Tag Archives: America

On Such a Full Sea (2014) – Chang-rae LEE

Chang-rae Lee chaired the judging panel for the Man Asian Literary Prize a few years ago, and since then, I’ve been meaning to get around to reading some of his work. So walking into the bookstore the other day and seeing his new sci-fi novel staring at me was a sign.

In the future, nation-states are no longer the norm. Ethnic groups have spread out, and it is now more common to see Chinese in America than Caucasians. One such young woman, Fan, has been trained from a young age to be a diver, to farm the fish the one percent eat. But when her boyfriend goes missing, she starts a quest that will change her life.

This isn’t a novel about a dystopian future (the lower classes are almost never seen, only described in hushed tones) so much as a novel about current trends in social mobility. While the best kind of sci-if takes elements of contemporary society and moulds them into a possible future, Lee essentially asks what it would be like if global society simply continued as it were, preserved in some static bubble, the only thing changing the technology and pop culture we consume.

It’s unsettling to read about the future of the upper class as living in a society where sushi bars and wood-fired pizza are the pinnacle of the culinary experience. Isn’t this where we are now? It is jarring that a novel so concerned about gently mocking the upper classes of the West and their obsession with organic food and cleanliness should be set in the future. It seems like something of a missed opportunity—you could transplant the action into contemporary America, and end up with a piece that carries more weight and emotional punch.

Fan self is little more than a cipher through which Lee can present his ideas. Her hero’s journey, such as it is, is to find her boyfriend, who left their safe, middle-class town one day and never came back. The narration makes it clear that Fan is not a woman of action: “the funny thing about the tale of Fan is that much of what happened to her happened to her”. Though we are repeatedly told that this woman, and her quest to find her one true love, sparked a rebellion movement in an otherwise perfect town, there is no suggestion that . Which would be fine if Lee presented her as an imperfect woman whose influence is a side-effect of her personal journey, but the reader never gets a sense that this is what’s happening. Instead, the disconnect between what the town venerates her for (running away) and what happens next (not much) is so great, one cannot help but feel disappointed as her tale unfolds.

Instead, her road trip allows Lee to present different facets of this new world, a world that, we are reminded again and again, is highly stratified. And yet, there is movement. For all the talk of being three vastly different communities, almost all the secondary characters we meet have been through some upheaval of their own.This is most obvious in the final act, when Fan is taken in by a man and his family who are about to make millions from a medical breakthrough. But Oliver has a secret, and the reveal will make your eyes roll from sheer narrative convenience. If you want people to believe that this future is bad, you need to show it.

I don’t want every dystopian future to be like The Hunger Games in its brutality and moral ambiguity. But if a writer chooses this genre, he or she is doing it for a political purpose—to highlight current issues that need to be changed. Though Lee’s On Such a Full Sea engages with contemporary issues, he doesn’t use the genre to its full effect, leaving readers wondering if the whole thing wouldn’t have been better off in another setting.

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Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (1993) – Donald ANTRIM

It’s hard to know where to begin a review about a book like Elect Mr Robinson. We could talk about the scathing and biting social satirical tone of the whole work, lending it a kind of Desperate Housewives-on-steroids feeling. We could talk about the bizarre extended hallucinations of the main character, in which he is a buffalo living underwater with his fish wife. We could even talk about the shocking ending, which places Elect Mr Robinson firmly in the Easton Ellis school of late 80s/early 90s American violence literature.

I suppose we should start, though, at the beginning. From the very first page, there is a sense of unease as one plunges into the Donald Antrim’s world. Having killed off the previous mayor (the body now resides in his freezer, dismembered), Mr Pete Robinson has eyes on the job for himself. He thinks he, a third-grade teacher recently unemployed, is most suitable, despite his unusual obsession for medieval torture techniques, a hobby that manifests itself in his basement collection of dioramas. In an attempt to win favour with his neighbours, he decides to set up a home school

Clearly Pete is an unreliable narrator. His tone is strangely formal and polite, leaving the reader somewhat distanced from the action he describes. This also had the effect of sucking any irony out of situations, leaving us to deal with this bizarre parallel world as though it were straight. This is extremely discomforting, because so many of the little things are recognisable, even twenty years after publication. People are still worried about their neighbours, going out of their way to build elaborate fences and hedges to keep the bad people out. The extension Antrim builds—that people would build landmine-filled backyards, and booby-trapped moats—seems weirdly logical.

As a result, there are some hilariously memorable scenes. At one stage, Pete’s wife is seeing a therapist that encourages her to find her inner animal spirit. With no trace of irony, she announces that she is a coelacanth, a species of prehistoric fish. No one else in the room blinks. I mean, it’s completely ridiculous, but in this bizarrely twisted world of suburbia, the quest for some kind of spirituality in an otherwise barren landscape means that everyone is deadly serious about enlightenment.

