Tag Archives: religion

Booker Prize 2015: Troubled Childhoods

For those who read this blog that are not Australian, a bit of context: we are in the midst of a Royal Commission exploring institutional responses to child abuse throughout the past century in Australia. And what is most shocking about this Commission is that this abuse was systematic and widespread—so many stories are of children being abused by adults in positions of power, and no one doing anything about it. Both novels here ask the next logical question: what next?

Perhaps the most damning answer to this is in Hanya Yanagihara’s A little life. Ostensibly about four young friends in New York, this novel morphs into a blisteringly intense look at the way in which the mind reforms itself in response to sustained, abuse relationships as a child.

It is in the main character, Jude, that Yanagihara focuses all these abuses—in many ways, it seems unreal that a child found in a dumpster could be rescued by a religious cult of faux-priests, only to escape with one who shows him kindness, only to be sold into prostitution—and then after his escape, rescued by a sadistic doctor who refuses to let him into the world. It is simultaneously the most horrific and most compelling narrative in the entire longlist.

Without wanting to be too blunt, this really fucks Jude up. Sixteen years of abuse makes it literally impossible for him to trust anyone, despite (eventually) being surrounded by a whole network of people who love and care for him. This irony is made all the more stark as Jude, throughout his charmed life, finds himself ridiculously wealthy and materially successful. The question, then, is whether someone like Jude can escape his own past.

Yanagihara seems to think not. Despite these (sometimes enabling) networks, Jude continues to resort to cutting himself to release himself from the physical and emotional pain he still carries from his childhood. Rather than speaking to anyone, he literally tells no one about what happened to him for almost forty years, somewhat ironically increasing the distance between himself and those who care for him. For Jude, any mention of this time is an complete reminder of his own inability to control it, and in his mind, the physical scars he carries with him are disgusting signs that make him unlovable.

Allowing Jude (almost) all the privileges that anyone could possibly have someone (white, upper-class, wealthy), as well as removing any references that would ground the story in one particular time, Yanagihara highlights the fact that the repercussions of a childhood of abuse will be felt throughout a life, for the entirety of the life. And, in fact, those repercussions might even be responsible for the end of a life.

Despite being 700 pages long, A little life is hard to stop. Containing some of the most graphic and horrifyingly detailed passages of self-harm I have ever read, this novel is a beautiful reminder of both the greatest love and the most horrifying evil humans are capable of.

If A little life is a big, brash, bombastic novel, then Lila is a much more subtle, refined thing, though no less concerned with exploring the ways in which a troubled childhood can continue to affect adults long after the fact. Though Lila is ostensibly the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead sequence, I was blissfully unaware of this fact as I read it, and didn’t feel like I was missing any vital information. Further reading suggests that this was the case for others, and rather than acting as a sequel, is something of a side-quel to both Gilead and Homecoming.

At a very young age, Lila is taken (or rescued, depending on your point of view) from outside a house by a woman named Doll. Together, they walk across the state, trying to eke out a living doing odd jobs and itinerant work. Eventually, though, Lila grows up and marries a preacher man. All of a sudden, she finds herself settled—and pregnant—with the Reverend John Ames, an elderly priest making a living in the small town of Gilead, forcing her to question whether or not this is really the life she wants.

Lila is not stupid, but she is uneducated: her life up until this point has been transient: Doll has dragged her around the state doing odd jobs, pushing her in—and then pulling her out of—schools, meaning that though she has basic reading and writing skills, she has never taken the time to sit down and contemplate her place in life. Lila has become hypersensitive to being both criticised and patronised. While her husband does all he can to make her feel comfortable, as well as give her space both physically and emotionally to grow, she bristles at every perceived slight. For the longest time, she cannot bear to discuss her thoughts about her readings—having become recently acquainted with the Bible—with him, for fear of being seen as stupid or ignorant.

Here lies the central conundrum for Lila. Having found herself in a comfortable position, with a man willing to give her the space she needs, she suddenly doesn’t know if this is really what she wants. Does she want to settle down as wife and mother? Or does she simply not have the ability to live like that? Has her upbringing so affected her life?

But maybe this is what Robinson wants us to consider. Both Lila and John find it hard to understand the other. They can make a life—and a baby—together, but the other partner in the marriage is unknowable to both. Lila cannot understand why John wants her, particularly since she has made it clear she may not stay. John, though, cannot understand Lila, a woman who has spent most of her life on the road, drifting. And yet, somehow they make it work, bringing a young boy into the world, and giving him a life neither of them could have ever had.

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The Blue Room (1999) – Hanne ØRSTAVIK

The Peirene machine continues, and this time, they’ve chosen a young Norwegian novelist, Hanne Ørstavik. The back flap says that one of her works was voted one of the best Norwegian novels of the past 25 years. The Blue Room isn’t that work, but if Peirene chose to have it translated, I guess it must be good.

