Monday, June 15, 2009

The Wilderness - Samantha Harvey

Jake Jameson is taking an aeroplane flight. It is his birthday and the flight is a gift, one that he does not enjoy. As the world wheels and shifts around him he is disoriented. Below is the prison for which he was the architect and in which his son Henry is incarcerated. He is proud of his work but the pilot believes it is a blot on the landscape. He sees men in the exercise yard below
'Can he see his son? Can they see one another?...That one is Henry. No, he is mistaken. That one perhaps. That one? Impossible to tell he decides'
This short extract neatly sums up the basic premise of Harvey's novel. Can we see ourselves properly, can we see or know others. Jake has Alzheimer's and in this first person novel we see the decline of Jake as he sifts and sorts memories to try to get to their basic truth. But as the disease progresses he is left with less and less, the world becoming a bewildering place - the wilderness of the title. Who is the woman with whom he sleeps, who drove the car that knocked over the dog Lucky and where is his daughter Alice - did she die or did she live to tell him about her pregnancy?
The facts of Jake's life wheel and shift around him. It is clear that he is a man who thinks that facts and reality are important, for whom there is black and white and who dreams of glass
'On one side of the bridge,he remarks, is the courthouse: here are the free and the godly, those who pass judgement. On the other side is the jail: the imprisoned, those who have been judged.'
His wife Helen though sees the world as a much more ambiguous place, despite her religious certainty
'One should hesitate to cast aspersions. A person's morality is usually a two way journey - it just depends which leg of it you catch them on.'
As Jake's Alzheimer's progresses he is left with less and less certainty, things become more ambiguous, did his wife have an affair, did he? Does it matter that he can not remember, can he choose his identity or is he born with it
'He is giddy with the sensation that nothing, nothing, not even himself, is certain. And then he begins to wonder if perhaps this is a godsend, and that he can protect himself by filling in the gaps with what he would prefer as opposed to what was.'
Questions of identity abound throughout this novel. Jake's mother Sara is Jewish but she hides her Jewishness and is married to an antisemite. Jake embraces his Jewishness becoming actively involved in an organisation to promote Zionism.
As Jake's memories become uncertain he finds relief in being able to remember as he would like things to be and we, the reader, become more certain in our reading as the novel progresses as more and more, or should that be less and less, of Jake's memories are made available to us. This first novel was rightly shortlisted for the Orange Prize this year it is a heartbreaking and vital look at the decline of a mind.
'Back at the table he works again on the timeline, thinks he might have a coffee, stands, crouches to stroke the back of the dog's ear with his thumb, tells her silently, that he is terribly sorry for running her over, returns to the table, thinks he wouldn't mind a coffee, stands, concludes that he needs to urinate. Urinates, and returns to find the dog barking at the coffee machine, which is banging with dry heat and a crack working it's way up the glass. Fool that he is.'

Friday, June 12, 2009

International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2009

This years winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is 'Man Gone Down' by Michael Thomas.

The Judges commented

“We never know his name. But the African-American protagonist of Michael Thomas’ masterful debut, Man Gone Down, will stay with readers for a long time. He lingers because this extraordinary novel comes to us from a writer of enthralling voice and startling insight. Tuned urgently to the way we live now, the winner of the International Dublin IMPAC Prize 2009 is a novel brilliant in its scope and energy, and deeply moving in its human warmth.”

This book is an extraordinary debut that tackles race, wealth and family head on as a young black man finds the American Dream dissolving around him. On the eve of this thirty-fifth birthday, the unnamed black narrator of "Man Gone Down" finds himself broke, estranged from his white wife and three children, and living in the bedroom of a friend's six-year-old child. He has four days to come up with the money to keep his kids in school and make a down payment on an apartment for them to live in. As we slip between his childhood in inner city Boston and present-day New York City, we discover a life marked by abuse, abandonment, raging alcoholism, and the best and worst intentions of a supposedly integrated America. This is a story of the American Dream gone awry, about what it's like to feel preprogrammed to fail in life and the urge to escape that sentence.

The other novels nominated were:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz; The Burnt-Out Town of Miracles by Roy Jacobsen, in translation; Ravel by Jean Echenoz, in translation; Animal’s People by Indra Sinha; The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid; The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland and The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Flying Troutmans - Miriam Toews

28 year old Hattie is in Paris and in love, but when she receives a midnight call from her 11 year old niece Thebes telling her that things are falling apart at home and she gets dumped by her boyfriend, she leaves Paris to fly home to Canada to try to sort things out. She finds her sister Min lying in bed refusing to eat, clearly this is nothing new as the local psychiatric hospital have a bed for her, but when Min refuses to see her children or Hattie, Hattie becomes the sole carer for Min's children Thebes and 15 year old Logan. Logan almost immediately gets suspended from school and in panic Hattie bundles the kids into an old Ford Aerostar and sets out to try to find their father with only the vaguest information about his whereabouts.