And then there’s the ending. I can’t talk about it here—to spoil it would be to deny you a great pleasure as a reader. A quick glance on some other online reviews suggests that it has polarised readers: people love it or hate it, and their entire reading of the novel is coloured by their reaction. All I will say is that I love it. It is hugely jarring, and completely unexpected, but somehow acts as synecdoche for what Atrim is trying to show us as a whole: the dangers of taking things too far.

Most satirists tend to take one part of our world and mock it mercilessly. They shift the balance of one facet of our society just enough for us to examine it more closely. Antrim shifts everything. In doing so, he packs layer upon layer into a novel of less than 200 pages, forcing the reader to examine what it means to live in contemporary America. And though his contemporary is our history, it rings no less true today.


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The Art of Fielding (2011) – Chad HARBACH

Considering Australia’s recent Ashes performances, this seems as good a time as any to make a confession: I don’t like cricket.

I know. I’m probably the worst Australian ever. What I’m about to say probably makes me even worse.

I enjoy baseball. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love it, but I did play it for almost ten years as a kid, so I have a soft spot for it. I even went with my family to the Olympics in 2000 to see Australia play a few games.

It was with all of this in mind that I picked up The Art of Fielding, a well-received debut American novel ostensibly about baseball.

Henry Skrimshander has been called to Westish College in Wisconsin on a baseball scholarship. He has been spotted by scouts, and his natural talent is what they want for their floundering team. But no one is perfect, and one day Henry makes a mistake that will have surprising and unexpected effects on everyone around him.

The first chapter of The Art of Fielding is almost perfect. I think, had this been a short story, it would be a glorious piece of literature. The tone Harbach hits is exactly what it should be, as he tells the story of a young kid from South Dakota who loves playing baseball simply because he enjoys it slowly realising that someone might actually pay him to do so. His innocence at his own ability is instantly loveable, in a dopey kind of way.

You really feel for Henry as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that, yes, he isn’t perfect. I’m hoping Tsiolkas covers similar ground later in the year with his new novel, but perhaps in a better way. Henry’s existential crisis comes not from without—he doesn’t collapse in upon himself because he feels pressure to perform from his parents, from his coach, from his teammates—but from within. He is so used to being very good at what he does—and it appears to be the only thing that makes him truly happy—that to suddenly make a quite large and quite obvious mistake shatters him.

The obvious comparison to make with The Art of Fielding is, of course, Jonathan Franzen. Harbach adopts a similar tone, this deeply American style, with equal parts cynicism about the present, and rose-tinted glasses for the past; and the way the story is told—cycling through the different points of view in this quasi-family created on-campus is almost exactly the same as The Corrections. And in the same way, it feels like it is something of a throw-back, a yearning for a simpler time when men holed up in tiny universities could be seen as eternal bachelors without rumours about their sexuality flying; when sport could unite a tiny town; when romance was real. It’s kind of cute in its innocence.

I’m not sure The Art of Fielding is exactly groundbreaking fiction: I didn’t feel like I was ever in danger of having my mind blown by what was about to come. But it is a nice novel to read, easy to digest, and never really challenging. I mean this in a positive manner, I hasten to add—sometimes it’s good to just immerse yourself in the lives of well-drawn characters that feel like they could be your friends.

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We Need New Names (2013) – NoViolet BULAWAYO

Booker Prize season is on again! I’ve only read one longlisted book (Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire), but I have a gap in my reading pile, so I’ll be filling it with a few choices off the list. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Voices, is the only African novel on the longlist, and I figured that’s as good a place to start as any.

Darling and her friends live in Paradise, a slum in the midst of Zimbabwe’s lost decade. Mugabe is in power, and the poor are just getting poorer. Darling and her friends roam the streets, dealing with poverty, hunger and sickness in the only way they know how—telling stories and playing games to escape. But Darling finally goes to America to live with her aunt, she finds herself missing her friends.

There is no reason to compare Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to NoViolet Bulawayo. The latter is a good ten years younger, and Nigeria and Zimbabwe almost could not be further away from each other on the continent of Africa. And yet, here are two women who, within the space of several months, have published novels on the immigrant experience in America. But while Americanah felt like a polemic disguised as a novel, We Need New Voices is a much more coherent volume.

There are, of course, many similarities: both are frustrated by the constant generalisation of an “African” experience, and the repetitive conversations they have with white Americans who think they know everything about “Africa” because they saw a BBC new item the other day—though Bulawayo seems less angry about it than Adichie.

