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.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Part 1) – Review

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“He said something enormously charged and meaningful about death, the tone was resigned and laconic, but not without irony, and I thought I will have to remember this, this is important, I’ll have to remember this for the rest of my life, but by the time we were in the car on our way home along the Hardanger fjord I had forgotten.”

The dedication it takes to lay yourself out as freely as Knausgaard does is staggering. He displays parts of his mind that I keep behind a wall from nearly everyone. He’s not unselfconscious – he seems to care deeply for what others think of him – but has merely allowed himself to feel the shame of others’ eyes on his most intimate and shameful details and not shrink from them.

In the spirit of this novel, here’s an embarrassing confession:

I’m intensely jealous, in a stomach-clenching and shamefully angry way that I haven’t felt since I finished Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, of Knausgaard’s ability to write. Not the sweet kind of jealousy that pushes me to work, but the kind that takes over when I’m reading something that’s not just good — it’s something that I could never even attempt.

This is closer to what is normally thought of as a memoir than a novel, but the style borrows heavily from Proust. There is no plot, just a man with a father whose father just died. The prose is what keeps you engaged, as it is somehow both threadbare and grandious at the same time. Knausgaard allows his writing to freely drift from subject to subject, and his lack of devotion to plot allows him to be far more accurate in portray the fluctuating nature of the human mind than nearly any novel could be. It’s as though he’s trying to figure the world out with you.

I picked this up out of curiosity, and if you had told me that I would want to read the whole series (six novels) after finishing, I would have laughed. But every few pages, I found myself thinking the cliche thought that normally pops up only once every dozen novels or so: “I didn’t know anyone else thought this way.” Knausgaard doesn’t shy from unflattering moments and musings. He depicts the selfish inclinations of the human brain in everyday situations without the cloying rationalisation that frequents memoirs or the works of Eggers, and because of that stays absolutely fascinating  even when he’s doing nothing more than describing his day cleaning his dead father’s house.

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima – Review

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“Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.”

I picked up The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima because the author was a body-builder and martial artist who tried to topple the Japanese government through a rousing speech, and, when that failed, stabbed himself in the stomach. This was, admittedly, not the purest motivation to read a book. I was going by the logic that whatever a man like that wrote, it was likely to at least be interesting. I was right.

A sailor begins to realise that the greatness he has been grasping at his whole life may never come within reach. A widow tries to move away from the memory of her dead husband. A young boy, caught in the grandeur of his pseudo-revolutionary school chums, has begun to dream of violence.

This is a creepy novel, and that’s a compliment. There’s a sense of unease and looming disaster which is rare to feel outside of the horror genre, and this is particularly affecting because the characters seem normal, just in a strange set of circumstances.

There’s a dark influence from our protagonist Noburu’s friends. They long to be special, and are willing commit horrors to separate themselves from what they see as the brainwashed and inferior masses. Their minds are being warped by the terrifying influence of the Chief; that doesn’t mean Noburu’s not accountable for his actions, but it demonstrates the power of a strong group on an impressionable young man. This novel could be retold as a simple parable about the allure and dangers of fanaticism, which is ironic coming from an author with fascist sympathies.

The pacing is occasionally listless; it’s a short novel that feels long, but not unintentionally so. Mishima is willing to diverge into the mundane in a way that Western authors rarely would, and if it wasn’t for the malicious goings-on in the background it would almost be relaxing. Actually, this has been the case for every Japanese novel I’ve ever read. Hmm.

Characters drift lazily through their lives, but we get the chance to know them intimately. Everyone here is restless, searching for meaning or purpose; some try and find what they need through materialism, others through faux intellectualism, others through love but no one feels content. You keep waiting for some small crack in their lives to cause everything to break apart, and when the climax comes, there’s a satisfying and horrifying pay-off thanks to a well executed slow-burn of a plot.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Review

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“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

If melancholy could be said to have a patron saint, it would be Joan Didion. She travelled throughout California during the 1960s to try and understand what she saw as a confused and desperate time. Not the cheeriest subject, but interesting nonetheless. There’s despair, as this book describes a world of tumultuous change and violence—yet, reading it decades later, there’s also poignancy. We watch social movements grow and gather momentum when we know they will fizzle out and die, having accomplished few of their goals; this is a useful reminder of how difficult it can be to see all ends.

Didion’s perspective on the 1960s is raw and fascinating due to its frustration. Popular culture often sides towards romanticizing Flower Power and the few moments of peace, but Didion reveals destructiveness unchecked naivete can cause. Hippies come across less as fantastical dreamers, and more like perpetually drugged up cliché factories desperate for the illusion of change in a society that seems fundamentally broken.

