20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Algeria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Morocco, Paul Bowles, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo Modern Classic; 285 pages; 1993.

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles‘ (1910-1999) debut novel.

It’s a rather enigmatic tale about a young American couple travelling through French North Africa after the Second World War, but what begins as a typical story (albeit in an atypical setting) of a marriage on the rocks morphs into something else entirely.

Part horror, part suspense (part WTF is going on?), it’s a chilling tale about strangers in a strange land and the unforeseen fates that can await the naive traveller.

On the move

The story goes something like this. Port and Kit Moresby*, a sophisticated American couple from New York, are exploring Morocco and Algeria with their friend Tunner. They don’t have a proper itinerary, they simply move from place to place when they feel like a change of scenery because, as Port puts it, they are not tourists but travellers:

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war, it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

But while the trio take their time moving around the country —  this Google Map I found online helpfully charts their journey — there are tensions at play.

In the opening chapters, for instance, Port spends a night with a local prostitute (a pattern that repeats throughout the novel) and puts himself in danger of being robbed or mugged.

Later, when the trio meet a young Australian traveller, Eric, and his mother, Mrs Lyle, a travel writer (whose vile views on Arabs and Jews make for uncomfortable reading), staying at the same hotel, they are offered a ride to Boucif by car. Port accepts, but Kit and Tunner go by train because there’s not enough room for all of them in the vehicle. It is during this long train journey that Tunner makes a pass at his friend, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle in which Kit constantly plays off her lover with her husband.

Port, who has his suspicions about his wife’s trysts, engineers it so that Eric gives Tunner a lift to the next city on the pretext that Kit and Port will catch him up in a few days. This is where things get tricky. Port’s passport is stolen and it’s dangerous to be a foreigner with no identifying papers. It’s also dangerous to be on the road during an outbreak of meningitis, and when Port falls sick on a long bus journey the sense of danger becomes even more heightened.

Strong sense of place

All the while the Saharan landscape and her ancient cities form an exotic backdrop in which the characters play out their petty dramas which quickly escalate to become life or death situations.

The writing is eloquent, spare and incisive, featuring authentic, animated dialogue and rich, vivid descriptions of place. Here’s how Bowles describes Aïn Krorfa, in Algeria, for instance:

Aïn Krorfa was beginning to waken from its daily sun-drugged stupor. Behind the fort, which stood near the mosque on a high rocky hill that rose in the very middle of the town, the streets became informal, there were vestiges of the original haphazard design of the native quarter. In the stalls, whose angry lamps had already begun to gutter and flare, in the open cafes where the hashish smoke hung in the air, even in the dust of the hidden palm-bordered lanes, men squatted, fanning little fires, bringing their tin vessels of water to boil, making their tea, drinking it.

But despite the wide-open spaces of the desert and the abundance of sunshine and stark light, the mood of the book soon becomes oppressive, heavy, fearful. The characters, especially Kit, behave in unexpected, not always sensible, ways, and it’s difficult to predict what might happen next.

I’ve refrained from going into the plot in too much detail, but it does take a dark turn somewhere around the halfway point when Port develops a terrible fever and the hotel in which they planned to stay refuses to take them in. Kit is suddenly forced to take action, to look after her sick husband and try to find medical help without drawing the ire of the authorities who won’t look favourably on foreigners without ID.

The final part of the story slides into a kind of farce in the sense that I found it a little hard to believe, but on the whole, The Sheltering Sky is a strange yet beguiling read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

* Call me childish, but there’s something funny about naming a character Port Moresby when we all know that’s the name of the capital city of Papua New Guinea. LOL.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it secondhand for $11.50 from Elizabeth’s Bookshop here in Fremantle in August 2020. I had previously read his 1966 novel Up Above the World which I had described as a “masterpiece of suspense writing”.

2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Adam Kay, Author, Book review, Fiction, Grove Press, historical fiction, Jan Carson, Lily King, literary fiction, Literary prizes, memoir, New Guinea, Non-fiction, Northern Ireland, Pan Books, Publisher, Setting, Transworld Digital, UK

Three Quick Reviews: Jan Carson, Adam Kay & Lily King

I’m a bit behind in my reviewing, so here’s a quick round-up of books I have recently read. This trio comprises an Irish “supernatural” story, a medical memoir from the UK and a historical novel by an American writer. They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Raptures’ by Jan Carson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Transworld Digital; 332 pages; 2022.