Johanne lives a simple life. She studies psychology at university, goes to church every Sunday, and lives with her mother in a house in Oslo. Into this idyllic life, though, comes a boy. And when her mother finds out about Ivar, Johanne’s life will be changed forever. This is a novel about female sexuality, and about what happens when said sexuality blossoms in a young woman not used to being seen as anything other than innocent and pure.

The inherent tension in Johanne’s views on sex and sexuality are gently teased out by Ørstavik. On the one hand, she has spent her life raised as a good Christian, along with her mother and good friend Karin. This upbringing has ensured she has become this good student, unconcerned with boys and other such distractions. She is more concerned with matters of the mind—she studies psychology to better understand those around her.

On the other hand, though, is perhaps a more instinctive sense. She wants desperately to sleep with Ivar, and every now and then, Johanne’s self-control will fall away and she has flashes of a sex life she didn’t think she would ever want. But now that, finally, there is an outlet for them, she finds herself drawn to the act of sex,

As is so often the case with young relationships, boundaries between physical lust and emotional longing are blurred, and when Ivar suggests she comes with him to America for six weeks, she cautiously accepts. Perhaps it is not the most sensible life choice (at this stage, she and Ivar have only been seeing each other for a few weeks), but she is young, and the whole point of youth is to make mistakes. The relationship may not have lasted, but Johanne is never given the chance to find out.

Having recently read Eimear McBride’s excellent debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, ideas around the construction and representation of the sexuality of young women were still floating around my head when I got around to reading The Blue Room. By the end, I knew I wanted to see McBride and Ørstavik in the same room (the colour is unimportant).

While McBride celebrates the sexual awakening of her unnamed narrator, she is also acutely aware of the friction this can cause in a fairly conservative, religious society. Ørstavik is perhaps less celebratory in her tone, but she is also acutely aware of the reactions of those around her when young women discover a part of life that is often frowned upon.

Both novels, too, deal with the reactions of mothers to their daughter’s changes. Though McBride’s mother is full of fire and brimstone, in many ways, Ørstavik’s is the more terrifying. Discontent with her daughter’s choice, she simply locks her in a room for 24 hours, preventing her from leaving. It’s psychological warfare on a grand scale, and the final scene is a killer. It seems that Ørstavik wants her protagonist to have a life where she is able to enjoy every part of herself, but she can’t find a way in a culture that is deeply conservative.

It takes some time for The Blue Room to warm up, but once it does, it becomes rapidly clear that Hanne Ørstavik is a novelist not content to bang her readers over the head with metaphors and imagery. This novel is subtle, and deceptively simple, but it is also an excellent interrogation of female sexuality, and the societal constraints placed on the women who dare to escape.

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A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (2013) – Eimear McBRIDE

The new Folio Prize is designed to be a Booker killer. Apparently fed up with the fact that one judge said one year she was looking for a book that was readable as well as literary, a group of authors have come together to create ‘real’ literature prize. It’s a big call, and when you put together a shortlist for your first prize, you have to make sure you get it right. So does this debut Irish novel make the cut?

It seems faintly reductive (and truistic) to suggest that I’ve read nothing like A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Others have compared it to Joyce, but since I am sadly lacking in that area, I couldn’t possibly comment. What I can tell you, though, is every time I offered the first page to a friend, they looked at me like I’d gone nuts. There is no question that that first page is intimidating—short sentences, irregular punctuation, and a collection of words that, at first glance, don’t seem to belong together.

But as you continue to read, and as you become accustomed to McBride’s rhythms, you cannot help but be drawn in by this unique style. It seems almost obscene that a writer this young should be able to so masterfully manipulate the English language. Though there are moments of ambiguity, they are deliberate—designed, perhaps, to confuse the reader and evoke in them the same confusion felt by the main character. It’s the same confusion any adolescent or young adult feels as they become a fully-fledged adult, allowed to make their own decisions, coming up against the wall of societal expectations that prevent them from making those exact same decisions.

This structure and construction, then, feed into what McBride is trying to talk about. The three relationships that make up the backbone of the novel are fully-formed, fleshed-out slices of reality: from the conservative Catholic mum who can’t stand the fact that her daughter enjoys sex, to her older, mentally-ill older brother, to the uncle she sees as more than just an uncle. Each one is confusing and hard to categorise easily, just like all familial relationships, and McBride teases out the intricacies of each one to highlight the fact that no one is always good or always bad. (Though the uncle comes pretty close.)

Of course, what is wrapped up most in growing up and coming to terms with societal restrictions is sexuality, particularly female sexuality. Growing up in conservative Ireland and being a teenager (and later, young woman) who enjoys sex puts the protagonist in a position that sees her judged for her lifestyle, even by those closest to her. Her mother yells and screams at her for not being pure, while her teenage brother, in a fit of rage, does the same thing.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is a book you need to read. There can be no question that is not, perhaps, the most ‘readable’ of all novels, but though experimental in its structure construction, McBride does not forget that ‘real’ literature is not about showing off with tricksy, literary fireworks, but about believable people trying to make sense of the world around them.