Both find themselves longing for their homeland, though while Adichie misses it for the comfort of her family and the life she was leading, this yearning sits more uncomfortably in Bulawayo’s novel: Darling’s experiences in Paradise, the ironically named slum in which she grew up, are the bottom of the bottom. With her friends, they go around stealing guavas off trees, even though a diet consisting solely of this fruit gives the eater chronic constipation, because they have nothing else to eat. One of her friends, at the tender age of 11, is pregnant because her grandfather raped her.

I feel bad about my reaction to We Need New Names. I don’t know if it’s because I have Poorly Treated Child Novel exhaustion (see Past the Shallows, Floundering, The Mary Smokes Boys etc.), but I had trouble being shocked by what Bulawayo was writing about. There is no doubt that the situation in which these children find themselves is horrific—particularly the pregnant 11-year-old girl—but it also felt somewhat unreal, removed from reality. Bulawayo is trying too hard to get us to emote, to feel something for these children, and forced emotion never rings true.

Darling leaves Zimbabwe just after the 2008 reelection of Mugabe. The realities of this election are witnessed by the kids, whose parents’ hope for the future, held in the promise of a new government, is crushed when votes are rigged and retributions for “incorrect” voting are meted out.

The America sections are much better, as we watch Darling come to terms with the huge amount of wealth on offer in the country, but just out of her grasp. She has heard stories of being rich in America, and assumed she would simply become rich by being there: her disillusionment with this is shown in tandem with her becoming more American, to the point where the final chapters are written in a language where all Zimbabwean patois has been erased. Darling’s uneasy transformation is complete.

There can be no question that Bulawayo is a talented writer, and every now and then, there is a passages of such pure brilliance, you forget that this is her first novel. Let’s hope these passages are the ones Bulawayo takes on board in the future.

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Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

It’s been seven years since the release of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent novel, Half of  a Yellow Sun. It has become so popular, it is about to be released as a film, which I am very much looking forward to. I loved it, and was very excited to hear that she had finally written a new novel. What made me even more excited, though, was that this was to be a book about race in modern America: something that interests me greatly.

Ifemelu and Obinze meet each other in high school, and quickly fall in love. But when Ifemelu is accepted to an American university—a dream Obinze has had for many years—their relationship peters out as Ifemelu finds herself in a new and strange land. As she settles down into American life, she quickly realises that this is not the land of the brave and free at all. Particularly if you are not white.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: I don’t think Americanah is going to be as popular as Half of a Yellow Sun, but to be fair, I don’t think Americanah is as good as Half a Yellow Sun, particularly if we critique it in terms of what we expect from the modern novel. Anyone reading the blurb and expecting a love story spanning decades and continents is going to be sorely disappointed. The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze is nice at the beginning, but once the two grow up and Ifemelu moves to America, there is a sense that their relationship has come to a natural end, a move that makes narrative sense. The scattered chapters we get of Obinze’s new life without Ifemelu simply distract from the main thrust of the novel.

But in many ways, this shallow love story is not the point of the novel. Adichie has spoken before in interviews about the two kinds of black America: African-Americans, people whose ancestors are slaves brought from Arica during the slave trade era; and American-Africans, people who have migrated from all parts of Africa in the twentieth century, either to escape persecution and unrest, or simply for work or education. To many non-black Americans, there is no difference between the two groups. In response, it seems, Adichie has written a book about the second group of people—the African immigrant coming to America.

It could be argued that this novel is the immigrant take on the Great American Novel. This is certainly not a novel of Nigeria—of that, there can be no doubt. It is a novel about ostensibly the most prominent divider of American society—skin colour. From Ifemelu’s first experiences of going to America to try and get a better education, Ifemelu is privy to incidents that are awkward and painful to read, no matter how well-meaning some participants might be.

Perhaps the first hint that Ifemelu is being discriminated against because of the colour of her skin is the face that she cannot seem to get a job, no matter how often she applies, no matter how well behaved or well-presented she is.

I keep wanting to call Americanah an angry novel, though I’m not sure why. In many ways, it reads like Adichie finally releasing some of her own pent-up anger about how she has been treated by people in America. As an author surrogate, Ifemelu acts as a cipher for Adichie, and it’s not hard to extrapolate many of Ifemelu’s feelings and thoughts to Adichie herself.

