This is Happiness by Niall Williams – review

I won’t lie: I bought this book primarily because there was a hare on the cover. It was my first Niall Williams novel and I had no idea what sort of author he was, but having now spent many happy hours basking in the luminous quality of his writing I know it won’t be my last. This is happiness indeed.

Set in 1950s Ireland, the story begins as Noel, a boy in his late teens who has dropped out of the seminary following a crisis of faith, returns to the rural community of Faha to live with his grandparents. He has arrived at a highly significant time in the town’s history: it is about to receive electricity for the first time. While Noel struggles with contemplating his future, the family are joined by a newcomer and lodger, brought to Faha by the forthcoming electrical works but with something far more profound on his mind. Christy is on a moral mission to right a great wrong he did to one of the town’s inhabitants many decades ago when he was a young man. For Noel, he provides a window onto parts of humanity he hasn’t yet experienced, the friendship he needs and the impetus to see himself and his future in a new light.

The novel’s structure places the events very firmly within a defined time frame, one that serves to highlight the momentous, quasi-mystical nature of the happenings contained within it. Much as Mary Poppins can only stay until the wind changes, so we know this magical moment won’t last, but also that the town and its characters will be shaped by it for the decades to come. The first notable herald of unusual times is the weather: in Faha, we are told, it rains almost constantly, so the appearance of sunshine is in itself a small miracle, one which is met with pleasure but also incredulity and a sense of the normal order of things being thrown somewhat out of kilter. The coming of the electricity provides another framing device, the novel starting with the news that electrification is on its way and ending with the flicking of the switch that will finally bring modernity to the community. Then there is Christy, whose residence in the town in ostensibly connected to the electrical installation, but who is almost a spiritual presence (guru? sage? I hesitate to say a Christ-like figure, but a clue in the name perhaps?) and one whose appearance in Faha we know to be transient – when the electricity comes, he will go.

This sense of spirituality is the cornerstone of the novel. Human, worldly passions are treated with a reverence that elevates them to something ethereal; even the slightly comedic infatuations of an inexperienced teenage boy are spoken of in deferential terms, albeit with tongue firmly in cheek at times. Music is vitally important, and Noel and Christy’s nocturnal sojourns to the local pubs in search of the best live performers are themselves akin to a spiritual quest. The fact that they are usually blind drunk by the time they head home, and that their inebriated cycling exploits make for some hilarious passages in the novel, strangely (cleverly) doesn’t in any way detract from the sense of joy, elevation and release that comes from following their passion. The whole novel could be said to be one of metaphor; the coming of electric power is poised to illuminate Faha just as the coming of Christy and the events that unfold as a result bring enlightenment to the life of narrator Noel. Even the name Noel has etymological links to the Latin for “birthday” or “relating to birth”; no coincidence perhaps for a character who spends the novel on a journey of self-discovery, personal growth and deeper understanding of those around him as he truly lives perhaps for the first time.

Appropriately, the writing itself is sublime; at times, reading the novel felt like being rocked to sleep in a hammock, the prose lilting, ebbing and flowing but never less than pinpoint precise. On almost every page there was a turn of phrase that made you pause for a second to take in the perfection. Niall Williams takes great care to afford even the most mundane moments a sense of beauty, as if to remind us that everything about this life is wondrous. He also clearly has enormous affection for the rural way of life that has now disappeared; technologically speaking the people of Faha may be backward but they have something special in their sense of community and determined self-sufficiency that we too come to love and admire as the novel goes on. Electricity, that great innovation that we couldn’t in the 21st century do without, seems incongruous and unnecessary here, a blight on tradition that signals an ending as much as it does a beginning.

I fell completely and utterly in love with this novel; I defy you to read it and not do the same! If you’ve read it already – or any of his other books – do tell me what you thought.

Happy reading x

The Sunday Stack – One Stack, One Colour!

The Sunday Stack is a really fun idea created by Bronwen at Babblesnbooks – and it’s super-easy to join in. Every Sunday she provides a different prompt, and all you have to do is create a stack of books along that theme. This week it’s One Stack, One Colour….. and you can’t get much more of a free-wheeling theme than that! There was only ever one colour I could choose for this: blue, my favourite colour for as long as I can remember. It also turns out (handily) that I have an enormous number of blue books; I didn’t do a proper count up, but by eye I’d guess there are more blue spines on my shelves than any other colour. Coincidence….?