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Mr Darwin’s Gardener (2009) – Kristina CARLSON

My subscription to the 2013 season of Peirene Press novellas/short novels is chugging along nicely—the second of the collection turned up on my doorstep several weeks ago. I very much enjoyed the first Peirene book I read, and though there’s really nothing connecting this novel—a contemporary Finnish novel from Kristina Carson—with the last—an 80s novel from Germany—Peirene has made a name for itself by being a brand of a certain kind of novel. Does this novel, then, reach the heights of The Mussel Feast?

The blurb of Mr Darwin’s Gardener proudly proclaims that this is a postmodern Victorian novel. That doesn’t make a lot of sense; the schools of Victorianism and postmodernism are, I would argue, almost diametrically opposed—not just in the obvious, superficial stylistic features, but in their very world view. Victorian novels are famed for their moral and moralistic stances on issues of the times; postmodern novels revel in the presentation of multiple points of view, ensuring they do not privilege any particular stance.

Having said all this, there is a way to arrive at a kind of syncretic point between the two: John Fowles managed to take postmodern sensibilities—the idea of an unreliable narrative structure—and put them into an ostensibly Victorian context and framework in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The most obviously postmodern technique Carlson uses in her novel is her use of shifting perspectives. Opening paragraphs of sections begin in the third person, but every paragraph after that is told in first person, our narrator being the previously mentioned character. It fractures the narrative, creating a kaleidoscope of points of view, each one slightly different. We are allowed into the minds of so many people in this small village, each one similar, but just different enough to be recognised.

What does shine through all of this stylistic pyrotechnics is the idea that a closed-minded, small-world-thinking culture is potentially harmful to those who don’t share the same view. In many ways, it is a critique of the small-mindedness of Victorian sensibilities, particularly when it comes to things like science, love and illness.

These Victorian values are particularly apparent in the small town’s mob reaction to two events. The first is Thomas’ moving to the village. Having no wife, forced to bring up his two young children by himself, there are constant whisperings about his own ability to do so. The second is a singularly poignant event in which, the small-town mob having discovered an extramarital affair, take it upon themselves to dole out gang justice on the man who undertook said affair.

As the title would suggest, the other theme running through the novel is the collision of religion and science. Thomas was, indeed, the titular gardener, and though his wife has died, he still clings to the ideals science promotes, placing him in direct opposition to many of the people in the village. Though we don’t hear from Thomas often in this cacophony of narrators, his concerns for his children—as well as his consideration of the inherent tension between these two modes of thinking—mark him out as perhaps the most intelligent of those we meet.

Carlson’s novel never quite hits the heights of Fowles’ masterpiece. Ironically, perhaps, it never feels quite focused enough on any one character to leave any kind of lasting impression. While Peirene’s previous offering, The Mussel Feast, used its short length to its advantage, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, while being an impressive feat of style, perhaps overreaches itself in its attempt to satirise so many individuals in a short space.

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The Finkler Question (2010) – Howard JACOBSON

Now that Howard Jacobson’s new novel, Zoo Time, is out, I thought I might finally get around to reading his last novel which, some may remember, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I have vague memories that people were impressed and excited that a comic novel had won, which is certainly a rarity in the Booker world. Recent winners like The Inheritance, The Sea and The Sense of an Ending don’t exactly scream hilarious. And then Howard Jacobson was on Q&A and he was great and I wanted him to be there every week. So I’m finally here, reading Finkler.

Walking home through London after dinner one night, Julian Treslove is mugged. By a woman. Shaken and confused, the thing he remembers most about the attack is that the woman said something. Something that sounded like “Because you’re a Jew.” Confused as to why anyone would think him Jewish, he begins a journey through the Jewish tradition, led by his friends Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. Enthralled by what he finds, Treslove moves in with a Jewish woman and tries to be Jewish. Hilarity ensues.

When I read Philip Roth, I remarked that one of the defining features of his writing was its Jewishness. Certainly Jacobson is continuing this tradition, but it’s safe to say he goes about it in a completely different way. Ok, it’s obviously not laugh out loud hilarious. But the ostensibly light tone, along with all the ridiculous things that happen to Treslove, and all the word-play going on, make this a fun novel to read, despite the serious questions it asks of us. Maybe it’s more absurd than comic. In any case, Jacobson gives us three models from which we can choose – the Gentile who wants to be a Jew, the Jew who doesn’t want to be a Jew, and the old man who wants to die.