As I mentioned in my review of Questions of Travel, it’s nice to see that we’re getting good novels about the internet. Adichie deftly draws the disconnect between real-life and blog Ifemelu, particularly in relation to her speaking about her own feelings about the way she is treated in America. And lo and behold, her blog suddenly becomes a site for other people with similar stories to come and share their own experiences in a country still divided quite sharply across racial lines. It is not until the latter half of the novel that we get to read some of these blog posts—which is a shame, because many of them are mini-essays talking about race in modern America. It would have been great to have one at the beginning of each chapter, scattered throughout the book as food for thought.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t necessarily consider Adichie to be a great stylist of the English language—she is not a bad writer, but I don’t go to her novels to find vast tracts of lyrical prose pushing the boundaries of the English language. In many places in Americanah, she almost veers off into a tone suggestive of personal non-fiction. No, I don’t really know what I mean by that either—tonally, in many places, it reads less like a novel, and more like a non-fiction piece about race and representations of race in America. It’s very odd, but it’s a testament to Adichie’s passion that it never feels too out of place.

That is not the point of her novels, anyway. Interestingly, Adichie makes reference to this in the novel itself, suggesting that people writing about race in America can only do so if they do it in an indirect, lyrical way, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the (largely) white audience for whom they are writing.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the novel is the way in which Adichie seems to gloss over the racial tensions that still exist in Nigeria. She sets up Nigeria as a place where everyone is Nigerian, and America as a place where not everyone is necessarily American. This is a weird thing to assert, particularly considering the fact that the novel for which she is most famous is a novel about the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, the effects of which are still being felt in modern Nigeria. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the lines between the three main ethnic groups, the Igbo, Yoruba and Harusa remain in sharp relief. Racism and discrimination against people because of race/tribe exists in every country, so the slightly idealised version of Nigeria presented here rings a little hollow at times. Of course, once you read the end of the novel, which seems to advocate a return to the homeland, then this makes more sense.

I have no idea how to review this. As a novel, Americanah shouldn’t work: the characters are little more than ciphers for Adichie to get her message across; the pacing is all over the shot, particularly the final return to Nigeria; and the structure doesn’t quite work. But I don’t care. This is an important novel, if not for the way it is written, but for the potential it has to start a conversation, not just in America, but in the West, about race and immigration.

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Thinner Than Skin (2012) – Uzma Aslam KHAN

I’m heading west, away from the holy trinity of North East Asia to the mountains of Pakistan. This is Uzma Aslam Khan’s fourth novel, the second to be published by small American press, Clockroot Books.

Having decided to go to Pakistan to research glaciers deep in the mountains of the wild north, Farhana and Nadir quickly find themselves out of their comfort zone. Already living an unstable relationship, their lives quickly spiral out of their own control, leaving them in a strange country, surrounded by even stranger people, moving away from safety, hoping against all hope that things will get better.

How much blame can we ascribe to one event? Can one event, one moment in time, truly affect us more than the accumulation of the smaller bits and pieces of our everyday lives? These are the questions Khan is seeking to answer, while at the same time, leading us on a tour of what must be one of the most beautiful, dangerous and underexplored parts of the globe.

Saif-ul-Maluk (جھیل سیف الملوک) is a lake in northern Pakistan, near the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, China and India. It is a glacial lake, formed by the melt from the glaciers in the mountain ranges surrounding it. Saif-ul-Maluk is also the spiritual, physical and literary heart of the novel. It is easy to trace every event in the novel to and from the shores of Saif-ul-Maluk

Critics often talk about landscape and place becoming a character in a book, and while it often sounds wanky and ridiculous, there is a school of writing that foregrounds the environments in which stories take place. Cormac McCarthy, for example, uses southern USA in his work, while Tim Winton evokes Western Australia in his. Just like this, then, Khan makes full use of the area in which she has set her tale to inform and enrich her own tale. From the descriptions of the lake itself, to the evocations of San Francisco, to the final third, which is set on a mountain face in the Himalayas, Khan connects her story to the environments in which it is set. This adds a dimension not seen in so many novels, a dimension that pays huge dividends.

Farhana and Nadir have come to Pakistan with another American friend, Wes, despite Nadir’s misgivings. It is ostensibly a reason for Farhana to come to the country of her mother, to find an identity she feels she has lost having been brought up in America, though this is not a theme Khan seems to pursue with any particular enthusiasm—something I am grateful for. She is more concerned with far more universal themes, one in particular.


People do bad things every day. They do things that hurt the people they love the most; they do things that hurt complete strangers. How do we react to these moments of wrongdoing? Do we forgive the people who hurt us? And so we don’t just get the first person musings of Nadir, who is consumed with guilt over the events on the lake, though his recollections seem to be open to questions. Khan gives us alternating chapters told in third person, with Maryam the focus. In fact, it is Maryam that opens the novel, and her reflections on family and fate are what tie the novel to the mountains against which it is set.

