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Marian Keyes – The Break

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The paperback version of this book was released yesterday.

I can’t get used to living without you by my side… God knows got to make it on my own.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 658
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-91875-6
First Published: 7th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Amy has been married to Hugh for years. They have one daughter together, and they have Amy’s daughter from a previous marriage and a niece whose parents have never wanted her. Life isn’t perfect but they do okay and are fairly happy. But since Hugh’s father died, and then his best friend too, Hugh hasn’t been coping and one day he tells Amy that he needs to take a break from their marriage for six months, to go to South East Asia, live it up for a bit, and then return. It’s devastating news, but as her family remind her, it means Amy’s on a break too.

The Break is Keyes’ fifteenth full length novel and a whopper of a book. Standing at just over 650 pages (paperback, in shops as of yesterday) it is a fairly big reading commitment to make, but a heck of a good one.

Strictly speaking, the length of the book is too much – there is a lot of description that could easily have been edited out and parts of the story are drawn out too much – but the quality of the reading experience never waivers. It almost goes without saying after all this time, but Keyes’ is very good at taking a very ordinary situation and getting to the heart of the matter without it feeling so; whilst perhaps not as obviously funny as previous novels, the book sports that same light-hearted, easy reading, atmosphere as always, whilst digging deep into issues.

The first is of course the set up of the book. Devoting a great many pages to the consequences of not only Amy’s life during the break, but also spending a lot of time on the aftermath when Hugh returns, means that Keyes’ can spend a lot of time looking at the problems that outside of fiction we often want to sweep under the carpet for the sake of not looking to sentimental or depressive, bad company. This isn’t new, per se – Keyes’ This Charming Man, for example, dealt with even heavier issues very well several years ago – but the length of the book allows it to progress at a good pace; there will likely come a point where you wonder if the author ought not get to the ending already and whenever that occurs for you you’ll soon realise from the text the good reason. It’s a fair device that doesn’t often work – Keyes’ is a rare expert.

Whilst the main topic of the book is important but not, as said above, as heavy as others, there is an element of the plot that takes the story to a completely different level. Particularly in the context of the very recent Irish vote to repeal the eighth amendment, this book is incredibly timely; and in the context of its release in paperback yesterday, it’s worth picking up for the topic alone. Keyes’ explores the impact of an unwanted pregnancy on a teenager living in Ireland. The author looks at the legalities surrounding the wish for an abortion, the way the medical aspects must be attended to, the threat of prison if pills are discovered when packages enter customs from abroad, and the need and subsequent hassle and trauma of travelling to England for an abortion. Keyes does not hold back – whilst she never refers to herself the views are there prominently – and she puts forth the reality of the situation for women very well. The author also looks at the problems surrounding the public voicing of a pro-choice opinion in Ireland.

The characters are pretty great; there’s quite a lot of diversity and the plot points that arise due to the diversity round the book off well. Characters are well written and presented and a lot of time is given to the family element, where a whole other range of diversities rears its head in the family dynamics.

With such a set-up as a break, the ending of the book was always going to divide opinion, no matter which way it went. This is surely a big part of why Keyes spends so long working towards the conclusion; no matter whether you agree with the way she concludes Amy’s tale, you can at least rest assured that Keyes has provided a fully-fledged reasoning for it that works for the character’s happiness. Following this ending is a short epilogue that moves the action forward several years so that the children’s lives – whilst not the main aspect, they are a constant part of the story – can also be concluded.

The Break is a fun way to spend a chunk of your reading time – it offers an easy read but with ample things to take away, and most importantly it keeps you thinking and considering whilst you’re reading; a very good thing.

I received this book for review.

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Weike Wang – Chemistry

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In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse effect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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Manu Joseph – Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous

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Or is she?

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 211
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40810-8
First Published: 19th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The day Hindu nationalists win the elections, a building collapses; Akhila arrives as teams are trying to find survivors and she offers to crawl through a tunnel to help a man who is still alive. The man is muttering about a person on his way to commit a terror attack. A member of the two groups chasing the man and the girl sat in the passenger seat next to him, Mukundan isn’t sure what they’re doing is right, and is sure there’s a better way of extracting the girl, but his boss bids him to wait.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a work of fiction which switches back and forth between a number of narratives as the author seeks to explore social injustice in its various forms.

