Tag Archives: love story

The Skating Rink (1993) – Roberto BOLAÑO

I’m still working my way through Bolaño’s backlist, so that when I do get around to reading 2666, I will be well and truly prepared. The Skating Rink is his first published novel, and shows his first step away from the poetry he so loved, to the prose fiction he wrote to support his family. As such, it doesn’t hit the highs that his later works, such as The Savage Detectives does, but it is still a novel that stands up on its own two feet.

Three men in a small town in Spain are caught up in a crime not even they could imagine. Remo Morán is a successful businessman; Gaspar Heredia a nighwatchman in one of Morán’s trailer park; and Enric Rosquelles, a rather corrupt official of the town council. Taking it in turns to narrate the events leading up to the horrific crime, each man gives us his own version of events. And you’ll never guess who done it…

I’ve tagged this as a crime novel, but the only reason is that a murder that does take place. Really, it is the story of three men in love with two women, matches that are desperately unsuitable, and will make the men do stupid things. The eponymous skating rink, for example, is built by Rosquelles for Nuria Martí, the girl skating prodigy, screwed over by regional politics, and forced to leave the national skating team. He falls in love with her, and builds a skating rink in an abandoned castle on the outskirts of town, using council money for the construction.

For a woman who plays a fairly large role in the proceedings, Nuria is surprisingly ciper-like in her appearances. She barely speaks, and spends most of her time silently skating on the rink which has been built especially for her. Perhaps, though, this is what Bolaño was trying to achieve, for in the end, this is not a book about Nuria, despite her rather unfortunate end. I kind of like Rosquelles, even though he’s clearly corrupt, and clearly not a particularly nice man. It’s a great image – building a skating rink in the middle of an abandoned castle for a girl you love, even if the gesture is fairly misguided, and ultimately fatal.

Gaspar Heredia is perhaps the most easily recognisable character to those people who already have some familiarity with Bolaño’s other work. He is a poet from Mexico, and is eking a living out of doing rubbish jobs, and chasing girls around the trailer park, which is populated by a whole load of strange and wonderful personalities. Problematically, though, his narrative strand takes, for a long time, a backseat to the main action, and every time his point of view comes around, you are left wondering what on earth he has to do with the main event. His interactions with a homeless opera singer, and a mysterious woman who has a rather unfortunate tendency to wield knives in public places, are interesting, though ultimately confusing. It is not until the closing pages that everything comes together, and you are left wondering if the whole thing couldn’t have been a little tighter, and more controlled.

Arguably the biggest problem, though, with The Skating Rink is the fact that all three characters have voices that sound very, very similar. I understand that creating three distinct voices in a novel can be difficult, and Bolaño did it to perfection in The Savage Detectives, but here, it doesn’t quite work. They all seem disillusioned, sad, and desperately in love with a woman that they shouldn’t be.

This is not, perhaps, the most positive review of this novel you’re likely to find as you trawl the internet. It is clear that this is Bolaño’s first attempt at proper prose fiction, and there are a lot of flaws. I’m not sure it has a lot of appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Bolaño fan, and if you’re looking for a starting point into his work, I rather think The Savage Detectives is far more interesting, and a far greater indication of his genius.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot DÍAZ

One of the things I love about second-hand bookstores is that you can find things for cheap that you might have been unsure about buying. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of these, and after it languished on my pile for a long time, I finally picked it up, needing something a little bit different to all the older, translated stuff I’ve been ploughing through lately.

Oscar de León is the latest in a long line of de Leons whose life is less than stellar. He is overweight, boring, depressed, and unloved by almost every girl he meets. To understand why his life is so terrible, our narrator takes us back to the Dominican Republic, and several decades, and tells us the story of the de León family, and what is was that has caused all this bad luck for the family.

Before reading this, I was deeply ignorant of the history of the Dominican Republic. Fortunately, our intrepid narrator assumes every reader has a similar level of knowledge, and fills in the gaps. Tying a family’s history to that of a country has been done time and time again (see The Stranger’s Child, for example), but when you don’t know anything about the history of the country, it becomes even more of an interesting read. Fortunately, the history lesson never overshadows the story of the characters, which is also nice. Díaz is particularly concerned with painting Rafael Trujillo, the insane dictator of the Domonican Republic for much of the century, as just that – an insane man. This sense of irreverence really works – just as Hitler was made fun of in Doctor Who this year, so too is Trujillo ridiculed through his actions in the novel.

