20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Tahiti, TBR40, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 226 pages; 2008.

Somerset Maugham is a consummate storyteller and this novel, which was first published in 1919, is no exception.

The Moon and Sixpence is about a man called Charles Strickland who forsakes everything — including his wife, children and a lucrative job as a stockbroker — in the pursuit of a dream. The rumour mill suggests he left his wife in London for another woman in France, but that is not the case: aged 40, he left her to free up his life to become a painter.

A desire to make art

The story is told through the eyes of an acquaintance, a young writer, who initially meets Strickland through his wife. Over the course of the novel, he gets to know Strickland quite well — and it soon becomes apparent he’s not a particularly nice person. He’s gruff and bad mannered and blunt and cares for nothing except exercising his creative inclinations. He doesn’t even care if his paintings sell. He rarely shows them to people. He simply wants to make art.

There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.

Said to be inspired by the life of French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence explores what it is to eschew material possessions, money, domestic happiness, family and love in pursuit of leading a truly creative life.

The bulk of the book is set in Paris, but the last few chapters are set in Tahiti, where Strickland settles into a relatively comfortable existence with a lover, whom he uses purely to satisfy his sexual urges.

Fame and fortune

Like Gaugin, Strickland’s talent remains largely unappreciated during his lifetime, but in the opening chapter we discover that his work is now highly regarded.  We know his paintings sell for high prices and that many biographies and books have been written about him. The pleasure of the novel is discovering how this came about and the collateral damage that happened along the way.

Written with Maugham’s typical insights into human psychology, in prose that occasionally drips with satire, the story is very much about the artistic life and what it is to refuse to compromise when we strive for a goal bigger than ourselves. It also shows how the sacrifices we make to pursue an obsession can have long-lasting ramifications on the people around us.

But it’s also a rip-roaring story about sex, betrayal, friendship and human behaviour — the good, the bad and the ugly.

This is my 12th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 31st for #TBR40. I bought this one in 2013 not long after I read Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, a book I loved so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it, because I just didn’t have the words.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Karin Fossum, Norway, Publisher, Setting, TBR40, Vintage Digital

‘Black Seconds’ by Karin Fossum

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 352 pages; 2008. Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund.

The disappearance of a young child and the ensuing police hunt is a well-worn trope in crime fiction. I’ve read so many crime tales of this nature I no longer bother with them, but I decided to make an exception for Karin Fossum’s Black Seconds, because she’s an author I can trust to cover such a crime in a compassionate, thoughtful way.

In the past I have read many of Fossum’s books, both her standalone titles and those that are part of her Inspector Sejer series, and she has an acutely perceptive eye on what happens after the crime is committed.

Her novels usually tackle the psychological impacts on both the victim’s family and the perpetrator, highlighting how criminal acts can never be seen in isolation and how they cast long shadows on a wide circle of people and the communities they inhabit. These themes are also present in Black Seconds.

Billed as Book 6 in the Inspector Sejer series, it stands up as a good read regardless of whether you’ve read any others, so don’t let the fact it’s part of a series put you off. (It may help to know that Inspector Sejer is a fairly low-key presence in these books because while they are essentially police procedurals, Fossum’s focus is not really on the police but the people caught up in the crime.)

Missing girl

In this story, set in rural Norway, nine-year-old Ida Joner doesn’t come home after a trip on her bike to buy her favourite magazine and some chewing gum. Weeks later her distinctive bright yellow bike is found abandoned, but Ida is still missing. Her single mother, Helga, can barely hold things together, even with her married younger sister Ruth by her side offering moral support.

Ruth’s own children, 12 year-old Marion and 18-year-old Tomme, are struggling to cope with the reality that their cousin is missing, while Ruth is worried about Tomme’s growing friendship with a local drug pusher and his admission that he crashed his car on the same night of Ida’s disappearance.