It’s hard to like Julian Treslove. His obsession with wanting to be Jewish borders on the racist – the idea that being Jewish is intrinsically better because of all the culture and history. His stereotypical image of the perfect Jew is so completely ignorant it borders on the naive. I love the irony of him now wanting to upset anyone, referring to Jews as Finklers in his internal monologue. He – and I say this as a young white atheist – completely misses the point of the history of suffering of the Jewish people, thinking he can somehow latch on to that and create a new identity. He just wants to be one of the cool kids – it just happens that, in this case, all the cool kids are Jewish. He thinks learning some token Yiddish will somehow make him more Jewish – it’s as though all he wants to do is learn the theory and study for the test, and not actually live as a Jew.

In the other corner is Sam Finkler, Treslove’s more attractive, more successful high school friend, whose wife has just died. Finkler is an “ASHamed” Jew. Finkler finds Israeli politics abominable, and with a group of other prominent Jews, makes sure the rest of the world knows just how ashamed he is to be associated with Israel, simply by being Jewish. Does this make him anti-Semitic? Certainly a lot of people think so, including members of his own family. For a man who has never been particularly concerned with leading a proper Jewish lifestyle, his attacks on Israeli policy certainly seem mistimed and inappropriate.

Of the three men at the centre of the plot, it is hands-down Libor that comes off most sympathetic. While the two younger men are caught up in their own ridiculous problems, Libor is left to play the grieving widower, coming to terms with the fact that his wife of more than sixty years is no longer with him. Though his narrative strand is shorter and smaller, it’s nice that Jacobson contrasts these self-absorbed, self-obsessed younger men with

Has Jacobson ever given a definitive answer as to what the eponymous Finkler question is? Maybe he just thought calling a book “The Jewish Question” might not go down so well. But there is one question with which he seems more concerned than any other: what does it mean to be Jewish? That overarching question seems to be more of a quest than a question – the quest for an “authentic” Jewish identity, with a proscribed set of rules and regulations that can be followed, and if you follow them properly, you become Jewish. But the only one of our suggested models that is even sympathetic is Libor, and even he doesn’t want to be defined by his Jewishness. Does Jacobson see the old guard as the way forward? Does he despair of the new generation of Jewish intellectuals and critics?

So maybe that’s the answer to the question. You can’t become Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. You can be born Jewish, but it doesn’t matter. As with Christianity, as with Islam, as with Buddhism, there is no one right answer. A plurality of voices exists even in a minority community, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the collision of politics, religion and identity creates more viewpoints than it breaks down.

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American Dervish (2012) – Ayad AKHTAR

When I wrote a post about what it meant to be Asian, as part of the Man Asian Literary Prize, I lamented the fact that immigrant experiences, and stories of the Asian diaspora weren’t included in the field. I totally understand why this happened, but I have always been fascinated by immigrant stories, and that inherent tension between the culture of one’s parents, and the culture of one’s living space. Which is what made American Dervish such a promising read.

Hayat’s parents are Pakistani immigrants, trying to make a new life in America. His father is a doctor, his mother a housewife. When circumstances force his mother’s best friend, Mina, to move to America and live with his family, nothing will ever be the same again. Introducing him to the world of Islamic mysticism, Mina encourages Hayat’s growing interest in the religion of his homeland, and sets him on a path that could destroy the family.

Hayat, as a young boy struggling to find his own identity, trapped between an overbearing mother and a drunk, adulterous father, finds it easy to confide in Mina, who is clearly very attractive, both physically and mentally. As Hayat moves into puberty, a time that wrecks havoc upon the teenage brain, his own feelings towards her become more and more confused. It’s easy to see why he is attracted to her as a mentor and mother figure – his father is barely home, preferring to spend his nights getting drunk with young white girls, while his mother seems unable to see him as her son, instead pouring her marital problems onto him, despite his not wanting to know.

And then walks in a beautiful woman, willing to pay him attention, to see him as a real person, not just a kid. She shows him the mystic side of Islamic tradition, complete with whirling dervishes, and stories of an all powerful being, able to make your life better if you pray hard, and learn the Qu’ran by heart. One cannot help but wonder if she knew the damage she was doing – teaching religion to vulnerable people, offering them a way out of their unhappy lives, will always have consequences, particularly if the one doing the teaching is blindly unaware of the true limits of their influence.

There are some subtle character developments throughout the novel that show Akhtar as a promising storyteller. Perhaps my favourite is the fact that Hayat’s father is not the insane Islamic fundamentalist we are so used to seeing in Islamic stories. Instead, his refusal to be drawn into the bickering infighting of the Pakistani community, as well as his horror at many parts of the Islamic tradition sit uneasily with his alcoholic, womanising ways. As Hayat slowly moves to a path of dangerous fundamentalism, his father is watching, making sure he never goes too far. And then, when he finally does, it’s not an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.