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

This wonderful debut novel is the perfect example of how to have a lot of fun with what is ultimately a serious subject. All sorts of things are going on behind closed doors up and down The Avenue, but seen through the eyes of two young girls who decide to turn detective and root out the truth behind the community’s biggest mystery, the domestic tragedies of suburbia take on an almost comedic aspect. Yet the author never loses the sense of poignancy and the genuine sadness, when it comes is all the more affecting.

The Breaking Point by Daphne Du Maurier

I’m not usually a short story fan, but this next book in my Sunday stack went a long way to converting me to the format. As with almost any short story collection there are a couple of weaker ones, but these are more than compensated for by the surprisingly large number that still stick in my head very vividly even now, a couple of years after reading. If you want to dip in and try just one? I’d go for The Blue Lenses (not chosen to fit today’s blue theme I promise!)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Is “Fitzcarraldo Blue” an official shade? If not, it should be – I can’t think of anything in the book world more striking than a collection of these stylish editions together on a bookshelf! This is one of my absolute top reads of the last year: witty, caustic and with more than a touch of the macabre, this book takes a knife to the heart of Polish society and clearly relishes doing so.

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan

The first of what has turned out to be an utterly endearing series, this book is part detective story and part love letter to the quirks of Mumbai, its citizens and its culture. And of course, there’s a baby elephant, who comes into the life of Police Inspector Chopra without any warning and subsequently proves to be immensely useful in his investigations. It’s fun, warm and has an enormous heart – a ray of light in a very dark 2020!

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

I’m finishing my Sunday stack with a book that introduced me to an author who ended up becoming one of my all-time favourites. Althought I haven’t been quite so enamoured with some of his later books, at his best, Paul Auster is in a league of his own. The New York Trilogy is undoubtedly his most famous book – and if people only read one of his works it tends to be this one – but it’s not actually my favourite; nor do I think it’s necessarily the best introduction to his writing. If you’ve never tried Auster before, I recommend starting with either Leviathan or Moon Palace. I would have featured them here but sadly neither are blue!!

I think this has been my favourite Sunday Stack so far, and I’m very much looking forward to getting my teeth into August’s selection of book stack themes. If you’ve joined in this week, do comment and leave your links below – I’d love to see your colourful collections!

Related posts:

The Sunday Stack – Sequels and Finales The Sunday Stack – Summer Reads My Top 5 Reads of 2020

The Truants by Kate Weinberg – review

Any novel featuring a precocious clique of university students acting out a lethal drama of arrogance, manipulation and murder is inevitably going to draw comparisons with The Secret History. Most of these comparisons are, let’s be honest, going to be unfavourable, because Donna Tartt’s first (and in my opinion best: discuss) novel is a masterclass in campus nastiness and post-adolescent hubris that has yet to be bettered. I’m not surprised that Tartt gets a mention on the book’s back cover, but to assume this is going to be a mediocre attempt at a carbon copy would be to do The Truants a disservice.

However, I openly admit that when I started reading it, that’s exactly how I thought it was going to unfold. I’ve read a couple of novels with similar set-ups (The Bellwether Revivals, If We Were Villains) so was pretty sure what to expect: an insular group of characters whose vices, obsessions and jealousies eventually tear the obnoxious clique apart from the inside. Kate Weinberg begins her book by introducing a collection of characters who appear to fit into this mould. Jess Walker, from whose point of view the story is written, is a frustrated girl who has lived out her life thus far as the bored, almost-invisible “middle child” in a pretty unremarkable middle class family. On her arrival at university she is immediately drawn to the absurdly wealthy, socially fearless and uninhibited Georgie and the two of them form a slightly unexpected but inseparable pair. It’s not long before this fledgling friendship expands to include two young men: Nick, another student and Alec, a South African journalist who although not enrolled in the university, delights in turning up on campus to argue with and humiliate the lecturers. Every dysfunctional group needs a force to drive it to its ultimate destruction, and it’s Alec who is the catalyst for the events that follow. His position as the influencer of the group is easy to understand; he has a seductively tragic backstory, a life experience his younger admirers lack, and a level of eccentricity and individualism that falls just on the right side of appealing. Crucially, he is also incredibly charming – an asset that will have serious repercussions for those who fall under his spell.