I mention Doctor Who for two reasons. The first is that I watch far too much of it for my own good, and the second being that Díaz has peppered this novel with pop culture references like nobody’s business. Superman, Batman, and a myriad of other superheroes get a look in here – and I don’t know whether to be proud or saddened because I understand almost all of them. Pop culture – and comic culture, in particular – references can be cheesy when used by an author trying desperately to be hip, cool and postmodern – and while Díaz is all of those things, it never feels like he’s trying too hard to portray this image. It flows naturally and logically from the voice of the narrator.

I don’t want to tell you who the narrator is – suffice it to say, it is one of the minor characters in the novel – but there’s a lot to be said for the voice. It is postmodern, complete with self-reflexive moments, as well as copious footnotes and asides. We are constantly reminded of the fact that the narrator is relating to us the story of the de León family as told to us by Oscar Wao. He freely admits that there are things within the story he himself does not understand – particularly the question of the fukú, and whether this curse is real.

Oscar himself is somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the narrative Díaz takes us on. More than anything, this is the story of women – particularly the de León family women. Oscar’s sister, Lola, and their mother, Beli, have a fractious relationship, clashing because neither understands the other. Beli, brought up in the Dominican Republic by her father’s cousin, La Inca, cannot fathom Lola’s American ways. Beli, too, has a turbulent relationship with her guardian, La Inca, and their constant fights mean they do not speak to each other for a very long time.

We then jump even further back, and explore the lives of Beli’s family, and the origin of the curse – Oscar’s grandfather, and the “Bad Thing he said about Trujillo.” Once again, Trujillo’s figure looms large, and his effect on the de León family can be seen as some kind of metaphor for his effect on the Dominican Republic on a larger scale. Clearly, Díaz has a bone to pick – and fair enough, really.

This is not just another ethnic novel about the growing Hispanic and Caribbean population of the United States. Díaz concerns himself with universal themes about the relationships between men and women, about the stories of families and how their history informs their current way of life, and about survival. The characters of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao do not get off lightly. They are put through the wringer again and again, but most of them survive. Whether this survival is worth it, though, is something you will have to work out for yourself.

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The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey EUGENIDES

Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novel, Middlesex, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 – it’s an excellent novel, and you should all check it out if you haven’t already. But that was eight years ago, which is a long time between drinks. I didn’t even know he’d written anything new until a reading copy turned up at work the other day, which was a pleasant surprise. I finally got around to reading it, and proceeded to lose a whole load of sleep, staying up and reading this rather excellent novel.

It’s 1982, Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate from Brown University. Her obsession with Victorian literature is derided by her classmates – this is the time of Derrida and post-modernism, there’s no room for traditional love stories here. Her boyfriend, Leonard, is having something of a breakdown. And her friend Mitchell has decided that he wants to marry her. As the three of them graduate, they must begin to face the real world, and real decisions that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

The title is a literary term that describes the plot of a whole raft of nineteenth century novels which are concerned with a young woman marrying the right man. Inevitably, they end with the young woman finding her man, and getting married like she should. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s, as well as the increasing divorce rates, it is something of an ironic title. There is one marriage in the novel, though it does tend to subvert the traditional marriage plot. This is not a happy ending kind of novel, either, though there is a sense of hope in the closing pages.

By splitting the characters up for the majority of the novel, Eugenides allows at least two and a half discrete plots to take place. Perhaps most interesting is Mitchell’s, who decides to take a gap year after graduation, and travels to Europe with his best friend with the intention of slowly making their way to India. For Mitchell, religion is something at once to be studied and to be lived. He is ostensibly Christian, though his constant questioning of both his own faith, and others’, means he is not defined by his belief. Indeed, when he finally does make it to India, he volunteers at a charity hospital run by Mother Teresa, though as he soon discovers, doing good in the world is not as easy as it sounds. He is the epitome of the recently graduated university student trying to find himself by travelling the world, and the fact that he fails time and time again at this quest is refreshingly honest.

Madeleine seems the most grounded of the three characters,  and the anchor of the novel, she gets the most point of view chapters. Her falling in love with Leonard is nice, and her feelings of betrayal when he is unkind to her are keenly felt. Her decision to stay with Leonard after finding out about his condition is clearly motivated by good intentions, though whether it is good for her remains another matter. Despite the advice from her hilariously rich parents, (or indeed, perhaps because of it – there’s a lot of parent angst from the three leads) she stays with him because she feels responsible for him. She is a fundamentally good person, and her quirky old-school love of Victoriana is a pleasant contrast to the wall of post-modern pretentiousness that her fellow classmates spout.