Shortlisted for the 2022 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award, Jan Carson’s The Raptures is an unusual tale about a mysterious illness that spreads through a group of children from the same village, killing them one by one. But one young girl, Hannah Adger, remains healthy, the sole survivor of her entire classroom. Scared and haunted by survivor’s guilt, Hannah, who is from an evangelical Protestant family, discovers she can see and communicate with her dead friends.

Set in Ulster in 1993 during The Troubles, the illness that sweeps the small community is a metaphor for a war that rages on with seemingly no end in sight. As the children fall prey to the mystery illness, the community is brought together by a desire to end the disease that is killing its loved ones — but many families get caught up in the fear and the anger of an out-of-control plague and look for someone to blame, contributing to the divisions in an already divided community.

Admittedly, I struggled a little with this book. The structure, repetitive and predictable, quickly wore thin and I found the supernatural elements hard to believe. Ditto for the explanation of what caused the illness (which I guessed long before it was revealed). Perhaps it didn’t help that I had Covid-19 when I read the tale, so I wasn’t in the mood for reading about sick people dying. But as a treatise on religion, grief and faith, The Raptures is an unusual — and unique — read.

‘This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor’ by Adam Kay

Non-fiction – memoir; Pan Macmillan; 256 pages; 2018.

One of the best things about living in the UK (which I did between 1998-2019) was the free medical treatment I was able to access under the National Health Service (NHS), a centrally funded universal healthcare system, free at the point of delivery. But the system is not perfect and is chronically underfunded and overstretched. Adam Kay’s memoir of his time working in the NHS as a junior doctor highlights what it is like to work on the front line, where every decision you make has life and death implications for the people under your care.

Written in diary form over the course of several years, This is Going to Hurt is a no-holds-barred account of a medical career forged in an overwhelmingly stressful environment dominated by long hours, poor pay and next to no emotional support. But Kay, who has since left the profession to become a stand-up comic, takes a cynical, often sarcastic tone, recounting stories and events — mostly to do with obstetrics and gynaecology, the areas in which he specialised  — with sharp-edged humour, so I tittered my way through most of the book.

And when I wasn’t laughing, I was crying because it’s so heartbreaking in places. Mind you, it’s nowhere near as dark and oppressive as the recent BBC drama series, which prompted me to read the book.

(Note, I wouldn’t advise anyone who is pregnant or has had a traumatic birth experience to pick it up.)

‘Euphoria’ by Lily King

Fiction – paperback; Grove Press; 288 pages; 2014.

Said to be loosely based on American anthropologist Margaret Mead’s time spent researching tribes in New Guinea in the 1940s, Euphoria is a story about a love triangle set in the jungle. It’s the first time I’ve ever read a novel about anthropologists and I found it a fascinating tale about ego, arrogance, academic controversy and desire.

I knew nothing about Mead and her achievements, so I can only judge the book on the power of its storytelling, which I found compelling even if the plot was a little thin. This is essentially a character-driven story — and what characters they are! We meet American Nell Stone, the central character, upon which the others revolve, including her Australian husband Fen, and the couple’s English friend Andrew Bankson.

King paints a convincing portrait of a trio of anthropologists at work, fleshing out each character so that we meet them in the past and the present, understand what drives them, what infuriates them and why they do what they do.

And the setting, including the (fictional) tribes that are described in such vivid detail, imbues the story with a rich sense of atmosphere and realism.

I read ‘The Raptures’ as part of my project to read all the shortlisted titles for the 2022 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award
Anne Tyler, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘French Braid’ by Anne Tyler

Fiction – paperback; Chatto & Windus; 256 pages; 2022. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes a novel just strikes the right mood. You pick it up, start reading and become so immersed in the story you lose all sense of time. Before you know it, you’ve read half the book — or at least made substantial inroads.

This is how I felt when I read Anne Tyler’s latest novel, French Braid.

I am a long-time Anne Tyler fan so it’s no surprise I would like this book, but I reckon it’s the best one she’s written since 1982’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my favourite Tyler novel. That’s probably because it shares similar traits in terms of its focus on a dysfunctional family and the way chance events shape people’s lives and how sibling relationships are dictated by power dynamics beyond their control.