So far, so unsurprising: but the author throws another character into the mix, one who I found the most intriguing of the entire novel. Lorna is a university professor whose reputation for academic excellence and cutting edge ideas earns her something of a celebrity status among her students, in the eyes of Jess most of all. At first I had her painted as a somewhat insubstantial personality, a stylish yet hollow woman who knew how to put on a performance and who took undue delight in the hero-worship she received from her naïve pupils; as the novel progresses, however, she becomes more of an enigmatic figure and we’re never sure how much of the mystique surrounding her is a fabrication, a figment of Jess’s obsession, and how much is founded in reality.

I was expecting The Truants to remain quite insular in its focus and claustrophobic in its setting, as is often the case with stories of this kind, but I was actually very happy to find it take off in an unexpected direction. In the first chapters there are all the hallmarks of pending self-destruction: drinks, drugs and romantic attachments, some concealed and some very much less so. However, the author cleverly decides to split her close-knit group apart midway through the novel, and this gives the book room to become a different sort of story. The second half becomes almost more akin to a thriller, with a mystery to be unravelled, yet the writing manages to balance the excitement of an unsolved puzzle with an increasingly astute focus on the characters and their confusion, passion, guilt and pain. Jess carries the story in ever-increasing solitude as others fall by the wayside, and eventually it comes down to the relationship between the troubled student and Lorna, the professor, mentor and caregiver to whom she is drawn like a moth to a flame. The connection between the two remains shrouded in questions to the end. Was there an element of sexuality there? Was the affection even genuine, or was it ultimately a relationship that served a purpose at a particular moment in time?

There are few neat answers for anyone involved in this story – and I liked that. The truth of life is that friendships drift apart, past betrayals cast a shadow over relationships that can taint them forever and people can disappear from your life overnight without warning and before you’ve had a chance to make your peace with the part they played in your journey. The partying students who we meet at the beginning of The Truants learn many of these hard lessons over the course of the book, and I think it’s that progression that prevents us from tiring of a collection of characters who are, to be brutally honest, mostly self-absorbed and not always that likeable. For all their faults, they will stick in your head – and I always feel that’s the mark of a well-written novel.

Thanks for reading; if you have any thoughts on The Truants I’d love to hear them, so do leave your comments below!

Melmoth by Sarah Perry – review

“Even though it can only be legend – you almost think, don’t you, that one day you might look up and see her there?”

Melmoth. The woman in black who haunts both your waking hours and your fretful sleep. She is The Wanderer: the woman who denied the risen Christ and was henceforth damned for ever more, condemned to an endless life of isolation, trudging through the centuries on bloodied feet, looking for other despairing souls to share her infinite suffering. She is the footstep behind you in the street, the shadow on the wall, the figure seen but not seen from the corner of your eye….

Are you looking over your shoulder yet? If not then I promise you will be by the time you’ve finished this book! I picked it up on the back of finishing a collection of M R James’ Ghost Stories, wanting something to prolong the creepy atmosphere that I’d been relishing. The Essex Serpent has been an absolute favourite of mine since I read it a few years ago, so I already knew I loved Sarah Perry’s writing style; Melmoth is a similar mixture of unease, paranoia and an is-it-real-is-it-imagined quasi-supernatural entity at its core. Set in present-day Prague, it follows lonely, unassuming protagonist Helen Franklin, whose life is turned upside down when she is given a collection of documents by an academic friend, Karel. He is clearly greatly disturbed by the contents – and, judging by his haggard expression and anxious glances at the doorway, by something else as well. The testaments contained in these papers form the basis of a story that unfolds in ever increasing layers, taking the reader from Second World War Czechoslovakia, to England’s 16th century heresy trials, to late twentieth century Manilla and finally to Turkey in the 1920s. If this all sounds too scattered and fragmented to come together as a coherent novel, I can assure you I found the opposite to be true. The characters telling their stories all have one thing in common: they believe themselves to be stalked by Melmoth following a decision for which they feel an unassuageable guilt, even anguish.

It’s clear very early on that Helen too has experienced some kind of trauma in her past from which she hasn’t yet recovered. She denies herself all but the minimum amount of food she needs to survive, she scratches her wrists, refuses to indulge in anything that might give her any pleasure, such as music or colourful clothes, and she shuns anything that has the potential to become an affectionate relationship. In fact Karel appears to be about the only person in her life she could call a friend, and even then we sense a certain restraint on her part, a barrier that she is never prepared to let down completely. Whatever her story, the things she reads about the Melmoth legend affect her greatly. She sees the faces of the guilt-stricken storytellers appearing before her, along with another presence – something dark, shadowy and indistinct, which both frightens her and yet somehow attracts her to it. According to the myth, Melmoth’s ultimate aim is to entice the despairing into taking her hand and joining her on her endless journey; this novel is ultimately about who succumbs and who has the strength to resist. The big question is, what will Helen do?