This then is a coming of age story, a story of the road and a quest, a quest to find family and reaffirm the ties that bind us. It is also a celebration of the individual, both in the sense of the nonconformist (such a nicer word than 'dysfunctional') and in the sense of learning to take responsibility for oneself. Hattie fled to Paris to escape her sisters mental illness and the blight it cast over her childhood. Episodes where Min tried to drown her and tricked her into being encased in a total body plastercast so Min could go out when she was supposed to be minding Hattie, together with the death of their father, are stories that Hattie must come to terms with whilst on the road. She must also learn to stop running and take on adult responsibility, after all as Thebes says in relation to her relationship prospects

'Okay, twenty eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, though.'

One of the areas Hattie has to learn to navigate is that of parenthood. She is stuck in a van with a precocious 11 year old and an angry taciturn 15 year old whose form of communication seems to be carving words into the wood of the dashboard with a knife. Hattie is far more relaxed about this than I would be but she also has unique insight into the type of life they have been living with their mother and is aware of her limitations

'Conversing with children is a fine art, I realized. An art form that demands large amounts of honesty and misdirection. Or maybe discretion is a better word. Or a gradual release of information like time-controlled vitamins. Either way my own befuddled efforts were pathetic and I wanted to have more than odd, cryptic conversations with Logan and Thebes.'

Despite, or maybe because of, these limitations in the end Hattie allows Logan and Thebes the space to express what it is they need from the adults around them and Hattie comes to realise that you can take care of someone else but you cannot take responsibility for them, they have take responsibility for themselves, all you can do is support them. Perhaps her greatest gift to these children is making them understand that she is willing to support them but that they are not responsible for their mother or the way she feels, and they have to live their own lives, as must Min.

This makes the book sound terribly worthy, but the life lessons are applied lightly and the book careers along at the same speed as a Ford Aerostar. The occupants of the car spend their time like most families on a long journey, just passing the time

'Who would you rather have as a boyfriend? Frankenstein or George Bush?'

singing songs, creating art (Thebes' speciality is giant novelty cheques made out to the various members of her family and people she meets) and talking about their past and present. Toews has created a funny, engaging and grim tale which carries you along with it in search of the family of these unique and individual children.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes

This Richard and Judy Summer Read is written by Julian Fellowes, better known as Kilwillie in Monarch of the Gen on BBC television and the writer of the screenplay for 'Gosforth Park' which won him an Oscar. Like Gosforth Park Past Imperfect harks back to an earlier time
"when the customer was always right, when AA men saluted the badge on your car and policemen touched their helmet in greeting"
in other words - 1968.
In the modern day our unnamed narrator is summoned to the bedside of Damien Baxter, an old friend turned enemy, who is dying. Damien has accumulated vast wealth but is unable to father children due to adult mumps. During the debutant season of 1968 however he was sexually involved with several women and several years before the onset of his current terminal illness received an anonymous letter which would suggest that one of these liaisons resulted in a child. The narrators task is to revisit these women to establish which if them bore Damien's child so that he can leave his vast wealth to his fortunate progeny
Fellowes uses this basic plot on which to hang his look back at the 'season' of 1968, a time when the old tradition of 'coming out' and being presented to the Queen was dying out, as were the aristocracy and 'old' money. Fellowes at times can not make up his mind whether he is writing a novel or social commentary. Each house, even individual rooms, and their furniture are described - call me ignorant but what is a 'duchesse brisee day bed' - there are discussions on the wearing of white tie and smoking jackets for the gentlemen and the breakdown of parental authority.
However, what Fellowes has done well is to expose the social shifts that took place in England over the last 40 years for a particular class of person. The parents of the debs, particularly their mothers, are shown to still inhabit the old world of titles and social privilege whilst the new world of the self made man and new wealth is nipping at their heels. Their children, the debs and their beaus, feel the world turning and the cold wind of change. The device of revisiting these women and looking at the lives they lead now compared to their expectations and those of their parents in 1968, works well. Fellowes also exposes what happens to those who are unable to adapt to the new social order.
Although the thrust of the book is disillusionment with the present and a harking back with fondness to the past (most impressively dealt with when the narrator talks about his father's job as diplomat and the inadequacy of his post retirement life) the sense of privilege that pervades the book, both in terms of the characters in the novel and Fellowes obvious familiarity with his subject, blunts any message the Fellowes may be trying to deliver. These people, even in the present, have money - maybe not as much as they did - but enough. No mention is made of the lives of those who make their life possible. In 1968
'Perhaps there were only two footmen where once there had been six. Perhaps the chef had to manage on his own.'
and in the present day Damien has a butler and housekeeper.
It is easy to look back with fondness on such a past and this is an entertaining look at a time and history that most people did not experience.