When Ida’s body does eventually turn up, the post-mortem reveals an unusual death, where nothing quite seems to add up. Figuring out how she died as well as who committed the crime is a major focus for Sejer and his colleague Jacob Skarre, but for the reader it’s pretty easy to figure out what happened and who did it.

The unhurried pace of the novel, written in Fossum’s typical sparse, bare-as-bones prose, may bore those looking for a thriller with twists and turns aplenty. That’s not what this book is about.

In its measured examination of those drawn into Ida’s orbit, whether they be family or otherwise, it reveals how crimes are not always malevolent or premeditated and that good people can make bad decisions with lifelong repercussions. It’s also a detailed look at the burdens of guilt and the psychological impact of living a life bound up in lies, as well as being a fascinating account of an inspector’s thought processes and empathetic tactics used to solve the crime.

Karin Fossum is always worth a read, and Black Seconds only cements that reputation in my mind.

This is my 10th book for #TBR40. I bought it on Kindle last October when it was just 99p (as part of a “deal of the day” offer on Amazon) and read it last week when I was looking for a “palate cleanser” after a steady diet of heavy literary fiction.

Author, Book review, China, Fiction, Hong Kong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital, W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 186 pages; 2009.

I do love a good W. Somerset Maugham novel and The Painted Veil, first published in 1925, is regarded as one of his best.

The story is largely set in Hong Kong, before shifting to mainland China, and centres on a troubled marriage between two young Brits who are vastly different in personality, temperament and upbringing.

Walter Fane is a bacteriologist who is tightly buttoned up, the type of man who can’t really talk to others much less express his emotions, but he’s in love with his new wife, Kitty, even though he never quite tells her of his feelings.

Kitty Garstin, meanwhile, is extroverted but shallow and self-centred. She rushes into marriage with Walter, not because she’s in love, but because she’s desperate to escape her domineering mother and fears being “left on the shelf”, aged 25. She’s already turned down dozens of marriage proposals and is worried her younger sister will upstage her by marrying first.

The marriage between Walter and Kitty, of course, is a mistake. In Hong Kong, where Walter has been stationed, cracks begin to appear in their relationship, and Kitty begins an affair with Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary, who is married with two young children.

It is when Walter discovers his wife’s adultery that the novel comes into its own.

Unexpected reaction

Walter does not react the way one would expect. While outwardly dull and seeming to lack emotion, it appears that he is an astute observer of human behaviour and knows how to manipulate people to his own ends.

He issues an ultimatum: if Kitty can get Charles to divorce his wife, then she is free to remarry; or she can come with Walter to mainland China where he has agreed to take charge of a cholera outbreak, putting both their lives at risk.

Of course, Charles turns out to be a coward and won’t divorce his wife, leaving Kitty with only one option: to accompany the husband she has wronged into a potential deathtrap.

Portrait of a cruel marriage

The Painted Veil is a rather good example of Maugham’s penchant for writing about cruel marriages and people tortured by love (or an absence of love). His technique is rather old-fashioned. The narrative, for instance, is completely linear, which is refreshing when you read a diet of contemporary fiction that seems preoccupied with flashbacks and multiple storylines. And his prose, as always, is simple, elegant and clear.

I got completely absorbed by this portrait of a mismatched marriage and loved the soap opera-ish element to it and the ways in which the characters behaved so abominably, often against expectation. For instance, who would think dull, strait-laced Walter would have it in him to plot his wife’s murder by forcing her to live in a town consumed by a cholera epidemic?

The ending is a bit of a let down (the 2006 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts is much better), but on the whole The Painted Veil is a compelling tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption and confirms Maugham as one of my favourite writers.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Fred Uhlman, Germany, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Reunion’ by Fred Uhlman

Reunion

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 98 pages; 2012.  

Fred Uhlman’s classic novella Reunion — first published in 1971 — is a universal story about the friendship between two teenage school boys. But this is no average story, no average friendship, for it is set in Germany in the early 1930s, just as Nazism is on the rise.

