The Places in Between by Rory Stewart – Review

“I had been walking one afternoon in Scotland and thought: Why don’t I just keep going? There was, I said, a magic in leaving a line of footprints stretching across Asia.”

I was initially repelled by the summary of this book: an upper-class English military man wanders from Herat to Kabul on foot, surviving through the generosity of people already deeply in poverty. Why, I wondered, would I want to read about the self-realisation of a twit achieved through the endangerment of Afghanis?

It’s a difficult thing to write a book about being a tourist in war-torn Afghanistan at the height of the Western invasion and not come across as a self-serving narcissist; Stewart, for the most part, manages to thread that needle by not talking much about himself at all. His reasons for the trip are outlined vaguely – following the path of Babur, an ancient conqueror who overtook large parts of Asia – but that explains his route, rather than his actual motivations for a journey which was both extraordinarily dangerous and costly. Instead, his writing focuses on the voices of the villagers he meets, explaining their stories briefly and with sympathy, focusing on Stewart’s interest in them both as people and products of the region they live in.

You get the sense that an impartial observer should be sceptical about the idea of Afghanistan as a nation at all, at least in the sense that the modern West conceives of one – a place with a united government, for whom all its citizens should both account for and be accountable too.

Afghanistan’s many tribes are ruled in a sort of Feudal system, relying on the whims of foreign aids and local chiefs to live on land that has been ravaged by war for decades. You get a strong sense for how the geography of the land governs a person’s life, and how history stretching back millennia has shaped the current social and political climate.

However, some nearly-shot children and nearly-murdered guides cast a foolhardy glare on the enterprise which spawned the admittedly engaging book. Stewart’s a talented writer, and his observations about the country feel carefully observed and truly felt; it’s easy to admire adventurers in the abstract, but Stewart’s flights of fancy seemingly result in more death than would have occurred had he never arrived at all. We never see him regret this; he doesn’t seem to think of it at all. Thus, the glossy shine of his adventurous spirit sheen fades quickly, revealing a reckless man who’s good with words but bad at caring for people who would be better off if he’d stayed home.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante – Review

Book Review: The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante | Theresa Smith  Writes

“Why, then, even when I advanced, was I so quick to retreat? Why did I always have ready a gracious smile, a happy laugh, when things went badly? Why, sooner or later, did I always find plausible excuses for those who made me suffer?”

The second in Elena Ferrante’s blisteringly passionate Neopolitian series, The Story of a New Name takes place on the dirty and sun-baked streets of Naples, as residents are swept through life in a whirlwind of anger, resentment, and short-lived love.

A young girl named Elena’s complex and passionate friendship with Lina has been stretched by their changing social conditions and Lila’s abusive marriage. As Elena longs for Lila’s beauty, charisma, and recent wealth, Lila resents Elena’s education and the chance it gives her to transform. The two see adults around them as miserable, and both fear and strongly suspect that they will one day become the same way, beaten and tired shadows of their young selves with their bright eyes dimmed and dreams pissed on and laughed at.

Ferrante’s writing has a warmth to it, as her sentences pile descriptive clauses on top of descriptive clauses focused on the emotional state of Elena rather than the world she occupies. A single mood will be expressed over three paragraphs, exploring both its origin and consequences in conversations that mood impacts. Emotions dictate the situations characters get into, rather than an easy-to-grasp plot pushing the narrative forward.

Did a passing yet stinging remark from her mother leave Elena angry, and thus more likely to conflict with her temperamental boyfriend? Did a conversation between characters three years ago create a distance which cannot be crossed, resulting in stunted expressions over something important? Or is one of them merely in a foul mood due to lack of sleep, resulting in a cascade of bad feelings that results in an explosive argument with ramifications for years to come?

When you listen to Elena despair over the state of her neighbourhood, it feels as though she’s despairing over the state of the world, because from that’s all of the world she’s been allowed to see exists. She might have glimpsed a kinder or richer place in one of her novels, a city or community she knows is real, but her vision of reality has been narrowed by poverty until it seems that she might be trapped in a cycle of her ancestors: work for nothing, rage, die.

