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Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

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A subway before there was a subway.

Publisher: Fleet (Little, Brown)
Pages: 364
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-708-89840-6
First Published: 2nd August 2016
Date Reviewed: 29th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

When Caesar approaches Cora to ask her to run away from the plantation with him, she considers it for a short while before agreeing – it’s an incredibly dangerous idea but even her fellow slaves are against her and she feels it is worth the likely death to escape. What she doesn’t know is that Caesar has chosen her due to her own mother’s escape and presumed freedom. They may be able to make it to an underground railroad station and hitch a ride on a locomotive that will take them on the first leg of their journey. The railroad has various stations dotted about the country, and it is up to the individual runaway as to whether they stay in a particular place or return to the train and keep travelling.

(The ‘underground railroad’ is a widely known fact of history in the States – any readers who are from other countries that do not cover the railroad in their general curriculum and don’t know about it, will want to read up on it whether before or after having read the book1.)

The Underground Railroad is a historical fantasy about the American slave trade and slavery, and about the country’s history with race as a whole. Using both history from the slavery era and the further racial discrimination that followed in the decades after abolition, Whitehead’s book is both a stunningly creative look at the country’s growth as a nation, and a fantastic commentary and criticism of the same.

This is very much a plot-and-commentary-driven novel. Whitehead has himself said that his initial idea was of what would happen if the underground railroad had been a real train2. He has also said that this choice to make the fantastical railroad the central element of the book allowed him to play with time and different elements of history3.

The other patrollers were boys and men of bad character; the work attracted a type. In another country they would have been criminals, but this was America.

The book starts at a plantation and shows not only the violence and hatred of the slave owners (the book in general is very violent, with Whitehead including various punishments in a way some primary sources do not, his novel making up for the relative censorship in those books) but the hierarchy and violence that arose as a natural consequence of a situation that caused everyone to be focused on their own survival at the detriment of others. As the train takes Cora – the narrative mostly concerns her – to different Southern States, Whitehead uses these assorted pauses to look at different ideas and acted-out discriminatory practices that were not a part of the exact historical time Cora is living in but were a part of the future decades.

This altering of history creates another fantasy thread in the book, though not nearly as close to ‘fantasy’ as the railroad; Cora steps into situations that you’ll rightly see are at odds with the places that came before it. In one such case, the technology in the State seems too far advanced for a short train journey away. Here, mandatory regular health checks for black people in a state that gives them education, housing (if in a dormitory), and relatively lowly jobs, seem at first a thoughtful acknowledgement of escaped slaves’ trauma… until the doctor offers Cora a not-so-elective-as-described sterilisation, discussing how the state is working on health ideas and performing surgeries on black women who have had a couple of children.

The whites came to this land for a fresh start and to escape the tyranny of their masters, just as the freemen had fled theirs. But the ideals they held up for themselves, they denied others. Cora had heard Michael recite the Declaration of Independence back on the Randall plantation many times, his voice drifting through the village like an angry phantom. She didn’t understand the words, most of them at any rate, but created equal was not lost on her. The white men who wrote it didn’t understand it either, if all men did not truly mean all men. Not if they snatched away what belonged to other people, whether it was something you could hold in your hand, like dirt, or something you could not, like freedom. The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib.

Stolen bodies working stolen land.

Whitehead’s commentary on this and other subjects is incredibly blunt yet never leaves that element of fantasy out; it’s safe to say he’s providing a damning criticism but he does what he can to make you question the reality of different concepts. (Though again, as with the railroad, if your knowledge of American history is solid you’ll probably see a lot more of the facts amongst the fiction without having to look them up.)

And then Whitehead returns to the train and gives you a break for a moment so you can consider what you’ve read and consider what might lay ahead. In a similar way he uses chapter breaks for the different States, and changes the character discussed from Cora to a variety of secondary characters. The novel is written in the third person – with one excellent diversion into first person for Caesar’s story – and mainly concerns Cora; Whitehead changes perspective to give details of a scene that Cora is not privvy to, scenes that further explore the purpose of the novel and add different voices and historical perspectives to it. There are notes about laws, and chapters begin with ‘reward’ notices for anyone who turns in the escaped slave discussed within – these appear to be primary sources.

Backing up the story and the commentary is an unsurprisingly good use of language. Whitehead uses controversial words when warranted; as with everything else this book uses extremes in order to display the history correctly and get to the point.

Certainly you have to suspend some belief for the book – a railroad that stretches for hundreds, maybe thousands of miles, created by slaves and only shut down in sections a long time after it was created (the creation itself being a metaphor) – but no more so than at the end, which will produce in you one (or more) of a few possible conclusions as to what has happened, each in turn adding to the various metaphors and making you question everything you’ve already read.