Teenage friendship

The story is narrated by middle-class Hans Schwarz, the son of a Jewish doctor and grandson of a rabbi, looking back on a special friendship he shared with the aristocratic Konradin von Hohenfel, whose parents sided with Hitler, some 25 years after they lost contact with one another.

He came into my life in February 1932 and never left it again. […] I can remember the day and the hour when I first set eyes on this boy who was to be the source of my greatest happiness and of my greatest despair.

The book charts the rise and fall of their friendship over the course of a year. Right from the start Hans, who is friendless and lonely at school, is enamoured by Konradin’s arrival in their classroom for the first time:

We stared at him as if we had seen a ghost. What struck me and probably all of us more than anything else, more than his self-assured bearing, his aristocratic air and slight, faintly supercilious smile, was his elegance. We were all, so far as our style of dress was concerned, a dreary lot. […] But with this boy it was different. He wore long trousers, beautifully cut and creased, obviously not off the peg like ours. His suit looked expensive: it was light grey with a herringbone pattern and almost certainly “Guaranteed English”. He wore a pale blue shirt and a dark blue tie with small white polka-dots; in contrast our neckwear was dirty, greasy and rope-like. Even though we regarded any attempt at elegance as “sissy”, we couldn’t help looking enviously at this picture of ease and distinction.

It takes a concerted effort to “woo” Konradin by the shy Hans, but eventually they bond over a shared love of coin collecting. Konradin is welcomed into the Schwarz family home after school on a regular basis, but the favour takes a long time to be returned — and when it is, it doesn’t take Hans long to realise that he is only ever invited over when Konradin’s parents are away.

Tensions in the friendship become heightened — almost in tandem with the rise of anti-Semitism in German society — and things come to a head just as Hitler is about to be appointed Chancellor. I won’t say any more, but the book has a spine-tingling — and quite unexpected — final sentence that gives the story extra resonance and poignancy.

A portrait of an ideal friendship

Reunion is a beautiful depiction of an “ideal friendship” between two 16-year-old boys from different backgrounds. Though we largely experience it from Hans’ point of view, it perfectly captures the all-pervasive need to have that one special person in our lives — with whom we can share our interests, our troubles, our desires — when we are teens. It also highlights how loyalty can be tested, in this case to the extreme, by circumstances beyond our control.

I loved the mood of the book — it’s nostalgic and wistful without being sentimental — and it’s written in a perfectly matter-of-fact way but is done so eloquently the sentences feel as if they’ve been spun from silk. It’s a quick read, too, but it’s the kind of story that stays with you, not least because it shows how friendships can endure beyond the worst of human catastrophe.

My edition includes a short introduction written by French novelist Jean d’Ormesson in 1997, but the novella has also been championed by Arthur Koestler, who described it as a “minor masterpiece”, and Rachel Seiffert. It came to my attention via Armen, a member of my book group, who recommended it to me late last year.

Finally, I should point out that Uhlman wrote Reunion in English, not German. He emigrated to the UK in 1936 after stints in France and Spain. You can read more about his eventful life on his Wikipedia page.

Author, Book review, Elizabeth McCracken, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, USA, Vintage Digital

‘Thunderstruck & Other Stories’ by Elizabeth McCracken

Thunderstruck

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 240 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck & Other Stories was long listed for this year’s Folio Prize, which is how I came to read it. Say what you want about prizes, or the sheer proliferation of them, but they do bring books to my attention that might otherwise pass me by.

There are nine stories in this collection and while it’s hard to pinpoint a unifying thread between them all, I’d say it’s probably loss: these are largely tales about people who suffer some kind of trauma — there’s quite a lot of death and grief here — or go missing.

I read the book on my tube journey into work — one story a day — and thought it was a fairly uneven collection. Ask me to summarise each of the nine and I’d be hard pressed to do so: but three definitely stand out.