One family’s story

French Braid charts the history of the Garrett family over several decades — from 1959 through to 2020 — and features all the quintessential trademarks of Tyler’s work: a tapestry of complex family dynamics, a cast of quirky but believable characters, and a Baltimore setting.

There’s no real plot; the character-driven narrative moves ahead in roughly ten-year increments and each chapter is written (in the third person) from the perspective of a particular family member. This allows the reader to get to know the family relatively well, to understand the events that have shaped each person and given rise to certain misunderstandings or lessons or viewpoints.

We witness children growing older, moving out of home, finding partners of their own and having children. The passing of time is marked by graduations, family gatherings, weddings and celebratory dinners and occasions.

It is, at times, poignant and heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny.

A family holiday sets the tone

The family is centred around Robin and Mercy, who get married in 1940, and their children Alice, Lily and David, whose ties and loyalties are tested and divided as they grow up to become adults with lives and families of their own.

A rare family holiday in 1959, when the girls are teens and David is a seven-year-old, underpins the entire family history and sets the tone for everything that follows. What unfolds on that lake in Maryland has long-lasting repercussions. David, in particular, is scarred by Robin’s heavy-handed attempts to force him to go swimming when he’d prefer to play quietly with his toys.

As the years slide by, the Garrett’s marriage comes under strain, not least because Mercy wants the freedom to pursue her ambitions to be a painter. She begins to spend more and more time at the studio she rents nearby, slowly moving her belongings there and staying overnight. Her adult children are under the impression she’s moved out of the family home, but it’s a subject that can’t be broached with their father, who remains devoted to his wife.

It’s the things left unsaid, the uncomfortable truths that remain hidden, which allows the family to muddle on without self-imploding. David’s wife puts it succinctly like this:

This is what families do for each other — hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses.

French Braid is completely immersive as we follow the strands of the Garrett’s disparate lives across three generations. It’s tender, wise, knowing and funny. I loved it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Julia May Jonas, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Vladímír’ by Julia May Jonas

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 320 pages; 2022.

First things first. Do not judge this book by its cover, for the image used on the front of Julia May Jonas’ debut novel, Vladímír, suggests the content is a steamy romance, perhaps a bodice ripper or an erotic thriller. It’s not. If anything, Vladímír is a #MeToo novel or even a campus novel. Regardless, it’s literary fiction — with a droll undercurrent of snark and black comedy running throughout.

Stand by her man

In a nutshell, this is a story about a popular English professor whose husband — a professor at the same small upstate New York college at which she teaches — stands accused of inappropriate relationships with former students decades earlier.

At one point we would have called these affairs consensual, for they were, and were conducted with my tacit understanding that they were happening. Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.

Most people expect her to reject her husband and support the women who have come forward, but she stands by him (in a passive doesn’t-want-to-get-too-involved kind of way) because they have a mutual understanding about pursuing extramarital pursuits. And partly because she feels he’s just as much a victim as his accusers.

I wanted him to accept the role of the penitent. But you can’t ask someone who feels like a victim, as John most certainly did, to live apologetically. And there it was, that twisted logic. Even as we railed against victim mentality, against trauma as a weapon, we took the strength of our arguments from the internal sense of our own victimhood. John was acting like the women who accused him. He had been wronged, goddamit.

But just as our (nameless) 58-year-old narrator is wrestling with her anger and sense of injustice, along comes a new male colleague, Vladímír, to distract her. He’s a handsome, young, married novelist who’s just accepted a tenured position as a junior professor and she becomes increasingly infatuated with him — to the point of obsession.

The cover of the UK edition

The outfall

The story is less focused on the sexual harassment case itself — indeed, we don’t fully know the details of it — but more on how the outfall affects the narrator’s day-to-day life and her career. Her popularity amongst the students, for instance, begins to slide, because they believe she is complicit in her husband’s actions.

Meanwhile, her obsession with Vladímír makes her do risky things and behave in ways that got her husband into trouble in the first place.

The novel asks important questions about sexual boundaries and consent and whether it is possible to judge past behaviour on the standards of today.

But it also looks at what it is to grow old and how women are held to different standards than men. Other topics include motherhood, ambition, marriage, sex and lust.

