The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – Review

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The appeal of a memoir is typically one of empathy, of plunging and swimming inside in the life of another, becoming fully submerged in experiences far outside your own. At least, that’s always been the appeal in picking them up for me. It’s strange, then, that most renowned memoirs tend to be about lives whose experiences would devastate readers who try to become immersed; tragedy is seen as something we can learn from, something that can be understood and therefore prepared for, in case such horrendous events ever happen to ourselves.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, however, Joan Didion accounts the first year of her life without her husband John Gregory Dunne, who died of a heart attack at the beginning of 2004, and explains her feelings of numbness and the absurdity of trying to learn something from a black hole called death that’s left you far weaker than you ever would have been had it not appeared.

It’s a harrowing account, detailing the way grief erodes day-to-day experiences like an earthquake tearing apart the mantle of life. ‘I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world,’ Didion laments, and for a woman who values control as she does, this is truly damning.

As the book continues and you see her clinging to the pain like a limpet, as though to let go of it would be a betrayal to the man whose absence caused it. She explains how harrowing it can be to mourn in a society that values letting go, moving on, making the best of things. She didn’t want to make the best of things. She just wanted her husband back. I was reminded of a lyric from Mount Eerie about the passing of his wife, ending the song Death is Real:

It’s dumb
And I don’t want to learn anything from this
I love you
This isn’t a rational way of approaching things, I thought, but of course it isn’t; that’s why this book is so valuable: it shines a light on the irrational ways minds approach the world after tragedies, the strange thought-patterns that make sense to no one but yourself. Nothing about grief is rational, after all; it just is.
To those looking for a salve to spread over the wounds caused by the departure of someone beloved, The Year of Magical Thinking may not be what you had in mind. It’s an brutal account of grieving that eschews sentimentality and looks the rawness of death in the face. It isn’t, basically, a comforting read. It is a valuable one, though, and anyone who has experienced a tragedy knows the value in seeing the world from the eyes of someone who feels like you do, even if that feeling isn’t positive.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee – Review

“Was it serious? I don’t know. It certainly had serious consequences.”

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee is like a carefully and beautifully composed photo of a rusted car: it draws your attention to a nasty, forgotten thing and makes it fascinating.

David Lurie is a 56-year-old divorcee Professor of English in post-apartheid South Africa, content to dwindle away in his final years with a mediocre career and a penchant for prostitutes. His life is less sad than painfully mediocre, and he doesn’t seem bothered by this; in face, he revels in it, glad that,after a life of failed relationships and dreams he is finally able to accept just existing.

Then, after bumping into a 20-year-old student of his while walking home from class, he invites her to his apartment and begins a disturbing affair that will be disastrous for both parties, and bring everything he spent his life working for tumbling down around his head.

Life in South Africa at this time is not fair for anyone, and Coetzee details how historical injustices pull the strings of modern life even when many would wish to either move on or forget the horrors of the past completely.

After a tragedy when visiting his daughter, Laurie is broken in ways I could never have predicted. Coetzee has a fascination with destruction, the way mistakes can tumble on top of one other and shatter multiple lives in their wake.

Disgrace is a depressing novel, but also a masterfully crafted one,; it’s barely two-hundred pages, but the brief the length was necessary because it’s also a cruel read that still keeps you interested. The subject matter gets sadder, more disgusting and more frustrating as it goes on but things stay compelling. Despite that it’s not a thriller I couldn’t stop flicking through the pages. It’s truly like watching a train-wreck in the best way possible, leaving you unable to look away from something that can only end in tragedy while keeping you empathetic towards everyone involved.

The characters here are deeply, disgustingly flawed, but compelling and believable; none are monsters, and many want to be better people than the world will allow them to be.

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle – Review

“It was later, lying supine and blind for days, faced with the choice of either inventing internal worlds or having no world at all to inhabit, when I started to fill in the details.”

There’s a game called Trace Italian, and you won’t win.

Like many, I was drawn to Wolf in White Van because of its author John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats. He’s a songwriter with a cynical bent and arresting lyrics, capable of transporting his audience and making them feel a whirlwind of both positive and negative emotions through a single verse. I did wonder if his pithy style would translate to the long-form storytelling of novels, though — talent doesn’t always, after all, cross genre or medium.

Thankfully, this is a novel into which Darnielle put a lot of care. There’s a puzzle-like structure, as chapters are told in fragments from all over the protagonist’s life. Sean Phililps has a horrific head wound and a strange past that he doesn’t want to reveal, and his life is shown in snippets. He’s more than happy to talk about a game he’s created, though, a place where the rules are in your favour as long as you play thoughtfully—put another way, obsessives always have the advantage.