Inevitably, then, the opposite of forgiveness is also explored—revenge. This is certainly the preoccupation of Maryam’s story strand, even if she herself does not necessarily want to undertake the act herself. Payment must be made for the death of her daughter, and as Irfan points out at one stage, this would usually be in the form of a court system or a police force, but because of where they are, nothing like this exists. Instead, it is up to the people to hand out justice/revenge. Interestingly, it is Nadir who eventually becomes the target of this justice, because Farhana is a woman, so cannot be touched. Or so he thinks—as with all first-person narrators, his recollection of events is not exactly accurate.

The biggest problem with this novel is that it makes me want to go to Saif-ul-Maluk, which is probably not a good life choice, because it’s a deeply unsafe part of the world—something that provides yet another layer to the backdrop of these intensely personal events taking place. The threat of sectarian violence—the kind we see on the news with depressing regularity—is mentioned again and again by all the characters, though three of our main four seem quite blasé about it. Of course, as with all good Chekov’s guns, if you refer to something again and again, chances are it’s going to become important by the end of the text. So, inevitably, terrorism rears its ugly head at the end of the novel, nicely tying in with other themes. Nadir and Farhana have not escaped cleanly from the crime they committed: as with all small communities—even ones that are constantly on the move—word gets around, and the option for revenge, for payback is taken. It takes time to eventuate, but Nadir discovers much too late that people have been watching him, ever since they left the lake.

Without spoiling too much of the ending, it is revenge that eventually wins out, in ways not entirely expected. Nadir and Farhana are finally made to pay for what they did to Maryam’s family, by a man who professes to be a friend; while lingering questions are finally answered as someone else chooses the path of revenge, though in a far more public manner. It is easy to plan revenge, but much harder to allow forgiveness in: it is, of course, thinner than skin.

Dealing with themes of forgiveness and revenge—base human emotions that we all experience, Thinner Than Skin is a layered, complex and mature novel from a writer at the height of her powers. It is perfectly constructed, both structurally and thematically, devoid of unnecessary words and ideas. Khan is in control of the language she uses to tell her story, leaving the reader blown away both by the power of the English language to describe both the natural and the internal.

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The Yellow Birds (2012) – Kevin POWERS

Releasing your war novel on 11 September is a risky business. If it’s really good, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the important message your novel has; if it’s really bad, it will forever be remembered as a sneaky marketing tool to highlight the cheap way people cash in on days like this to play on the public’s emotions. Fortunately, The Yellow Birds ticks so many boxes on my “good novel” list – less than 250 pages, fragmented narrative, gorgeous language, depressing content. It’s like this was written just for me.

Bartle and Murph were deployed to Iraq. But Murph never came back. Haunted by the promise he made to Murph’s mother before they left, Bartle cannot stop thinking about the friend left behind in a foreign land. As we flit between past, present and future, and the story of what really happened to Murph becomes clear, a devastating tale of men under pressure emerges. No one will ever be the same again.

The biography at the back on the book mentions two things that I can only imagine are the most influential parts of Powers’ life on this novel – his time in Iraq as a machine gunner, and his MFA in poetry.Obviously it’s not hard to see the influence the first had on this novel, but the main achievement of this novel, for me, though, is the language. The first paragraph is a beautifully haunting personification of the war itself, describing it as hungry. I could block-quote almost every paragraph in this novel, it is so gorgeously written. But what makes it even more amazing is one passage, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, in which the mask slips. I can’t decide if it’s the mask of the narrator, or of Powers himself, but the perfectly controlled, structured language of the rest of the novel falls away, and for a one-page stream-of-consciousness paragraph, expletives and dirty language, the likes of which have been, up until now, not used, are utilised to brutally attack the war machine. It’s a section that proves to me two things – one, Powers has clearly spent a lot of time crafting a poetic style, which is highly effective; and two, this is a story that is close to his heart.

There are three narratives running in parallel: the first, in 2004, while Bartle and Murph are in Iraq; the second, in 2003, while the two are still in training in America; and the third, in 2005, when John has returned to America after finishing his deployment. Each one shines light on a different stage of the cycle of a soldier’s life. We start with Bartle and Murph patrolling This changes as the two are shipped off to Al Tafar, Iraq (Powers was stationed in Tal Afar). In a foreign, hostile land the two are forced to become closer, relying on on another, as well as the rest of their platoon, to simply stay alive. It’s hard to decide whether or not these soldiers are nice people. Most of them are just people, with flaws just like the rest of us.