It’s written in a tone of voice that is, by turns, feisty, angry, confused, flummoxed, cynical and increasingly unhinged. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Mrs March in Mrs March.) She’s uncompromising on so many levels, but is far from arrogant: there’s just enough humility and vanity in her character to make you warm to her, whether you agree with her sentiments or not.

Vladímír is provocative and thought-provoking, the kind of novel that highlights timely issues about power and consent without offering right or wrong answers or being too heavy-handed about it all. It’s fast-paced and compelling (I read it in the space of a day) and leaves the reader with plenty to mull over and cogitate on.

Hat-tip to Kate, whose review of this novel made me want to rush out and read it myself.

Vladímír is out now in Australia. It will be published in the UK on 26 May. 

Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, holocaust, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor, literary fiction, Publisher, Serpent's Tail, Setting, USA

‘Address Unknown’ by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

Fiction – paperback; Serpent’s Tail; 90 pages; 2015.

For such a slim book, this one packs a powerful punch!

First published in 1938, Address Unknown is a timely reminder of the invidious nature of fascism and the ways in which this warped ideology can tear once-close people apart.

It tells the story of a friendship between two men — a Jewish art dealer and his business partner — that is tested by political events in the lead up to the Second World War.

Martin Schulse and Max Eisenstein run an art gallery together in San Francisco, but when Martin repatriates to Germany their friendship continues via correspondence.

An epistolary tale

Through their letters, which span the period from November 1932 through to March 1934, we come to understand the closeness of their relationship and the way in which it begins to fracture as events in Europe unfold.

When Max hears about political unrest in Germany, he is distressed by the news reports “that come pouring in to us from the Fatherland” and asks Martin to clarify what is going on:

I know your liberal mind and warm heart will tolerate no viciousness and that from you I can have the truth.

Martin’s reply, now on headed paper from his bank to avoid the censors, warns his friend to cease writing to him.

It is impossible for me to be in correspondence with a Jew even if it were not that I have an official position to maintain.

He makes deeply offensive antisemitic remarks further on in the letter, suggesting that he is now firmly on the side of Hitler, whom he refers to as “our Gentle Leader”. But Max refuses to believe that his friend has gone down this upsetting political path, writing:

I can see why Germans acclaim Hitler. They react against the very real wrongs which have been laid on them since the disaster of the war. But you, Martin, have been almost an American since the war. I know that it is not my friend who has written to me, that it will prove to have been only the voice of caution and expediency.

Within a few more letters their friendship lies in tatters, but Max does not give up easily, continuing to write even when he gets absolutely no response. There’s a sting in the tail though, one that demonstrates the life-and-death power which can be wielded by the pen.

Address Unknown takes less than an hour to read, but I dare say it will be a tale that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I came away from it reeling and I’ve been mulling over the implications, and the way in which Max levels the playing field, ever since.

Afterword by the author’s son

This edition, published in 2015, comes with an afterword written by the author’s son, Charles Douglas Taylor.

He explains that Address Unknown was originally published in Story magazine in September 1938, one of the first stories to expose “the poison of Nazism to the American public”. It was published as a book the next year and sold out in the USA and England but was banned in Europe. It was largely forgotten after the war but was reissued in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.

A French translation in 1999 brought it to the attention of European readers for the first time. By 2010, it had been translated into 23 languages. It has been adapted for stage and performed on both Broadway, in the US, and the West End, in London.

The author died in 1996, aged 93. You can find out more about her via her Wikipedia page.

Atlantic Books, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Bryan Washington, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, USA

‘Memorial’ by Bryan Washington

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 284 pages; 2021.

After reading what feels like a trillion novels about young 20-something women trying to sort out their lives in the 21st century, how refreshing to read a novel from the male perspective!

Bryan Washington’s Memorial is about two gay men from diverse backgrounds trying to decide whether to commit to each other or not. Both have complicated relationships with their parents (particularly their fathers), which adds to their emotional impotence, and neither seems able to express the three simple words we all long to hear: “I love you”.

It’s written in a restrained style, albeit with plenty of sex scenes and lavish descriptions of food (if you are not hungry before reading this book, you will be during it). And it’s free of speech marks, which seems to be a “thing” in all the new novels I have been reading lately.

Relationship rut

The story is focused on two men who are in a relationship rut. Benson is a middle-class Black man working in childcare, while Mike is from a lower-class Japanese background (but raised in the US) and is now employed as a chef.

