the start – how reliable is the memory? And what does it reveal about the person in question?

James concentrates on his early childhood in Sydney, up to leaving for England in his early 20s. He plays with the idea of honesty throughout – one of the book’s much quoted lines is ‘Nothing I have said is factual except the bits that sound like fiction.’ So you may ask, well what’s the point? If you don’t know what to believe in the book, is it all a waste of time? And the nagging point that lies underneath is whether you feel vaguely manipulated by it.  All worthy questions, and this formed the basis of the discussion during my latest visit to my sister’s book club in Germany. I didn’t feel as strongly about this as others, but I did think that the embellishment of some scenes did render the tone of the book as somewhat uneven. There was an awful lot of stuff about sex that proved a little grating (there are only so many masturbation stories you can hear before it gets wearing) but I can’t deny it didn’t make me laugh out loud on occasion, so if the impact is profound I can’t say it mattered to me too much whether the set-up was true, partly true or a figment of James’s imagination.

James became somewhat of a TV treasure in this country during the 80s and 90s, and I remember his droll sense of humour when discussing the weeks TV or in his travelogue programmes. So it was interesting to see where his love of literature came from (mostly self-read, he eschewed traditional education by never attending classes) and some of the university magazine stuff was great fun. I would have liked on his relationship with his mother, which lacked detail, (other than his attitude towards her was selfish and cavalier), but this stuff may be explored in further volumes, which I have yet to read. I may go ahead and do so, as I figure the later years will be of more interest.

So there was a bit more meat to dig our teeth into than I thought after reading the book. But despite the belly laughs,  I felt a bit exasperated by its slipperiness, and frustrated that I could never quite get a handle on the boy presented within its pages.

Snobs

I realised as I gatecrashed my sister’s book club in Cologne once more that it had been nearly a year since my last visit. So nearly a year since I last experienced the pleasure of chewing the fat about a book for a few hours (with a rather copious amount of alcohol mixed in this time, too!), and it reminded me how much I’ve missed it. I really need to get involved in one in my local area, or better still start my own. One of these days I’ll get around to it.

I am possibly in a minority of one in that I have never seen an episode of Downton Abbey. Not even a fleeting glimpse. I’d heard of its creator Julian Fellowes, the author of our book choice Snobs, but never having seen any of his work, I was in the unique position of going into his novel completely blind, and with no previous experience to influence my thoughts about it. Which is a nice position to be in really, with no existing prejudices to cloud judgement.

And I quite enjoyed it. The plot, such as it was, covered well-worn territory. Girl marries man for money, then wonders if she did the right thing, has affair, then realises the error of her ways. Pretty standard stuff. But Fellowes uses this threadbare story as a vehicle to go into vast, often very humourous observation about the British upper-class/nobility. It’s almost a field guide to the nature of aristocracy in this country, sketched by a man who knows both its foibles and strengths and isn’t afraid to talk about both.

I can’t say I was anything more than pleasantly distracted by the novel, but that can be a finer way to pass the day than some books have been. Talking about it in the group, I was struck by how much the class system still has a role in British society, how you can be defined by how much money your parents have, or where you went to school. In Germany these distinctions are less defined and more importantly, less cared about.  In some ways I envy them that, but I know I’m guilty of a bit of class stereotyping as much as the next British person. This novel propelled this discussion, which was interesting and insightful, and for that I’d recommend it.

The Road Home

This weekend saw my occasional visit to my sister’s book club in the wonderful city of Cologne, Germany. It was my third appearance and since my last, at the beginning of this year, the makeup of the group has changed somewhat, with a couple of long-running members leaving for various reasons.  Book clubs can contain some friction between members, primarily over choices for forthcoming meetings, which sounds fickle but can result in some real arguments over the direction of the club. Anyway, ths turbulent passage has passed for the Cologne club and the core group is the same, so there were plenty of familiar faces to catch up with and an interesting book to discuss.