And then there’s the writing itself. Didion addresses the world with prose utterly devoid of warmth and yet stays emotionally resonant. She was one of the greatest stylists of the 20th century, with the eloquence of Nabokov and the restraint of Hemingway. You would have to be deliberately obtuse not to see her influence on some of the greatest essayists of our own time. Her sentences are devastating, delivering calculated punches to the reader’s solar plexus at just the moment for maximum impact:

“I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay.”

There’s a moment in nearly every essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem where Didion seems to lament the lost dreams of both her nation and the individuals who strive and usually fail inside it. The mood is of an extended eulogy for a land of moral decay which she doesn’t seem certain was ever better than now anyway.

It’s the 1960s without the kaleidoscope of modern pop-culture obscuring the nastier elements, and thus a harrowing but powerful read.

Middlemarch by George Eliot – Review

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“Character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Middlemarch is the perennial favourite of well-read parents everywhere, and my mother was no exception to this. That guaranteed that that I would do everything I could to avoid this book as a sulky teenager, and as adulthood began to creep along I merely forgot it existed.

This year, after reading a number of the looming geniuses of 19th century England (and having discovered that the writing there was, unsurprising to everyone but me, bloody good), an essay by the incredible Zadie Smith went over just how special this book is to her and should be to others. So, I decided to finally give George Eliot a go.

I began reading and thought:

“Okay, so Middlemarch has one of the best written opening paragraphs in fiction. Not a bad start.”

I kept reading.

“Right, so Middlemarch has one of the most gorgeous opening pages in fiction. This is a great start.”

I kept reading.

Three weeks later, after forcing myself to take the novel slowly—I wanted to savour the experience—I was in love with Middlemarch in a way I have been in love with very few books. Yes, that’s a melodramatic way of describing how certain books can make you feel. In my experience, it’s also an accurate one.

The omniscient narrator gives us an all-encompassing view of life which only 19th century novels can pull off with such lightness. I’ve recently become fascinated with authors who can truly create multiple personalities within a single novel; David Mitchell and Susan Barker are great examples of this rare talent, but if they’re chameleons then George Eliot was a shape-shifter.

Young, old, handsome, homely; poor; rich; there’s no one Eliot can’t write fully fleshed. She was absurdly talented at expressing the intricacies and individualities of humanity, and she did so without demonizing those who held views likely extraordinarily different to her own.

This is by far the least plot-driven book to sit on my favourites’ shelf; the actual events are small scale by design. That small acts can have huge implications for those we live with is one of Eliot’s central conceits, but this means it’s difficult to express what makes this book special succinctly. George Eliot describes this feeling of the gap between experience and explanations better than I can, unsurprisingly. Near the end of the novel, Celia asks Dorothea to explain just how a surprising relationships came about:

“Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.

“No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.

 

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass

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“I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.”

Some authors examine characters; Gass dissects them. His writing cuts into the inner workings of the human mind like a scalpel, and even if you don’t enjoy what’s being shown you will recognise it as similar to something deep within yourself.

Reading In The Heart of the Heart of the Country is like staring at a house-fire: the spectacle may be aesthetically beautiful, but it’s ultimately just depressing as it’s the cause of so much misery. Kafka said that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Normally, I would agree. This short story collection strayed too far from trying to provide narrative satisfaction, though; Gass doesn’t just illuminate the disgusting elements of life, he wallows in them. The result is emotionally numbing. 

The prose is intricately written, with complex sentence structures and occasionally confusing dialect (although Gass knows how to temper his own intelligence based on whether it is appropriate for his characters; many authors lack this self-awareness). A number of the stories here fall into the dreaded short story trope of “middle aged man contemplates the meaning of clouds,” although the first — “The Pedersen Kid” — has an interesting set-up and multiple engaging characters. Things soon settle into monotony, however. Three hundred pages of nihilism is going to be dull no matter how intricate the writing.

Gass said that “these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness.” Regardless of its lack of commercial success, and even if its grotesqueness makes it difficult to love, it’s hard to deny that In The Heart of the Heart of the Country is extraordinarily well written. It will make readers gag, but still feels true to the despicable parts of our world. However, the stories are so relentlessly ugly and cynical that I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was written out of pure spite rather than a desire to engage the reader in a truly meaningful way.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – Review

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“Don’t leave me here with my mind, I thought.”

One of the oldest and most interesting tricks in the literary handbook is to make readers ask, “What would I do?”

It’s a bright summer day in London. Something has gone horribly wrong: a child is in danger, and Joe Rose will be forced to make a difficult choice. Nearby, a strange man is feeling the stirrings of an obsession which will tear apart his sanity.

Enduring Love is above all else about the wild speculation we make when it comes to others’ motives. We can’t know what anyone is thinking, and yet live our lives on the assumption that speech and body-language gives us firm ground when it comes to understanding others. They often don’t. Ian McEwan wants us to know how arrogance in your own beliefs about the world around you can result in tragedy.

