Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category
Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald
In 1939, a five-year-old boy is sent on a Kindertransport from the Continent to foster parents in Wales. Until he comes to do his sixth-form scholarship exams, he grows up as Dafydd Elias, speaks Welsh, plays rugby, gets on well at school, remembers nothing outside of his current life. Before the exams the headmaster tells him that he must put the name Jacques Austerlitz, his real name, on his exam papers.
It is not until a good deal later in life that Jacques Austerlitz makes the journey, both literal and metaphorical, to find out about and confront his past. The narrative of this journey is a work of sheer genius. An investigation of identity, memory, dreams, loss, among many other things, it draws the reader in on level upon level, so much so that by the end, the desire to start again from the beginning is overwhelming.
Austerlitz is an architectural historian by career and the book opens with a disquisition on military fortifications. We soon begin to perceive why Austerlitz has chosen – or been chosen by – this particular interest: the greatest fortification of all is the one he has built up around himself. The voice of Austerlitz is reported to us through the nameless ‘I’ who is the ostensible narrator of the book, so that at all times we are presented with at least third-party narration. The layers even at this level are such that we occasionally find sentences like, ‘None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not believe that . . .’ where the narrators are placed one inside or in front of another like protective shells. Memory is fluid, time can speed up or slow down or even become static, so that every moment is an unending now, and people may have appointments to keep in the past. The book is shot through with misty scenes, half-lit rooms, blurred outlines, insubstantial figures. Echoes recur and recur: swirling snow later becomes the fall of bird feathers; the two square metres of space per person in the ghetto is joltingly recalled again in the two-square-metre television screen on a cafe wall. Ignore the names at your peril. The woman who fills in much of the past for Austerlitz is called Vera; the narrator meets Austerlitz in a bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui. Political activist Auguste Blanqui was sentenced to transportation in 1872, a sentence afterwards commuted to imprisonment; Austerlitz might be said to have suffered both punishments.
This is a book suffused with loneliness and melancholy which manages, by its brilliance, to uplift. It is a book about being haunted, which in turn will haunt. It is, in short, what great literature is about.
Daddy Love, Joyce Carol Oates
The new novel by several-time Pulitzer nominee Joyce Carol Oates should logically be snapped up by all those who raved about Room two years ago. It deals, after all, with the abduction of a five-year-old boy by what the blurb on the front describes as a “fiendish captor”. But it will not be snapped up, or even leafed through, by most of that vast audience. Why? Because, as the blurb suggests, this is the real thing. It is unpleasant, brutal, and (again the blurb) “compelling”. No cutesy five-year-old voice here to cushion the reader. You are taken into the mother’s head, the father’s, the child’s, and yes – and this is probably the main reason why the book will repel – the abductor’s. But in visiting all these perspectives we are offered here a genuine engagement with a chilling phenomenon. There is nothing gratuitous, either in the narrative or in the language in which it is related. There is enough to disturb and on occasion horrify, but not so much or so graphically detailed that the prurient need trouble themselves to thumb through it.
I read Daddy Love because I wanted to find out why someone would write such a book, not to mention why someone would read it. It was also a matter of trusting the author; had it been from the pen of a writer of lesser stature than Joyce Carol Oates I would almost certainly have left it alone. What I found was a harrowing but honest and powerfully affecting book. Apart from the more obvious issues it tackles, in itself it also poses interesting questions about the role of fiction. Not one for the very sensitive, but if you were happy to read Room, shouldn’t you be willing at least to try this?
Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles
Can a page-turner really be about someone trying not to damage a pristine wooden floor? The answer is yes, in this very engaging debut novel from architecture and design journalist Will Wiles. Oskar, minimalist composer and clean-freak (“What vodka does Oskar drink? Neat vodka”) has asked his friend, our narrator, to take care of his flat and two cats in an unnamed eastern European city while he heads to LA to organise his divorce. This is the premise of the novel, and to say anything more would be to risk spoiling the experience of being led, day by day, through the unfolding of our hero’s time in residence. And ‘unfolding’ is the word. There is a cumulative momentum to the plot, so if you’re the sort of person who flicks through a book before starting it, don’t.
