1001 books, Author, Book review, Five fast reviews, Heather O'Neill, Heinrich Böll, Patrick deWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist

Five Fast Reviews: Heinrich Böll, Patrick DeWitt, Patrick Gale, Sven Lindqvist and Heather O’Neill

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‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or How violence develops and where it can lead’ by Heinrich Böll

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 140 pages; 2000. Translated from the German by Leila Vennewitz.

Lost-honourFirst published in Germany in 1974, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum is widely regarded as a German classic — indeed it’s listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it is described as a dark morality tale about the “unscrupulous sensationalism of the mass media”. I think it could also be described as an examination of a misogynistic society hellbent on keeping women in their place and denying them the right to lead independent lives.

This short but powerful novella charts the downfall of Katharina Blum, a strong, independent woman, who meets a man at a party and takes him home, not realising he’s a wanted criminal. When he goes on the run, she is interrogated by the police who insist she’s an accomplice to his crimes even though she had never met him before. The city newspaper drags her name through the mud, portraying her as a whore and a communist. Her reputation in ruins, Katharina is forced to take drastic action, shooting the reporter who has distorted her story out of all proportion.

Written in a dry, somewhat detached style employing an omnipresent narrator, I can’t say that I was immediately grabbed by the story. But the message is a powerful one — and still rather relevant in today’s climate of social media shaming and bullying.

 

‘Undermajordomo Minor’ by Patrick DeWitt

Fiction – Kindle edition; Granta; 304 pages; 2015. 

Under-major-minor-domoLonglisted for this year’s Giller Prize, I read Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor for my Shadow Giller Jury obligations and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat surreal, romp hugely reminiscent of the kind of kooky fables that British writer Magnus Mills pens. The sinister elements of the story reminded me a little of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s not a horror story per se, more a dark, often very funny, Gothic fairy tale set in an unnamed country in an unspecified era.

The tale begins when one young man, Lucien (or “Lucy”), moves out of the family home to begin a new job — and life — working as a helper for the old “majordomo” of a creepy castle in a distant village. Lots of strange and unexplained things happen to Lucy, who befriends some local thieves and falls in love with a pretty girl, whom he woos using every trick in the book.

There’s no real plot line — the story works on character and a series of kooky set pieces — but it’s a fun, if somewhat unsettling (and occasionally violent) read from the author of The Sisters Brothers.

 

‘A Place Called Winter’ by Patrick Gale

Fiction – paperback; Tinder Press; 368 pages; 2015.

A-place-called-winterPatrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter is epic storytelling at its best. Written with warmth and great sensitivity, it charts the formative years of Harry Crane, a shy, stuttering gentleman of independent means, in Edwardian London, before a sex scandal forces him to abandon his wife and young daughter for a new life on the Canadian prairies.

The book opens with a middle-aged Harry undergoing treatment in an experimental sanatorium, but we do not know how he got there or what condition he is being treated for. The story then flashes back to his earlier life, and these two narrative threads — a current story framed by flashbacks — alternate to provide a rich tapestry of Harry’s life and search for self discovery.

Admittedly, this kind of story isn’t normally my cup of tea, but I enjoyed the change of pace and found the writing style reminiscent of Anita Shreve, who is one of my go-to authors. The book has been shortlisted for this year’s Green Carnation Prize and the 2015 Costa Novel Award.

 

‘Terra Nullis: A Journey Through No One’s Land’ by Sven Lindqvist

Non-fiction – paperback; Granta; 248 pages; 2012. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death.

Terra-nulliusProving that my reading tastes are wide-ranging, this non-fiction book explores my interest in the issue of racism against Aboriginal Australians. First published in Sweden in 2005, it charts the history of black and white relations in Australia from the first point of contact in the 18th century to the current day.

The author Sven Lindqvist, an accomplished essayist and journalist, seems to have made a name for himself writing about cultural genocide (he has written similar books about black and white relations in Africa), and much of what he covers here makes for uncomfortable reading. Yet sometimes his passion (and fury) gets a little overwrought, and detracts from the important message at the book’s heart.

But on the whole, I found this an eye-opening read. Part entertaining travelogue, part searing polemic, it’s certainly one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read all year.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ by Heather O’Neill

Fiction – Kindle edition; Quercus; 369 pages; 2015.