Rose Tremain is probably most famous for her novel The Gustav Sonata, which I believe was a Man Booker winner. Our choice was The Road Home, her tale of immigrant Lev, who comes to London from an unnamed European country (a stylistic decision which I found a little grating) to try to provide a better life for his family back home. In the current political climate this topic is something of a hot potato, so I was looking forward to a warts-and-all story of hardship and toil which sunk its teeth into the issues surrounding those who seek a better life in a faraway country.

Unfortunately I came away from reading the book a little disappointed. Whilst Lev does go through many travails as he attempts to carve out a niche for himself, the narrative never gave an impression that these problems would prove unable to  solve. Indeed, Lev’s rise from humble sawmill worker to leading chef required an enormous suspension of disbelief to get your head around. The plot was unrealistic to me. On a number of occasions I thought Tremain relied on a perfect coincidence or a vast gesture of goodwill from a fellow character to propel Lev’s journey along. The right person tended to pop up at exactly the right moment, either with financial help when he most needed it or the offer of a roof or employment.  I wanted to enjoy the kindness of the strangers he met, but I’m afraid my possibly world-weary cynicism prevented me from doing so.

There were some very jarring episodes in the story that felt completely out of place, too. Lev gets into a relationship with fellow kitchen worker Sophie, a woman many years his junior, and after it breaks down, there is a bizarre, borderline rape scene which is explicit in detail and is glossed over with very little explanation or fallout. Later on, Lev goes to work picking fruit on an East Anglian farm and there is another peculiar scene where two Chinese workers seduce Lev after a night out.  Again, it’s as if Tremain forgets this ever took place, for it is barely mentioned the next morning. The flow of the story is interrupted by such acts and just added confusion and a hint of ugliness that is completely at odds with the charm and romanticism of the rest of the narrative.

I wanted to like this book more than I did, for I admired some of the minor characters greatly and Tremain skeched them with a lot of skill. And I liked the positive theme of human kindness that threads through the book. We could all be more empathetic to our fellow human beings, after all. But the narrative flaws were too much for me to get over and as such I’d have to say that the book is an gallant, but flawed exploration of the immigrant experience.

German Return- Stones from the River

So, after an absence of four months, I returned to my sister’s book club in Germany for the first time in a year.  As i suspected, being out of a book club after my return from Australia has been tough – I miss my group very much and have looked on at their forthcoming book choices with envy.  I was pleased to be invited back to the Cologne group, it is a smaller group with a more intimate feel, mostly because the members are regular and they have no one-off participants.  It is also held at a member’s house rather than in the pub which feels more homely, and there’s plenty of home cooked food to eat as well which is always a bonus!

The book choice for the month, Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River, was one that I struggled with in its opening stages. The main narrator of the story, Trudi Montag, is a dwarf growing up in a fictional rural German town.  The first few chapters highlight her issues with her disability and the abuse she suffers as a child in one particular horrifying event that I won’t spoil here.  It also starts to describe the people of the town of Burgdorf, some in little potted portraits, others sketched in more depth.  These characters weave their way in and out of the story as it progresses.

The first 150 pages or so I found a bit of a drag, not really engaging fully with the narrative.  But once the spectre of World War II approaches, the pace starts to quicken and the character building that has gone before starts to fall into place.  The fascination of this tale for me was twofold.  One, how each character reacts as the Nazis begin to take a stranglehold on society.  Some turn the other cheek, others actively resist and are removed from the town without warning, Trudi and her father secretly help others to build a tunnel to hide those in danger. Second, was how the regime didn’t insert itself with fanfare and a great explosion, it was much more insidious than that.  Rights were encroached upon slowly, quietly, and curtailed in small increments.  To start with, some agreed with these restrictions, through coercion or fear or belief.  Then, as things got worse, they realised how much had been lost, but far too late.  The regret this caused led to some characters making awful decisions that destroyed lives and families.