Eugenides covers a lot of ground stylistically, too. The Marriage Plot opens as something of a campus novel, complete with weird lecturers, annoying classmates, and drunken hijinks at college. Slowly, though, we shift away to a far wider reaching narrative – both physically and thematically. We travel from Brown University to New Jersey to New York to Paris to Athens to India, and each one is there for a reason. There are echoes of Franzen’s The Corrections here, too, partially because of the wide canvas they both have, as well as the themes of family and love in modern America, but I think Eugenides manages to tie his overseas sections with the overarching American themes better than Franzen managed in his novel.

This novel spoke to me at a particularly personal level – I, too, am about to graduate from university, and so seeing these three characters try and deal with leaving that safe bubble, and moving into the real world was something I really connected with. The speed with which the trio are plunged into real-world issues is frightening – Madeleine doesn’t even make it to her graduation ceremony before something far more important takes place. All of a sudden, the ridiculous conversations she has had with people in tutes about whether love is a construction, about whether life is really real, become shallow and unreal. Her choice – Leonard or Mitchell – cannot simply be based on theories of love and societal constructions of love, it must be done with thinking about the real-life implications of all three people involved.

The Marriage Plot confirms Jeffrey Eugenides as one of the most interesting American writers of our time. From the minutiae of English literary criticism – along with a LOT of references to other texts, to big themes of love, family and religion, he has written another thoroughly excellent novel. Check it out – it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.

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The Monsoon Bride (2011) – Michelle Aung THIN

One of the many benefits of working at a bookstore is that publishers send us ARCs (advance reading copies) of books for us staff to read, so we know what’s going on. The combination of debut Australian novelist, and Asia, and historical novel makes me very interested in a novel, so I grabbed this off the giant pile. And thanks to the wonders of technology, I’ve written this review at the beginning on July, even though you’re reading it at the end of August.

It’s 1930. The British are in Burma, and are showing no signs of leaving. Winsome, a half-Burmese, half-English young woman who has grown up in a convent, has just been married to Desmond, a doctor’s assistant. They move to Rangoon, where Winsome deals with her unhappy marriage by working in a photography studio. But when Desmond’s plan to ingratiate them into the higher classes requires Winsome’s help, he doesn’t realise the chaos this simple act will create.

I read a rather interesting essay by Thin, who talks about her worries that people will be put off by the word ‘bride’ in the title, something she did not want. It’s a good point – how a book is marketed will influence everything about the way it is received by booksellers, by reviewers, and by the general public. So I was expecting something pretty good from

It’s disappointing, then, that I have to say that this is not a very good novel. I’m still not quite sure what the point of it is. The basic triangle in the middle of this novel is hardly new – in historical times, a woman married to someone she didn’t choose finds sexual liberation in a man (or woman) outside of the marriage. We’ve all seen it before, and it takes a gifted author to bring something new to the table, or to make us feel surprised and excited about reading it again.

It rather sounds like I think Thin is a bad writer, which is slightly unfair. I don’t think she is – she hits all the right notes with nice descriptions of Rangoon, and I should make particular mention of the fact that she uses language to invoke a physicality that strikes you. Her use of smell descriptions are really well done, and while I’m fully aware that Vietnam is not Burma, having been to the former, and assuming they are vaguely similar, the portrait of the city is nicely done. But relying on your setting to tell a story that’s not all that interesting seems like a big gamble.

The biggest problem with The Monsoon Bride is that, for the first 150 pages or so, absolutely nothing of any consequence happens. Winsome gets married, her husband (surprise, surprise) turns out to be a giant douche, she falls in love with another man – and it all feels so inconsequential. I just didn’t care, which is perhaps, for me, the worst thing that can happen while reading a novel. Winsome lacks any kind of motivation as a main character, and she actually comes off as needy and whiny for a large portion of the novel. There’s several scenes where she lies at home, waiting for her lover to come, worried that he doesn’t love her any more. It doesn’t really scream feminism to me. I know that not everything has to, but it just feels a big wrong. Indeed, the character that was easiest to understand was Desmond, her husband. Completely unlikeable, of course, but his motivations made sense, and I could believe in him as a person.