It’s astounding.

The Underground Railroad is not a book to read with a cosy cup of tea and it’s not one to be rushed (as this library user did when the return date crept up on her). It requires your attention, your time, and in a few places your willingness to search for third-party information. For your efforts you will be handsomely rewarded.

Footnotes

1 The historical reality of the railroad, far from Whitehead’s fantastical re-imagining – that many readers have likened to their initial, childhood, conceptions of it – was a secret network of black people, both free men and women and escaped slaves, as well as supportive white people and Native Americans, who aided the escape of slaves from plantations in the Southern States to states further north, and often as far as Canada. The railroad was a network that traded coded information to allow the movements of escapees to pass between them so that various people could aid their escape – the network had people who would themselves visit plantations, people who would house escapees along their route, and people who would work to disrupt the success of any slave owners or slave catchers from using the law to get people back. I’ve written the basics here – the information in the Wikipedia article on the Underground Railroad should suffice in terms of understanding the background to Whitehead’s re-imagining of the network.
2 ‘Before there was Cora, or any other possible protagonist, I was sittin’ around thinking “What if instead of a metaphor, the Underground Railroad was a real train?” So the concept came first before the characters.’ (Whitehead, 2018)
3 ‘…Once I made the choice to have this central fantastic element of a literal underground railroad, it allowed me to play with time and bring in elements of The Holocaust, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and things like that.’ (Whitehead, 2016)

Online References

Whitehead, Colson (2016) Colson Whitehead’s Subterranean Odyssey, Electric Literature, accessed 28th October 2018.

Whitehead, Colson (2018) Re: I’m author Colson Whitehead – just another down on his luck carny with a pocketful of broken dreams – AMA, Reddit, accessed 28th October 2018.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Fourth Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 475
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-35634-8
First Published: 14th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

Ifemelu met Obinze at a party – everyone expected him to be interested in one of her friends. After an initial romance, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to go to university in America, and once there she comes to discover that she is black. Working as a writer in the industry, she later starts a blog on the subject of race in America, becoming very popular. Meanwhile Obinze looks to get into Britain, but finds it hard to gain a visa despite his status in Nigeria. He doesn’t understand why Ifemelu ended contact, and sometimes, neither does she.

The above is the bare basics of this complex book. Americanah is both a commentary on the concept of race in America – African American, black, in particular – and a romance with a bit of ‘finding oneself’ included. Told in sections, moving between Ifemelu and Obinze, and moving back and forward in time, it studies its major subject to excellent effect.

The variety of conversation in this book would be difficult to list, especially without spoiling some of the plot. It is huge, encompassing a great many thoughts, general ideas, specifics, and from all manner of viewpoints; the characters’ moves from Nigeria to America, and Nigeria to London, enable Adichie to study her subject thus. There’s the Nigerian perspective that takes into account the perspective of the African continent in general through the use of other characters, and how ‘black’ isn’t a thing there. There’s the concept of there being no such thing as race, from various perspectives, and the breaking down into pieces of all of them as commentary. Adichie uses Ifemelu’s experiences her, with the character experiencing racism as a new ‘black’ person, the conversations black Americans have amongst themselves and with others of different races, conversations where Ifemelu is the only non-white person, and so on. The character tends to question everything. And then there are her own thoughts, that are used for her blog, her commentary drawn from her boyfriends, and various privileges.

What’s interesting here – beyond all of the above, of course – is that Ifemelu isn’t a particularly likeable person; the author has commentary happen through the use of the character but not only develops her into her own person away from that but makes it so that you’ve a mix of stunning inner thoughts and actions that aren’t always nice, are, in fact, often selfish. It’s a bold move on Adichie’s part that rounds off the whole novel with aplomb. Ifemelu is nice enough for you to keep reading, and then there’s Obinze to take over when she becomes too much, his character representation an entirely different world to the one Ifemelu moves in and objectively being a much better character in terms of reader enjoyment. His life in Britain offers the perspective of immigrants in the current political climate – that which would soon aid the lead to a Brexit vote – poverty, and the working class in general. (The book was written before Brexit; there is more of a focus on the reason for immigration on those who travel, rather than the thoughts of those already in the country.) Obinze’s life is more of an extra when it comes to commentary; Adichie uses him more for general narrative purposes and the novel is all the stronger for it, having therefore both a good plot and good commentary.

The romance is very much a secondary, almost tertiary part of the novel. Due to Ifemelu’s personality and choices it is obviously not developed as much as it might have been otherwise but is still written well in accordance with the rest – it’s a romance that’s not great because it’s been planned to be so.