This is a book that is at once an easy read, an uncomfortable read, and a hard-hitting read that requires your attention. Joseph’s use of satire and general slight humour often lures you into thinking it’s a fun novel. That may be part of the point – Joseph gets his thoughts across through via an easy writing style that’s nevertheless full of report-like phrasing.

Sometimes, the style and structure makes the book hard to follow – Joseph, a journalist away from his novel writing, has chosen to write his book in a similar style, and adds to it many different points of view. As an example, you might think that Akhila Iyer, the medical student and social media prankster who targets people in or close to the political sphere, will be moonlighting as this Miss Laila, and it takes a while for Joseph to get to Miss Laila herself wherein you have to get your head around the fact they are two different people.

Joseph’s major commentary apart from the controversies surrounding Mukundan’s story is the difference between rich and poor, high caste and low caste, Hindu and Muslim, and in the context of politics, and due to the basis of fact underlining the book. There is lots to consider here, with Joseph’s bold dialogue looking at both past and near present, holding nothing back. One person named outright is the author Arundhati Roy, who Joseph speaks of in the context of the female author’s visit to the house of a very wealthy person and her views about how much money this person had compared to those nearby; Joseph takes his Akhila Iyer to Roy’s own apartment building where she conducts an interview with a woman who says similarly of Roy’s house. (Whether this is truth or fiction this reviewer cannot say.)

So, to the narratives, you have the man trapped inside a fallen building. You have the narrative of Akhila Iyer, often told in the chapters focused on Professor Vaid as her own narrative is taken up by the collapsed building; occasionally you hear from Akhila about her family, the mother that was often away helping other people as an activist, leaving her daughter to grow up without her. (A lot of Joseph’s commentary is about activism and the way it can simply just switch people’s situations until another wave of activism is required, the once powerful becoming the powerless and then powerful again.) You have the narrative of Mukundan, who tails Laila and Jamal, and the narrative Laila’s sister tells of the days before Laila left with Jamal. And you have the narrative of election winner, Damodarhabi.

A revelation comes towards the end that may lessen the impact of what you’ve read. It’s a good idea going into this book, to consider that the non-linear timeline might expand.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a difficult book to make a call on. Some of it is excellent – compelling points, good writing – but it does come across more as an essay or piece of reporting rather than a story or study.

I received this book for review.

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Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

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Homegoing was on the British Book Award shortlist for the Debut Book of the Year 2018.

History is not always confined.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97523-7
First Published: 7th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Effia’s mother tells her to keep the beginning of her menstruation a secret. It’s long been known that Effia would marry the man next in line to be Chief but Baaba has something else in mind and Effia is traded in marriage to the white governor of the Castle. As she moves away with James, Baaba tells her daughter that she is not related to her and that her mother abandoned them. As Effia’s new life begins, her unknown half-sister is taken prisoner, held with hundreds of other women, about to be sold into slavery overseas. The sisters’ situations will reverberate down the ages.

Homegoing is a superb mainly-historical novel that starts in 1700s Ghana and continues into our present century. Spanning many generations, it spends a number of pages on each character in turn, nevertheless retaining the sense that it is a novel of one story.

Gyasi has created something rather remarkable. Within moments she sucks you into the story, her use of history in all contexts – the writing of it, the knowledge included, the bringing to life – starts it off, and then her masterful characterisation ensures you don’t let go. In terms of the history, there’s a fair amount of information that often gets looked over, as well as the horrors that continue.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive and Gyasi creates the perfect balance of narrative and dialogue. It flows very well; indeed the only negative aspect of the book is the use of ‘off of’, the only thing that stunts the flow.

But at its heart, beyond the subject matter that we’ll go on to in a minute, is that characterisation. There are few books in which multiple narratives are considered to be equally fine. Gyasi’s is one of those few. No matter how invested you are in any one story (which read almost as vignettes despite the time they span; there are no complete endings within a character’s chapter, the only closure is in the descendant’s chapter) you never once feel that sense of loss so often caused by other multi-narrative novels. Would it be nice if there was more of each character’s story? Of course. But the novel does not suffer for the lack of it. The progression is natural and easy to follow; Gyasi includes hints early on and you soon get used to the flicking back and forth between bloodlines. If you do fall behind – and you will when it comes to working out which generation you’re on to – there’s a family tree in the opening pages.