The book is packed full of brilliant characters – not all likeable by any stretch of the imagination, but all compelling and very real. Helen is deliberately enigmatic to start with, but the author gradually reveals more and more about her character through incredibly subtle, skilful writing and in the end we feel we know her better than she knows herself, supressing as she does the parts of herself we suspect she loathes. Josef Hoffman, a boy who writes of his childhood in wartime Czechoslovakia, is both a sad and utterly repellent figure. The man known only as Nameless in his testimony is equally abhorrent, although frighteningly recognisable as an example of the thousands of people throughout history who have aided and abetted atrocities by hiding behind a desk and signing the papers that legitimise persecution in lieu of pulling the trigger themselves. It’s a real bugbear with me that I usually forget many of the finer details of books pretty much as soon as I’ve finished them, so I take it as a sign of how strong the characterisation is in Melmoth that every single actor Sarah Perry puts on her stage is still vivid and alive in my mind.

In any supernatural story it’s extremely hard to get the balance of fear just right, and Sarah Perry does an amazing job in this respect. At one end of the spectrum there’s the intangible but very real unease that sends a shiver down the spine, at times created by nothing more than a bird flying into a window or the ceiling mouldings of cherubs in a library that become grotesque figures “screaming, as if behind the vault their soft fat feet were being scorched with branding irons.” This eeriness runs through the very fabric of Prague itself; the bright, noisy trappings of modern life sit uneasily alongside the old city with its dark passageways and ominous statues, the crowded cafes and lively music failing to mask the malevolence stalking the streets just out of our sight. Then there’s Melmoth herself – how do you describe an entity like this without it becoming a cliched monster, in danger of being slightly laughable? Things are often at their most frightening when they’re unknown, and the author keeps Melmoth out of view for much of the book; she’s a shadow, a footstep or, when she does appear as a woman, her face is hidden. Only when her victims have reached the depths of despair does she reveal herself, and then her hideous appearance is put before us in all its glory.

But of course behind all this horror another idea is at play, namely that Melmoth is nothing more than the manifestation of our own guilty conscience and lack of hope that we can ever be forgiven for what we’ve done. We can only banish her when we come to terms with our past and allow ourselves to believe that we can atone for our sins by positive action. It’s an idea that’s quite common in a lot of supernatural stories – is the evil entity real or is it the protagonist going mad – but I think it works beautifully here, because the novel doesn’t really require a definitive answer. If you want to read it as an “imagine if this legendary creature was real” kind of story, or whether you prefer to interpret it as a psychological character study that explores what trauma, grief and guilt can do to a person, I think you’ll get just as much out of it either way. Equally, I think it’s possible to take it as some kind of mixture of the two. Ultimately though, it’s about revelling in the gothic atmosphere, feeling the chill of being observed by something unseen, and admiring the beautiful writing that makes the ordinary become sinister in unexpected ways.

Related Posts

Living through literature

Back in February 2016 (I know – it seems like a bygone age) I wrote a blog post about my top 5 novels featuring real-life historical figures. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m having a conversation with my sister during which she asked me to recommend her some historical fiction, with the proviso that it mustn’t feature any characters who really existed. Even a cursory glance along my shelves made it pretty clear that was going to be a difficult task; I hadn’t really thought about it before, but a huge proportion of the historical fiction I read is based around real events or people. In the 4 years since I first counted down my favourites, I’ve read loads more fiction in the same vein, so I thought it was time for part two! So here are 5 more fantastic novels that reimagine 5 fascinating lives.

Kepler by John Banville

It took me a little while to get into this novel. At first I was a bit confounded by the writing style, but once I’d settled into it I became completely hooked. Kepler isn’t always the most unequivocally loveable of characters, but you nevertheless get completely caught up in his all-consuming quest to chart the movements of the planets and reconcile them within a universal geometry. The recreation of the Renaissance world, with its religious divides and capricious power figures who can make or break you according to the direction of the wind, is second to none.

