Review – The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Two of the Booker longlist books, including this one, have Salman Rushdie quotes on their covers. It was Salman Rushdie who first made me realise what language could do, and started my love affair with postcolonial literature, so I was expecting big things from this.

And it did a pretty good job, although not at all in the way I expected. You shouldn’t go into it, as I half-did, expecting it to be Midnight’s Children. It’s certainly not magic realism; in fact it’s as much realism and as little magic as you can get, with its focus on the grey, grubby, panic-studded mundanity of immigrant life – overcrowded houses, building sites, and the backs of vans, not to mention the sheer number of misunderstandings. It feels necessary, though, and of its time (and place – well, places) in a way that fiction often doesn’t. The newspapers in the UK are full of immigration at present; if it’s not refugee camps at Calais, or frozen stowaways falling from the sky onto London roofs, then it’s right-wing politicians demonising anyone who talks with a funny accent. There is a lot of superb and even-handed journalism covering all of this, although not as much of it as there needs to be – but, to quote EL Doctorow, ‘The historian [or journalist] will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’

This novel, I think, goes a long way to telling us ‘what it felt like’. The narrative focuses on three men – boys, really – who travel from India to the UK in search of work, and on a girl who helps one of them to do so, and on what happens to all four of them during the boys’ first year in the UK. In explaining how each of the main characters got to where they are, we’re taken back to India for extended parts of the narrative, and these for me were the best bits – especially Tochi’s story, which had me wincing and (metaphorically) covering my eyes.

In fact Tochi, to me, was the most interesting character throughout. Of the three, he’s the one who has entered the UK illegally, smuggled into the country through a series of airport doors and heavy goods vehicles. (The other two, from India’s middle classes, are on a study visa and a marriage visa and – whilst they certainly don’t have an easy ride (just ask Avtar’s body parts) – their journey doesn’t seem quite as desperate.) The difference between where Tochi’s been and where he’s trying to get to is never clearer, for me, than in his exchange with an airport worker on his way out of India. ‘She asked if her uncle had shown him how to use an escalator – moving stairs. He said he hadn’t and she made a frustrated noise. She looked at the watch face on the underside of her slender wrist. “We don’t have time now. You’ll have to just work it out.”’ Let’s just take a second to imagine how freaked out we’d be, trying to navigate life in the UK, completely on our own, if we’d never even been on an escalator. Randeep and Avtar have their own rookie moments, including crossing gargantuan roads and staring at people in pubs, but it’s the escalator that stayed with me.

Being new to a country is one thing; staying new is something else. As someone from an uncomplicated ethnic background, I also remain fascinated by the relationship that ‘British Indians’ – in this context, those who have already been in the UK for years by the time the narrative starts – have with both India and with Britain. Reactions range from Dr Cheema, who doesn’t feel at home in Britain no ‘matter how many garden parties I threw for my neighbours’, to the middle-aged couples in Sheffield who have carried their ideas of the Indian caste system with them to the UK, to the teenagers – Randeep’s cousins, I think – who are completely uninterested in (and even embarrassed by) anything to do with the subcontinent. Even Narinder, born in the UK and comfortably middle-class, has an incredibly complex relationship with India through her community, family and (especially) religious ties. Through her in particular, Sahota eloquently makes the point that there will never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to multiculturalism – or at least not one that works. It’s a welcome addition to a debate that will only get louder in the UK over the next few years.

****

Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

‘Of course, they craved beauty, but that would have to wait. Or rather, they would have to wait for it.’

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Let me start by saying that this is, easily, my book of the year. It might be my book of the decade. In the week or so since I started it, I have done all of the following:

  • Finished it – in 24 hours, which (given its 700+ pages) should tell you something in itself
  • Cried at it
  • Had, at one point, to go and read it in the bath (you’ll see why)
  • When asked how my weekend was, started my response each time with ‘Well, I read this book…’
  • Wallowed half-awake through a three-day book hangover
  • Seriously considered abandoning the idea of reading the rest of the Booker longlist, and instead just starting this again
  • Realised I didn’t have the emotional strength to read it again just yet
  • Slept with it by my bed for a few more days, just – you know – just because
  • Finally, finally started to move on.