The final 50 pages then present us with a weird situation, with absolutely no signposting. I’m not going to spoil it, but the whole ending feels tacked on, as though Thin had run out of things to talk about (worrying, since there’s not much going on), and decided to get on a soapbox about how bad colonisation is. Which, once again, is something that has already been done by one or two people.

I rather suspect that The Monsoon Bride would be an excellent short story. It has all those ethereal qualities you look for in a good short story, and characters that are sketched out enough for you to imagine the rest of their lives in that one reading you give to a short story. But for a full length novel, the whole thing feels stretched and shallow, leaving us with not much to talk about.

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Sarah Thornhill (2011) – Kate GRENVILLE

Kate Grenville’s follow-up to The Secret River and The Lieutenant has no doubt been anticipated by many people, though it appears to have been released to not a great deal of fanfare. And with a terrible cover. Why this is, I don’t know. Grenville is one of the best Australian novelists working at the moment, and her stuff – particularly her historical stuff – always provides an interesting view on Australian history, and what it means to be an Australian now.

Sarah Thornhill has grown up on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, with her rather large family. Her father, William Thornhill, has made a life for them, despite being a former convict, and wants his children to be better than he could ever be. But when Sarah realises she loves Jack Langland, a friend of her brother’s, a man whose mother was Aboriginal, she doesn’t realise the implications this relationship will have on her family, on Jack, and on the way she views the world.

Readers be warned: as opposed to The Lieutenant, which picks up some of the themes and ideas, this is a direct sequel to The Secret River, so while you probably don’t have to have read the first in order to enjoy this, certain events in the former are vitally important to understanding the message that Grenville is trying to get across here.

The love story central to the beginning of the novel is quite well done, and I like the idea of what’s going on here. I mentioned when I reviewed Caleb’s Crossing, I was glad Brooks didn’t go for the obvious “white girl falls in love with untouchable native man” story. But that feels more comfortable here, particularly when their love does come out – the idea that Jack is a good man, up until the point of sleeping with a white girl, is vital to the story here, and fits in with Grenville’s explorations of the white/black Australia relationship. Jack leaves Sarah when he is told something by her mother, something that enrages him so much, he can no longer stand to be around Sarah or her family, and he disappears off into the river, assumingly never to be seen again.

Rachel – the girl “rescued” from her New Zealand family, and brought kicking and screaming into white Australia is interesting, too. The bastard daughter of Sarah’s older brother, she is brought to the Hawkesbury on the whim of William Thornhill who, as it turns out, is a man wracked with guilt over the events of The Secret River. He wants to atone for his mistakes, and for him, the best way to do that is to take this girl, and give her a “proper” life, away from the savages of her maternal family. Unsurprisingly, this is not a good idea, and the attempts to “civilise” Rachel will be familiar to those who are in any way familiar with the history of the Stolen Generation. Sarah is uncomfortable with this course of action – having seen what= happened to Jack, who in many ways is a precursor to Rachel – but is unable to do anything about it, caught up in her own worries.

We eventually discover what Sarah’s mother said to Jack, forcing him to leave the picture – that William Thornhill is responsible for the massacre that killed his family and tribe – Grenville’s message begins to come into focus. Sarah’s reaction to this, the fact that she is part of a society built on a cruel and unusual turning point, is perhaps what we, as modern Australians should feel when we, too, realise the same thing. Sarah’s grief at hearing about the massacre is tangible, and forces her to consider what it means to be a white Australian – as someone born to English parents in New South Wales, she has never known any other home, but at the same time, her feelings of guilt force her to question her place in this land.

Her reactions to this guilt will no doubt be familiar to many of us – she begins to hand out food and clothing to the Aboriginal tribes living around her property, as though this one act of charity will absolve her of all past wrongs. Of course, this has no effect on anything, and deep down, Sarah knows this. The only way forward is to right the wrongs for which she is directly responsible. In this case, it means doing something to absolve herself of the problem of Rachel. Sarah’s actions may be surprising to some readers, but I think it makes a lot of sense, and her own turmoil – whether to stay with her happy family, or be a part of something much bigger – plays a large part in this final act.

So much in Sarah Thornhill is about guilt – the guilt white Australians feel about . And this is what historical fiction at its best should be – a story about the past that informs and comments on contemporary society. Grenville offers some answers to this guilt, but nothing so concrete as to preach. Her message of understanding, and of truthfully telling the past, is one that resonated with me, and hopefully will resonate with the wider Australian, and international, readership.