Longing by J D Landis

Many people will be familiar with the name Robert Schumann but fewer will have heard of his wife. Clara Wieck was a superb pianist who was perhaps better known in her own lifetime than she is now; this book charts the life of the great composer and the woman who helped bring his work to the world. It’s a delicately balanced combination of the exquisitely beautiful and the achingly sad as the love story progresses hand in hand with Schumann’s increasingly severe mental illness. It’s dense, emotionally rich and will completely take you over.

Z by Therese Anne Fowler

I picked this up not because I was a particular fan of either of the Fitzgerald’s work but simply because I fancied the glamorous Jazz Age setting. As it turns out, there’s very little that was truly glamorous about the Fitzgeralds’ story: the wild parties, fashionable hotels and encounters with high society are exotic and intoxicating, but ultimately a veil that barely conceals the bleak reality of two people who are being ravaged by the combined effects of alcohol, jealousy, bitterness and resentment. I knew next to nothing about their lives before reading this novel, but it spurred me on to seek out some factual writing on the subject; it seems their story was truly as sad as is painted here.

The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

Another musical tale now: that of Shostakovich’s famous Seventh Symphony. The author herself admits in the brief introduction that although the protagonists were real people she has used a lot of creative license, especially around Shostakovich’s motivation for writing the symphony; however, for me that didn’t detract in any way from the novel. It captures all too acutely the agony and desperation of the citizens living in the besieged city of Leningrad during the Second World War, and the sense of powerlessness in the face of destitution, starvation and death. I haven’t met anyone else who’s read it sadly, but I really think this book deserves to be better known than it currently is.

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville

I’ve saved the best for last in this top 5; honestly, I was so blown away by this book I’ve struggled to find enough superlatives to do it justice. It tells the story of Diego Velazquez’s life as court painter to Philip IV of Spain in the seventeenth century, yet it goes far beyond a mere fictionalised biography. It’s about the ability of art to capture the truth behind the façade, and the relationship between rulers and the painters who present their faces to the world. It’s about the invisible being made visible, about life being captured for eternity by brush strokes on canvas and what that means for the painter, the painted and those who come after them. If you only read one historical novel this year, I implore you to make it this one.

Thanks for reading. This is a genre I really love, so if you have any of your own real-life historical fiction must-reads that you think I should try, do leave a comment!

Related posts:

Past Masters: Sarah Dunant

Passion by Jude Morgan – review

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak – review

A Map of the Damage by Sophia Tobin – review

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It has to be said that Sophie Tobin writes really cracking stories.  I’ve read all her previous novels, and every single one is a proper stay up late, just-one-more-chapter kind of book; this one possibly even more so than any of the others.  In A Map of the Damage we get a double-whammy of excitement and intrigue with a dual narrative tale of love, loss and obsession, the two stories linked by the elegant yet imposing Mirrormakers’ Club in London, which we visit during its design and construction in the nineteenth century and again as it weathers the incendiary bombs of the Second World War.

In 1940, Livy makes her way to the club after she is caught up in a bomb blast.  Quite what draws her there she can’t say; the blast has left her with no memory of who she is or where she belongs, and the only thing she has to go on is a sense that this is somehow a place of safety.  Not long after, the Mirrormakers building also exerts its mysterious pull on two men for whom it holds a very different significance – for one, it may provide clues to the whereabouts of a missing family heirloom, and for the other, a glimmer of hope and the chance to reclaim something – or someone – long since lost.

In 1838, a freak accident leads to a chance encounter between an architect and the wife of the man overseeing his commission – to design and build the Mirrormakers’ Club.  It’s the start of an attraction that will lead both of them down an increasingly tortuous path towards the tantalising possibility of happiness and freedom; but are the obstacles too great to be overcome?

Both stories were perfectly balanced; I sometimes get the sense with multiple narratives that the author is more engaged in one than the other, or perhaps one of them doesn’t flow as naturally, but not here.  I was equally committed to both sets of characters and storylines, albeit for different reasons.  The wartime story I found surprisingly affecting (it brought a tear to my eye a couple of times!), in particular the idea of an amnesiac being oblivious to the past they shared with people who cared for them, and who are now forced into maintaining an emotional distance that’s heartbreaking to watch.  The nineteenth century storyline brought with it the almost unbearable tension of a passionate love story carried out almost entirely within the constraints of formal dinners and drawing room visits; the more you witness the way in which controlling husband Ashton Kinsburg manipulates how others perceive his wife by moulding her into an image of his own perfectionist ideals, the angrier you become and the more you’re willing her on to leaving her him for the lovestruck architect.  Of course, the times being what they are, that isn’t as simple as a reader might wish it to be.