A trio of highlights

In Property, a 39-year-old scholar, Stony Badower, accepts a two-year job in Maine cataloguing a collection of 1960s underground publications. It was supposed to be a happy return to America after having lived abroad with his German wife, Pamela, for three years. But shortly before the couple are due to move in to the rental house, Pam dies. Stony proceeds as planned — only to find the house isn’t quite the charming studio the ad on the website made it out to be.

The landlords had filled the house with all their belongings and said, ‘This will be fine for other people’.

But when Stony complains about the state of the place and later cleans it up himself, throwing away broken furniture and old condiments left in the kitchen, he unwittingly upsets the (somewhat kooky) landlady, who feels violated by the changes he’s made.

In The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs, an expat living in France, has a soft spot for unwanted animals. The 11-bedroom house he and his wife share is overrun with all kinds of pets, including an entire room devoted to budgerigars — but their relatively peaceful, if impoverished existence, is shattered when a man gives them an African grey parrot and demands 50 euro for it. But that seems to be the least of their concerns: their alcoholic son is planning to sell the house out from under them.

But the stand out story of the collection is the title story. In Thunderstruck, two well-meaning parents go to Paris on an extended summer break, taking their two young daughters with them. The couple are worried that 12-year-old Helen is being led astray by her peers, so the trip is designed to “disrupt their lives” and give a “jolt to Helen’s system before school started again in the fall”. Initially, things go well — “In Paris, Helen became a child again” — but then tragedy strikes and their lives will never be the same again:

The day of Helen’s accident — or perhaps the day before; they would never know exactly when the accident happened — she was as lovely and as childish as ever. In the make-up section of the Monoprix, she lipsticked a mouth on the edge of her hand, the lower lip on her thumb and the upper on her index finger. “Bonjour,” she said to her mother, through the hand.

Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances

In all of these stories, McCracken’s emphasis is on observation and character, rather than plot. She’s very good at capturing what makes humans tick and of revealing the ways in which people deal with loss, bereavement, loneliness, disappointment and despair. But her prose is so dry and distant, I struggled to emotionally connect with many of the tales, save for the title story, which is beautiful and brave in its depiction of a mother and father realising that happiness is fragile and fleeting.

Overall, Thunderstruck & Other Stories is a bit of a mixed bag. In these occasionally alarming, often maudlin and always haunting stories — many of which have been published elsewhere, such as Granta and Zoetrope: All Story — ordinary people are forced to deal with extraordinary circumstances, but the outcomes are far from predictable.

Author, Book review, Chuck Palahniuk, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, satire, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Beautiful You’ by Chuck Palahniuk

Beautiful-You

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 242 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a Chuck Palahniuk novel is like stepping into a parallel universe: everything seems familiar but it feels more edgy, more surreal, more over-the-top. I should know: I’ve read quite a few over the years.

His latest novel, Beautiful You, is no exception. This is a bold, brash, completely filthy, X-rated tale — definitely not one for the prudish — which blends science fiction with eroticism and throws in a smattering of fairy tale and myth into the bargain. It’s a bit like Cinderella — if Cinderella discovered pornography and had a really potty mouth.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea and some of you may not even want to read this review, so let me keep it relatively brief — and as G-rated as I can.

The world’s richest man

Basically, the story is about the world’s richest man who has made his fortune from sex toys — specifically a bestselling product range for women known under the brand name Beautiful You.  He’s called C Linux Maxwell, but most people refer to him as Climax Well (geddit?)

Maxwell has had a string of high-profile girlfriends, including an Oscar-winning French actress and the current female president of the United States, but all his relationships end badly after just 136 days and his “cast offs” become ill and begin behaving in wholly inappropriate ways for unexplained reasons. When he chooses a new girlfriend, a “plain Jane” type, called Penny Harrigan, she has no idea that she is going to become his next lab rat, “conned” into testing products that promise ultimate sexual fulfilment for women.

