White Teeth by Zadie Smith

“A trauma is something one repeats and repeats, after all, and this is the tragedy of the Iqbals–that they can’t help but reenact the dash they once made from one land to another, from one faith to another, from one brown mother country into the pale, freckled arms of an imperial sovereign.”

This is a novel about identity, a lengthy examination of a simple idea: the impossibility of escaping your family’s past.

The idea that we are islands — people who can live apart from the histories that brought us to the piece of rock we stake our claims on — is batted about in this book like a mouse by an angry cat. Characters, particularly the second-generation children, slip in and out of different cultural identities like they’re trying on new suits.

Sometimes these characters want to abide by the cultures they’ve been taught to value; sometimes they are making desperate attempts at individuality, at casting aside the expectations of not just their families but the society they are trying to make their way in. They have mixed success, but it’s consistently entertaining to read about.

The omniscient narrator feels like a calm voice in the middle of a hurricane, a dispassionate yet wise woman who is guiding you through a complicated maze of her own making.

It sometimes feels like this novel doesn’t know where it’s going, like the main plot-line has taken a back-seat to whatever random musings have appeared in different characters’ minds, sometimes for fifty-pages at a time, but maybe that’s appropriate. Things rarely occur in real life, after all, in simple, straight forwards ways, or the way we expect, so why should they here?

White Teeth is an entertaining look at Britain’s identity crisis, and a great snapshot of the different forces which help make the UK the complicated, diverse, interesting place it is.

Advertisements

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

“Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?”

Trying to describe Midnight’s Children is like trying to describe a country: I can outline the flavour of the place, and say what I liked best, but it’s difficult to explain what actually makes it special or worth a visit. This book is bold, exciting, playful, thoughtful, funny, and sad, but if I had to use just one word to describe it, one that takes into account just how weird it gets at times, it would be ‘fantastic’.

Saleem Sinai is born at the exact moment India becomes independent, and as such has a monumental sense of importance and some rather strange abilities. Over the course of Midnight’s Children, the title of which refers to the other children born on the same day as Saleem, we trace his family to understand why he — and thus India — are the way they are.

Saleem’s entire family are woven throughout important historical events in India, giving readers peaks through a small hole into different parts of history’s inner-workings. This means the book feels fragmented sometimes, but when the story’s finished you can put all the pieces together in your mind to form something of ridiculous scope and beauty. The gorgeous prose is what ties things together and keeps the novel from buckling under its own weight; combined with Rushdie’s sly observations which never stop feeling interesting and insightful, the language here is just outstanding.

A weird mixture of history, fantasy, truth and lies, Midnight’s Children attempts to condense India into a novel. It shouldn’t work, it’s just too big, but it absolutely blew me away. The best way I can think of to summarise why is to bastardise a Walt Whitman quote: this book contains multitudes.

Oblivion by David Foster Wallace

“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.”

This is one of the most perplexing books I’ve read in a long time. I should have expected that from Wallace, whose Infinite Jest sent my mind reeling in eight different directions (although I still loved it), but the mixture of lucidity and surrealism here cast a strange tone over the whole narrative.

A collection of short stories, the highlights for me here were Good Old Neon (which I’d read before) and Another Pioneer. The former is a powerful portrayal of suicide, bleak but with one of the most electrifying and beautiful endings I’ve ever read. The latter is the retelling of a retelling of a retelling of something that was overheard on a plane, the tale of a savant living in a tribal culture which examines tradition and the human aversion to change.

Some of the other stories, however, dragged. The Soul is Not a Smithy had some fantastic descriptions of daydreaming, but the rest never amounted to much. The Suffering Channel could have been cut by a third and not lost much, in my opinion. Oblivion, the title story, felt like it was going nowhere but then saved itself with a really simple (almost cliche) but somehow incredibly unexpected ending.

Not my favourite DFW so far, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to someone who hadn’t read him before, but Oblivion was still extremely ambitious and at times brilliant.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

“We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.”

I didn’t enjoy Paris. I found it cold and wet, the waiters were rude, and the stately architecture was counteracted by the smell.

Hemingway’s Paris was a century before mine, but they were the same streets. It’s like when someone loves a movie you found dull: it doesn’t matter how much they marvel at the cinematography or acting. It won’t change that you didn’t connect.

