Author, Book review, Canada, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Mary Lawson, Publisher, Setting

‘Road Ends’ by Mary Lawson

Road-Ends

Fiction – hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 320 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mary Lawson’s Road Ends, which was longlisted for this year’s Folio Prize, is set in the fictional Canadian town of Struan, in Northern Ontario. It forms part of a loose trilogy comprising Crow Lake (2002) and The Other Side of the Bridge (2006), neither of which I’d read.

The book charts the slow disintegration of a large, dysfunctional family when the eldest daughter decides to leave home to pursue her dream of living abroad. I read it back-to-back with Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and couldn’t help but notice similarities in the way it looks at the impact on family dynamics and psychology following a major (unwelcome) change.

But unlike Ng’s best-selling novel, Road Ends has a rather old-fashioned feel to it — it’s set in the 1960s but you could easily mistake it for a much earlier time period. Part of that is due to the prose style and “voice” of the characters, but perhaps also because of its small town setting where the modern world has yet to make an impact.

Three storylines

Road Ends is comprised of three story strands narrated by three different characters each with a strong and distinctive voice:  Twenty-one-year-old Megan Cartwright, who moves to London in the Swinging Sixties; her brother, Tom, who cuts short a promising academic career to grieve for the loss of his best friend through suicide; and her father, Edward, an emotionally distant man, who is a poor parent but a fine, upstanding citizen in a position of power (he’s the local bank manager).

From the outset it is clear that this is a family that is out-of-control. The house is full of children — all boys — whom shout and fight and break things. Megan spends her life looking after them and maintaining some kind of order, but she dreams of bigger things and wants to escape the drudgery of domestic servitude and to see something of the world. When she announces that she’s going to London, no one believes her — until she packs her suitcase and goes.

Her early exploits in London cover the whole gamut of ups and downs, but when she finally finds her dream job running a small boutique hotel she comes into her own. She falls in with a nice group of people and finds fulfillment in her job (if not her love life)

Meanwhile, the family left behind goes to rack and ruin. The mother is distant, and too wrapped up in her babies, to really care about anything other than the newest addition:

It came to Tom suddenly that his mother didn’t actually care for her children very much once they passed the baby stage. It was just babies she liked. Maybe that was why she kept having more.

The father feels trapped, but instead of dealing with the situation he locks himself away in his study and lets things unfold of their own accord, even if that means there is no food for the children to eat or clean clothes for them to wear:

Just for the record, I did not want any of this. A home and a family, a job in a bank. It was the very last thing I wanted. I am not blaming Emily. I did blame her for a long time but I see now that she lost as much as I did. She proposed to me rather than the other way around, but she is not to blame for the fact that I said yes. That phrase they use in a court of law—“The balance of his mind was disturbed”—sums it up very well. I married Emily while the balance of my mind was disturbed.

It is Tom — shy, awkward and lonely — who must confront the realities of the family’s problems, particularly when he notices that young Adam, the youngest brother, has a peculiar odour, because he hasn’t had a bath in weeks, and is thin and hungry, because no one has bothered to feed him. In today’s world, this would constitute child abuse.

A gentle read

Despite this tale sounding rather horrid — all that neglect! all those people who don’t take responsibility! all that sexism! — I found it quite a gentle, almost soothing read. It probably helps that none of the characters are deliberately bad or cruel, though they do  behave in inexplicable ways without taking personal responsibility for anything and I was occasionally angered by Edward’s pomposity and lack of backbone.  Even Tom, who realises that things cannot go on in such a dire way, made me mad, because instead of sorting things out himself he decides to drag Megan back into the very mess she tried to escape.

But as much as this is a book about marriage, parenthood and family — think the kinds of novels Anne Tyler might write if she joined forces with Anita Shreve — it’s also about being an émigré, for Megan’s story is very much about what it is like to be caught between two countries — and two lives. At times it reminded me of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, though Megan’s story is a little too “polished” — things go her way too easily — and everything is tied up too neatly at the end.

Yet Road Ends is a rather heartwarming — and heartbreaking — novel. Occasionally it is frustrating and anger-inducing, sometimes it is surprising, but mostly it’s compelling and such a lovely, subtle read, that I didn’t really want the story to end; I had such a great time in the company of these well-drawn, all too-human characters…

Author, Book review, Celeste Ng, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng

Everything-I-never-told-you

Fiction – Kindle edition; Penguin; 297 pages; 2014.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

So begins Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, a novel about the disintegration of a family in the wake of the eldest daughter’s death, which my book group chose for its March discussion.