Manipulation and exploitation of women for social or sexual gain rears its head in both eras, but I still felt that ultimately this book belongs to its women.  Charlotte Kinsburg, who falls in love with her husband’s architect, could be said to have the last laugh, even as her grasping descendants hunt high and low for the diamond that one belonged to her; she gazes down implacably from a painting in the Mirrormakers’ Club, almost daring anyone to try and pry her secrets from her.  Livy’s past may have been taken from her, but she attacks the future with a determination to make her own plans and regain control of the life she has left.  And watching over them all is the club itself, which, with its mirrors, domes and glass that play tricks on the eye and the mind, seems to be almost alive, organic and fluid.  It becomes as many different things as there are characters: a safe haven, a symbol of power and wealth, a love letter in stone.  I think I will remember the staircases, dim basement rooms and vast halls of the edifice almost more than I will the human faces that roam through it.

Thank you for reading as ever!  If you’ve read this or any other of Sophia Tobin’s books, do comment and let me know what you think.

Related posts:  The Silversmith’s Wife review                                                                                                              The Widow’s Confession review

 

Weekend Book Haul!

haul

Happy Saturday everyone!  Very much hope you’re managing to find some reading time this weekend.  I’m massively excited about my latest book haul (I think this is now the 6th book delivery since the start of lockdown but I’m losing track!) – expect to hear me talking about these beauties over the coming weeks….

Isabella – Alison Weir

I caught up with a really interesting BBC4 documentary on iPlayer a few days ago exploring the nature of power and hierarchy in the Middle Ages.  Queen Isabella got a very brief mention, but it was enough to make me keen to find out more about her.  I love Alison Weir’s history books so this was the obvious choice; she crams in a huge amount of detail and analysis, but in such a readable way it’s easily accessible even if you have no prior knowledge of the period or people in question.

Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Earlier this week I was chatting to Princess and Pages about Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by the same author, and I mentioned that I’d deliberately not read Flights because of a couple of fellow booksellers saying they’d been disappointed by it in comparison.  Following our conversation I’ve been converted (this is why I love book bloggers so much!) and am really looking forward to giving it a try; I think it’s going to be very different in tone and format from Drive Your Plow, but I’m going in with an optimistic frame of mind.

The Descent of Man – Grayson Perry

This one’s been on my radar for absolutely ages, but it took the brilliant Grayson Perry’s Art School on Channel 4 (is anyone else loving this as much as I am?) to remind me to finally buy it.  I’ve read a number of books looking at gender and society from a female perspective, and I can’t think of anyone better than Perry to provide a thoughtful balance.

Thanks for reading as ever, stay well and stay smiling.

Related posts: My Top 5 Reads of 2020

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki – review

makioka

If you’ve visited This Girl’s Book Room recently, you’ll definitely recognise this book as it’s been on my CR list for quite a while!  Well, I’m pleased to announced I’ve finally finished it, meaning I can stop tantalising you all with comments about how great it is and get stuck into a full review.

Or can I?!  I’ve had this sense of hesitation a few times now after finishing a book: more often than not I’m keen to dive straight into writing about something as soon as I’ve closed the last page, but occasionally I have a sense of needing to gather my thoughts and emotions for a while before committing anything to paper.  This was one of those times.  The ending left me with an unexpectedly blank feeling; not because the book was lacking in emotional depth – quite the opposite – but because there was just so much left to process.  Where were these characters’ journeys going to take them next?  How would some of them recover, if ever, from the traumatic events that had touched their lives?  What would the relationships, some strained and others strengthened throughout the course of the novel, look like as the subsequent years went by?  In The Makioka Sisters we are allowed to be part of the family for a limited period of time before being snatched cruelly away again, and left to imagine how the saga could continue.

It’s late 1930s Osaka where we meet the Makiokas.  The two eldest of the four sisters – Tsuruko and Sachiko – are settled with husbands and children, and the big issue facing the family is how to bring about a marriage for the third oldest sister, Yukiko.  Shy, reserved and serious, Yukiko doesn’t have the kind of sparkling personality that tends to win over a man on first meeting, and her sisters are smarting from previous failed attempts at making a match for her.  Japanese convention being what it is, moreover, the youngest sister, Taeko, cannot marry until her older sister has found a husband.  Taeko is everything her sisters are not – forward, unabashedly independent and already with a scandalous liaison behind her; what is more, the complications in her love life show no sign of going away, leaving the family in a state of anxiety lest any impropriety brings shame upon the Makioka name.