As it’s pretty obvious from the start – or at least from the moment you realise how Gyasi has plotted the book – that somewhere it’s highly likely the two bloodlines will meet in some way, it’s pertinent here to say that the book isn’t predictable on that count. This isn’t your usual ‘and magic happened and they found out who each other was’. There is indeed ‘magic’ in the book – to use the phrase that people down the ages start to refer to traditional spirituality as – and yes there is a meeting of the bloodlines, but there are no unbelieveable discoveries.

On the subject of symbolism is Gyasi’s use of fire and water, with fire particularly pronounced because water is more obviously associated with the beginning. It’s a gentle, weaving sort of symbolism, that takes you through the various generations, creating an impact – the history of a people on their descendants – as well as a sort of coming-of-age, cycling, taking back ownership.

Apart from symbolism, Gyasi explores the slave trade, particularly, as said, in terms of the beginnings and early impact in Ghana. She explores the affects of the difference between the Northern and Southern states and the impact of Southern laws on free men of the North. She explores segregation, the concept of passing, and tensions and social and political problems still occurring today. These explorations are interlaced with the chapters so that black history in America as a whole is explored in depth. Again, Gyasi’s writing makes everything flow together, showing how they are both separate subjects and part of a whole, and as with everything else the author does it with aplomb.

Homegoing is the sort of novel that stays with you, that you want to return to. In the second to last chapter, Marjorie is asked by her teacher if she feels the book she is reading inside of her. I think we all know that feeling, the one that makes reading so worth it.

You may well find it in this book.

I received this book for review.

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Claire Fuller – Swimming Lessons

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Only go with the flow to a certain extent.

Publisher: Fig Tree (Penguin)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-25215-4
First Published: 26th January 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st May 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Gil sees his wife standing outside the bookshop, he runs after her, causing himself a fair injury in the process. Daughter Nan isn’t amused – Ingrid disappeared many years ago when she and her sister were children – and she’s very likely dead. But Flora sides with his father and as Gil returns home from hospital the sisters look after him, together with Richard, the man Flora had been sleeping with but had split up with, in not so many words, before she left to meet Nan. The family house is full of books which are stacked on every surface, a few layers deep – Gil has an obsession with finding secondhand books that hold receipts, letters, and marginalia. Mixed in with this story is that of Ingrid’s version of her marriage to Gil, told in letters, that she had slipped in between the pages of various relevant titles.

Swimming Lessons is an utterly sensational novel of truths and lies, mystery and a spot of magical realism, and regret, all held together by the theme of literature and writing. Ingrid’s tale begins at university where she studied English and met Gil, her lecturer. Their story moves on from there, with Gil’s friends warning Ingrid about Gil’s personality and the university putting its foot down. The chapters set in the present abound with literary ideas, criticism, and general conversation.

“Writing does not exist unless there is someone to read it, and each reader will take something different from a novel, from a chapter, from a line. A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader.”

“…often the only way to see what a reader thought, how they lived when they were reading, is to examine what they left behind. All these words… are about the reader. The specific individual – man, woman, or child – who left something of themselves behind.”

This means that whilst the subject of the book, or, rather, subjects, can get pretty dark, the wonders of the text keep you in a positive state. The darker side of the novel – Ingrid’s revelations, which are effectively revelations to the reader, and the question as to what happened to Ingrid – are written superbly; Fuller’s writing style, plotting, and subsequent literary execution are absolutely marvelous to the point that the book is just as good to read for its prose as it is for the way it unravels its subjects. A good use of the present day setting and decades past round out the writing.

As for the characters they are very well drawn and feel far from fictional. Fuller references I Capture The Castle, and there are, in Ingrid’s love of the beach and writing of it, potential allusions to The Awakening (‘potential’ due to the book not being referenced). In the idea of Ingrid having been lost to the sea there is a minor reference to Virginia Woolf. The inter-textual nature of the book enhances both the atmosphere and the characterisation and also leading you to think that situations may match those in the older novels (which can be the case but not always). Gil has a writing room to which no one else is allowed entry. Flora is often naked. Ingrid found her changed life difficult. Like Fuller’s previous book, Our Endless Numbered Days, Swimming Lessons looks a little at neglectful parenting and favouritism.

This book pairs joyous reader escapism with some uncomfortable subjects. It is a good idea to go in prepared for a blunt look at what can be hidden under the surface, of parenting, of marriage, and then give your all to it. Because it’s a triumph; not the sort of characters you might want to spend real time with but the book itself, everything about it, oh heck yes.

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