Book review: “The Wonder” by Emma Donoghue

One of my earliest posts on this blog was a comparison of a handful of books with their film adaptations; it was 2016, a bumper year for great books in the Oscars with The Danish Girl, The Revenant, Room and Carol all nominated. Emma Donoghue’s Room was I think my favourite of that batch (both the film and the book) and was one of my best reads of that year. Shortly after, I picked up The Wonder and it’s been sitting in my TBR pile ever since! I resolved to read it while I was away over Easter and, my goodness, it did not disappoint.

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Lovely cover too

Set in rural Ireland in 1859, in the shadows of the Irish Famine and the Crimean War, the main protagonists have had disturbing brushes with death and suffering which impact the way they behave and how they interact with one another. Elizabeth ‘Lib’ Wright is a nurse who trained with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea. She is sent to Ireland on a commission to observe an eleven year-old girl, Anna O’Donnell, who, it is alleged, has not eaten for four months. Her survival without food is being hailed as a miracle and the village council has recruited a team of two (Lib, the English nurse, and an Irish nun) to watch her in shifts to ensure the child is genuinely not receiving sustenance. Many visitors have already come from both Ireland and abroad to view the child, and to perhaps receive some divine benefit from being in her midst.

Lib, with her scientific outlook, naturally suspects foul play. She has no religious faith and believes it impossible for the human body to survive without food or water; she fully expects quickly to get to the bottom of the suspected ruse. She approaches Anna with scepticism initially, believing she and her family are nothing more than manipulative, deceiving, attention-seeking hoaxers seeking to profit from their little miracle. Lib is also haughty, however; whilst she is aware of some of the wrongs that have been wrought upon the Irish people by her own country, she brings with her certain prejudices about social and cultural backwardness. She meets a Dublin journalist, staying at the same inn, and there to report on Anna’s case for his newspaper, and her conversations with him begin to educate her about Irish history about the status and role of Catholicism and about the nature of the people.

As Lib gets to know Anna better in the long hours she spends watching her, she also begins to grow fond of the child, something she does not expect and which interferes with her sense of herself as a rational being. She makes detailed notes about her observations of the child, and when it becomes truly apparent to her that little or no nourishment is reaching Anna, she becomes concerned about the deterioration in her health. The unwillingness of the family to confess to the hoax, as she sees it, disturbs her, and the vested interests of the local community, both the medical and religious elements, which seem to prevent them stepping in to save the child’s life, challenges her medical ethics. Most remarkably for Lib, however, is the commitment Anna has to her starvation; she truly has no desire to eat, and her religious fervour seems genuine and uncorrupted. Lib suspects some deep trauma (she is familiar with this notion following her experience in the Crimea) possibly connected to the death of her older brother a few months earlier, but struggles to get to the bottom of it.

The job Lib has been paid to undertake begins to take a grave emotional toll on her and all her certainties, her assumptions and the truths she has held dear begin to unravel at the same time as Anna’s health status is becoming increasingly grave.

This is a remarkable and complex novel which I found both profoundly moving and deeply interesting. The author provides an insight into a community, a belief system and a set of codes that most of us will struggle to comprehend. And yet, the way she recounts the story, you can see how Anna’s actions might make perfect sense to her, to her family and to her community. This is the most alarming part – how easily it could be seen as real and reasonable – and gives an insight into how sometimes bizarre doctrines can take hold in groups so that they can seem true, in spite of scientific evidence.

The plot of this book is also gripping and it has some remarkable twists, not to be revealed here, which will have you on the edge of your seat.

Highly recommended, a real page-turner which will draw you into a world you did not know about.

Have you read any other Emma Donoghue books – which would you recommend I read next?

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Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

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Book review – “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin

A few weeks ago I blogged about the 2019 Oscars and identified If Beale Street Could Talk as one of the few literary connections amongst this year’s crop of nominees. It was in fact nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category but lost out to Spike Lee’s BlackKklansman on the night. The book is widely considered to be a classic of 20th century African-American writing.

It is a love story and concerns the relationship between 19 year-old Tish and her 22 year-old lover Fonny, whose baby she is expecting. The couple grew up in Harlem, but Fonny has ambitions of becoming a sculptor and the couple plan to move to Greenwich Village to be among other artists. The story of their love is told mainly through flashbacks, however, as, when the novel opens, Fonny is in jail awaiting trial for rape, having been accused and then identified in a line-up by the Peurto Rican victim.

if beale street could talk imgThe time span of the novel is the duration of Tish’s pregnancy, during which time the couple’s two families set about trying to free Fonny, liaising with his lawyer and pulling together all the money they can to pay Fonny’s legal costs. The lion’s share of this task falls to Tish’s family, who see it as their duty to support their daughter and the father of their grandchild. Fonny’s family, on the other hand is divided; his mother and sisters are deeply confused, ambivalent and disturbed by events effectively disown him. Fonny’s father does engage, supported by Tish’s father, but it is clear he is not really strong enough to cope with the pressure. It falls to Tish’s family to take charge and her mother, Sharon even goes to Peurto Rico, to where the raped woman has fled, to appeal to her to change her testimony, the suspicion being that Fonny was simply served up to her by corrupt police officers. As Tish’s pregnancy progresses, so we follow the legal machinations, the financial pressures faced by all concerned, the effect of prison on Fonny, the artistic soul tortured by his incarceration, and the toll that events take on both families.