Yukiko’s marriage quest provides the backbone of the book.  The story covers a number of years (never precisely specified, but it starts in the run up to Japan’s entry into the Second World War and ends while the war is still going on), and other momentous events – a flood, a family illness, an affair – provide regular pulses of action and interest that keep things moving forward, but it’s the painful lack of a prospective husband for Yukiko that haunts both the family and the novel.  One of the things I enjoyed most was that it opened a window onto long-forgotten social conventions that seem completely alien to us now; at this time, for a relatively high-status family like the Makiokas, marriages are decided in large part by the rest of a woman’s family, in particular the male members – even those who are only part of the family through marriage.  Tatsuo and Teinosuke, as husbands of the two oldest sisters, are expected to have the final say on whether a suitor is appropriate to marry Yukiko. Throughout the novel, various well-meaning friends and acquaintances suggest potential husbands, and each time both parties “investigate” the other, sending mutual contacts to dig into the opposite number’s financial and romantic history, social standing and character traits.  It’s utterly fascinating to read, not least because something that on the surface seems underhand is simply accepted by everyone concerned as part of the marriage-brokering process, common practice as it was at this point in Japan’s history.

The synopsis so far may sound unappealing to anyone who can imagine themselves becoming angry and frustrated by the depiction of such a patriarchal society; I would have considered myself firmly in your camp too, but I’d urge you to read it nonetheless.  Yes, there are many instances when the extent to which men play an unfairly dominant role in the lives of their female relatives is teeth-clenching in its outdatedness; however, on closer reading the will and power wielded by the Makioka sisters is greater than it first appears.  Taeko, despite the consternation of her relatives, finds ways to lead the life she wants rather than the one others would prefer she had.  Yukiko has a calm and quiet determination to get her own way in the numerous marriage negotiations: when she says no, she means it, and her brother-in-laws’ desire to see her with a husband never crosses the line into trying to force her into a union with someone she is adamant she does not want to marry.  In fact, there are a few mentions in the novel of an incident prior to the story’s timeframe when she was so forthright in confronting Tatsuo, the head of the Makioka family, that he has been very wary of going against her wishes since.  As the novel progresses it becomes more and more clear that times are changing; Western culture is starting to exert its influence over some of the sisters and society at large, and the Makiokas, although still an important family, don’t have anywhere near the standing they had in previous generations.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Japan itself, which provides a vivid backdrop to the story.  The action moves between the tranquil gardens of suburbia, cherry blossom festivals and imposing mountains, and the bustle of a rapidly modernising Tokyo, which grates harshly against Sachiko in particular, who loves her more traditional hometown.  It’s been a while since a novel sucked me into its world so completely, and I’m going to miss it now I’ve had to take my leave.

Thank you for reading as always!  Do let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought.

Related posts: Japanese Journeys                                                                                                                                  A Day Out with Hokusai

 

 

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern – review

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It’s been years since I read Erin Morgenstern’s first book, The Night Circus, but I still remember how I fell head over heels in love with it.  She became one of those authors whose subsequent books you yearn for and then, when they finally appear, it feels like birthday, Christmas and new year rolled into one.  I was hugely disappointed, then, to have to admit that The Starless Sea just didn’t live up to its predecessor.

The premise sounded like it would be right up my street: a magical, underground world that acts as a kind of sanctuary for stories comes under threat and the main character, Zachary Rawlins, guided by a cast of enigmatic characters, must fight to protect this labyrinthine library and stop it from being destroyed forever.  And it should have been exactly up my street: I was captivated by this world that held the loves, losses, dreams and secrets of a million long-forgotten souls in the form of their stories, and I really took to the character of Zachary, the slightly geeky loner who doesn’t ever seem to quite belong.  The trouble was that, for at least half the book, I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time in either’s company.

Zachary is set on his quest to find the Starless Sea and save the world of stories by the discovery of a mysterious book, which contains a number of weird and – to start with at least – unfathomable folk tales, fairy stories and legends.  What I found problematic was that for the first half of the novel, the chapters following Zachary’s journey are interspersed with stories from his newly-discovered book; some of these are fairly entertaining tales in their own right, others less so.  Every now and then yet more fragments of story pop up,  introducing (in the most oblique terms) other characters both from our own world and the subterranean story realm.  It’s pretty clear when you’re reading that these multiple narratives are somehow going to interconnect at some point, and I was prepared to go with it on the basis that all would soon be revealed, even though I found the constant hopping about quite frustrating.  Thankfully, once you get past the half way point the novel focusses in much more consistently on Zachary’s story, with far fewer diversions into another character’s story arc, and it’s at that point I felt it became a better book.