Just kidding on that last one.

Right, now that act of catharsis is over with:

This feels like two different books. At least. For that reason alone, it should come with a health warning. BEWARE: You get drawn into caring about these characters when they seem young and relatively carefree, and you think this is going to be a combination of youth and New York City, in the tradition of Mary McCarthy or JD Salinger or Claire Messud, and then – oh, then all hell breaks loose, frankly. (Before you conclude that I’m a total idiot, I should point out that the UK cover is significantly more subtle than the US one.) Plenty of people have written plenty of words about the more shocking aspects of the plot, and I don’t see the need to repeat them here, so instead I’m just going to pick out a few points that have stayed with me:

‘Nurture over nature’

This novel is a temple – a cathedral, actually – to the power of friendship. The central relationship of Willem and Jude is utterly co-dependent, in a way that is by turns beautiful and heartbreaking and impossibly difficult, but that I found (and I may be mocked for this) ultimately uplifting. There are other relationships, particularly Jude’s relationships (with Harold, Andy, Ana), which are deeply touching, too. By way of contrast, the blood ties in the novel are weak, malnourished:

‘‘‘But they’re your parents,” Malcolm said to him once a year or so. “You can’t just stop talking to them.” But you could, you did: he was proof of that. It was like any relationship, he felt – it took constant pruning, and dedication, and vigilance, and if neither party wanted to make the effort, why wouldn’t it wither?’

The strongest characters in the book are those which build their own families. This point is made overtly:

‘Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship?…Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’

I found this statement unnecessary; the message is clear throughout the narrative. Which brings me to:

Too much of a good thing?

If I had to pick a flaw, it would probably be this one, and I know I’m not the only one to say it: On occasion, this brick-sized book hits you over the head with its message. Sometimes, the lights are a little too bright, the words a little too many, the misery piling up until you think that surely, surely, nothing else can happen to this poor boy. Afterwards, in the days after I read it when I was absorbing everything I could about the novel (a bit like stalking an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page), I think I read an interview with Yanagihara where she said this was on purpose, and I think I understand – I actually found it quite cathartic; if Dickens was alive and living in New York, in the 21st century, then I wonder whether he might have written something like this. And just as I forgive Dickens his occasional purple prose, I can’t begrudge it here. I think the reason it’s OK is because of:

The humour

I’m fully aware that all of the above makes me sound like a hypocrite. When I reviewed ‘Lila’, one of my complaints was that it was unrelenting. Well, good Lord, the same charge could be levelled at this, and over more than twice as many pages. And yet, it’s punctuated by exchanges like this one:

‘Now he was researching his fourth book, a sequel of sorts to The American Handshake, about the Constitution, from a similar perspective.

“But only the Bill of Rights, and the sexier amendments,” Harold told him when he was interviewing him for the research assistant position.

“I didn’t know some were sexier than others,” he said.

“Of course some are sexier than others,” said Harold. “Only the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth are sexy. The rest are basically the dross of politics past.”

“The thirteenth is garbage?” he asked, enjoying himself.

“I didn’t say it was garbage,” Harold said, “just not sexy.

“But I think that’s what dross means.”

Harold sighed dramatically, grabbed the dictionary off his desk, flipped it open, and studied it for a moment. “Okay, fine,” he said, tossing it back onto a heap of papers, which slid toward the edge of the surface.’

(I’m fully aware that this sort of exchange might make some people want to beat their heads against the nearest wall. But I loved it.)

And finally:

The impossible ache of comparing yourself to others

This is dotted throughout, but in particular it’s a very in-your-twenties thing to do, I think, and Yanagihara nails it. This is already a very special novel, long before you get to what you might call its central storyline. For example, look at how it captures feelings like this, of doing well and badly all at the same time:

‘Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement…but in those moments he would at times find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! – it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.
But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to scan the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents’ house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.’

I was going to include a separate section on the beauty of the language, but this review is quite long enough already and I think the quote above will do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy copies of this book for everybody I know.