There is a general look at Nigeria on its own terms, both at the beginning before Ifemelu’s move and some increases in time spent on it as Ifemelu inevitably compares her life before and after.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Americanah minors in books – it’s a book about books. The main characters share a love of literature, particularly classics and famous contemporary books, and there are a good few discussions. Literature and literary education is one of the main factors of their chemistry, and Adichie, somewhat understandably for an author, doesn’t scrimp on details.

Americanah is a feat of writing. The sheer amount of commentary included, the number of angles and takes on each subject and the dedication to covering it in detail is incredible. There’s a reason this book is so long. To read it is to take on a study, but also a tome full of enjoyment. It is quite an undertaking but it’s worth it.

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Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

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When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

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Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

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No tilting at windmills, but plenty of running away from ordinary folk who might be out to get you.

Publisher: N/A (The one shown is Oxford University Press)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: June 1752
Date Reviewed: 6th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Arabella had a solitary childhood; taking up her deceased mother’s book collection, she read widely – or so she thinks. When her uncle and cousins come to stay, they find a a very well composed woman who, as the days go on, is discovered to have gained all her knowledge of life from romance novels which she believes are factual. And whilst admittedly no one will simply tell her the truth, she will not listen to anyone’s misgivings. Her slow entry into society will be full of mishaps and confusion, and the gulf between her knowledge of history and everyone’s will continue to baffle her.

The Female Quixote is a comedy of errors that looks to the romances of centuries prior in a parody of Cervantes’ epic, Don Quixote (1605-1615). Changing the situation to the life a high-born bookish lady, the book is a satire of the work of medieval writers, displaying just how much fiction about the ancient world is different to the then-present day and how reading without context can be a problem. Mostly, though, it’s just a lot of fun – for however much it may or may not have been written to denigrate romantic novels, its focus is on hilarity.

…She gave herself over for lost, and fell back in her chair in a swoon, or something she took for a swoon, for she was persuaded it could happen no otherwise…

The humour is constant – laugh-out-loud, and often very silly. It’s split into a few areas – the humour that comes from Arabella’s solitary musings on what ‘should’, in her mind, be happening at any given time; the humour created by the confusion of her relatives and friends who don’t understand what’s going on because they’ve no knowledge of these supposedly famous historic figures Arabella talks about; the humour that arises from Arabella running away, or thinking she might faint because that’s what ought to happen. The interactions between Arabella and her servant are particularly good, and there’s much mirth to be had in the way that Arabella expects a medieval, no, ancient, sort of courting, which include things no suitor in reality would do.

After a while, the jokes do become a bit too much. Around the late double digit pages, it starts to feel not forced, exactly – because it isn’t – but just drawn out. As with many older text this is where the difference in literary culture becomes particularly apparent – in a slower-paced, 1700s society, the continuation of jokes were likely well-received. (The book was very popular in its day, though its fall from the public sphere was fairly sudden.)

Unfortunately, some of the length of the book is down to the opinion of Samuel Richardson:

‘Richardson… sent suggested revisions to Lennox in response to her being “apprehensive of Matter falling short for two Vols”. Having expanded the novel along the lines suggested by Richardson, by early 1752 Lennox felt that she would need a third volume to complete the novel.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Richardson wrote on 13th January 1752, telling her,

‘You should finish your Heroine’s cure in the present Vols… the method you propose tho’ it might flatter my Vanity, yet will be thought a contrivance between the Author of Arabella, and the Writer of Clarissa.” He further suggests that by making ‘your present Work as complete as you can, in two Volumes… it will give Consequence to your future writings, and of course to your Name as a Writer.’ Pursuant to completing the novel, Richardson advised Lennox ‘to consult Mr. Johnson before you resolve.’ (Ibid.)

Whilst the first draft was undoubtedly longer than an editor today might suggest, those incorporated suggestions surely made it more so. Indeed there are a couple of occasions where Arabella is on track to be told that everything she has learned is from exaggerated fictional accounts until the author brings in a literary device and quashes the possibility.

So this is where your reason for reading comes into play: the book was written in the 1700s for a 1700s audience (we can assume Richardson was on the ball there). If you’re reading the book to get a sense of literature, and parody, in that period, it’s a lot better than if you’ve picked it up purely for pleasure.

Lennox breaks the fourth wall on a constant basis; the break is as much an element of the book as the parody itself, with Lennox informing the reader of the contents of the chapter ahead, cluing them in as to details her characters are yet to discover, and subtly hinting as to the issues that arise with taking fiction – or rather certain fiction – seriously.

An example of a chapter subtitle: “In which a lover is severely punished for faults which the reader never would have discovered, if he had not been told.” Foreshadowing of the reader’s reality happens constantly and there is irony in the way that Lennox makes sure you know exactly where she is coming from – she wouldn’t want you to become even a little like Arabella! The use of ‘he’ in terms of the reader is perhaps telling – does she think her readers would likely be male? Is she writing directly to Richardson and Samuel Johnson (another person she looked up to)? It’s a cautionary tale – be careful when reading books… but do read this one!