There were definitely some things here to like.  I loved Zachary’s companions Dorian and Mirabel; like Zachary, both were very finely drawn and their individual journeys turned out to be quite moving.  In fact, the book as a whole has a palpable sense of sadness flowing just under the surface, always there in a barely definable yet somehow unmissable way.  I actually think that creating and sustaining this atmosphere was the novel’s cleverest achievement, but I get the feeling you’re meant to come away feeling that the smartest part was tying all the different strands together.  Trouble was, by the time I got to the end I wasn’t entirely sure I’d found a place for all the pieces – the significance of many of the fairy tales and snippets of story that appear in the first half of the book becomes clear as the novel progresses, but there were still some I looked back on after I’d finished reading with a bit of a “but what was that bit all about?” feeling.  And it’s very magical; I tend to prefer magical realism with the emphasis on realism – but that’s a purely personal preference rather than a criticism.  In fact, I’ve talked to someone else who really enjoyed the fairy tales and digressions of the novel’s first half and was disappointed when the narrative became more straight forward!  Proof, if any were needed, that it’s all a matter of taste.

Would I recommend it?  If I’d read this one first I have to say I wouldn’t have gone on to read The Night Circus, but if you like full-on magic then it’s probably worth a try; and if like me you find it a bit tough going initially, it’s worth persevering for the excitement of the story in the second half.  Not my favourite book of recent times, but I’d be very interested to hear what you think if you’ve read it – perhaps you loved it?  Let me know!

My May Reading List

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I know from reading the blogs and tweets of my book-loving friends that I’m not the only one struggling to concentrate on reading (or anything much) at the moment.  It’s not that the tempting titles aren’t there, but there’s simply so much chaos, stress and confusion going on in what’s become an almost unrecognisable world that it can’t help but filter its way into everyone’s minds and hearts, whether we’ve been personally touched by the current tragedy or not.  On the days when I do feel inclined to pick up a book, however, they’ve come to my rescue as they always do and taken me to a far more manageable place, if only for a while.  So although May has got off to a bit of a slow start, over the next few weeks I’m going to make a concerted effort to take time away from the news and social media, and just relax with my paperback friends.  If you’re in need of some inspiration yourself, here are my picks for this month.

A Map of the Damage – Sophia Tobin

I’ve been a fan of this author since I read her first book, The Silversmith’s Wife, so I was crazily excited when I saw that her latest was about to be released in paperback.  I started reading it a few days ago and it’s already made me cry, made me angry and got me utterly hooked – so a good start then!

The Makioka Sisters – Junichiro Tanizaki

Another bookseller recommended this to me, calling it “the Japanese Little Women” and my word it’s lived up to the comparison so far!  Told almost entirely from a female perspective, it’s a real cultural eye-opener, shedding light on the expectations, conventions and disappointments of marriage among the more privileged elements of pre-war Japanese society.  I’m loving it so much, at the moment it looks set to be a contender for one of my books of the year so far.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – Carlo Rovelli

I read Reality is Not What it Seems last year and was surprised how much I enjoyed it (and also, I’m not going to lie, a little bit chuffed how much I managed to grasp) so decided to give this one a go.  To be fair, any understanding I gleaned from the aforementioned title was entirely down to the author’s skill at conveying complex concepts in an accessible way rather than any innate scientific instinct on my part, so I’m very much hoping he pulls off the same trick with this one.

Collected Ghost Stories – M R James

I’m utterly useless when it comes to ghost stories, horror films or anything remotely spooky, and I usually avoid them like the plague, knowing if I don’t I’ll be sleeping with the light on for at least a week afterwards.  My sister gave me her spare copy of the book this week (with a warning that at least two of the stories are guaranteed to freak me out completely), and I very bravely started tackling it this afternoon.  I have to say, sitting under a tree in the sunshine it didn’t seem that bad, but we’ll have to wait and see how I feel about it when darkness falls…..

What’s on your TBR pile this May?  Anything you’ve started reading that you’re particularly enjoying?  As always, please do share your comments!