*****

Review – How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

While I am trying to find something to say about ‘A Little Life’ that is more eloquent than just ‘Wow’, here’s one I read earlier…

The author has done a pretty clever thing here. This is not a book that makes you want to give it a bad review – even if you thought it was bad, which I didn’t. The denouement delivers a (somewhat heavy-handed) message about the perils of bad reviews – for the reviewer, so presumably by the end anyone who was previously inclined to be scathing, would instead be running good and scared.

This happens to fit pretty well with my personal philosophy anyway, so I don’t really mind. I don’t really like bad reviews, having been raised in the mould of, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. (This obviously doesn’t apply in other areas of my life, when I can be pretty mean when I want to be. But this isn’t about that.)

Anyway, I enjoyed this book. It made me smile. There are moments that are painfully familiar to anyone growing up in the 90s, but more than that, the author captures the urgency and frustration of being a fifteen-year-old girl, probably better than any other modern author I’ve read. I’d almost forgotten what it was like, to feel as though you were going to explode with restlessness, to feel the constant frustrated energy of wanting to do something, without having the first clue what. And of course the obsession with the mysterious world of sex, although about halfway through the book seemed to veer off from hilarious realism into the land of teenage fantasies:

‘And when you are being kissed like this, you are Christmas Day; you are the Moon Shot; you are field larks. My shoes were suddenly worth a million pounds, and my breath was the ethyl in champagne. When someone kisses you like this, you are the point of everything.’

(This never happened to me when I was sixteen. Maybe I just had a disappointing adolescence.)

I liked the references to the parts of the early 90s that I can remember (the author is older than me, but by less than a generation, so it works). I liked that it made me laugh out loud, in public, in several places. I liked the way the author uses language like fireworks – great phosphorescent explosions of fizz. And I like the joy, the sheer joy of this young girl discovering the world. At a time when a lot of fiction – like people – feels the need to be ‘serious’, it’s an unbelievable relief to be able, just once in a while, to read something like this:

‘I don’t need to critique things, or have an opinion, or pose, with John – we just go around, being alive, and pointing at things. We’re just, simply, in the world. It had never occurred to me what a wonderful thing this was. Or perhaps it had, a long time ago – but I had forgotten. I am full of how great life is. I am so happy to be alive. That point of life is joy – to make it, to receive it. That the Earth is a treasure-box of people and places and song, and that every day you can plunge your arms in and find a new, ridiculous, perfect delight.’

***

Review – Lila by Marilynne Robinson

‘That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.’

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Well. What did I think of this? A week after finishing it, I still really have no idea.

On the one hand. There were parts that I loved. The love story, between Lila and the preacher, was hauntingly moving and among the best I’ve read in a long, long time – it is hard to write love, especially such improbable love, in such a convincing and unmawkish way. These two are damaged, especially Lila, who is feeling her way in an unfamiliar world where all of a sudden she cares about people who care about her, and she finds it terrifying. ‘This old man is beautiful and kind and very patient, she thought, and if he looked at me that way I might just die of it. Well, but for now he is mine to touch if I want to.’ The ‘for now’ is important; he’s older than her and she’s a born drifter – in their way they are trying both to get over, and to come to terms with, transience. It is, as a relationship, a long way from a fairy tale.

And yet, they have the enviable simplicity of a half-buried exchange such as:

‘You,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘Who else?’
She said, ‘Nobody else in this world.’

It feels lovely, and private, and true, and is almost its own story in microcosm, like one of those 15-word writing competitions.

It’s also characteristic of the quiet simplicity that underpins the whole novel, from its subject to its language. It is set – well, almost entirely in the mind of the eponymous Lila, with really much less dialogue than one would expect. But outside, in the world, it is set mainly in the 1930s, before, during and after the Great Depression (definite shades of Steinbeck, although without much of the anger); except that the nouns all feel pre-20th century – fish, church, chicken, shawl, preacher, Bible, skillet – and very Anglo-Saxon, and there is nothing in the story which couldn’t be a hundred years older. Time stands still, in Gilead; the forward motion is all internal, emotional, spiritual, philosophical.