It’s funny that, while we all applaud the idea of immigration as a way for people to escape the persecution and bigotry of their homelands, this is not really something that ever happens. More than anything, this novel demonstrates just how ingrained some prejudices are and how, even in a country thousands of kilometres away from the actual conflict, the Arab-Israeli fighting has consequences around the world. Old world prejudices in the new world, are handed down from generation to generation, breeding a new kind of prejudice.

No one, it seems, escapes unscathed from the influence of religion in this novel. Hayat ruins the lives of many people courtesy of his desire to become a hafiz. His mother has spent most of her life blaming her husband’s behaviour on the simple fact that he is a Muslim man – she takes a very view dim of the traditional male/female roles outlined in Islamic culture. His father has been cast aside by the Pakistani community because he dares to call himself an atheist, finding little common ground between his own pursuits as a doctor and the more militant Islamism espoused by the leaders of the community. Mina’s life is ruined – no, that’s not the right word – decimated, by the fact she is ostracised to the point whereby she must reject the man she loves, in order to marry a man who – well, you’ll find out. Nathan, Mina’s Jewish boyfriend, too, finds being a Jewish man willing to convert to Islam for the sake of his love not as easy as he may have expected.

Whether this message was Akhtar’s original intention, or simply the way my views on religion have affected my reading of the novel, I’m not sure. But what is clear is that, in the end, Hayat can only find peace as a non-believer. And despite all that goes on, American Dervish doesn’t strike me as an angry novel. There is a sense of resignation, that it is simply impossible for people to move forward while still clinging on to old ways of thinking, old prejudices, old religions.

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The Wandering Falcon (2011) – Jamil AHMAD

This late in the Man Asian Literary Prize timeline, I guess those following the books are at least vaguely aware of the story behind each one. The Wandering Falcon interested me for a number of reasons – first, Ahmad wrote this more than thirty years ago, but has only just had it published, at the ripe age of 79. Secondly, it’s won a number of other prizes, including the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize in India. Finally, it deals with the border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the tribes that live there. I have a fairly vested interest in border studies, so I was interested to see how Ahmed pulled this off.

In a time before terrorism, on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, live various tribes of people, outside the mainstream. Their lives are dependent on good weather in the mountain landscape, on the goodwill of their neighbouring tribes, and of the governments in the cities below not trying to force them into a life they do not want to lead. Their lives are hard, and in this insight into a world rarely glimpsed, Ahmad provides snippets of these lives, spanning several decades.

Obviously we need to talk a little about the structure of the novel first. Ahmad has written what is essentially a collection of linked short stories – the one, mysterious common element is the boy (and later, man) Tor Baz, or the eponymous wandering falcon. I’m still not quite sure just how old he is supposed to be by the end, but there are several decades of history covered in these nine tales. In several – including the excellent opening chapter/story – Tor Baz features quite heavily. In others, he barely rates a mention – in fact, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t appear in one of them, though I can’t remember exactly which one that is.

Each story deals with a different aspect of tribal life in the vast wilderness between Pakistan and Afghanistan, though, as one may expect, there are several universal themes that make this collection of tales more cohesive than a simple short story collection. Arguably the overarching theme is the harsh and unforgiving nature of life away from big cities, in a land that is, quite frankly, close to uninhabitable. It is a testament to the human spirit that people have managed to eck out an existence here, and though Ahmad pulls no punches in highlighting the brutal and sometimes fatal lifestyle that is simply the norm for these people.

I’m glad, too, he wrote the last chapter, “Sale Completed”,  and in many ways leaving it until the end, as the final message, was clever. For a long time, I was wondering if he was going to talk in detail about the role women play in traditional bedouin tribes like the ones outlined in The Wandering Falcon, and was worried he was just going to skip it. But when he turns his hand to writing about the brutal treatment of women in the name of “tradition,” he brings up a whole new set of questions that leave you wondering after you’ve finished the novel. Because, let’s face it, a culture that views women as nothing more than objects to be traded and exchanged for money and sexual favours is one that needs to be examined closely.

In some ways, this constant onslaught of the worst of what it means to be human left me with a bad taste in my mouth. The cold, almost clinical style in which Ahmad writes leaves no room for any kind of hope, and ultimately, the whole thing left me cold. The fact that this has been sitting in his desk for thirty years, and the fact that he was unsure whether to publish it as fiction or non-fiction leaves me wondering whether it would have been better off to publish it as a kind of travelogue – maybe his style would have worked better there.

Reading The Wandering Falcon left me informed, but not inspired. This was a part of the world about which I knew almost nothing, so to see a different kind of existence portrayed so diligently was nice. But as a piece of fiction, as a work that should let me into people’s lives and make me feel something – I’m afraid it just didn’t work for me.