Going back to the denigration of epic romances, one must consider this context as much as they should the parody aspect. By Lennox’s time, romance novels were seen as frivolous and silly:

‘Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote… seems to join a persuasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years.’ (Gordon, 1998)

A turning point in the literary culture in Britain, this idea is heavily supported by Lennox’s text:

…in which, unfortunately for her, were great store of romances, and, what was still more unfortunate, not in the original French, but very bad translations.

One of the reasons the novel can become boring as it continues is Arabella’s need to describe scenes and stories from her books; she comes to realise that few know about the ‘history’ of the ancients as well as she does (rather than question whether she’s got it wrong). This is an occasion where you could ask a person from centuries in the past what a common term meant and they would be able to tell you correctly – what Arabella does is best summed up as ‘splaining.

Of course whether or not Lennox herself ascribed to the notion that romance was frivolous is something we may never know. It could be that for all she wrote in Arabella, it could have been a way to write romance without writing romance.

Literary devices abound in the way the other characters suffer an inability to tell Arabella that what she has read is fiction. Glanville, the cousin/suitor, is often ‘confused’, and this raises two questions: why does Glanville allow the woman he supposedly loves to embarrass herself? And why does he remain interested in her? His sister, Miss (Charlotte) Glanville, despite being presented as spiteful, ends up becoming the most sensible and relatable character in the book, interrupting Arabella’s grand info-dumps; if it weren’t for Lennox’s devices, Miss Glanville would have told Arabella the truth towards the start of their acquaintance… but then, alas!, we would have a novella instead of a novel.

Does your Ladyship consider how late it is? Interrupted Miss Glanville, who had hitherto very impatiently listened to her. Don’t let us keep the gentlemen waiting any longer for us. I must inform you how the prince of Persia declared his love for the incomparable Berenice, said Arabella. Another time, dear cousin, said Miss Glanville; methinks we have talked long enough upon this subject.

If you are expecting a grand ending, whether full of fainting and forsooths or just some reasonable changing of character, you may be disappointed. Whilst over a chapter is spent on a conversation better Arabella and a doctor, the relative suddenness of Arabella’s ‘cure’ is hard to believe and any thoughts you had of seeing Arabella progress in society are not realised in the book. Indeed, the ending was written with Lennox’s mentors firmly in mind:

‘The weakest part of the novel, critics have agreed, is the conclusion and her decision to depart from her usual style to show her esteem for Johnson by an exaggerated imitation of his style was not a good one.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Brack and Carlile, among others, believe that the penultimate chapter, and part of the last chapter, may actually be the work of Johnson himself. I myself don’t know enough to comment: the chapter is more verbose, dare I say more academically written, perhaps, but then the doctor is obviously a learned character. That the Lady who befriended Arabella – prior to the doctor’s entrance in the novel – with a view to getting her out of her thoughts, didn’t get authorial leave to complete her mission, does suggest in our present day the leaning towards a man having to do it, whether simply Lennox’s choice of a doctor or Johnson taking over.

So, with all this said, is the book worth reading? As said previously, it’s better as a study than an escape. If you want to know about the 1700s without so many of the stereotypes – or at least with the stereotypes used as stereotypes – it’s a good choice. You only need a basic knowledge of Cervantes to enjoy it (though you’ll doubtless find more to appreciate if your knowledge is extensive). You’ll also gain knowledge of another popular 1700s novel, one that is slowly becoming more well-known in our present day. And, of course, you’ll gain a whole heap of knowledge about medieval romances without having to read them, which is a tremendous boon when you consider that the one most referred to is the longest novel published by a mainstream publisher and stands at a whopping 13,095 pages.

But there is one more reason for reading that only becomes apparent once you begin (or, of course, if you’ve heard about it, as you are now): The Female Quixote was a major inspiration (I’d put money on it being the inspiration) for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; the premise of a reader believing fiction inspires reality, the breaking of the fourth wall in such a similar way, the writing style… even the prefaces of the two books are similar in tone. Lennox’s book isn’t as fun as Austen’s, but if you want to understand the background of Austen’s book, Lennox’s text is one to read. And yes, it’s fascinating that Lennox’s is the one book not mentioned by Austen – perhaps that was taking the intertextuality a little too far. If you want to know the meaning of ‘meta’, ask Austen.

Read this book, just remember one important thing – none of it exists outside the confines of its pages.

References

Brack Jr, O M, and Carlile, Susan, (April 2003) Samuel Johnson’s Contributions to Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote”, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 77, No. 3-4, pp. 166-173
Gordon, Scott Paul, (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp.499-516.

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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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