The book is hugely popular — it’s been a A New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and was named as Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014 — and it’s easy to see why: it’s an effortless read and hugely engaging. I wanted to eat it up in one greedy gulp. Despite the tragedy at its heart, it’s a truly compelling story written in prose so polished it practically gleams. The characters are well drawn, if not always likeable, and the author fleshes out their fears and foibles to make them feel (frustratingly) real.

But two weeks after having read it, I struggled to even remember the most basic of details — the character’s names, for instance — and had to skim read sections to familiarise myself with it again prior to our book group meeting. This is not to suggest it’s a fluffy read, for it is not, but much like the convoluted title, it’s not exactly memorable. Yet if you had have asked me what I thought of Everything I Never Told You in the immediate afterglow of finishing  it, I would have said it was near perfect. Now? I’d describe it as very good — and I’d probably give it four stars.

A family in free fall

So, what’s the story about? Essentially it focuses on what happens to individual members of the Lee family following the death of 16-year-old Lydia, who drowned in the lake behind the family home. Initially, it’s not clear whether her death was an accident, homicide or suicide, but this book is not a crime novel: it’s an exposé on closely-held secrets, family history, parental expectations, sexual equality, identity, racism and grief.

Lydia’s parents have an inter-racial marriage — Marilyn is white, James is first generation Chinese American — so their children are mixed race. And in Ohio in the 1970s, when this story takes place, that sets this family apart. James, especially, has struggled his whole life to fit in, to be accepted as a “true” American, but has never felt comfortable in his own skin. This unease is passed on to his children — Nathan, Lydia and Hannah — as this extract, from Lydia’s point-of-view demonstrates:

Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else. In homeroom or at the drugstore or at the supermarket, you listened to morning announcements or dropped off a roll of film or picked out a carton of eggs and felt like just another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn’t think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express—a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you’d been cut out and pasted in. You thought: Wait, what’s she doing there? And then you remembered that she was you. You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.

This desperation to belong — and to keep her parents happy — puts untold pressure on Lydia, pressure that James thinks may have led to her death. But this isn’t just about race, because Marilyn, too, has unwittingly added to Lydia’s burden by pushing her at school in order to become the professional career woman Marilyn was unable to become.

Portrait of a marriage

The book has a seamless narrative that spools backwards and forwards to focus on individual family members — including Lydia — before and after Lydia’s death. Central to this is the Lee’s marriage, which the author examines in exacting (and compelling) detail, tracing James and Marilyn’s relationship from the moment they met — she was a college student, he was a tutor — until it splinters under the weight of grief.

There’s an alarming lack of communication between them — neither knows the other’s innermost dreams or fears or desires. The only thing keeping them together is their children and, in particular, Lydia, who is fawned over as the “favourite” child, the one whom will fulfil their hopes and ambitions.

Their other children — space-obsessed Nath, who is never praised or encouraged in any of his intellectual pursuits, and young Hannah, who hovers around the edges, observant but ignored and somewhat neglected by her elders  —  must battle their grief alone.

It might sound like a heart-breaking read — and it is — but Ng pulls back from making it too cloying or sentimental. Perhaps the only faults are that we never quite get to know Hannah as well as any of the other characters — she’s simply a vehicle to observe the family’s breakdown — and the racism/identity theme gets slightly overplayed. But on the whole Everything I Never Told You is an astonishingly mature piece of work for a debut novel. Its precise, often painful observations about our deep need to belong makes it a powerful, heart-felt and intimate read. And I completely understand why so many people have been held in its sway.

Author, Book review, Fiction, general, India, literary fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Sudha Murty, USA

‘Dollar Bahu’ by Sudha Murty

Dollar-Bahu

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 142 pages; 2007.

Sudha Murty’s Dollar Bahu is a rather sweet, if overly moralistic, novella that explores the age-old notion that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Written in basic, simplified prose, it reads very much like a fable about what happens if you value money above all else.

An Indian way of life

It tells the story of a middle-class Indian family: Shamanna and Gouramma and their (spoilt) daughter, Surabhi, and two sons, Chandru, a software engineer, and Girish, a bank clerk.

When the company that Chandru works for posts him to the United States on a two-year secondment, all the family’s dreams, it appears, have been answered. Not only will Chandru be able to send money home that can be used to add an upper storey extension to their modest house and finance Surabhi’s marriage, it will also elevate Gouramma’s social profile, because having a son in America is something to boast about.