Their relationship is told in three parts. The first, from Benson’s perspective, details what happens when Mike’s mother arrives for a holiday on the same day her son flies to Japan to visit his dying father. This leaves Benson alone with his almost-mother-in-law, a woman he’s never met before let alone shared a house with and had to entertain. Their odd-couple interactions are awkward — “So, how long have you been sleeping with my son?” — but eventually morph into something resembling friendship.

The second part is told from Mike’s point of view and charts his time in Osaka with his ill father, Eiju, who runs a small bar that his son will inherit, while the third part shifts back to Benson’s perspective before ending on a hopeful note.

Well-rounded look at a relationship

Nothing earth-shattering happens in this book. The plot is thin and occasionally moves ahead through text messages or via photographs snapped on Smartphones (some of which are reproduced in the novel).

Sometimes a little nugget of information is dropped into the narrative or someone says something particularly scathing — “You’re trash, he said. Great, I said. That’s big of you. You came from trash, and you’ll always be trash” — which alters our perspectives on the characters. This is a great device for allowing us to understand both Benson and Mike’s motives and thoughts, to see how their actions and behaviours impact the other person, giving us a more rounded version of them as a couple.

Like the much-lauded work of Sally Rooney, Memorial is a story that simply explores human relationships and the ways in which entanglements with lovers, friends, family and colleagues shape our lives. And it looks at decision making: how our actions have consequences and being an adult is about accepting responsibility for the things we do and say. (Even the dads in this story have to grow into this idea.)

Washington also turns his eye to commitment. What is it, and is it worth pursuing? How do we plan for a future together if we don’t know what that future holds?

One night, I asked Ben what he wanted. We steeped on the top of our mattress like tea bags. The A/C wheezed overhead. Ben sat up. He smiled. Honestly, he said, I hadn’t expected this to be anything. Oh, I said. Yeah. Whatever happens, happens. Isn’t that what you wanted? I want whatever’s best for both of us, I said. There’s no best. Things just happen.

This is my 10th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Author, Book review, Fiction, Head of Zeus, literary fiction, Publisher, Thomas H. Cook

‘The Crime of Julian Wells’ by Thomas H. Cook

Fiction – paperback; Head of Zeus; 292 pages; 2012.

The Crime of Julian Wells by American writer Thomas H. Cook is an intriguing and unusual detective story, but this is not a crime novel — at least not in the traditional sense.

What’s even more unusual is that the two main characters in the book are dead and the only way we learn anything about them is filtered through the eyes of a kindly narrator, Philip Anders.

Philip is a literary critic, and his best friend, Julian Wells, was a successful non-fiction writer whose books focused on the darkest crimes of the 20th century. But now Julian is dead, his body having been found in a small boat drifting on a lake in New York, and Philip wants answers.

A life in books

To prepare a eulogy, he begins to reread all of Philip’s books, which include stories about massacres, torturers and serial killers, but the more he reads, the more he becomes convinced that maybe Philip has committed a crime, too, and this would partly explain why he’s obsessed with the darker side of life.

And this gets him thinking about a young Argentinian woman the pair met in Buenos Aires when they were young men travelling the world. Her name was Marisol and she worked for the American Consulate as an English-speaking guide. Later, she had been “disappeared” and Julian had developed an unhealthy obsession about finding out what happened to her. Now Philip wonders if his friend might have played a part in her death.

This unease worsens when Philip goes to Paris to sort through Julian’s effects and discovers a series of photographs, mainly of Marisol, that look like they have been taken by surveillance cameras. In a bid to find out more, Philip embarks on an investigative journey that takes in Oradour, London, Budapest, Čachtice, Rostov (in Russia) and, finally, a return to Buenos Aires.

And the more he travels, the more he discovers…

Gothic undertones

There’s a decidedly gothic feel to this story, which plunges the reader into a world of horrific, and often famous, crimes from the past in “exotic” places such as Hungary and Russia and Slovakia and what was once Nazi-occupied France. Its often gruesome accounts of tortures and massacres are counterbalanced with the narrator’s memories of the past, his love for his friend and his own desire to find out the truth.

There are recurring themes, about friendship, deception and betrayal; good and evil;  spies, double agents and surveillance; politics and fighting for causes you believe in; and what it means to “make a difference”.