And yet, and yet and yet and yet. This is the first Marilynne Robinson I have read. I’ve read about her, many times, but never quite picked up one of her novels. I was expecting the spirituality. I was expecting the beauty of the language. And that is all, undoubtedly, there. I felt, though, a little…preached to, maybe? Lila, feeling her way hesitantly through a maze of religious philosophy, allows Robinson to set down on the page thoughts which feel didactic when they’re expressed, almost (to me, at least) patronizing. I’m actually not yet convinced that this is a novel at all, rather than philosophy. And as philosophy, it feels…unrelenting. Lila’s interior voice is a masterpiece, quiet, almost depressed, to all intents and purposes a wounded animal trying to heal. But it’s all the time, the whole way through, and 260 pages – for me – is too much for doubt and faith without comedy. Life is made up of puns and clowns and people falling over, as well as all of this sad beauty. I found myself wondering who has time for these kinds of questions, let alone all of the time.

But then, that might be like eating a banana and being disappointed that it doesn’t taste like an apple. Am I being unfair, I wonder, criticizing this book for its failure to be something that it never intended to be?

*** – but it might well grow on me

Review – Tightrope by Simon Mawer

This is going to be a pretty short review. The reason for that is because I was so hooked, that I didn’t stop to note the pages with quotable quotes. It literally took me a day and, if I hadn’t finished in that time, I was seriously considering cancelling my plans for the evening.

Firstly, the admin – This is a sequel to The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, which kept me up till 3am a couple of years ago and was one of only a handful of five-star reads that year. It charts the story of Marian Sutro, a secret agent in World War II, once the war is over and she has to readjust to ‘normal’ life….sort of.

It wasn’t perfect. There’s a framing device, in more or less the present day, which didn’t really work for me. In the same vein, the occasional intrusion of the narrator’s voice into the story was a little jarring at times, although I liked how it drew attention to the fictionality of it all; a partially unreliable narrator who is more or less open about his own unreliability.

His relationship with Marian was the only one which occasionally rang a little untrue, but I wonder whether that was on purpose – whether it was written through a filter of the awkwardness that dominates a teenage boy’s dealings with an adult woman, to whom he’s not related. The rest of the relationships I thought were well-drawn, realistically flawed interactions between damaged and troubled people – particularly Marian, who spends most of the novel trying (not) to come to terms with her time in Ravensbruck. The dynamic between Marian, Ned and Clement I thought was particularly well done.

And finally – wow, can Simon Mawer spin a plot. I don’t know how to pin down that elusive ability to keep people turning pages till 3am; if you could bottle it, you’d make a fortune, but nobody would ever again get anything done. I liked how this captured the anticlimax of peace, the dullness of life-after-the-war, without ever being dull itself. And then the Cold War comes along, and – well, you’ll just have to read it and see. But please do.

****

Review – A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

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This is the first of the Booker longlist books I’d read, and I probably would never otherwise have picked up an Anne Tyler novel. I don’t know why. I think in some undefined way I felt I wasn’t grown up enough for them.

And for the first hundred pages or so of this, I didn’t change my mind. It was good, well-written, the characters were engaging and realistic and (for the most part) sympathetic, but it was a little too…domestic for my tastes. I am not the world’s best daughter. I live a hundred miles away from where I grew up and I don’t get back that often, for no good reason; everyday life seems to get in the way.

I am, though, also an idiot. And I am extremely glad I persevered with this, because it’s good for me to be reminded, on occasion, what an idiot I am.

A brief comment on structure, first, because it’s clever but understated. The narrative isn’t linear; it largely moves backwards through time, each section being shorter than the preceding one (a structure somewhat like The Luminaries, although much less complex). This allows Anne Tyler’s narrative to comment on the power and validity of stories themselves, and especially the stories that we tell ourselves and our nearest and dearest about our, their, origins. The love story of Junior and Linnie Mae, for example, which turns out to be both less and more than we thought, and is to my mind one of the most impressive parts of the book. Or the story of Stem, which comes up in several different contexts but is integrated, easily, into the whole.