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The Valley of Masks (2011) – Tarun J TEJPAL

After a brief break, I’m back on track with the Shadow Man Asian Prize project. After some initial trouble in sourcing this novel, I ended up with two copies on my doorstep last week. More than any other novel on the longlist, The Valley of Masks has fascinated me – a high-concept dystopian novel not especially concerning itself with Indian identity. Truly, this is the black sheep of the list.

Our narrator – a man with many names – is living in hiding in an unnamed Indian city. He fears for his life – the terrifying Wafaders are coming for him. His previous life – born into a cult hiding in a valley in the Himalayan mountains – is catching up with him, and his last act is to tell his tale. This is the story of a child born into love, a boy educated with religious fervour, a young man taught to kill, and an old man who must make a terrible choice.

This is the third book on the longlist to deal with cults, but while Murakami and Yoshimoto did so indirectly, Tejpal gives us the whole kit and kaboodle. In sheer terms of world-building, he has given us an entirely alien society – in an attempt to ensure a lack of selfish, personal attachment, children are raised by a group of women – they never know who their true parents are. They are given one of six names as a child, but in order to become an adult, they must give it up and receive a collection of letters and numbers. In the ultimate sacrifice of personhood and individuality, each member of the society wears the same mask, perfectly moulded to one’s face.

Just as the framing device is our narrator explaining to us his way of life, we get snippets and suggestions about the history of the cult. At the core of every religion, of every system of belief, are myths and legends from history that shape values and world views, and there is no difference here. Its figurehead – Aum, or the first sound in the universe – is he chosen one, and his uprising against the heathens, and his ability to bring clarity and salvation to people is exulted in these tales. His two sidekicks, Ali and Alaiya, also feature heavily. Stories and rumours, too, of people who did not do the right thing, people who broke the rules, are taught to our narrator, who laps them up in his fervour. Attempting to unravel these stories is half the fun – Karna himself admits that his own story has holes in it, because it’s easier for him to tell it this way.

The path of our main character, however, is that of the Wafader – a group of elite warriors, trained to protect the valley from outsiders, from non-believers, and ultimately, from the menace within. These cult symbols are taught to be living killing machines, and their education in the ways of death are exquisitely detailed by Tejpal. Their use of wooden needles to make their victims bleed slowly, but not to death, is covered extensively. There is a definite physicality and masculinity that pervades this novel, and there is only one scene in which this is more apparent than in these training sequences.

As with all good religious orders, the Aum supporting nutjobs here are not what we would describe as enlightened when it comes to the rights of women. They tend to fall into two main categories: the ever present Madonna/whore dichotomy. Madonna in the sense that many of them are given over to raising children in a commune environment, no one ever knowing who is biologically whose; and whore, in the sense that many nubile young girls are sent off to what are essentially brothels (the Serai of Fleeting Happiness, and the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses, for those playing at home) to service the young, and old, men of the community. Rather than reject sexuality as base and degrading, Aum recognises that this is necessary, and so allows men to simply have their way with women in these rooms. Charming.

There is a definite gear shift in the last third of the novel, as things in paradise begin to take a turn for the worse. It’s not until it’s too late that you realise just how truly brainwashed everyone here is. It’s perhaps a long bow to pull, but there are echoes of North Korea here – a personality cult taken to extreme levels, with people willing to do anything for their Gentle Father. I hesitate to use the word brainwashed, but in both situations, the ability of those in charge to manipulate their followers into thinking they are doing the right thing is terrifying.

I’m not going to spoil it for you – it would rather ruin the entire thing – but Tejpal pushes his already disturbing tale into almost horrific territory. Actually – and I’m worried this is going to make me sound like a monster – I thought he was going to push the envolope even further, and was slightly disappointed he didn’t. After a litany of events and decisions that would leave any sane and rational person quivering at the knees, Karna is sent . And at the final hurdle, he fails. Of course he fails – and perhaps this is Tejpal’s point. There is a line in all of us where some kind of inherent morality or sensibility takes over from any kind of religious indoctrination, even if said indoctrination has the weight of 45 years behind it.

There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I’m going to leave it there, because I rather think I’m beginning to ramble. I loved The Valley of Masks. Purely as a world-building exercise, Tejpal proves himself a master – his cult is perfectly formed, and while perhaps pushes the boundaries of believability, it does it in a recognisable setting, making you forget your questions. But his insights into belief, into faith, and the boundaries of those things that make us who we are, probe deep into an uncomfortable question we must constantly ask ourselves.

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Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – Philip ROTH

I managed to pick this up cheap the other day, and after all the fuss about Roth winning the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year,  I was curious to know just what kind of author he was. I’ve heard a lot about him from a lot of people, and most of it has been pretty positive. I also didn’t want to commit to starting the Zuckerman series, because I didn’t want to get it wrong. So this seemed like a good starting point.