I loved its dark undertones and philosophical wandering, the way it plays with perceptions and makes you think you have the solution all figured out but then reveals a satisfying ending, the kind that makes you reassess your own assumptions.

This is a clever book, one that defies description — it’s part spy novel, part crime, part road trip, part suspense, perhaps even a touch of Dracula-like horror.  But, above all, as a novel that is essentially about humankind’s ongoing inhumanity to one another, The Crime of Julian Wells is a very humane and compassionate story.

This is my 7h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I purchased it from a charity book sale last September for $3 knowing absolutely nothing about the book nor the author.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – Kindle edition; Virago; 224 pages; 2019.

This is the third book by Sigrid Nunez that I have read this year. She was a new discovery for me back in January, when I fell in love with her wonderful novel The Last of her Kind, but I’m fairly certain that if I had read The Friend first I probably wouldn’t have bothered reading anything else by her.

Not that this is a bad book. I enjoyed it. But its rambling nature, its lack of plot and structure, tested my patience at a time when I had little patience to test.

I know it pre-dated What Are You Going Through, but it felt very much like a companion piece to that novel — and maybe that’s why it didn’t really work for me: I simply read them too close together.

A canine inheritance

The Friend is about an unnamed middle-aged woman who inherits a dog after her best friend, a male creative writing professor, dies and leaves his great Dane to her. The inheritance, like his death (a suicide), is unexpected. Despite their close friendship for more than 30 years, the idea that the woman would look after his dog if he died has never been discussed: she finds out the (not particularly welcome) news when his third wife invites her for a coffee.

The dog, Apollo, is beautiful, docile and loyal, but he’s huge and he takes up so much room in her Manhattan apartment he has to sleep on her bed. And yet, for all the inconvenience and stress of living together in such a confined space, the pair of them get along well. He teaches her patience. She begins to fall in love with him.

But his presence in the building is forbidden by her landlord who has banned pets. There is a very real possibility that she will lose her much loved rent-controlled apartment if she does not find another home for Apollo.

That sense of jeopardy is what holds the entire narrative together — will she keep the dog and be turfed out into the street, or will she find a way to get rid of him?

Recurring themes

This, however, is a thin premise for a plot; most of the novel reads like a series of essays (the book is comprised of 12 parts) that focus on recurring themes. These include, among others, suicide and its aftermath; platonic friendship, sexual relationships and marriage; grief and bereavement; academic life; creative writing, writing as a profession and literature; dogs as companions and dogs in literature.

These forays or diversions read like long passages of stream-of-consciousness or eloquent diary entries — and there’s a hint of meta-fiction throughout (is the narrator, for instance, really Nunez in disguise). They’re brim-full of insights and there’s an emphasis on detail, and despite some heavy subject matter — this is, after all, a book about suicide and its aftermath — there’s a seam of humour running throughout the narrative, a slight poking of fun at the ridiculous concept of a small woman looking after a gigantic dog.

I should also point out that it’s all written in the second person; the “you” is the dead friend, but by the last chapter the “you” has become the dog. Make of that what you will.

The Friend is an intriguing concept for a book. But for all its humanity and its intelligence and its look at an “outsider” — an unmarried woman finding true companionship with a dog  — I found the story didn’t really hold my interest. Perhaps that’s because it’s the kind of book you really need to be in the mood for.

Don’t let my review put you off though. Annabel liked it more than me — and so did Eric.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sigrid Nunez, USA, Virago

‘What Are You Going Through’ by Sigrid Nunez

Fiction – paperback; Virago; 210 pages; 2020.

Sigrid Nunez’s latest novel What Are You Going Through is a beguiling story that doesn’t really fit into a box. The blurb writers have tried to paint it as a tale about two friends, one of whom asks the other to be there when she chooses to die euthanasia style, but it is so much more complex and convoluted than that.

This is a story about stories — the stories we hear, the stories we write, the stories we tell ourselves. (“This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” the opening line from Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, is a constant refrain.)

It’s about truth and fiction, confronting our fears, searching for hope to sustain us and caring for others. Most importantly, it’s about life and death, and asks pertinent questions about what makes a good life — and what makes a good death.