This isn’t a plot heavy story, and it works all the better for this. The style is slick enough that you glide through. The narrator’s musings on how, for example, wallpapers, the universe and pain are all intricately connected like threads in a blanket are fascinating enough on their own.

Darnielle uses poetic language to create unusual connections between situations and themes which my brain would never find without help. It’s gratifying to read, and gives the delightful tingle in your mind of “I got it!” which mystery novels normally provide. It also helps in convincing readers to empathise with a main character who can be more than a little bizarre.

Wolf in White Van shows the beauty in escapism, the desperate need which can build inside people for a world entirely different to our own. Escapism, after all, drives the vast majority of fiction writing, television and music. This novel doesn’t glorify it, though, and we see the dark paths that can open up when longing becomes obsession.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Review

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“The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.”

A butler named Stevens is heading across post-World War II England to visit an old friend and offer her a job on his staff; this was supposed to be an uneventful trip. His sheltered worldview is challenged, however, as the stark reality that his country has changed without his consent looms on the horizon. New experiences lead to painful reflections on times past, while shame and confusion thicken like mist as the pages turn. The Remains of the Day uses a simple premise to disguise a journey into heavy themes of memory, regret, and love.

Stevens’ mind is a wandering thing, flitting between topics like a bird between trees; this gives a loose and unmanufactured feeling to the novel’s structure, while snippy, deliciously passive-aggressive dialogue keeps the tone light and makes it easy to breeze through despite heady themes. Serious conversation are undercut in accidentally hilarious ways by proto-typically English repression which characters must overcome just to express themselves.

There’s a truism saying it’s impossible to truly hate something you can empathise with, and this novel makes a good argument for it. Ishiguro makes a very difficult and stuck up character seem naive and lovable through masterful characterisation, showing how easy it is to confuse repression for dignity. Actions which could be viewed as despicable seem merely sad blunders by people no more malicious than the average man.

The certainties most novels offer are muddied through Ishiguro’s subtle deflation of the idea of memory as something that can always be trusted. Our protagonist’s recollections of the seemingly most important moments of his life are revealed to be faulty, a reflection of a time long past which has been muddied by the years in between; we are left wondering how ‘true’ this story really is.

Stevens’ life was spent in duty to a higher purpose as he saw it: serving one of the great gentlemen of England. But can a life be called well lived if it was in service to a man who made disastrous mistakes? Does seeing trust as a virtue excuse us from turning a blind eye to evil when it’s performed by people we feel know better than us? Ishiguro gives no simple answers. Finishing The Remains of the Day made me truly appreciate how tragic life lived without the ability to love selflessly really is, however; dignity seems a hollow reward by comparison.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks – Review

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“My own diagnosis of my problem is a simpler one. It’s that I share 50% of my genome with a banana and 98% with a chimpanzee. Banana’s don’t do psychological consistency. And the tiny part of us that’s different—the special Homo sapiens bit—is faulty. It doesn’t work. Sorry about that.”

The beginning of Engleby by Sebastian Faulks is deeply irritating. The narrator’s condescension and general disgust with society became boring quickly; this made me mistakenly place the novel into the groan-worthy genre of Embittered Failing Male Tells the World Why It Sucks.

I was, thankfully, wrong. This novel is a satire, one which understands its subject  (namely, self-absorbed young men) so well that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that the qualities which made me dislike the novel were intentionally over-the-top. Faulks had been constructing an arsehole-pinata, which readers get to enjoy watching him beat down over the final 200 pages of this book.

To think you know a character well and then have your perspective flipped is always an exhilarating experience, one of the most fascinating an author can provide. As Engleby went on, I came to realise that I had been attributing mistakes of the protagonist with mistakes of the author—yes, the protagonist was an insufferable, pretentious blowhard, but this was to set up an unusual narrative which is easily worth the novel’s rocky start.

Aside from the strange story-structure and protagonist, the novel has some fantastic details about life in 70s England. Faulks’ portrayal of a “gaslight grey” country still struggling to rise from the ashes of the second World War thirty years on is a convincing one, filled with nice details of dilapidated buildings and soot-smeared skies.

This is, ultimately, a fascinating character study, despite a beginning which may turn off readers who aren’t prepared to grit their teeth. The final chapter makes it all worth it, though.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman – Review

“Because,” said Thor, “when something goes wrong, the first thing I always think is, it is Loki’s fault. It saves a lot of time.”

Seeing Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology in a bookstore brought back a memory from childhood: I’d been lying on a sofa, around seven years old; the sun was peeking through the curtains, and boy-me was clutching a book of myths I must have received from Christmas, feeling, despite the warm weather, very, very cold. I had been amazed at how much the book was drawing me into its icy world. There was an ornate drawing of some sort on the left page of a man going into a cave, and the text on the right talked about how brave he was for entering somewhere dangerous. That’s all.