It is a tragic story in many ways – no spoiler intended, but events don’t really resolve in the course of the novel – but has also been described as ultimately uplifting because it shows the power of love, not just between a man and a woman, but also within the community and within the family (notwithstanding the dysfunctional nature of Fonny’s family, although the inference here is that his mother’s religious fervour lies at the root of this).  I have not seen the film so I’m not sure how it handles the open nature of the ending.

The other main theme of the novel is, of course, the black experience, and Baldwin was a key figure in mid-20th century civil rights activism in New York. He counted Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Marlon Brando, Josephine Baker, Allen Ginsberg and Miles Davis among his many high-profile friends. It is clear that Fonny has simply been set-up to take the blame for the rape – the woman identified her attacker only as black, and in the line-up that was assembled, Fonny was the only black man present. The cops are clearly out to get him, and any other black man. The judicial system, the penal system and the social and financial system are all stacked against Fonny, against them all, a reflection of how Baldwin saw society at the time.

Although I enjoyed the book, I didn’t find it a particularly easy read. The writing felt a little spiky, uncontrolled (the type that a determined editor might address!), but on the other hand it is spontaneous and vernacular, heart-felt and real. I found the timings difficult to follow at times and the supporting characters not as well-developed as I would have liked. It helps, however, when you understand more about Baldwin and his life. Firstly, he was an essayist, poet, playwright and activist as much as he was a novelist, if not more so, and whilst I do not know his other work, I can see that way of thinking in this novel. I think there are also significant influences from Baldwin’s personal life experience which feature strongly – his relationship with his father (actually his step-father), his sexuality, his struggle to express his art in his youth, growing up as he did in the tough neighbourhood of Harlem, and his religious ambivalence.

This is an intriguing and important book, even though it wasn’t always the easiest read. The love story is powerful and moving and it has certainly made me keen to see the film and to read more of Baldwin’s work, particularly his essays and his semi-autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain.

Recommended.

Have you read the book or seen the film? What did you think?

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The Reading Challenge for March: “Perfume” by Patrick Suskind

This month’s theme for my Facebook Reading Challenge is a European novel. I confess that I did have the “B-word” in mind when I set the theme, feeling the need to assert that there is more that unites us than divides us, to paraphrase the late Jo Cox. The B-word has at this stage, however, become synonymous with something altogether more sinister – something very worrying is happening to our concepts of democracy, statehood, nationality, political representation and society. No-one really knows where we are or where we’re going.

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My thirty year-old copy of Perfume

However, that does not change my belief that we would all do well to push our personal horizons from time to time, literary and otherwise, and engaging with books originally written in other languages is one way of doing that, even if you have to read them in translation. So, the book I have chosen for this month, Perfume by Patrick Suskind, is an absolute classic, and one that I consider to be one of my all-time favourites.

Perfume was first published in 1985 in German, and then in English in 1987. This was also my first year at University, studying English, and I spent those three years reading continuously. Sounds great (it was!) but by the end of it I could hardly even lift a book! Perfume was one of the first books I read after my hiatus, and I was completely blown-away. The novel is set in 18th century Paris and concerns a perfumier Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, his talent for and obsession with all things olfactory, and his descent into a murderous lifestyle – the sub-title of the book is “the story of a murderer”.

I am excited to be reading the book again, although slightly apprehensive – what if I don’t love it as much as I did before? Context matters, so it will be an interesting experience either way.

If you would like to read the book and join the conversation, do pop over to the Facebook page. 

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Book review – “Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore

It has come to my notice in the last couple of years that I really enjoy historical fiction, yet if you’d asked me that ten years ago I might have been quite sniffy about it, thinking of it as a more poular rather than literary genre. Perhaps it’s because the book I have been birthing over the last year or so (almost ready to send out, yay!) is largely historical, so I’ve grown acutely aware of the additional challenges of research, of picturing a scene in my mind’s eye that doesn’t include all the day to day contemporary things we take for granted, as well as trying to create an authentic narrative voice, even getting the language right. It’s also something more basic than that though – many historical novels have really touched something quite deep in me. I’m thinking Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, even Agatha Christie. And many of the books that I think of as my all-time favourites are also historical  – Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and Andrea Levy’s Small Island all look back as a way of making sense of the now. History can teach us a great deal.