The book is funny, at times darkly so. The prose is sharp and intelligent; the situation entirely believable, even when small events take on huge significance, and large ones somehow diminish in stature. Perhaps as a result of his journalistic training, Wiles has a wonderful way of providing detail without letting it become fussy or unnecessary.
One of our books of the year.
The Dinner, Herman Koch
The international bestseller from Dutch writer/actor Herman Koch has made it to English and looks set to be this year’s The Slap, though less crude and more focused than that book was. The book is set at a dinner for four – the narrator Paul, his brother and both of their wives – in an upmarket restaurant somewhere in Holland (Paul is careful not to name precise locations in the course of his narrative). The four have met to discuss an incident involving their teenage sons which featured on the Dutch equivalent of Crimewatch. So far the boys have remained unidentified by the police and the public at large; only their parents have recognised them from the hazy security camera footage. What would you do?
This book is a book club must. Even if your club is inclined to veer off topic, there is so much to ponder here that almost anywhere you veer will be to the point: nature v nurture; racism, political correctness; justice; morality; technology; waiters in posh restaurants . . . The list is endless. It’s a book you’ll fly through quite easily. The content is more interesting than the style (and there’s an American feel to the translation that screams, ‘Screenplay, please!’), but the questions it raises will remain with you for a long time after you finish reading.
Ancient Light, John Banville
If you’ve read John Banville’s Booker-winning The Sea, you will find in his latest book, Ancient Light, several distinct echoes. The older man looking back on a certain period of his boyhood; the infatuation of the young boy with an older woman. This is a theme that obviously intrigues Banville. Here the parallels and echoes are so strong that it almost begins to seem as though in the earlier book he was preparing a sketch to be ‘fleshed out’ later. So close in fact are some of the details – the wilful curl of hair, the fleck of tobacco on the lip, the gaze up the skirt – that one starts to wonder about autobiographical input.
Somewhat strangely, Banville professed not to have realised that Ancient Light might form the third part of a trilogy, along with Eclipse and Shroud, until the question was put to him in a recent radio interview. And indeed it does not depend in any way on either of those two, forming as it does a complete whole in and of itself. While other trilogists of the moment bang out their ephemeral fantasies on their submissive keyboards with nobody much questioning the shabby ‘message’ on offer, there will be those who will take issue with the depiction of the sexual relationship between the 15-year-old boy and the 35-year-old woman at the heart of Ancient Light. Here though, there is level upon level of meaning, of imagery, of language, none of it reducible to a single soundbite or cover blurb. (The Sebastian Barry quote that did find its way onto the cover is most peculiar: “Could any book be better? Did it even need to be as tremendous as this?” Perhaps in its original context it reads as more sincere.)
If some of the themes have been sounded before, they are themes always worth revisiting, and Banville’s prose on this occasion has reached new heights, is like clear spring water on a hot day: refreshing and restorative.
The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
Wolverine River, Alaska, 1920. Jack and Mabel, a childless couple in their middle age, have moved to a homestead in the Alaskan wilderness to start a new life and try to bury the grief they have carried for years. As the book opens, it seems as though Mabel at least has given up hope of achieving their aim. When she steps out onto the ice-covered river, peering down at the frozen bubbles and large cracks beneath, we hold our breath.
From the opening lines of this novel we are held, not only by the character of Mabel, and then of Jack, but by what is, in effect, the main character in the story – the place itself:
this strange wilderness – guarded and naked, violent and meek, tremulous in its greatness”.
Raw and unforgiving, it is also a place of great beauty, and we watch as each of the characters in his or her own way battles to an understanding of that paradox.
There is magic here (the story is based on an old Russian fairytale), but magic that seems possible; a child living in the woods, a snowflake that doesn’t melt. And there is silence, everywhere silence; the silence of a snowfall, silence full of small unfamiliar sounds, silence filled with absence. This is a truly lovely book, a hymn to a place and way of life by a writer who knows and loves them. There is an old-fashioned charm about the tale, which is told in a simple, beautiful prose. Pared clean, honest, and unpretentious, this is how to make an impression on your debut.