Hegi explores these two themes with great skill – the town almost feels like a character in itself, how it changed from a bucolic village to one of fear and oppression.  The heightened state of events gives the narrative pace and the middle third of the book contains its most powerful passages.  How each character makes their stand is fascinating, and their decisions are always explained with empathy, if not approval.

The last section of the book dragged a little, and I think overall the book could probably lose 50-100 pages and improve for it – the love story involving Trudi and Max could have been cut down and its conclusion was rather obvious – but on the whole I enjoyed the book, and most of all, thought it was an excellent discussion piece for native Germans, who are only a generation or two removed from these events.  It was fascinating to hear how modern Germans approach the Nazi regime, how comfortable they are to discuss it, how it happened.  I felt from the discussion that the struggle to reconcile their feelings on the monstrousness of Nazism is still going on, along with a still lingering sense of guilt and shame over what happened. For this book to bring these issues into public discourse is to its great credit.

 

The Last Hurrah

Whilst writing this blog I have been reluctant to disclose too much about my personal life, as this has been my outlet to discuss books, the art of writing and to get some of my work into the public domain. Of course what is going on behind the scenes has an effect on all of these things but I would rather use this space as an escape from the humdrum of everyday life – reading and writing is my form of escapism and I don’t want to muddy the waters.

But in this case it is almost inevitable, as since my last post I have left Australia and moved back to the UK. This upheaval has had an influence on every aspect of my life. My reading has suffered, I haven’t written anything of note in a while, and until I get back on my feet, I’m now out of a book club, which is an enormous shame, as I enjoyed the experience immensely. We had a close-knit, lovely group of people with an eclectic range of tastes which garnered some interesting conversation and at times robust debate. I did attend one last meeting a few days before my departure and despite the sorrow of the occasion for me it was a chance to talk about one of my books of the year so far.

The novel in the form of a diary is something familar to most. Adrian Mole is probably the most famous example of the form for me, I and many others I know devoured the first in the series on its release and even now I can quote passages of it almost verbatim. The idea that the reader is encroaching on the most private thoughts of the narrator can be thrilling and the format lends itself to immediacy and a fast pace.  And the novel we chose, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, is as fine an example of the genre that I can remember.

The narrator, Logan Mountstuart, is, possibly through his sheer open honesty, a character who reveals a fair amount of bad behaviour during his ife – promiscuity, adultery, alcohol abuse, and so on. He makes some exasperating decisions. often at great detriment to himself, which alienate the people around him. From his actions, this is a man hard to put up with. And yet, despite his numerous failings, it is hard not to fall for his charm. His wit, humour, and refusal to conform form an irresistable cocktail and slowly but surely you get swept up in his world. There are passages of great poignancy when he talks of the death of his wife and child, and some of his reflections on life in old age are bang on the money and really resonate.

The narrative is imbued with chance meetings with celebrities of the twentieth century, including Hemingway, Woolf and Picasso. This was a sticking point for some of the group, who felt this was a bit of a gimmick in order to name-drop, but I disagree. I found it wove into the story easily and wasn’t the least bit contrived. It added some context and culture and placed Logan in the circles of the day.

The overriding feeling I had on completing this novel was a sense of loss that my relationship with Logan Mountstuart was now over. Since I finished it I have thought of it often, and to start with I almost grieved for him. For a novel to conjure up such strong feelings make it an unqualified success in my book. I would urge anyone to read this – genuinely one of the best I’ve encountered in a long while.

In contrast, Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River had no lasting effect on me at all. I can’t even begin to conjure up any feelings about it, positive or negative. A book I read and took nothing from. I appreciate I was in the minority on this as most of the group spent as remarkable amount of time singing its praises, going into the nuances of the main character Nora as she told the tale of her loveless marriage and subsequent relocation to England. It was an interesting discussion but one I’m afraid passed me by a little bit. If numbers of fans has weight, it’s probably worth reading. Not one for me, though.