She [Gouramma] would dream about the Dollar, that magic green currency, which could change her house and fulfil her dreams. It was the Dollar, not Indian rupees, which could elevate her into the elite circle at social gatherings and marriage halls. The Dollar was like the Goddess Lakshmi, with a magic wand.

While Chandru is in America, Girish marries a teacher, Vinuta, whose dreams to become a singer have been thwarted by lack of opportunity and finances (she was orphaned as a young girl). As tradition dictates, the couple lives with Girish’s parents. Vinuta, keen to make a good impression, works tirelessly to keep the family home in order, but she is soon taken advantage of by her mother-in-law. She’s ground down by a heavy workload, treated badly and never spoken to warmly.

Yet when Chandru, having secured a green card, returns to India for just three weeks  to marry an Indian girl, his new wife, Jamuna, is feigned over and treated as if she’s a goddess. That’s because she comes from a rich, respectable family, whom the social-climbing Gouramma views favourably. Gouramma adores her new daughter-in-law — the “Dollar bahu” of the title — but the feeling is not mutual. This does not become clear until Gouramma visits Chandru and Jamuna in Florida, many years later, where her eyes are opened up to the ways of the world…

A morality tale about greed

At its heart this is a book that explores greed, prejudice and respect (or lack thereof) for other people. It dissects the differences in values and customs of both America and India, albeit rather simplistically. But this is not a novella that is interested in nuance or shades of grey: it’s completely black and white and as blunt as a spoon.

At its most basic it paints America as a rich but soulless country, where family ties and personal connections are not important; and India as impoverished and slightly backward but where the traditional values of family and marriage are sacrosanct.

Yet the message of the story, neatly summarised by Shamanna (who has never left India), does ring true:

“… nothing is absolute in life. America has a set of advantages and disadvantages. Similarly, India has its own. You cannot have the best of both worlds. If you have a choice, choose a country and accept it with its pluses and minuses and live happily there. Staying in America and dreaming of an Indian way of life, or living in India and expecting an American way of life — both are roads to grief.”

Dollar Bahu is wholly predictable, the characterisation is poor and one-dimensional (the nasty mother-in-law, the greedy daughter, the stuck up daughter-in-law, the wise father and so on)  and a little too reliant on cultural stereotypes to be anything other than a light read. It feels like it’s aimed at uneducated Indians, warning them that America is not the paradise they might expect it to be — or perhaps I’m simply reading too much into it.

Ultimately, I found it quick-moving, easy to read and enjoyable in that frothy I-don’t-want-to-think-too-much-about-it mood that occasionally strikes my reading life. I devoured it on a three-hour round train trip and liked the way it dropped me into an unfamiliar — and colourful — world of fixed marriages, saris and religious festivals…

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Padma Viswanathan, Penguin Canada, Publisher, Setting

‘The Ever After of Ashwin Rao’ by Padma Viswanathan

Ever After of Ashwin Rao

Fiction – hardcover; Penguin Canada; 374 pages; 2014.

Padma Viswanathan’s second novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. The Ashwin Rao of the title is an Indian psychologist who returns to Canada — where he trained — to do a “study of comparative grief”.

His subjects are the family members who survived a terrorist attack in which Air India flight 182 was bombed over the Atlantic en route from Montreal to Delhi, via London Heathrow, in 1985. More than 300 people were killed — mainly Canadian citizens — but the case was not brought to trial until 2004, the year in which the book is set. (As an aside, you can read more about the incident on Wikipedia.)

Rao wants to find out how these people coped — “by what means did they go on?” — but his study is not exactly objective. He, too, lost family members in the tragedy — his sister and her two children — but he’s not always forthcoming about this, because he wants to keep his “professional distance”. But as the story progresses it becomes clear that in examining other people’s grief he is essentially exploring his own — even if he might not know it.

Survivors of a terrorist bomb

The novel, which spans summer 2004 to spring 2005, is structured around Rao’s interviews with survivors. Their individual stories — how their loved ones came to be on the flight, how they coped in the aftermath of the tragedy, what their lives have involved in the 18 years since — are “imagined” using a psychological technique Rao has been practising for his entire professional career.

This technique stems from his compulsive journal keeping, something that he has been doing since childhood:

But I keep a journal differently. I note, on a left-hand page, an anecdote — something characteristic or outrageous a friend or family member said, or perhaps a confidence told to me. On the facing page, for as many pages as it takes, I properly tell the story: third-person, quasi-fictionalised, including matters not witnessed, details I can’t really know, and so try to explain what I have seen or heard.