Birdcage Walk imgA dear friend gave me Helen Dunmore’s final novel, published posthumously, Birdcage Walk, for my birthday last year and I have only just got around to reading it. I had read some quite mixed reactions, some feeling it wasn’t her best or that it had not been as well edited as it might have been, which is understandable. I am not familiar with Dunmore’s other novels so don’t have a view on how it compares. It meant I approached it with some trepidation, however.

The novel is set in 1792 in Bristol, with the aftermath of the French Revolution playing out across the Channel, and its effects beginning to be felt in England. The central character Lizzie is married to a builder John Diner Tredevant, known as Diner, who has invested heavily (financially and emotionally) in the construction of a grand terrace in the city. The couple’s future depends on the success of the project, but political unrest has created economic uncertainty and the half-built, never-to-be-completed terrace is a motif for the couple’s relationship. As financial pressure builds, stress begins to expose the fragile foundation of Diner’s personality, cracks are revealed in their marriage and questions begin to arise about the mysterious circumstances of Diner’s first wife who died suddenly in France.

Lizzie comes from a more middle-class intellectual background; her mother is a Radical writer and supporter of the insurgency against the monarchy in France, as is Lizzie’s stepfather Augustus. They were not fully in support of Lizzie’s marriage, and it is hinted that they feared Diner was her intellectual inferior, and that she would not thrive with him, as well as being of a different mind to them politically. It seems that Lizzie married him because he represented a solidity and security that she never had growing up; she clearly holds Augustus in some contempt at times, his intellectual pursuit seems ineffectual to her. When Lizzie’s mother dies in childbirth, becoming pregnant at a dangerously late stage in her life, everything in Lizzie’s world begins to break down.

I can see why some regard the novel as somehow ‘incomplete’ – some of the characters are not fully drawn, Diner, for example. For me, his behaviour was not entirely coherent and I did not fully ‘get’ what drew him and Lizzie together, they seem so un-alike, and this is slightly problematic as the entire plot turns on the dynamics of their relationship. A quote from the Daily Mail on the jacket describes it as a “psychological thriller”, but that’s not quite how it felt to me. If anything, it’s more a book about character than plot.

Like the book I am working on, it is also about a journey of discovery, of uncovering the past and of the fleeting part we all play in history and how individual stories are so easily lost.

Whether or not Birdcage Walk is Dunmore’s best (if I could write this well, I’d be happy!) it has made me want to explore her other work as I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Recommended reading.

How do you feel Birdcage Walk compares with Dunmore’s other novels?

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Book review – “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred D Taylor

I chose this book as February’s choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge 2019. The theme for the month was a YA novel. First published in 1976, this rather pre-dates the emergence of the YA genre, so it does not fit quite so comfortably. However, it is a classic and, in my view, essential teenage reading. My edition is published by Puffin and the narrator and main character is a child, but make, no mistake, the themes here are mature and heavyweight.

Roll of Thunder imgRoll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is the first of three novels by Mildred D Taylor about the Logan family, black farmers in Mississippi, set in the 1930s. They are poor, but they own their own small piece of land, Grandfather Logan having bought it in the 1880s from local landowner Harlan Granger, much to the chagrin of some of the white locals who still cannot accept the social changes giving black people greater autonomy and rights. Grandfather Logan is now dead and the central character, Cassie, lives on the farm with her parents, her grandmother and three brothers. Despite owning 400 acres, the family still struggles to make ends meet, which is why Cassie’s father works away much of the year, on the railroad construction, and her mother works as a teacher at the local (black) school. All the family contributes to the running of the farm and the income it generates.

The scene is set beautifully, mainly through the four children and in particular, Cassie’s narration. The children have the same worldview of any kids their age, but even at their young age they have a strong awareness of their low status compared to their white counterparts, for example, in the way most of the local white children treat them and how the white kid’s school seems so much better resourced (they even have a bus, while the Logan children have to walk several miles every day). The unfairness is not lost on the children and sometimes they express their sense of injustice in ways that worry the adults, who know that for their own safety they must just keep their heads down and accept the reality. The early chapters set all these conditions in place and the readers is aware of the underlying tensions in the community that might erupt at the slightest provocation.

And that provocation soon comes along. Little Man, the youngest of the Logan children and a very fastidious boy, rejects a book given out to him in class because it is shabby. The books, cast-off by the white’s school as too damaged to use any longer, have been bestowed upon the black children and they are expected to be grateful. Little Man’s rejection of the damaged book is considered an affront too far, even by his teacher (it is interesting how most of the black adults in the book have been rendered completely docile by conditioning and by the threat of retribution if they speak out). For appearance’s sake, the children’s mother has to mete out Little Man’s severe punishment (being beaten), even though it pains her to do so. She decides to cover all of the children’s books, to make them appear fresher, but when this is spotted by the local (white) inspector, it has severe consequences for her too.