Caught between the desire for a better life and the deep-seated fear that they are living in precisely the conditions they deserve, an impression confounded by the contempt outsiders’ treat the very dialect they speak, residents of Elena’s neighbourhood view change with suspicion. They are people who grew up in poverty and, for the most part, were never shown away out of it, so they view any who try and leave the dramas of their corner of Naples with deep-seated resentment.

A combination of good fortune and dedication might Elena her escape, but her parents sneer at her changing voice, her need for teaching materials that other, less uppity children would never ask for. They see her attempts at walking a new path as condemnation of their own journeys. ‘What’s so bad about where we ended up?’ they feel. ‘We’ve done the best we could. You think you’re better than us? Put down those books and help make a meal, find a husband, get a job.’

Marriage binds families of their community, a line that connects two drowning and resentful captives. Passions fizzle only to be enflamed with jealousy, and beatings are commonplace and admired as a way to assert proper dominance by petty men. Insults, disgust frustration. Lina wants to escape her abusive marriage, but there’s no way to do this without destroying both herself and her family. Sometimes that’s a sacrifice she’s willing to make, but other times she staggers through a world she’s numb to, drained of joys but bearable through sheer stubbornness.

Elena is on the rise in terms of class: the first in her family to attend high school, mastering Italian beyond the vulgar dialect she throws around in her neighbourhood, mingling with the daughters and sons of professors and artists who pay no regard to people like her parents. This paralyses her in a state of fear, however, as she is aware that no matter how hard she studies the time is too late, her life began in a lower-class neighbourhood; she thinks this has marked both her brain and body so deeply that anyone truly knowledgeable could chip away at her persona with some intelligent words and see her true self, unworthy, just barely buried beneath a layer of pretention.

The Story of a New Name is a novel about transformation, and the cost of making a new life for yourself. Poverty binds characters to the land they grew on; if they want to plant their roots in new soil, there will always be a great price. Elena finds escape through knowledge, Lila through passion, and both are resented for these choices. Who could judge them for this, however, when these desires stem from a need to feel something other than resignation?

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.

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.

Augustus by John Williams

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“It is fortunate that youth never recognizes its ignorance, for if it did it would not find the courage to get the habit of endurance. It is perhaps an instinct of the blood and flesh which prevents this knowledge and allows the boy to become the man who will live to see the folly of his existence.”

Augustus by John Williams retells the history of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, a young Roman nobleman who was the named heir of Julius Caesar. Stepping into a world of assassination, corruption and war, we read from the perspective of a large number of people as he attempts to remake the world as he sees fit. The world, however, makes those who strive for greatness pay a heavy price.

Despite the enormous power Augustus wields, what makes this novel interesting is the presentation of such an extraordinary person as relatable and sympathetic. This is an undoubtedly smart man who seizes circumstance with great skill, but is ultimately just a man despite pretensions to Godhood; he’s no more powerful or pitiable when left alone with his regrets than anyone else.

It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with William’s prior novel Stoner, which I finished recently and thought was a masterpiece. Augustus is understandably very different in tone; it’s like taking in a bombastic orchestra after enjoying an intimate show by a single man with a guitar. Yet this still feels like the more warm novel of the two despite the grand scale and bloody subject matter; themes revolve around failure like in Stoner, yes, but there is a stronger focus on friendship and politics, with a warm humanism about the former and exasperation with the latter.

This novel is about Augustus as a man, yes, but is also about the way experience carves a person out of the mountain of their hopes and ambitions, discarding the rubble we used to see as our innate self. In other words: no matter how hard you try, the world and its coincidences and tragedies will shape you far more than you can ever shape it in return.

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 Fall by Albert Camus – Review

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“A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.”

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and Absurdist, lived what many would describe as an eventful life. He fought in the French resistance during World War 2, won a Nobel prize before he was fifty, and essentially founded a philosophical movement which still holds sway today. As his legions of fans over the last century would tell you, although probably not with this phrase, he was an unquestionable badass who lived by his convictions.

It’s therefore striking how often his work focuses on the unexceptional. His characters are not naturally brave and strong; they are ordinary men put in difficult circumstances which are nonetheless everyday: disease, melancholy, death.