Alex Portnoy has a problem – his mother. The woman just won’t leave him alone, despite his having passed thirty, and having a rather swanky public service job crusading for human rights. As he tells his therapist about his life, and just how terrible his mother is, he detours and twists to explain just why he can’t seem to have a proper, fulfilling relationship with any woman, and why, maybe, he just doesn’t really care. Or does he?

Portnoy’s Complaint was written more than forty years ago, but I was constantly surprised at just how modern and alive it felt. Turn Portnoy into any of the other minority groups that are now living the American dream thanks to their enterprising parents, and you’ll probably end up with a similar tension and anger that permeates this novel. Portnoy is a very, very angry young man – there’s no doubt about that. He blames his overbearing, smothering mother for the problems he now has with women; he seems to hate white Americans because of their white privilege, while at the same time wanting desperately to be a part of the cool group; he hates being Jewish, because he doesn’t even believe in God. Replace any of these with, say, Muslim immigrants, or Asian immigrants, or African immigrants, and you can see how much of an influence authors like Roth have had on immigrant literature in America.

At the same time, though, there is something deeply, inherently Jewish about Roth’s writing. Alex’s mother issues – which are really family issues more than anything else – stem from this weird relationship he has with his parents and what they represent. They are first generation Jewish immigrants, complete with English studded with Yiddish. (Seriously, there’s a lot of Yiddish in this novel, though I understood about 90% of it, so it doesn’t make anything unreadable.) Despite him being in his early thirties, his parents are still on his back for not having settled down with a nice (Jewish) girl and having some grandchildren. They – his mother in particular – see it as an affront to all they have done for Alex that he doesn’t even have to common decency to provide them with grandchildren.

Of course, whether this is an accurate portrayal of his parents is the ultimate question. Told as a bizarre stream of consciousness to his therapist, there is no reason to trust Alex as a narrator. For all we know, he could be exaggerating everything – his parents may even be lovely people. But I think we can all identify with Alex, even just a little – we all of us have had moments in our lives when, even though we’ve grown up and moved out of the parental house, our parents still get on our nerves for the littlest of things.

Stylistically, too, Roth is masterful. Alex’s voice is carefully balanced between the literary and the conversational, the intelligent and the crude. I love a good bit of (appropriate) swearing in a novel, and Roth does not disappoint. If you are in any way offended by descriptions of masturbation, intense threesomes, or even raunchy descriptions of lady bits, you would be well advised to not read Portnoy’s Complaint. For those of us who do enjoy all of these things, though, there’s a lot to love here. I know some people are mortally offended by swearing, and think it vulgar and unintelligent, but a well timed expletive can be just as devastating and effective as anything else. On a similar note, I’ve never seen the word c**t in print quite so many times as I have in this novel.

I hesitate to compare Roth to a 21st century sitcom character, but if anyone’s seen The Big Bang Theory, there’s an excellent analogy to be made. Alex Portnoy is the precursor to Howard Wolowitz, and all of those slightly messed up, sexually frustrated, mother-issue-laden young Jewish men that are now so popular in, well, pop culture. Portnoy’s Complaint carries its age well – there’s a verve and energy throughout Roth’s writing that makes him fun to read. I’m eager to find more.

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1Q84 (2009) – Haruki MURAKAMI

I need to start this review with something of a caveat – for the most part, I don’t like the work of Haruki Murakami. His works tend to leave me feeling cold, and perhaps more importantly, repetitive. But the amount of hype surrounding 1Q84 was massive – both in Japan and overseas – and so I felt obliged to give it a go. And then it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, so I couldn’t back out of it. And in case you don’t want to read the whole review (this is slightly longer than I write for most things I review here), this was pretty much my first thought after finishing this 900 page beast: there’s too many hours of my life I’m never going to get back.

I’ve never completely understood the reason for Murakami’s popularity in the West, or indeed, in Japan. Rebecca Suter, an academic at Sydney Uni, offers an interesting thesis that makes a lot of sense in my head. You’ll have to read the whole thing here, but the thrust is that Murakami manages to blend both Western and Japanese cultural backgrounds into his novels, and this appeals to both sides. For Japanese readers, to Western pop culture references are other-worldly enough to be fascinating, while still being grounded in Japanese sensibility. This is reversed for Western readers, who enjoy the glimpses of an exotic other in his work, while still being comfortable with understandable references.

This is helped, no doubt, by the two translators of 1Q84 – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have translated Murakami’s work before. Before we get to the issue of having two translators for one novel (I think it’s a terrible idea), there’s the fact that there seems to be a concerted effort by these translators to make Murakami more palatable to Western tastes – a simple comparison of passages in the Japanese original, and then the English translation, highlight missing words – sometimes sentences – chopped up phrases, and generally weird stuff going on. I’ve always been taught to keep as close to the original text s possible, preserving sentences and words, even if they sound a little funny, but clearly Rubin and Gabriel think differently. If I were a better person, I would have read this in Japanese, but you probably wouldn’t have the translation for a few more months…

This is all, of course, only tangentially related to this novel, but these are the questions I was thinking about as I read 1Q84. And you should all, too. As a widely publicised “magnus opus,” it has become something of a lightning rod for people’s views of Murakami’s work – everything you expect from a “Murakami novel” is here, so if you’re expecting something different, be prepared to be disappointed.