What ensues is a rather hilarious (bedroom) romp that catapults Penny into the world’s spotlight and allows her to reach untold heights of erotic pleasure. Meanwhile, thanks to Penny’s testing and feedback, the products become so successful that society basically falls apart as women lock themselves away to use the toys in a frenzy of “arousal addiction”.

But where will it all end? Will the human population die out now that men are no longer needed? Will Penny’s relationship with Maxwell last beyond his usual 136-day limit? And if not, will she succumb to the illness that has plagued his former lovers? What is the secret behind Maxwell’s success and his multi-billionaire status? Is he a philanthropist genuinely interested in helping women to discover sensual pleasure, or is he a megalomaniac with evil intentions on his mind?

X-rated and absurd

Despite the X-rated content and the absurd story at its heart, there’s a moral message here, too — that women are enslaved as consumers and society conditions them to put other people’s needs (sexual or otherwise) before their own.

However, this isn’t the kind of book you would normally read for what it might tell you about our modern-day consumer society. You read it for the laughs — and the sheer absurd escapism it offers.

Beautiful You is ultimately a fantastically funny tale told in a fantastically funny way. I laughed a lot while reading it — at the sex scenes, which are cheesy (and dirty), at the behaviour of the ridiculous over-the-top characters, at the bad science that underpins the novel’s premise and at the whole preposterous nature of the tale. At times it is genuinely shocking and a bit juvenile, but the storytelling is so compelling it’s like witnessing a car accident: you know you really shouldn’t look but you just can’t tear your eyes away…

Arnaldur Indriðason, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Iceland, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Outrage’ by Arnaldur Indriðason

Outrage

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 290 pages; 2011. Translated from the Icelandic by Anne Yates.

Outrage is the seventh book in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Reykjavik Murder Mysteries Series, which normally stars the morose detective Erlunder. But having taken a leave of absence, Erlunder’s female colleague, Elínborg, is star of the story instead. It makes for a refreshing change — and a cracking read.

A murdered man

The main plot goes something like this: a telecoms engineer, Runólfur, is found dead in his flat. His throat has been slashed, he is wearing a woman’s too-small t-shirt and his trousers are around his ankles. Later it is discovered that he has taken a large quantity of the date-rape drug rohypnol.

The police believe that he may, in fact, be a rapist and that his murder is a revenge killing. But was he murdered by someone he had raped in his apartment that night, or was it another victim from his secret past?

In this straightforward police procedural Elínborg carries out a painstaking investigation, almost single-handedly. She follows her nose — literally — because the one major clue is a woman’s shawl, found under Runólfur’s bed, which smells, strangely, of Tandoori spices.

During her hunt for the killer, Elínborg interviews Runólfur’s neighbours, colleagues, clients and old friends, trying to build up a picture of his rather mysterious life. She even flies to a remote Icelandic village to meet Runólfur’s mother. But just when you think she’s no closer to finding the killer than when she first started out, the pieces begin to fall into place. The ending is a surprising, but plausible, one.

Elínborg takes centre stage

I had expected to miss Erlunder’s presence in the story, but I found Elínborg a more than adequate substitute. Indeed, I enjoyed finding out about her family life — married with three children and a foster child — and her love of cooking (if you have followed the series, you may recall that in The Draining Lake she is busy promoting a cookbook). She’s also incredibly likable.

As usual in Indriðason’s work, the fast-paced book has an undercurrent of social commentary — mainly about the abhorrent crime of rape, the grubbiness of police work and the need to treat all victims, regardless of their character, in the same way. And it puts the crime into context, exploring its outfall, not just on the victim and perpetrator, but on others caught up in events, past and present.

If you’ve never read this series before, then Outrage may be the place to start — it reads like a standalone and you don’t need to know any of Erlunder’s troubled back history to fully appreciate it.

Alexi Zentner, Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage Digital

‘Touch’ by Alexi Zentner

Touch

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 272 pages; 2011.