So my book club days are over for a little while. I will always be thankful to the group for the laughs, great debates, and for introducing me to some books I never would have read otherwise. I came to Australia looking to find like-minded friends and put some of the spark back into my reading life – I can safely say being in this book club fulfilled both. I will miss it greatly.

 

The Last Whites

For 2016 I have been undertaking a reading challenge on Goodreads. Up until now this has had little effect on my reading habits, as I read voraciously at the best of times. But one problem that has arisen is that I am reading my book club choices weeks in advance, and when the meetings come around, I am trying to conjure up talking points from a book I read over a month ago. Which makes writing these blog posts a little more difficult, but I will endeavour to carry on regardless…

A few months ago I brought along my copy of Richard Price’s The Whites to book club, his latest crime novel written under the pseudonym of Harry Brandt. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, for I have been a huge fan of Price ever since Clockers, his era-defining novel about New York drug culture, which indirectly spawned The Wire, arguably the greatest TV series ever made. (Price wrote a couple of episodes for it, too.) Without prompting, I found that it had been chosen as this month’s first choice. Which I was very pleased about, as I think Price is one of the most important writers of his generation.

So why the love? Firstly, Price can write dialogue like no other. Some writers are unfortunately afflicted with a tin ear when it comes to the way people talk, but once a while someone comes along who just have a knack for it. Elmore Leonard did, and Price is up there with the great man. He knows the language of the street and his characters interact with a truth and zeal that just zings off the page. This novel is his first set more in the police procedural genre, and he has no trouble with the hard-nosed black humour that flys between the Wild Geese, the core group at th novel’s heart.

I suspect Price chose a pen name to represent this change in genre, although the edition I have is shorn of the Brandt moniker. The plot is too labyrinthine to go into in great detail, for the world Price has created contains at least 50 major and minor characters. Even those with one or two pages of screen time are well-drawn and you never get the sense that they are extraneous to proceedings. Price’s ability to juggle all these balls in the air and still create a frenetic pace that keeps you turning the pages is a strength few could manage. There is a lot of violence and hurt here, but the relationships are embued with an underlying tenderness, particularly between Billy and his dementia-riddled father. These scenes give the prose its heart, and remind us that the ties of family can rise above the ugliness and desolation of the seedy underbelly of New York city. It’s a triumphant work and one that proves Price is still at the top of his game.

Miranda July’s novel The First Bad Man  is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. Having read it a while ago, I still don’t know what to make of it. The main character Cheryl is one of the most interesting protaganists I have read in a long time – owner of some exceedingly bizarre sexual fantasies, a vivid imagination, and aching vulnerability. Her relationships are nothing short of strange, especially with philanderer Philip, a man she shares erotic text messages with as he explores a new relationship with a teenager.

For the first hundred pages or so I found Cheryl tiresome and impossible to relate to, and other book clubbers had similar reservations. But around this point the novel takes an unexpected twist with the arrival of Clee, Cheryl’s bosses young daughter. Their relationship begins with some utterly bonkers bouts of wrestling which borders on domestic violence before blossoming into a lesbian love affair involving a baby which allows Cheryl’s maternal fantasies to flower and grow.

Now I’m sure this plot explanation makes little sense, which goes some way to describing the off-beat, quirky nature of the novel. Some of the ideas are nonsensical, the story develops in unexpected ways, and the whole things teeters on the brink of the absurd throughout. But if you go with it Cheryl’s character takes on an endearing quality, particularly in the scenes after the birth of Jack, which have an affection completely different from the almost random exchanges in the early parts.

This surreal type of fiction has shot up in the last few years and there are a few female writers writing this sort of stuff – A.M Homes is another I can think of. Its a world of cosmetic surgery, strange relationships with therapists and a frankness of sexual ideas. It’s something that is a bit out of my comfort zone but this was a worthwhile read into an alien world for me.