On to plot, then: Actually, in essence, this is a domestic novel. It’s the story of a family, three(ish) generations, at various points in their lives. They are remarkable only in their ordinariness. Of the four kids growing up in the Seventies, one is a bit of a drifter, one is a lawyer, the other two work in the family business. One of the characters lives in the same house from early childhood to old age; most of the others tend not to move great distances either. They go, every year, to the same beach house for a big, jolly family holiday.

And yet, and yet, isn’t it the hardest thing in the world to make that interesting? And that is what Anne Tyler does, like some kind of poet of the pedestrian, capturing the comedy and tragedy of everyday life in almost equal measure. You’ll be reading this novel, your eye casually skimming over the page, and then all of a sudden you’ll be ambushed by something familiar and unfamiliar all at the same time, and utterly true. For example:

‘Her tone was jokey, but she wasn’t smiling. She was openly studying the next-door people with a serious, searching expression, as if she weren’t so sure after all. Did they find the Whitshanks attractive? Intriguing? Did they admire their large numbers and their closeness? Or had they noticed a hidden crack somewhere – a sharp exchange or an edgy silence or some sign of strain? Oh, what was their opinion? What insights could they reveal, if the Whitshanks walked over to them that very instant and asked?’ (p142)

This is the elder daughter, wondering not-quite-idly about a family which hires the beach house next to theirs, having done so for thirty-plus years. She’s not saying that there is a hidden crack, or that it’s noticeable…but don’t we all wonder? The Whitshanks, in this particular episode, aren’t brave enough to go and find out – and that feels true, too.

Or this: ‘She saw the way salesclerks treated him lately, how condescendingly, speaking to him too loudly and using words of fewer syllables. They took him for just another doddery old man. It made her chest ache when she saw that. Didn’t anyone stop to reflect that the so-called old people of today used to smoke pot, for heaven’s sake, and wear bandannas tied around their heads and picket the White House?’ (p165) The point of view here belongs to Abby, thinking about Red, who by this time is in his seventies and so is, from one view, ‘just another doddery old man’, as she by this point could be seen as ‘just another doddery old woman’ – but of course the point is that they are both, that everybody is – if they’re lucky – never that, or never just that, to the people around them. These characters are more or less Tyler’s contemporaries, and this part of the novel felt very, very personal.

It’s little moments and observations like this, sprinkled throughout, which give the novel its heart and its compassion, and mean that I raced through it in a day and then, still thinking about it some hours later, texted my mum.

***
(Probably rounded down from 3.5, if I was awarding half-stars…but that way lies madness!)

Review – The Children Act by Ian McEwan

You always remember where you are the first time you read Ian McEwan. For me, it was Atonement. Early 2006. My bedroom, in the flat I was living in, near Canary Wharf. I had started slowly, and then spent most of Sunday reading; at midnight, with over a hundred pages to go, I realised that I couldn’t sleep until I knew what happened. Finally finishing at around 2.30am, I knew I would regret it the next day, and yet my brain was still fizzing with the brilliance of great writing. I stood on the balcony, in the cold, watching a lonely Barking and Dagenham milk float trundle by, and despairing of ever being able to write that well. I quickly devoured the rest of his backlist, and indiscriminately loved it all.

Which is why I was so, so disappointed by The Children Act. Even from the first page, the violently successful protagonist (a female High Court judge, no less) lists the upper-middle class trappings which surround her. Chaise longues, pianos, well-stocked drinks cabinets, all seemed to be given an importance far in excess of the place they occupy in – well, in my life, at least. I didn’t care about the people who cared about these things. I couldn’t bring myself to cry for a woman who, when her life was falling apart, reached for a ready meal for one and some fruit. I found myself thinking, ‘Order a pizza, will you?’. Not to mention a gallon of wine. I don’t know anybody who reacts that way, not straight away. Her reactions, all of them, were just too…polished. I like stories where people change, or else they change the world around them, or die trying. The alabaster, upper middle class world of the novel felt far too solid and narrow-minded for me, the same at the end as it was at the beginning, with anyone who didn’t quite fit being expelled like a piece of grit from an oyster. Unfortunately, what was born in the process was significantly less enchanting than a pearl.

 

**