Helping a friend out

What Are You Going Through is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, a middle-aged writer who has never been married or had children. She has an ex-partner who is a professor and well-known author, and when the book opens she (secretly) attends a talk he is delivering “based on a long article he had written for a magazine” about humankind’s death wish.

It was all over, he said again. No more the faith and consolation that had sustained generations and generations, the knowledge that, though our own individual time on earth must end, what we loved and what had meaning for us would go on, the world of which we had been a part would endure — that time had ended, he said. Our world and our civilization would not endure, he said. We must live and die in this new knowledge.

This, essentially, is a foreshadowing of a predicament the narrator finds herself in when she agrees to be with her terminally ill friend at the end of her life. The end, however, won’t be from natural causes. Her friend has decided that she will take a lethal tablet at a time of her choosing because she’s seeking peace, not the pain and agony of a death from cancer.

The narrator agrees to help because “I knew that, in her place, I would have hoped to be able to do exactly what she now wanted to do. And I would have needed someone to help me.”

A book of two halves

What Are You Going Through is a book of two halves. In the first, Nunez takes her time to build up the idea that all people really want out of life is to be noticed, to be seen, for others to understand what they are going through. And in the second, she recounts what happens when the narrator and her friend rent an Airbnb for a short holiday in which they will go exploring, eat out and generally relax before one of them will take a lethal drug to end it all.

There’s a lot to like about this book: the finger-on-the-pulse commentary about modern living and the craziness of our lives in general, the easy-going narrative style, the humour and the cool, calm intelligent voice of the narrator.

The meandering anecdotal style threw me at first, but once I warmed to it I loved not knowing what to expect next. That’s because much of what the narrator tells us is observational, a bit like a personal diary in which she recalls scenes she’s glimpsed, people she’s met and conversations she’s overheard.

On more than one occasion I was reminded of Helen Garner’s wonderful Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume 1, 1978-1987. (As an aside, Nunez and Garner seem to have similar writing styles and observational skills, the ability to create a whole scene or feeling from the briefest of detail. And it hasn’t escaped my attention that Garner’s novel The Spare Room is also about a friend dying from cancer.)

Despite the heavy subject matter, I rather enjoyed What Are You Going Through. Having read Nunez’s brilliant 2006 novel The Last of Her Kind earlier this year, I had high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.

Author, Book review, Don DeLillo, dystopian, Fiction, New York, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Silence’ by Don DeLillo

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 128 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Much fuss has been made of the fact that Don DeLillo wrote The Silence shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. The insinuation is that his novella is somehow prescient, that he peered into the abyss and predicted a global crisis.

In the media release that came with my review copy, DeLillo says: “I began writing the novel in 2018, long before the current pandemic. I started with a vision of empty streets in Manhattan. The idea of the silence grew from sentence to sentence, from one chapter to the next.”

But this novella, which is about what happens one fateful day when everything digital ceases to work and the world comes grinding to a halt, bears little resemblance to a public health emergency. Instead, this is a dystopian glimpse of a world where all our forms of communication — the internet, phones and TV — simply stop working.

While this is an interesting idea, it’s not properly fleshed out. DeLillo is only just warming up, he’s barely hit his stride, and suddenly the book ends. The story is flimsy, almost as if the author has sketched out a rough idea but not bothered to fill in the details. It feels like a creative writing exercise — “tell us what would happen if you were in a plane and the digital systems failed” — and doesn’t pack much of a punch.

The opening — a married couple flying business class between Paris and New York in 2022— holds much promise. They’re homeward bound and have a date with another married couple to watch the Super Bowl on TV when they get back. But things go awry in the air. The seatbelt warning light comes on. The turbulence becomes unbearable. The plane, it seems, is about to crash.

The story then cuts to Manhattan, where another married couple, accompanied by a friend, are settling down to watch the football match on TV. The opening kick-off is one commercial away, but then the screen goes blank. Drink is consumed to kill the time. Bizarre conversations take place. It’s all a little odd.

Eventually, their friends who were on the plane turn up at their door. No one seems to grasp the seriousness of, well, anything. This couple, who are pretty much unscathed, may as well have blamed a traffic jam for their late arrival.

The whole story is preposterous. Yes, DeLillo might be one of the greatest American novelists of our time, but The Silence is a disappointment. One word springs to mind and that is tosh.

I read this for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Bookish Becks.