But the focus here wasn’t on the city, but on a peculiar time in Hemingway’s life when everything felt alive; he met some of the most interesting people of the 20th century, drank good wine, tasted delicious food. He made good art. He distills the years that were so important to him with trademark brevity, and makes even his cold nights in an unheated apartment seem envious.

It just works.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

‘Those years (of equality) were just an anomaly, historically speaking,’ the Commander said. ‘Just a fluke. All we’ve done is return things to Nature’s norm.’

The Handmaid’s Tale is a stylistically beautiful, worryingly plausible novel about a world in which the United States government has been overthrown by civil war, and a totalitarian Christian theocracy has been installed in its place. This isn’t the futuristic nightmare of 1984 or the Hunger Games, however, wherein technological advances and inequalities make oppression simple. This is a fictional world which demonstrates how it easy it would be to lose the progress of the last few centuries made, in regards to gender and race.

Before reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I had seen Margaret Atwood’s comments denying she was a science-fiction writer. Oryx & Crake fit snugly in the genre, and so I viewed her attempts at distance from with a degree of scepticism. I thought of her as another writer attempting to escape from the label of sci-fi for the same reason Vonnegut described: “I have been a sore headed occupant of a file drawer labelled ‘science fiction’ […], and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

The Handmaid’s Tale is not science-fiction. This isn’t because it has literary qualities; if that was a qualifier, Gene Wolfe would have escaped the drawer along with her. It’s because it takes place in a dystopia, yes, but not one undone by technological advances and scientific arrogance like the world of Oryx and Crake (which was incidentally why the book grated on me occasionally), or even where technology is used to particularly insidious means in the style of 1984. Atwood predicts no new force which wrenches our freedom from us. It is a regression to the values of the old world, a desire for simple, comforting roles of gender enforced by those who are most powerful, which erodes hard won rights.

There are a number of direct parallels across many modern states for the subjugation that women undergo here, but Atwood also draws heavily from the history of Antebellum slavery on topics such as literacy and Biblical justification for cruelty. She’s done her research on how oppression and slavery can manifest and maintain power in societies, and as such this dystopia is hauntingly believable.

Cities on the Plain [Border Trilogy #3] by Cormac McCarthy

“He sat a long time and he thought about his life and how little of it he could ever have foreseen and he wondered for all his will and all his intent how much of it was his doing.”

Cities of the Plain is the most focused of The Border Trilogy. It’s less grandiose than All the Pretty Horses, and less ponderous than The Crossing, but extraneous elements which either dragged or elevated the preceding books — depending on your point of view — have been removed: the prose is smoother; there are (fewer) page-long discussions with wise strangers imparting wisdom; there is less rumination on the landscape. This is because this novel is more eager to focus on two subjects more directly: obsession, and the world’s disregard for what you think it should be.

Modernity has swept into McCarthy’s South West. Cars are as common to see as horses, and the lights of cities in the distance are ever-present. The army is trying to claim the land our protagonists live upon. A sense of dread hangs over proceedings like storm clouds.

John Grady Cole and Billy Parham return. They occasionally venture across the Mexican border, which unsurprisingly does not, as those that have read the preceding books can guess, keep their lives simple.

Cole’s fixation on a young prostitute showcases his naivete and with Parham’s dry wisecracking mouth at his side he comes across as more relatable than the confident horse-whisperer of the first book. He is out of his element here, and more interesting for it. The dual-protagonists play off each other in funny and tender ways, echoing lost relationships from the last books which might otherwise have been forgotten, giving a sense of poignancy to the events.

There’s a great sense of suspense as the novel falls into place, the feeling that things cannot end well. When I put it down after finishing I felt catharsis. It’s a great end to an inspired, occasionally fun but deeply sad series that I enjoyed a massive amount. Highly recommended.

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

“I look for the words, Professor. I look for the words because I believe that the words is the way to your heart.”

A play which is short but far more powerful and engaging than it should be considering its basic setting. This is nothing but a conversation between two men after one stopped the other from jumping in front of a train named The Sunset Limited. Why believe? Why not? McCarthy preaches but offers no answers, and leaves your head ringing as his characters orate with what I imagine as voices like thunder and light rain. The dialogue here is careful and very, very well written.