It’s not just the people Powers describes with vivid detail. The milieu of the Iraq war – the desolation of a desert landscape – the heat, the wind, the sand – as well as the relationship between the occupying forces and everyday Iraqis, are clearly drawn from personal experience. The first major character death is that of the Iraqi interpreter travelling with the platoon. This is not a surprise – we hear of Iraqis working with Americans being killed far too regularly. But Bartle and Murph are more concerned with being killed themselves – the death toll is rapidly reaching 1000, and they don’t want to be the 1000th American troop killed in Iraq. It becomes a powerful recurring motif throughout the novel, of the death count rising, catching up with soldiers still on the ground.

When Bartle returns to America, he moves back home to live with his mother. As with all returning soldier stories, he has trouble readjusting to a life of relative comfort. He becomes isolated and introverted, moving from his childhood bedroom to a shed in his backyard. This doesn’t last long, however, and he eventually moves out of home, opting to live in an abandoned factory just out of town. In what is probably the most horrific scene – and there are certainly no shortage of candidates here – Bartle finds himself awoken next to a river bed, having been dragged out of the river. It is never made explicit if he jumped or simply slipped, but the reaction of the police who save him is terrifying. Though they suspect a suicide attempt, once they discover Bartle is a former soldier, they just leave him alone. They don’t bother to give him a psych evaluation, because he is a solder, not in spite of it. It’s a damning indictment of how soldiers are treated when they return to modern America.

There is a sting in the tail. It is not until the final pages that we discover what it is that has killed Daniel Murphy. It is not a regular shoot-out, it is not friendly fire, and it is not an IED. Murph goes AWOL, forcing the rest of the platoon to search for him for several days. In the pre-deployment sequences, Murph seemed to be a little nervous, a little unsure, about the whole adventure, and the stresses of war have clearly affected him more than most. While their sergeant coped with it by being a dick, and Bartle seems to be able to bottle it up inside, something inside Murph snaps, and he runs away. Of course, Iraq is still a dangerous place, and so he ends up dead. It’s not a pretty sight, and really hammers home the message Powers is imparting here – war is hell.

From what I can only describe as one of the most arresting first lines I’ve read in ages (“The war tried to kill us in the spring”), to a final, surprisingly redemptive scene, The Yellow Birds marks Kevin Powers as a talent to watch. The collision of perfectly formed, poetic sentences with an horrific subject matter – and making this work – is a sure sign that Powers is a gifted writer. Let’s hope whatever he does next doesn’t disappoint.

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The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie OTSUKA

The first chapter of The Buddha in the Attic was printed in Granta 114 (a seriously excellent collection, by the way), and the second in Granta 115. At the time, I thought they were simply self contained short stories – beautiful short stories. When I discovered soon after that these were from a longer work, I was excited to read it. For some bizarre reason, it’s taken a while to hit Australian bookstores, but once it did, I read it almost in one afternoon.

Picture brides were Japanese women who went to America on the back of a promise. The promise of a better life, with a strapping young Japanese man to take care of them. A promise that is quickly broken. These women find themselves in a foreign land with men they don’t recognise, and with a culture that remains baffling. As the years go by, and they have families, the spectre of war looms ever closer, and their relationships are forced to undergo rapid changes. This is their story.

I think it’s fair to say that the first-person plural voice is not commonly used in contemporary English literature. It takes an author of great skill – and courage – to tackle a voice that is not first-person singular or third-person omniscient, and fortunately, Otsuka is both of these things. Her almost chorus like sentence and paragraph structures give the impression of no one individual story in this epic saga being any more important than another. These women, who have all been forced to start a journey from the same place, are, in many ways, given a stronger platform in their combined tale. With repetitive sentence fragments, a story begins to build – a story that highlights just as many differences as it does similarities. We hear stories of women who are willing to do anything to escape their lives in Japan. We hear stories of women who have been forced by their family into a marriage they don’t want. We hear stories of women who love their new husbands, and ones who run away at the first sight of danger. We hear stories of women having children, of their pain at not being able to get to a doctor in time, of their joy at finding an ally against their husband.

One of the running themes in all of these tales, though, is the us/them dichotomy that is felt by so many of these women. Us Japanese against them Americans. Most of these women don’t learn English – for a variety of reasons – and this simple fact, perhaps more than anything else, cuts them off from the rest of American society. They live in Japantown, surrounded by other Japanese speakers, or they live on farms, where they only have their husbands and their children for company. When they work as maids in the houses of rich white families, it is felt most sharply. There is a beautiful moment when one of the brides finds solace in an old Italian woman – neither can speak English – but there is no need. They are both strangers in this land, doomed never to find peace and quiet.