Oh, and there’s a hilariously bitchy comment in the afterward, where Grenville snipes at her critics (no doubt Inga Clendinnen at the front of her mind), and reminds us all that this is a work of fiction, not of historiography. Amazing.

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The Hurricane Party (2007) – Klas ÖSTERGREN

Borders has closed in Australia (woot!), and in their final days, they were basically giving books away, and The Hurricane Party was one of them. It is a part of the Canongate Myth Series, which I think is a fantastic concept. Perhaps the best thing about this novel is that, even though it’s from Scandinavia, it’s not a gritty, confronting crime novel, which is a nice change from what we all think about when the phrase “Scandinavian literature” is mentioned.

The future of Sweden is not pretty. The world has barely survived an apocalyptic event, and those left are eking out an existence among the rubble. Hanck Orn is among the living, as is his son, Toby, the product of an awkward one night stand. But when something happens to Toby, Hanck must travel to the depths of the world to find out who did this, and why. His quest will lead him to places he never thought existed, and he will meet people not even of this Earth.

Hands down, the best part of this novel is the world evoked by Östergren. I’ve read a fair amount of dystopic fiction, but this is up there with the best. The acid rain that falls constantly means you must always cover up, and the sun is so bright, the phrase “no hat, no play, no fun today” takes on a whole new meaning. Some of the lucky people get to live in the City Under the Roof, but for the rest of the population, they must make do in a society that has no discernable government. Instead, order is kept by the Clan, whose rules are not necessarily binding, but it is for the best to follow them anyway. There’s a beautiful scene where Hanck goes to talk to the head of the Clan, the Old Man, but he has to join a queue. This queue has been standing for generations, waiting to tell their problems to the Old Man, seemingly unaware that they will never see him. It’s not just a scene about how ridiculous banks are, it’s a touching look at faith, and what we put ourselves through when we believe.

Unfortunately, this beautiful dystpoian story comes to a halt about halfway through the novel, when Östergren realises that he’s actually writing a Myth, and realises he’s forgotten to include any mythology. And so we . It fails to bridge the gap between myth and reality, creating a disconnect between the two stories. In all honesty, I think the main story would have been stronger, and better off, if the myth hadn’t been crowbarred into it. The biggest problem is that the two aren’t integrated enough. The eponymous hurricane party is, in fact, the incident that causes Toby’s death, and other than the fact that Loki is the one that kills him, it seems pretty arbitrary. Östergren spends about 50 pages talking about what a terrible person Loki is, and the events leading up to the party, but it doesn’t seem to add to anything to the heart of the story. Maybe it’s just my own unfamiliarly with the Norse mythology, but it rapidly turned into a list of names doing things to each other, seemingly with no bearing on the story of Hanck and Toby.

This is, above all, a novel about loss. What do we do when we lose the person we love the most? How do we deal with the fact that we may never see them again? Östergren shows us that, in fact, these people can always be with us – by telling stories. Storytelling is an important theme here – the stories we tell to other people, and the way we tell them. Many people in this world cannot read and write, seeing it as unnecessary, but somewhat ironically, Hanck is a typewriter seller. It is up to him to tell the story of his son through words, both written and spoken, and only through this can he ever achieve happiness. Or, at the very least, closure.

There are two stories in The Hurricane Party, and perhaps somewhat ironically, I think this would be a much better book if it weren’t a part of the Myth Series. Östergren spends too much time dealing with the Norse gods, and Loki, detracting from the reather wonderful story of a father and son trying to stay together in one of the best dystopian futures I’ve read in a long time.

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Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) – Gabriel García MÁRQUEZ

What do you do when you come up against an author who is pretty clearly established as THE major voice of Latin American fiction of the 20th century? It’s not like I’m going to be able to say anything new here – I’m pretty sure everything that could be said has been said about Márquez. So prepare yourself for some discussion that you’ve probably heard a thousand times before.

When Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies, his widow, Fermina Daza, is met with a letter from her childhood sweetheart, Florentino Ariza. He wants, after sixty odd years, to get back together, and grow old with her. And so our story unfolds, covering the lives of these two people, and how they came to be as they are, all against the background of early twentieth century Colombia.

This is, as the title clearly suggests, a novel about love – but I’m not sure it’s actually a love story. And I think there’s a distinction there that I want to talk about for a bit here. Ostensibly, this is a novel about how Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza (spoliers!) fall in love, fall out of love, and spend their lives with other people. But Márquez does seem to be far more interested in how the concept of “love” actually shapes these two lives, and how it affects the way they interact with the people they meet during their long lives.