Good old-fashioned storytelling lies at the heart of Touch by first-time author Alexi Zentner. Set in the icy wilderness of Canada in the early 20th century, the tale is ripe with adventure, hardship, tragedy, murder, romance — and dark fairy tales. Oh, and there’s a teensy bit of cannibalism, too.

Spanning several generations, cut and spliced into interwoven narratives that jump backwards and forwards in time, Touch is told in the first person by Stephen, a 40-year-old Anglican priest returning to the place of his birth, where he is to take over the local church from his step-father. Or, as Stephen puts it, “to live in the shadows of my father and my grandfather in a logging town that has been drained of young men headed off to fight in Europe for the second war of my lifetime”.

As it happens, Stephen’s elderly mother is on her death bed, and he sets to work writing her eulogy for her up-coming funeral. As he sifts through his memories, trying to find the right words to write, he recalls events — and stories — from his own life and the lives of his relatives.

Chief among these is the death of his father and his younger sister, Marie, when he was 11 years old. This tragedy had a marked impact on Stephen’s life, but the return of his grandfather, Jeannot, left just as much of an impression.

In fact, Jeannot is the patriarchal heart of this novel, the character whom everything ultimately revolves. It is the stories he has passed down, across the generations, that Stephen remembers, and, in turn, shares with us, the reader.

Legend has it that a teenage Jeannot — who “had quit his training for the Catholic priesthood, left the orphanage, and traveled across the whole of Rupert’s Land”  — founded the town of Sawgamet when his dog discovered a nugget of gold as they were passing through. This sparked a gold rush and the town quickly grew in size. But Jeannot was clever and knowing that the gold would eventually run out, he set up a lumber company that helped cement his fortune.

But life in this frontier town was dangerous:

Men I knew had been killed by falling trees, had bled to death when a dull ax bounced off a log and into their leg, had been crushed when logs rolled off carts, had drowned in the river during a float. Every year a man came back dead or maimed.

Nature, too, is ominous, and the breadth and scale of the landscape belittles its new human residents — and this scares them:

My chest started to pound with urgency. I was thinking of all of the things that might lurk — the dangers of the woods: bears and wolves — but I had not expected it to be something as innocuous as the mountains that always loomed above.

And if it is not the mountains or the never-ending wall of trees, the woods are also populated with dangerous creatures. In Australia, we contend with snakes and spiders and the mythological bunyip, but in the Canadian wilderness there are bears and more — the wehtiko (“a man turned into a monster as a punishment for cannibalism”), the ijirait (also known as shape-shifters), the loup-garou (werewolf), the mahaha (a demon, from Inuit mythology), the adlet (a blood-drinking monster, also from Inuit mythology) and the qallupilluit (also known as a sea witch).

It is testament to Zentner’s writing ability that he makes these creatures seem wholly believable. I had a heart-hammering moment when Stephen recalls an incident from his childhood in which he encounters a qallupilluit:

I looked up to see the creature — I could not tell if it was a man or a woman — standing above me, its scaly skin fish-pale and bumped, mottled like it had been submerged under the water for a very long time. It had a large pouch on its back and stringy hair, and despite its milk-white eyes, the creature stared directly at me. The creature took a step toward me with unmistakable menace; it grabbed my wrist and dove into the water, pulling me after it.

The ferocious weather is a central — and dangerous — character in this novel, too. There’s a 30-foot snow storm in which Sawgamet’s residents are cut off from civilisation for one long, unbearable winter. But there is beauty in the weather, too, as this poignant paragraph demonstrates:

There is something about clear nights in the winter, the perfection of snow and ice in the light from the stars and the moon that always reminds me of the existence of God. When it’s cold enough, the sky seems to empty, and there is an infinite darkness, a sense that there is something unreachable and never-ending, something past the idea of heaven.