Using his own twisted version of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma as the catalyst to this novel, McEwan makes you question how reliable your mind really is. He excels at showing the untrustworthy nature of human thoughts, and the way our emotions colour every interaction; how we stare out at the world and what we see is always distorted by what fills our head at the current moment.

McEwan’s prose is both clinical and dazzlingly beautiful, despite his often gruesome subject matters. He’s not afraid to look at what’s both rotten and interesting about the world, and reading him is like listening to an educated doctor wax lyrical about diseases. He may throw large amounts of scientific information at readers —which at times feels as though he’s doing so just to prove he can — but does so in small enough chunks that it’s satisfying but not particularly difficult to keep up.

Characters in Enduring Love are often shockingly certain about what others are thinking. This, of course, means things end messily, but it’s always a delight to read because each character is acting what they view as rational: “If you just saw thing my way…” With politics and anger so mixed together in our news, it’s important to often remind ourselves that even people we might see as evil are likely the heroes of their own story.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – Review

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“Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”

Comic books are on the rise in 1930s New York, and Sammy Clay desperately wants to write them. His cousin Josef—a fresh-off-the-boat refugee from Austria and deeply talented artist—needs money to rescue the family he left behind. Together they create the Escapist, one of the first superheroes in the history of the world. The rest is history.

What a novel. Ambitious, funny, tender, and heartbreaking.

The importance of grasping opportunity shines out from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The protagonists are desperate, and their enthusiasm and frustration make them extraordinarily easy to root for. That’s the nature of underdogs, of course, particularly when they’re unfairly persecuted. Desperate for success and meaning, their struggles emphasise the importance of escapism and compassion in world where injustice can strike anyone. It’s easy to care about Kavalier and Clay because Chabon made two characters that are far from perfect—they’re both greedy in many ways an fairly sneaky—but are deeply endearing.

The narrative is technically told in third person but leaves the impression that the narrator himself is a sort of kindly, thoughtful uncle. Start reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay at midday, and before you know it the sun’s gone down; you’ve been reading in the half-light, squinting to make out letters. You just have to know what happens.

This is a book about the consolations art can give people who are struggling with their place in the world. This is a novel featuring comic books, yes, but it’s about evil and war, and the need for hope in the face of despair.

 

Euphoria by Lily King – Review

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“You don’t realise how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense.”

Margaret Mead was an incredible woman who lived an unconventional life, and pioneered what we today call anthropology; she rocketed the science into the public eye from academic obscurity and disinterest. Euphoria, by Lily King, is partly based on Mead’s time with native tribes near the Sepik River in New Guinea, and her turbulent romantic life there. In this novel, three scientists, one suicidal and the other two damaged in more subtle ways, are trying to unravel the cultures of a number of tribes in New Guinea while battling their own lust, anger, and depression.

Primal human urges are the centre-point of this story and the novel attempts to tackle some big themes, such as what it means to be a human, and how far Western society has really been able to move past what was often considered “primitive” morality systems. This a vivid and often engrossing tale, too, with an intense sexuality and the threat of violence constantly hovering over the events depicted. Unfortunately, King’s interesting observations about the nature of societies are stapled onto a love triangle which feels far more generic yet prominent than the ideas surrounding it.

The writing has some sentences which crackle with real inspiration, but also a number of tics that keep it from being truly stellar. For instance, King has an irritating tendency towards repetition at the end of her sentences, a stylistic flourish that comes across as clunky rather than poetic.

The few moments we spend with tribal characters overshadow the main cast. When anthropology and its capacity to give insight into human nature is at the forefront, King shines; ironically, however, when it comes to exploring individual characters rather than society as a whole, things get iffy.

The characters are multifaceted and engaging to watch bounce off each other. King excels at witty dialogue, and makes you buy a burgeoning romance and another which is on the decline. There are, however, melodramatically tragic back-stories which may as well have had “Freudian excuse” in bold red letters across the pages where they were being explored. It’s not that these back-stories to be unrealistically tragic; in fact, they’re carefully modelled on Mead and company’s biographies. It’s the way they are brought up as a way to explain a character’s actions rather than to help us understand them better. There’s no subtext here, just text, and we are informed how their histories have damaged the people we are reading about rather than being allowed to figure them out for ourselves. This gave a soap opera tinge to an otherwise carefully put together story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but due to the focus it take this gives Euphoria a tonal inconsistency due to the more fascinating and mostly restrained sections with the native tribes.

There are a number of moments where we are given hints, or outright told, what happens after these characters leave the jungle, and so the ending feels incomplete and anti-climatic due to a rather abrupt ending that left a large number of questions unanswered. Still, there were some vivid descriptions and interesting character dynamics on display in Euphoria. Just don’t expect to come away completely satisfied.