As with all immigrant stories, the second generation – those children born of immigrants in the new country – find themselves stuck between their family and their desire to fit in. While many of these women originally found their children allies in the world, their relationships quickly fracture as the children learn English, forget Japanese and are embarrassed by their parents. It’s a tale that’s been told many times before, though it takes on a new poignancy here in the hands of Otsuka, who draws out the mix of  shame, sadness and happiness these women feel for their children.

And then there is the last chapter. Otsuka shifts perspective, from the us to the them. The Americans have a chance to tell their side of the story, at least for a little while. The reaction of everyday Americans to the brutal removal of Japanese immigrants from their suburbs and neighbourhoods. Many of them are, at first, deeply saddened by this. Though many of them seem blissfully unaware of what has actually happened to these mysterious people that once populated their streets and corner shops, there is a vague sense of unease about the whole thing. As the war shifts gear, though, and the Japanese Empire becomes a more clear enemy, many people forget these feelings of sadness, and are replaced with a nationalism aimed at exclusion. They forget how much they actually liked the Japanese, and

Small, concise and perfectly-formed, there is nothing missing from this novel. No superfluous material, no word out of place – it is meticulous. And I don’t mean that as an insult. It is clear Otsuka cares deeply about both her subject matter and her language, which makes this a pleasure to read if you have a spare afternoon.

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The Tiger’s Wife (2011) – Téa OBRECHT

I need to start this review with a confession: I didn’t want to like The Tiger’s Wife. We have sold a huge number of copies of this book since it first came out, and eventually won the Orange Prize last year. Téa Obrecht is young, successful, attractive – I didn’t think I could bear it if she were actually talented as well. Sadly for me – fortunately for her – she is immensely talented, and this debut novel shows a writer of great promise.

A young doctor and her friend are travelling across the Balkans, treating people, where an uneasy peace has recently fallen. When Natalia receives word that her grandfather, a prominent doctor at the university has died, it triggers a search for his body, as well as memories of her time as a child, when her grandfather would take her to the city zoo, and tell her about the life and times of the tiger’s wife – a woman in his country village hometown.

Magical realism based on traditional folk tales can often walk the fine line between twee sentimentalism, and full blown fantasy. Fortunately, Obrecht has done it perfectly in the story of the Deathless Man, who may be my favourite character in the novel, and one of the all time greats. A man who appears throughout Natalia’s grandfather’s life, he seems to appear at moments of great importance. As it turns out, he is akin to Death himself, helping people with their passage out of this world, and as such, has a lot of time for doctors. Of course, the real trick to magical realism is trying to decipher what these symbols mean – who the Deathless Man really is – and I’m still not completely sure what it is he is supposed to represent, though I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps the fact that we first meet him in a church is significant? Is he the personification of religious faith in the Balkans? Does that even work?

The eponymous tiger’s wife, too, toes that line closely. A young girl in a remote Balkan village falls in love with a tiger that escaped from the city zoo. He is, perhaps understandably, immediately feared by the rest of the village, but it is the young girl who takes him in, wanders around the town with him. Subverting the classic fairytale idea that the forest is a dangerous place for young virginal girls, Obrecht shows us a forest and landscape that actually, in many ways, nurtures the young girl, giving her a sense of place and identity. Once she becomes pregnant with the tiger’s baby, the village is torn between helping her and leaving her to rot for the despicable deed she has done.

In direct opposition to these fantastical tales of her grandfather’s time, Natalia’s life in the modern land is far more dull and depressing. Dealing with people who don’t want her help because she is from the “other side” of the war, her frustration is clear to see. It is clear she wants to make a difference in a part of the world that clearly needs help, but when the people who need it refuse, it is difficult to convince them otherwise.

Though the spectre of folklore, tradition and legend looms large, even here. Perhaps as a way of dealing with the horrors that have befallen the landscape, many people in the country re turning to tradition as a way of comforting themselves for what they have witnessed. People resort to a kind of shamanism and spirituality far removed from the Big Three (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), and have reverted to more local, “pagan” traditions of ghosts, spirits, and dead people not staying dead. It’s not done with any sense of irony or judgement, though, which makes a pleasant change, even for someone as cynical about these things as myself. And there’s no sense of glorifying these quaint traditions as a direct attack on anyone else’s

Without ever becoming sentimental, Obrecht has drawn an Eastern Europe with a sense of danger, a sense of past, and perhaps above all, a sense of magic. It is a novel about storytelling and history – about the stories and folktales people tell each other to explain the inexplicable, or make sense of events that are simply incomprehensible. A solid, well-written debut.