I have a poor memory at the best of times, and most of what I read as a boy has vanished as years go on, but I remembered this. I needed to find out which story it was which had stayed lodged within my sieve-like brain after all these years, and so I snatched up both a hard-copy and an audiobook of Gaiman’s retelling so that I could stay completed immersed in these stories over the following days.

Gaiman’s soothing tone works incredibly well with bombastic stories like the Norse myths, rather than the comparatively constrained affair of his novels. His work has always been most interesting when it ventures into the surreal, such as in the Sandman comics, and so I went in optimistic and wasn’t disappointed.

There’s such a sense of fun here that it’s hard not to be tickled at nearly every page by both the delightful tone and raucous interpretations of dialogue. Characters like Thor are just delightful to be around, acting as the comic relief in a book which I expected to take itself extraordinarily seriously.

Eventually, around halfway through the middle, I realised it likely hadn’t been a cave in the story from my childhood, but a mountain-side needing to be cracked open. I realised the man I remembered hadn’t been a man at all, but a God. I realised that it had been Odin, and that the version I was now reading—where Odin tricks, fucks, and abandons a giantess—was likely very different from the one I’d found as a child. It was no less entertaining for all that.

Nostalgia plays a part in why this drew me in so much I don’t doubt, but Gaiman knows just the right way to pace a short story, and so knows just where to tweak old tales to keep things zipping along for modern readers.

I think the reason that this retelling is such an astonishing success is that if there’s one set of myths tailor made to become a comedy, it’s the Norse ones. Its characters are both endearing and frustrating, lovable and appalling; their values are so different to ours that their struggles for glory come across as comical, and Gaiman plays up these differences to tap what could be alienating for amusement.

Laugh-out-loud funny is a term which is overused, but there was a moment here which had me shaking in the middle of a train, trying desperately to look normal and failing miserably:

Gaiman’s interpretation of the tale I had loved so much as I child, in which Odin drinks the mead of poetry, ends with a chase scene. A giant has turned into an eagle, and Odin needs to quickly lose him before entering Valhalla.

The wise, temperamental king of the Gods decides that sharting (yes, sharting) mead into his enemy’s eye is the best way to handle this situation.

I really, really liked this book.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams – Review

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“They do the work, and he gets all the money. They think he’s a crook, and he thinks they’re fools. You can’t blame either side; they’re both right.”

In Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, an attempt to explore nature goes very, very wrong. The majority of this novel takes place in a large, isolated valley in the Colorado mountains. Blistering heat and deathly cold bear down on hunters who have gone into the wilderness searching for buffalo (a species, during this novel’s time period, nearly extinct).

The protagonist is William Andrews, a Harvard drop out in the 1870s gone west because of a longing for nature, solitude, and something more intangible. The same naive instincts which pushed him from his warm home leave him unready for this expedition. Things get difficult, and his mind begins to mimic an automaton focused on nothing but staying alive; concerns like companionship and comfort fall away into snowbanks, and his hands grow hard while his head goes numb.

Though written decades before the idea of Neo-Westerns became common, Butcher’s Crossing has many of the genre-trappings: gruff, often immoral characters; a pitiless view of nature; the idea that greed was a far more powerful motivator in the American push westward than any sort of manifest destiny. Williams, however, approaches the time period and gruff figures with his trademark tenderness, and by casting an understanding eye on this band of hunters, and despite some dabbling in nihilism, the novel finds nobility in desperation.

The snow and distance warp the minds of Andrews’ company too, and a strange sense of freeing detachment came over me in a way few books have let me feel. Williams never allows guiltless romanticization, but he captures what drew so many men into this difficult life in the first place: everyday concerns float away from these men, and subsequently from anyone reading. As a result, and this may sound like an odd description given the harsh subject matter, this novel can be deeply relaxing.

If you let your mind focus and absorb the pages describing what should be tedious drudge work, you’ll find yourself falling into an almost meditative state. This is likely the work of Williams’ prose, which is beautiful and smooth; it enhances the atmosphere while rarely drawing attention to itself with stylistic flourishes. The result is a novel which you will drift through faster than most novels claiming to be ‘page-turners’ while still having your mind guided in powerful directions you could never predict.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Review

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“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”

A murder-mystery novel from the point of view of a foetus would have been a concept bizarre enough to get my attention, even if it hadn’t been written by Ian “My Prose is Fucking Immaculate” McEwan. Unfortunately, this novel left me frustrated and annoyed despite some incredible strengths from a stylistic point of view.