Probably the term most people associate with Márquez’s name is magical realism – it almost seems as though you cannot talk about one without the either. Now, either my definition of magical realism is way off, or I’m just really thick. I don’t really see any kind of magical realism in Love in the Time of Cholera. For me, magical realism has always been, essentially, the literary cop out for when a “real” author writes something that has fantastical elements in it, and I usually think that to mean mystical creatures, wizards, or even weird supernatural happenings, a la Murakami. Nothing like that really happens here. In fact, tying it back into what I was talking about above, this is a truly Romantic novel, with a capital R. He’s working with only a few main characters, but the canvas he’s working on is pretty huge, and covers a pretty vast stretch of time. And he does want to deal with the idea of love, and how love affects people – in both positive and negative ways.

The vast majority of the novel hinges around one decision made by an impulsive young girl who, seemingly on a whim, decides that her fairytale romance, conducted almost entirely through letters, is too ridiculous, and ends it. Just like that. One has to wonder what it was that caused her to do this, and it took me a long time to work through it. I still don’t think I really understand the reason for Fermina Daza’s rejection, and it jarred with me for quite a while. Perhaps it was a youth thing. Maybe she thought love couldn’t possibly come to someone as young as her, and so she rejected it, waiting for ‘real’ love to arrive.

Of course, neither Fermina Daza nor Florentino Ariza are happy throughout their lives. Fermina Daza quickly realises that her husband is not someone she particularly likes, and yet remains with him, stubbornly not thinking about what her life could be like. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, remains obsessed with what might have been, and spends his life waiting for Urbino to die. What interests me most about Ariza is the fact that he can completely dissociate love from sex, so much so that, despite being a giant man whore for the entire novel, he can say to Fermina Daza at the end of it, with a straight face, that he is a virgin, having saved himself for her. His love for her is what sustains him throughout his life, often to his detriment.

Actually, what I find quite ironic about the whole thing is that, having read Roberto Bolaño, and being a pretty big fan, it’s interesting to come back and see what he was reacting against. Bolaño and his crew were all about creating a new kind of South American fiction, one that moved well away from the established voices of Márquez et al. But not really knowing anything about what he was reacting against, it’s nice to come back and see the original stuff. I don’t think this is bad literature – I really enjoyed reading it. But I can understand why someone like Bolaño might get frustrated with Márquez’s work. Márquez sees his world as a truly Romantic place, where love abounds, and there is a romanticised view of the town in which these characters live. Despite the name, cholera is only ever a spectre here. And it is kind of safe. I don’t know if that’s just ’cause I’m reading it 25 years after the fact, but it doesn’t feel revolutionary or genre-bendingly.

And I’ve decided I have to stop reading blurbs. Every time I read one, the twist in the middle of the novel is spoiled, or it is only tangentially related to what the novel is about. Seriously, people.

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The Museum of Innocence (2009) – Orhan PAMUK

Clearly it’s been some time since I’ve written anything here. Sorry for that – it’s been quite a busy few months, and I’ve not had a whole load of time nor (for probably the first time in my life) inclination to do much reading. But I’m getting back into it, and I’ve read a few interesting tomes in the meantime. So here’s me trying to catch up on the giant backlog of posting I should have been doing.

Istanbul is a romantic city – the old clichés of east meeting west, all that kind of stuff, are true. And in the 1970s, Kemal, a young, rich socialite falls in love with, Füsun, one of his distant relatives. Of course, this cannot be, for he is engaged, and she has no interest in him. But as his love begins to consume his life, Kemal begins to take steps towards an obsession that will dominate his every waking thought, and change his life irrevocably.

I don’t think I really liked Kemal, in the end. He spends so much of his time pining for something he can’t have, without seeming to realise the girl he wants doesn’t necessarily want him, that he simply becomes miserable for its own sake. It’s almost as though he is only happy if he has something to be miserable about. And in many ways, he is the ultimate objectifier of women. He is in love with Füsun not for who she is as a person, but with the items she owns or touches – things that relate to her are more important to him, in the end, than Füsun herself. It’s this attitude towards women that really bugs me, and I know that’s probably the point of the novel, but it did nothing to endear me to Kemal, and since this is such an unneccesarily long novel, I was unimpressed each time he stole something.