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The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay (2000) – Michael CHABON

I have a great deal of respect for the person Michael Chabon, born mainly out of the fact that he understands the importance of genre fiction, and the role it should play in more mainstream literary fiction. Also, he’s a fan of Doctor Who, which clearly makes him a person of discerning taste. I picked up Kavalier and Clay because it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, and because I needed a big book to take on holiday. It didn’t last the week.

It is 1939, and war is about to break out in Europe. Josef Kavalier has escaped Prague, and ended up in the bedroom of his American cousin, Sam Klayman. Both are trying to escape their lives – Joe, from the terrible state of his home, and Sam, from feelings he cannot quite describe. They pour their insecurities into the Escapist – a comic book that turns into a international phenomenon. But all good things must come to an end, and World War Two is marching ever closer.

Comic books are not just used for set decoration here, or simply as a way of pandering to a new kind of audience, though Chabon has a blinder of an idea in the Escapist. There’s a chapter explaining the entire origin story of him, and it’s one of the best pieces of writing you’re likely to find. Like all good superheroes (well, the ones I connect with), it’s the story of a simple man who has been wronged, and is simply looking for ways to right the wrongs of the world. Like Batman, the Escapist is not a superhero in the sense that he has special powers, rather more a glorified vigilante with a score to settle.

Chabon uses the idea of speculative fiction, and the escapes it can provide for people who feel trapped in their own humdrum lives, as a way of exploring these two characters’ deepest hopes and fears, of how they view themselves, and how others view them. Joe’s background in magic and escapology provide perhaps the perfect jumping off point for these ideas. Despite his having escaped the war, it is his constant struggle to get his brother, Thomas, over to America that provides his raison d’être. And so, in his comics, the Escapist is the man who can free anyone from any kind of tyranny. Of course, for Joe, that will almost always be the Nazi extermination of the Jews – his first attempt at a cover for the comic is the Escapist punching Hitler squarely on the jaw. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said for Joe’s motivations.

For a long time, Sam is a lot harder to work out. He seems like a typical New York kid, enthusiastic, excitable and clearly full of talent, though not for drawing. His imagination is something to marvel at, and the fact that he is able to come up with storyline upon storyline for the comic books his team writes is something to marvel at. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that there is a through line in all of these – every hero needs a sidekick, a plucky young man to help with the day to day life of being a caped crusader. Whether this is because of his repressed sexuality or some kind of deep seeded inferiority complex is never truly answered, though some not very nice people have a red hot go at portraying it as something rather immoral.

Unless you’re reading a Sarah Waters novel, it seems inevitable that gay relationships in historical fiction are doomed to fail. (I know, I’ve just linked you to TVtropes, and yes, you will be spending the next hour of your life surfing it). I don’t really think this is lazy writing on anyone’s behalf, but it has become such a cliche that it takes a good writer to make sure it doesn’t seem silly and tired. Fortunately, Chabon manages to just about get away with it, mainly because the pay off at the end of the novel is worth it. Sam’s relationship with Tracy is beautiful to watch unfold, and they really are an adorable couple. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the way in which it does is not fatal, but certainly final.

When Joe realises what Sam has given up, and why he has, it really highlights the love these two men have for each other. In a brotherly way, of course. In many ways, it’s difficult to decide which of the two men have sacrificed more in their lives. Joe has left his family behind in a war torn continent, but his own escaping to the war somehow balances it out. No matter what people say about sexuality not defining a person, Sam has given up his only path to happiness in order to fix the problem Joe has created. He denies his own desires for the sake of the woman and son Joe leaves behind in order to exact revenge on the faceless enemy that stole his brother. It’s all very tragic, and really, really depressing.

There’s even a little bit of comic book history, and though I’m not as well versed in it as, say, the history of television science fiction, I know enough to really appreciate that Chabon is clearly quite fond of the medium. Throughout the decades of the twentieth century, the Escapist is used by various people as a superhero of the time. Like all good ideas, he is constantly reinventable (yep, that’s definitely a word), and the forms he takes on are well thought out. The end of the novel highlights just how far the medium has come since those humble days in the 1930s: the book that Joe and Sam are working on is clearly symbolising the birth of the adult graphic novel, an artform that is still not viewed with the proper respect that it perhaps deserves.

As a final note, I did spend a lot of time as I was reading wishing I could read the adventures of the Escapist, because he just sounds so damn cool. And lo and behold, my wishes were answered! Chabon has worked with Dark Horse to bring the Escapist to the page. I’m off to go and check it out – I’m intrigued.

This is not a heavy or difficult read, despite its length. But it is excellent. Not “just” a story about superheroes, it is an insightful and intimate portrayal of two men dealing with their own shortcomings and failures, and finding ways to escape them. And if that’s not the most human thing you can do, I don’t know what is.

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