Tengo Kawana has been given an unusual request by his editor – to rework a novella from a young girl called Fuka-Eri, and enter it into the new writers’ prize. He does, but in doing so, is pulled into a world he never knew existed. Meanwhile, Aomame works as an assassin, killing men who perpetrate domestic violence. But when she walks onto a highway exit from a taxi, she too is drawn into a strange world where not quite everything is as she remembers.

Murakami’s characters have fantastical adventures to escape their everyday, humdrum lives. This is, of course, the message he has been sending us right from the beginning – that modern Japanese society is so deeply unfulfilling, so boring, people turn to the magical to fill their days. Tengo is no different to this – his own frustrations as a writer allow him to be more open to the strange request that draws him into the parallel world of 1Q84, a parallel version of the 1984 in which this novel is set.

The world into which Tengo finds himself drawn is a world of strange cults in which supernatural events are an everyday occurrence, where strange creatures are born out of thin air, only to make their own chrysalis to create more people, and where the mother/daughter (maza/dohta in the translation, マザー/ドウタ) relationship is vitally important. Murakami is a frustrated science fiction writer stuck in the wrong literary mode. So many of these ideas would be fantastic, if only Murakami could channel them into a big, bold, proper literary sci-fi novel, and deal with them properly. Instead, they are relegated to quirky post-modern window dressings, in a world of very confused sexual politics.

Which brings me around to Aomame, a character that should be far more engaging than she actually is. I love the idea of a broken woman going on a rampage and carefully assassinating men who beat their wives. There’s an entire novel in that sentence alone. But once Aomame is drawn into the mysterious world of Sakigake (先駆け, or frontrunners, in Japanese) the cult which forms the main focus of the mystery at the centre of 1Q84, she seems to lose that drive, and instead become all consumed with finding Tengo, a boy she went to school with and had a strange, but significant ten second encounter with twenty years ago.

It seems desperately unfair that a big fat horrible man should be allowed to die in a manner of his choosing. In the real world, any middle aged man who has “ambiguous congress” with underage girls is rightly punished, particularly when he says he did it because of some supernatural being. But in Murakami’s world, because these beings are real, it seems somehow more justified. This man is simply doing his job. Which is an uncomfortable thought, to say the least. And for a novel that brings questions of domestic violence, and of poorly treated women, to the fore, I feel like Murakami should be making a better point. There’s also the awkwardly and deeply uncomfortable sex scene between Tengo and Fuka-Eri (which did make it onto the shortlist of this year’s bad sex award). For me, it’s not uncomfortable because it’s badly written, but because Murakami goes out of his way to describe Fuka-Eri as child-like in appearance, and indeed manner, so it reads like Tengo is sleeping with a child. I don’t think I need to explain any further why I found that uncomfortable.

Then, of course, we get to the third section, which feels like an unnecessary addition in so many ways. Written about a year after the first two sections, it introduces a third point of view character, Ushikawa, who in many ways, is completely unnecessary. In other ways, though, he’s quite useful, because he actually has some plot to be getting on with, and his chapters allow you to understand why it is that Tengo and Aomame are being (very poorly) chased by Sakigake.

There are some positives, though. I love the old woman for whom Aomame works – there’s something really cool in the idea of an old woman crusading against domestic violence from the comfort of her upper-class house, getting other people to do her dirty work for her. And some of Murakami’s post-modern tricks work out quite well – there’s a big discussion about Chekov’s gun when Aomame is given a pistol by Tamaru, and the idea that, now it’s been introduced into the story, it must be used. I won’t tell you what happens, but it’s quite cool. Bonus points, too, for making Tamaru a gay zainichi from Sakhalin, filling all of the minority tick boxes. Minus points, though, for making him poorly written, spouting weird dialogue that is comically unnatural and far too self-aware. Saying that he is gay, so naturally he loves interior design, for example.

1Q84 is messy and unwieldy. It’s far too long for its own good, partially because things repeat themselves again and again – perhaps a better editor was needed. But its ideas and politics are messy, too, and while there are some great concepts buried within these 900 pages, Murakami ultimately prefers to obfuscate them with unnecessary post-modern trickery that was old thirty years ago when he repeated it in his earlier novels. I wonder if the title “magnum opus” is being used because it’s so freaking long? Of course, it has everything one expects to find in a Murakami novel, but that’s about it. 1Q84 doesn’t bring anything new or fresh to the table, particularly in the Haruki Murakami canon.

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