The writing is stellar; the characters are generally well-drawn, if slightly flat; however, the potential of an unusual narrator — a young foetus seeing the world from fresh eyes — is disregarded.

Instead of merely brushing aside the issue of an intelligent foetus narrator and jumping joyfully into magical realism, there is the groan-worthy (if slightly tongue in cheek) explanation that his mother listens to a lot of Radio 4 and podcasts. Explaining something which can have no satisfying logical explanation just draws readers out of the world that’s been created; it would have been far better if this hadn’t even been addressed. McEwan should have had trust that the reader would have come on this journey with him regardless of its internal logic, because logic is simply not something most engaged readers pick up literature for. Ingenuity should always trump believability.

Still, I was hopeful for an interesting perspective on the world even if things were off to a stilted start. Then the foetus develops a taste for wine, and rhapsodises on the subject endlessly. He despises bores, and is a fierce proponent of science. He also is apparently very invested in what goes on inside campus colleges in America. That was when I realised that this foetus has the personality of upper-class sixty-eight year old writer named Ian McEwan. It’s frankly bizarre and more than a little lazy.

McEwan’s prose is sparkling as always, flying between topics, but this actually works against the novel. Its basic conceit is one of a helpless infant watching his family collapse into murder, and yet he is always acute and rational about everything that’s happening, draining away any sense of helplessness.

So the dissonant tone was something I couldn’t get over, although it did warrant reflection on other books which did unusual narrative perspectives justice. Flowers for Algernon and The Sound and The Fury, for example, are both heavily described from a mentally underdeveloped point of view, but feel no less complex or rich in subtext because of this: the stilted grammar and spelling used in both acted as a way to make us appreciate the desperation of someone who wasn’t able to communicate effectively. The narrator of Nutshell is trapped inside his own mother, with nothing but kicks as a way to talk to her, yet he never feels alive (and not in a clever meta way as a comment on what it must be like to be a foetus); there’s no true fear or even raw emotion, and so there’s little investment on the part of the reader.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t engaged at points, though. The structure of the novel combines with the as-mentioned intensely readable prose to make the book satisfying to glide through, although I’ll never feel the urge to pick it up again. It ultimately comes across as masturbatory on the part of the author, a writer of incredible ability who simply couldn’t be bothered to stretch himself too far from the norm while still wanting to put on a façade of experimentation.

If an author chooses an unusual protagonist, the difficulties this might entail in regards to prose need to be embraced. Half-hearted an interesting premise with rote stylization is just a waste.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – Review

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“He will not die, he tells himself, not now, not ever. When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood; when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh. He will grow enormous from the feasting, he will expand to fill the empty sky.”

Sumner, a disgraced surgeon with a murky history, is aboard a whaling ship bound for the North Sea. He is in desperate need of relief from the horrors and disgrace he endured during a war in India, and seeks escape; as conspirators and murderers work beneath the decks of The Volunteer, however, and with the ship going deeper and deeper into dangerous, icy waters, peace begins to seem like a very distant prospect.

The difficulty of living with modern (delicate) sensibilities in a world where brutality is needed to survive is laid bare in The North Water. As the scale of the crew’s corruption begins to trouble our protagonist, his own demons rise. Fascinating characterisation of a cast who would be easy to despise in a less well-written novel mean that you are never allowed to become numb or bored by their constant struggles and squabbles, despite the almost absurd frustrations characters trudge through.

There’s a heavy dose violence, but the novel rarely tries to shock you with gore. Descriptions of brutalities (which are common) are kept simple, but this directness makes the story feel grounded despite a number of truly mind-wrenching horrors. This also makes it gratifying when McGuire allows himself a bit of indulgence and lets loose a page or two of utterly stunning prose.

From the opening chapter, it’s clear McGuire was heavily influenced by Cormac McCarthy: the curt sentences, the blending of cruel and disturbing subject matter with elevated prose, the near sociopathic characters, the matter-of-fact dominance of nature over man. I love Cormac McCarthy, but his imitators rarely come off well by comparison. When a writer has mastered their craft, any attempt to copy their style often comes across as faintly embarrassing and pity-inducing; it’s like watching someone copy the Sistine Chapel on a bit of cardboard using crayons. Fortunately, McGuire brings a heady dose of introspection which makes his novel feel more contemplative than McCarthy’s almost inhumanly grand epics.

The North Water is, simply put, outstanding. The structure is masterful, edging you towards the climax without cliché trappings typical of page-turners as the foreshadowing and layers of mystery build on top of each other until the final, devastating act. There’s more here than just thrills, however: horror, ingenuity, and redemption are melded by beautiful prose. Pick it up and let the cold sink into your bones.