There are some hilariously awkward scenes where Kemal, who just never seems to get the hint, goes to Füsun’s family house every night for months on end, seemingly oblivious to the fact that no one else ants him to be there. There are some less hilarious, but no less awkward scenes, where Kemal goes about stealing all these possessions of Füsun’s, so he can surround himself with them in his run down apartment, replacing the love for her with the love for the idea of her, if that makes any sense. It is an obsession that has no basis in reality, for Kemal truly becomes obsessed by his obsession, losing sight of what he wanted in the first place.

The Museum of Innocence is also far, far too long for its own good. As I said my review of Snow, I love Pamuk’s style, but the things he writes about are less enthralling, to say the least. The fact that he manages to stretch this story out for so long is a testament to his ability to just keep writing, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. His descriptions of Istanbul in the 1970s are nice, and he does manage to evoke the neighbourhood in spectacular fashion. But the plot rapidly becomes repetitive, with scenes that were once funny or poignant played out again and again and again. The law of diminishing returns is in full force here, and by the end, you don’t actually want Kemal to be happy.

It is a relief, therefore, to read the inevitable end of his infatuation with Füsun, in the physical sense. Her death is the only way I could have satisfactorily believed their relationship could work, because the difference between what Kemal wanted, and the actual reality of what this relationship meant was too great to be hurdled. And the way in which it occurs – something so random, so unplanned, so opposite to all the thinking and worrying Kemal has put into the possibilities of his future with her, is a nice touch, too.

I so want to love and read Orhan Pamuk. I have always wanted to go to Turkey, and I feel that, as the most famous Turkish author, I should love everything he does. But The Museum of Innocence does nothing for his reputation in my mind. Maybe if it were half the length, this could have been great, but unfortunately, the masterpiece on love, loss and growing up Pamuk was aiming for rapidly becomes repetitive, boring, with an unrelatable main character who gets what he deserves.

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House of Meetings (2004) – Martin AMIS

I went on a book buying binge the other day. My bad. But, in my defence, none of the books I bought were full price. So that counts for something, right? Anyway, this book was in the binge, and when I saw a cheap Martin Amis novel, I knew I was going to end up with it. Let’s face it – his novels I’ve read so far have been pretty amazing.

Our unnamed narrator is back in Russia, after a self imposed exile. At the age of eighty, he had returned to the sites of his incarceration at a gulag camp during and after the Second World War.  He remembers his relationship with his brother Lev, who married the woman our narrator had intended to marry, and the way this affected how each man saw the rest of the century play out in front of them.

I should start by pointing out that I have not read very much Russian literature, so I don’t really have a comparison to other books about Russia. But Amis does a fantastic job of recreating a part of history that is unwelcome in the public mindset. Obviously, Amis has a gift for writing unpleasant characters and situations, and a Russian gulag is no different. He vividly recreates the condidtions of the labor camp, from the physical squalor of camp conditions, to the social strata that pop up in the camp – right up to the lower class shiteaters. There’s a lot to love here, particularly since our unnamed narartor, for the most part, stays out of trouble. Instead, he must reflect on what his brother does when he arrives at the camp, and how his brother fits in to the already established order. Lev is, at first, willing to play the game, but by the end, he just doesn’t want to, forcing a wedge between the narrator and Lev, and setting up their relationship outside the camp.

Once the gulag parts of the novel end – about two thirds of the way through – House of Meetings does, to an extent, run out of steam. Trying to cover a lot of groun in not much time, Amis doesn’t leave himself enough room to tell us everything he wants – indeed, he barely mentions his marriage to his stepdaughter’s mother (important since the novel is a letter addressed to said stepdaughter) – and so the ending does feel rushed. In this sense, then, it does feel like a missed opportunity. This novel cries out to be a grand sweeping epic, in the Russian tradition, and yet it simply isn’t.

Having said this, the closing letter of the novel – a letter carried around by the narrator since a long time ago – is a perfect closing, and almost worth the cover price in itself. All Lev ever wanted was normality, but he has become so twisted by the experiences of the gulag, he can’t even make love to his wife anymore. The man outside the gulag gets off on the idea of physical love, but as Lev makes love to his wife for the first time in many years, he gets off on thoughts of food, of warmth, of freedom. And he can never change back to his old mindset. And he nearly goes mad because of this. This is, then, perhaps a timely reminder to the reader not to take things for granted. And yet, Amis never hits one over the head with this message, particularly since this revelation is only mentioned near the end of the novel. We want desperately to understand what has happened in the House of Meetings, but this blindlingly obvious and normal explanation makes the most sense. No lover’s tiff, no erectile dysfunction – simply the realisation of the simple things in life. A lovely thought.