Daydreams-of-angelsI’m familiar with Canadian writer Heather O’Neill having read and reviewed two of her previous novels, Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, but Daydreams of Angels is a slight departure for her, because it’s a short story collection. I read it because it was shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

The book is subtitled “Tall tales and twisted fairy stories” and that’s a pretty good description for the contents:  there are 21 stories about cherubs, talking bears, cats that dye their own fur and children who fend off marriage proposals, amongst others. Most are set in Montreal, others on the battlefields of World War Two. Some are surreal, others more grounded in reality.

The writing is sharp and witty, filled with wonderful descriptions of places and atmospheres, and the author has a particular “thing” for a clever simile — for instance:

“When a car of boys slowed down next to her on the sidewalk, she leaned in the window and wiggled her butt back and forth as she talked to them, like a bumblebee getting nectar out of a flower”

But on the whole I found the voice too similar throughout so that there was nothing to separate one story from another, and now, almost two months on, I find that nothing really stands out in my mind. I rated it pretty low against the other books on the Giller Prize shortlist, though my fellow jurors begged to differ

Author, Book review, Canada, Fiction, Heather O'Neill, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, Setting

‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ by Heather O’Neill

Lullabies

Fiction – paperback; Quercus; 384 pages; 2008.

Quercus may be my new favourite publisher. In recent months I have read several books — Nefertiti, The Tenderness of Wolves and Bad Debtspublished by this burgeoning publishing house based in London, and so when Lullabies for Little Criminals landed in my mailbox this week — the result of a mid-week “trolley dash” around Amazon.co.uk — I decided to bump it right to the top of my incredibly long reading queue.

Despite being longlisted for this year’s Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Lullabies for Little Criminals has received little press attention here in the UK. But in its native Canada it has been critically acclaimed, winning the 2007 Canada Reads, an annual battle of the books competition, as well as the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Best Novel 2007. It  was also shortlisted for the 2007 Governor General’s Awards, the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award 2007, the Amazon.ca/ Books in Canada First Novel Award 2007 and  the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal 2007. With such ringing endorsements, I was anxious to see if it lived up to all the hype.

The story follows Baby — yes, that’s her real name — a streetwise 12-year-old who lives with her widowed father, Jules. Jules is a 26-year-old junkie, who spends most of his time scoring “chocolate milk” — a euphemism for heroin — and finding ways to raise the cash to feed his addiction. This means Baby is often left on her own for days at a time, although she still insists on meeting her 9pm curfew because it gives shape to her life.

The pair lead a transient existence, moving from one seedy apartment to another. Baby also does a stint in a foster home (when Jules is hospitalised with tuberculosis) and later she lives with a friendly neighbour (when Jules goes into rehab) — and all the while she never seems to lose the love for the father whom she adores so much.

Despite the below-the-poverty-line existence, Baby is a bright, resourceful and fearless child who bubbles with optimism. She does well at school and makes friends easily, although her choices sometimes leave a lot to be desired. When she falls under the charms of the local pimp, who grooms her to start turning tricks, not even Baby seems to realise the inherent danger she has put herself in. This is a young girl on the verge of womanhood who simply wants to love and to be loved unaware she is looking for it in all the wrong places.

There’s something very wise and honest about this novel, which O’Neill claims is based on some of her own childhood experiences. The prose is incredibly restrained, with not a shred of sentimentality. It’s only when the reader adds up the catalogue of incidents and sees the path of destruction that Baby is heading down that any kind of emotion bubbles to the surface: it’s unbearably sad, all the more because Baby doesn’t realise this.

Initially I doubted the authenticity of the narrator’s voice, which sounds too mature and reflective for a 12-year-old. I can only assume that the story is being filtered through adult eyes and that it is being told by a much older Baby looking back on her life. The occasional references to “back then” would support this theory.

The beauty of Lullabies for Little Criminals is that it brings to life in a dry-eyed, matter-of-fact way a world few of us would know. And like the very best literary fiction, it leaves an indelible print on the reader, as if by the very act of reading it your own sheltered world has tilted a little on its axis. This is a universal story that deserves a bigger audience, so I can only hope British (and Australian) readers will fall in love with it as much as our North American counterparts.