As you would expect from a novel narrated by a priest, there is a (slight) religious element to the story. Stephen has been damaged by events, not just the loss of family members, but of his unspoken time “behind the lines as a chaplain when we took Vimy Ridge and held Hill 70” during the Great War. Despite this, he claims that “my whole life is, in some ways, about faith”. Indeed, it is the stories of his family’s history and of the town’s history that he takes on faith — he doesn’t question their validity, although he is aware that there are gaps in his knowledge “that I cannot fill with anything other than speculation”.

In part, Touch is about loss — loss of family, loss of property, loss of life — but mostly it is about how we separate myth from reality, fact from fiction, experience from logic, and faith from doubt. How do we unravel the stories from the past in order to understand the stories we are writing for the future?

And while the supernatural elements in the text occasionally troubled me — there’s a touch of magic realism at work here, and I’m not much of a fan of that genre — I loved the fairy tale element. There is an especially compelling story about a golden caribou (depicted on the cover of the UK edition) that will stay with me forever.

On the whole, I have to say I loved this book. It is a gorgeously absorbing novel, perfect to curl up with in your favourite reading place.

Touch has been longlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. For another take on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Michael Ondaatje, naval, Publisher, Vintage Digital

‘The Cat’s Table’ by Michael Ondaatje

Cat's-table

Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage Digital; 304 pages; 2011.

Going by the cover image of the UK edition of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tablethe Canadian version is slightly more understated — anyone would think this was a story set on a ship. In fact, if you read the first 100 or so pages of this novel you’d probably think this was a fair assumption to make.

But Ondaatje gives the book a twist mid-way through, which suggests this story is really about the transformative journey we all make from childhood to adulthood. The ship is merely a metaphor for a rite of passage.

In some ways, The Cat’s Table is a novel of two halves. The first is set on an ocean-liner — the Oronsay — bound for England from Ceylon (before it became Sri Lanka) in the early 1950s, and the second is the long-lasting effect that three-week journey had on an 11-year-old boy, who made the trip alone to be with the London-based mother he hadn’t seen for several years.

The story is narrated by Michael — nicknamed “Mynah” — who befriends two other young solo travellers, Ramadhin and Cassius, who sit with him on Table 76, the farthest from the highly desirable Captain’s Table.

“We seem to be at the cat’s table,” the woman called Miss Lasqueti said. “We’re in the least privileged place.”

As the ship ploughs its way across the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, before heading into the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, Michael revels in his new-found freedom:

I had no family responsibilities. I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden.

Part of the excitement for the boys is the knowledge that there’s a prisoner on board — and they go out of their way to witness his night-time walks in which he is chained and shackled. At the other end of the social spectrum, the boys experience the upper classes for the first time — those that are travelling first class or dining with the captain — and what they see fascinates and occasionally appalls them by turn. (Racism is a recurring theme.)

But for the most part, they befriend the adults on their table — among them “Mr Mazappa and his musical legends and Mr Fonseka with his songs from the Azores and Mr Daniels with his plants” — and get drawn into their worlds, sometimes with dramatic consequences. Michael even develops a close friendship with his older cousin, who is travelling onboard, and experiences a sexual awakening without quite comprehending it.

Much of the early section of the book is told in short chapters focusing on specific passengers — pen portraits, for want of a better description — that allows you to build up a picture of what it was like on board and how much of an adventure it must have seemed for a young lad.

But the beauty of Ondaajte’s deeply reflective narrative, that ebbs and flows much like the waters upon which his ship is cast, is the way in which the adult Michael, looking back on his life, manages to figure out how the journey changed him as a person, how it shaped his outlook, his values and his relationships.

The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage. But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away.

This not a plot-driven novel, nor is it a character-led one. But its interleaved storyline, switching between the past and the present, is strangely compelling — even with Ondaatje’s cool, detached tone (reminscent, I must say, of Ishiguro’s in Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Night, which I read last month) you want to keep turning the pages.

Despite its strengths, I came away from the book not feeling any great love for it. Perhaps it might be one of those novels that needs time to ferment in the mind a little longer than the four days between reading the last page and writing this review.

The Cat’s Table has been longlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For another take on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review.