Here’s the kicker, though. I reckon Amis is wasted on writing historical novels, no matter how obscure or disgusting the period of time he’s writing about. This man has such an amazing imagination and ability to write mind bendingly postmodern novels, that in many ways, I felt that House of Meetings could have been written by anyone. Sure, it’s probably better than the average historical novel, but I want more. So here’s the question, can you separate the author from their work? I’m going to go with probably not. We come to expect certain things from certain authors, and when we don’t get it, we, as readers, are disappointed. Well, maybe disappointed is not the right word. But there is a sense of loss when they don’t do what we expect. And that is, of course, completely our fault – I’m not blaming Amis at all. The thought is there, though. Who knows – maybe Amis has one trick, and when he doesn’t use it, novels don’t turn out so well.

I don’t want to put anyone off this novel – as a generic historical novel, it is perfectly competent. Indeed, it’s probably quite a bit better than competent. But, to judge it as an Amis novel, you would be (in my opinion) perfectly correct in saying it’s not one of his better works.

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The Folding Star (1994) – Alan HOLLINGHURST

I read Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winner, The Line of Beauty, because I wanted to see what people thought was better than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. And while I still think Mitchell is better, I did enjoy The Line of Beauty. So seeing The Folding Star in a second-hand bookshop for cheap was an easy decision to make.

Edward Manners is a thirty-something tutor who goes to Belgium to teach two very different young boys – Luc Altidore and Marcel Echevin. Unfortunately, Edward falls desperately in love with Luc, making teaching him a problem. At the same time, he is employed to work with Marcel’s father, Paul, on a catalogue of an obscure artist, Orst. As each facet of his life slowly draw together, Edward’s obsession with Luc causes more problems than he could possibly imagine, and reveal secrets he couldn’t dream of.

Obsession is a big word that we tend to throw around a lot to describe people who have more than a passing interest in something. This novel, however, totally redefines what it means to be obsessed by something. Edward’s attraction to Luc is not just a passing interest, a “Oh, he’s cute” kind of way – this is fully blown obsession, bordering on stalking. Edward’s behaviour towards other people is affected by his total love for Luc, to the point where he drives away another man who truly loves him, but cannot deal with the fact that Edward is always thinking about Luc. Not that simple love triangles are the point of the novel. Edward is an intelligent man, but when he thinks about Luc (which is pretty often), he becomes weak and pathetic, like a small child in a lolly shop.

The things he does to fulfil this obsession are many and various, but I particularly like his trick of stealing Luc’s dirty underwear. Nothing weird about that at all. Right? And I suppose that’s an important part of the novel – the question of what we are driven to do when we are in love with someone, someone who more often than not is not in love with us. This is nicely mirrored with Luc’s two best friends, Patrick and Sybille, one of whom is attracted to Luc, but this is the whole mystery of the novel, so I won’t spoil it for you. Actually, yes I will. Look away now if you don’t want to know… It is Sybille who is attracted to Luc, but Luc wants Patrick. And so, really, Edward’s attraction is completely justified (something that is left unanswered until the end of novel), which begs the question, what would have happened had Edward acted on his urges earlier? I like the mirroring at the end of the novel with Marcel’s father, Paul, having been in exactly the same situation as Luc when he was 17 – almost as a justification that Edward’s love and lust for Luc is not something to be seen as dirty or illegal, but as something that can truly be wonderful.

One thing that cannot be forgotten is the swathes of information Hollinghurst provides us with about his fictional artist, Orst. I genuinely thought he was a real artist, there was so much detail in his biography, but apparently not. It does take one away from the main plot of the novel, but there’s so much else going on, why not have a fictional artist haunting your pages? It also gives Paul Echevin his own obsession – a man who could have been so much more than he is, slaving away at a catalogue of an artist who is not even considered major. While he is not a character we inherently pity, there is a sense of sadness around him, especially with his family, and so seeing the end result of obsession is a nice touch.

This is a very sexy book. Not in that I find it attractive, but the novel does teem with pent up sexual energy, mainly from Edward, and sx is very much a vital part of what it is talking about – lust, obsession, desires. The fact that Hollinghurst is labelled as a “gay writer” is not an issue here – what he is writing is a universal human condition. Edward Manners is a man who lives with his obsessions, and yet never truly finds peace with them.

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