These stories are mostly unbearably sad but are lightened by a wry sense of humour. They are interleaved with Rao’s own story — his life in India rife with political and religious tension, the freedom he discovered in Canada when he arrived in 1969 to study medicine, the love affair he had with a Canadian woman who went on to marry someone else — in a voice that is distinctive, self-deprecating, occasionally angry, often melancholy, opinionated, philosophical and a little old-fashioned.

Unfortunately, Rao’s voice eventually gets subsumed by a larger story — that of Professor Sethuratnam, his daughter Brinda and his cousin Venkataraman, whose wife and son were killed in the tragedy — which comes to a rather unexpected and somewhat unbelievable conclusion.

While The Ever After of Ashwin Rao has worthy aims — to explore the notion of grief, to look at the long-lasting repercussions of terrorism, to examine multiculturalism and religion — the execution is confused and the narrative occasionally lacks focus. This is not to say it is a bad book — it’s far from that, as its prize listing would suggest — but it demands the reader’s full attention without necessarily offering much of a reward. Admittedly, I only continued reading it as part of my Shadow Giller jury obligations — I fear I may have abandoned it otherwise.

Author, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Peirene Press

‘The Mussel Feast’ by Birgit Vanderbeke

Mussel-feast

Fiction – paperback; Peirene; 105 pages; 2013. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is a classic in the author’s native Germany, where it was published to critical and popular acclaim in 1990. It won the prestigious German-language literature award,  the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, that same year. It has recently been translated into English by London-based Peirene Press.

I loved this book so much, I read it twice — when it initially came out in May and then again last weekend. It’s a tiny package, but reading it is like peeling an onion: there are so many layers that it’s almost impossible to appreciate them all first time round.

Celebratory feast

On the face of it, the story appears to be a very simple one. A woman and her two teenage children sit around the dinner table awaiting the arrival of the patriarch of the family, whom they expect to return home with news of a promotion at work. A celebratory feast of mussels and wine has been prepared. But the father is late and there is no word from him to explain his delay. Why has he not called? Has he been in an accident?

In the meantime — as the mussels grow cold and the wine gets consumed — the daughter begins to recall memories of her father and his role in the family. This is when the story takes on a deeper purpose: to show that there is more going on than meets the eye.

What emerges is a rather startling portrait of a tyrannical man, whose idealised version of what constitutes a family and family life can never reach his unrealistic expectations. And instead of drawing everyone together, he has splintered his family apart by his funny notions and cruel ways. It is, essentially, a metaphor for East and West Germany, reflecting the time period in which the book was written, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Odd ideas and notions

It turns out that the father has some rather odd ideas but is so convinced by their “rightness” that he can never be properly challenged on them. So, for example, when the children are growing up, he never lets them play outside in the fresh air with the neighbourhood children on a Sunday afternoon, because one of his “notions about a proper family dictated that all of us should all do something together” — this usually meant a very long drive, but by the time they arrived at their destination the car park would be full and their father would become furious.

He also has very funny ideas about money and thinks “that scrimping on investments is the height of provincialism”. He lives in fear of being seen as stingy or poor. This means he is overly generous with his tips at restaurants, despite not being able to afford it, and considers any clothes bought off-the-peg as “rejects”.

You can spot off-the-peg clothing from miles away, my father said, and whenever my mother wore a new dress he immediately spotted that it was another reject. You don’t have any style, he said; my mother agreed that she didn’t have any style, how could I have any style when I need to ensure that we have enough, while you’re throwing heaps of money out the window; but my father said, it’s not heaps, and, I can’t help it if you’re stingy, and then the door would slam and my father rushed out, coming back in the early hours, drunk.

Humour in the horror

This may make the book sound like a rather grim, depressing tale, but the beauty of Vanderbeke’s narrative is the highly nuanced and intelligent “voice” which lets us “read between the lines” and catch glimpses, not just of the terror at the heart of these people’s lives, but of the hope and wit too.

And because the story is narrated by the daughter, in one long, often repetitive, hypnotic monologue, the picture that emerges feels authentic and real.

I wouldn’t describe it as a black comedy, but I laughed a lot while reading this book — mainly at this man’s preposterous ideas and the ways in which his wife and his children humoured him. You get a very real sense that he is tolerated, perhaps even respected, but the first chance they get to live their lives the way they want to live them, they will take it — with both hands. If he doesn’t appear at the dinner table, then perhaps it won’t be such a tragic turn of events after all…