A series of other events set off a cascade of problems for the Logan family. For example, when the owner of the local store, upon which they all depend, appears to be treating his black customers unfairly, Cassie’s parents try to set up an arrangement whereby they make collective bulk purchases from a store charging better prices in a neighbouring town and the Logans transport the goods on their wagon. This riles the white community (black people have no right to make such a stand and resist the control being exercised over them) and the family is threatened.

Events take increasingly grave turns and the threat of violence, even death and financial ruin are never very far away. As you would expect from a novel for this age group, crisis is averted when a disaster at the end manages to bring the community back together in the most unexpected way. However, the novel does not shy away from suggesting that a terrible confrontational denouement is merely averted and not truly eliminated. It is happy for now, not happy ever after, as we know from the civil rights history of the USA. By the end of the novel, one thing is for sure and that is that nine year-old Cassie will never see the world in quite the same way again. Events have forced her out of her naïve belief in fairness and into an awareness that life, for her ilk at least, is definitely not fair.

I found this novel really gripping. I loved the characters, the dialogue with and between the children felt very authentic and the writing flows beautifully. It is a packed novel for its 220 pages, dealing with some important issues that will help to illustrate the African-American experience during a dark period in America’s history.

Highly recommended.

If you have read this book, either recently or when you were younger, I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Audiobook review: “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante

I’ve just finished listening to this, the third book from Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. There are four volumes in total and I’ve chosen to listen to all of them on audio, mainly because I love the languid narration by Hilary Huber; she has really brought the characters alive for me and has managed to execute distinctly both the male and the female characters, something which I think is rare in an audiobook.

This is an extraordinary series and if you have not come across them yet (if you’re interested in books you will have been hard-pressed to avoid them since they were published to great acclaim between 2012 and 2015) I would definitely urge you to seek them out. As with the first two volumes, it has taken me some time to get through this book, mainly because I listen to it in 10-15 minute snatches on walks to the shops, etc. My enjoyment is none the worse for that, however; I would say in fact that it has added to my appreciation since this series is truly an epic saga than a set of novels, so broad is the sweep of time that they cover, so the long duration of my listening has given me a strong feeling for that.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay imgThis third book picks up precisely where volume two left off, at a small book launch for Elena’s first book, a mildly sexual novel which has caused a stir, and where she is being questioned in a patronising way by an obnoxious critic. A familiar face from Naples walks into the room – Nino Sarratore – and Elena’s confidence is restored. Nino has been a friend since childhood, and there is a complicated triangular relationship between him, Elena and Lila, the main but elusive protagonist of all the books. Elena has been in love with Nino since they were young, but this has not been reciprocated. Like Elena, Nino proved to be a successful student, despite the disadvantages of background and upbringing, and would go on to achieve great things academically, though both know that neither is as brilliant as their mutual friend Lila, with whom Nino was once in a relationship, but who would never reach the academic heights of the other two.

In this volume we follow Elena’s blossoming career as a writer, her marriage to a young Professor, Pietro Airota, and therefore, finally, Elena’s apparent full admission to the bourgeois intellectual circles she has always craved. At the same time, Lila’s life is taking a very different turn – she has left her abusive husband, the vulgar shopkeeper Stefano Carracci, had a child, and leads a modest life. At times, Lila’s life seems extremely harsh, particularly the period when she is working for Bruno Saccavo at the sausage factory, exploited by him and disliked and abused by some of her fellow workers. As Elena’s fortunes are rising, so Lila’s seem to be at their lowest ebb.

As life events ebb, however, so must they also flow, and things reverse. After a period of ill-health, Lila finally manages to claw her way back when she gets a job working for IBM, alongside Enzo Scanno, where she quickly becomes indispensable and starts earning a high salary (the contrast here is that she has achieved this off her own bat, whereas for Elena, despite her academic achievements, her prosperity is largely due to her marriage). At the same time, Elena’s career as a writer stalls, coinciding with the births of her two daughters. She resents her husband for his lack of participation in the household, while she is deeply frustrated by the mediocrity of her daily life, and having to take a back seat while he focuses on his academic career.

The pace of the book becomes quite intense at the end as events spiral towards an inevitable conclusion, which I don’t want to spoil. The writing in this, as in the other two books in the series, is remarkable, and the acute observation of character detail is fascinating and deeply engaging. The dialogue is also some of the most authentic I have ever read. The books have been translated by Ann Goldstein who also deserves praise for her very fine work here.

I am looking forward to the fourth and final book in the series, and highly recommend these novels. Do start with the first one, My Brilliant Friend, and whilst the audio is fantastic, I have also found it useful to have a hard copy to hand to remind myself of the very wide cast of characters.

Have you read Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels – how do you rate them?

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