The subject matter of The Fall, as with much of Camus’ work, could be fairly called depressing. On the surface, it’s the tale of a fallen socialite with a lot to say about the nature of truth and self-deception. You’re at a bar one night (the novel is a second-person narrative) and a stranger wants to tell you about his life as a judge-penitent. You don’t know him, or have any way of verifying if he’s speaking the truth. He seems arrogant, but intriguing. Do you listen?

After watching a woman commit suicide one day, this man found his mind slowly unravelling. He didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t even move. The world has shown him that he is ordinary and selfish. He’s come to some radical conclusions about the universe in the last few years, so listen up.

Camus’ tone is as witty and dry as ever, and due to the abundant grin-worthy aphorisms this novel almost works as a black comedy. The narrator is so melodramatic and slimy that it’s extremely entertaining if seemingly bleak. Deception is a running theme in his tale, and you question just what you’re being told is true and if that even really matters.

This is the kind of book that doesn’t read well if the reader isn’t willing to grit their teeth and wonder just what the hell the author is trying to get across. Passive readers, much like passive people, don’t have much luck in Camus’ universe. With the short page length, though, it’s worth your time.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon – Review

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“The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”

This seemed like a harrowing if quirky war story. Then things got weird.

I couldn’t decide with how to describe my experience with this novel. It was… unusual. After glancing through the notes I took while reading, I realised that contrasting my early reactions to my later reactions should give a good idea how things went.

Early on:

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Later:

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Much later:

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In the world of Gravity’s Rainbow, kindness is rare and cruelty is common yet absurd. Humans are constantly attempting to transcend both their physical and mental limits through sex, magic, and physics, and almost always fail; put another way, the characters are a variety of horny Icarus’s. Slothrop, an American in London during World War 2 and the protagonist, can predict rocket-explosions with his penis. He doesn’t realise this, but shadowy organisations around him do, and they want him under their control.

Thomas Pynchon, an American, writes better Englishmen than most English writers. He covers every subject imaginable. His prose can be mind-boggingly sharp; he can be erudite, beautiful and very funny all in one paragraph. He is, in short, brilliant. Brilliant people don’t necessarily write brilliant novels, though, and there were moments reading this where I considered that it might just be an extremely well-researched and well-written prank on readers everywhere.

The twisting sentences and obscure references can be extremely confusing, yes, but as with most difficult things, after prolonged exposure you can adapt and appreciate the challenge. I was really, really enjoying the experience; I wanted to love this book. My favourite moments were when the intensity paused and we were just allowed to breath in the sorrow of the confusing world which Pynchon writes with such wonderful prose: the sad fall of Pökler, who began as a well-intentioned scientist but finished utterly corrupted; anything to-do with Roger Mexico and his desperate love for Jessica, an engaged woman; the tragic tale of Byron the  Bulb, an immortal light-bulb (yes, an immortal light-bulb is a character) who appears almost out of nowhere several-hundred pages in for his own chapter, and then is only mentioned once after. However, touching stories like these were often followed by dozens of pages at a time which I read with a grimace and a strong instinct to throw the book out the window.

I realised I had been wrong in my assumptions about why this book is considered so hard to read around three-hundred pages in. It’s not just because of the challenging language; it’s the subject matter, the horrifying, tragic, fucked up subject matter. I’d never been angry at an author for making me read disgusting scenes before, but this book ‘accomplished’ that. The third time I found myself raging internally against Pynchon for writing something so repugnant but still emotionally affecting, I began to wonder whether this book was even worth the effort I was putting into it.

It was putting my mind through a wringer, and for what?

Well, a lot, as it turns out.

Meaning between one page and the next can be elusive. This novel has intentionally broken narrative cause and effect; events drift in a whirling state so that you will be left confused and occasionally frustrated. Because of this, though, it can make you look at the world around you in a fucked-up but fundamentally altered way for several-hundred pages; if that doesn’t appeal to you, fair enough, but if it does, you’ve got a novel ahead of you which you will likely remember for the rest of your life.

To say I had conflicting feelings while reading is an understatement, but I’m glad I stuck with Gravity’s Rainbow. If you have a strong stomach for, well, everything, it’s more than worth the considerable effort needed to finish it. Just expect to feel like your brain is melting and being rearranged in potentially damaging ways at some point.