In THE MIRAGE, Matt Ruff has created an alternative reality. One in which the United Arab States is a superpower, the US is a motley collection of states run by Christian fundamentalists, and the latter has sparked a war on terror by bombing twin towers in Baghdad on a day that has gone down in history as 11/9. We enter this radical new world through the lives of three Arab Homeland Security officers, whose interception of a team of suicide bombers marks the start of an investigation that forces the agents to question everything they think to be true.
Heavy on wit and satire, THE MIRAGE features its own version of Wikipedia – the Library of Alexandria, invented by Gaddafi. Through this we learn that Israel has occupied Northern Germany since the end of the Second World War, for example, and that the gay rights movement doesn’t exist. THE MIRAGE also stars Osama Bin Laden, Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein, Donald Rumsfeld, Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh and the Bush family. It’s clever, it says a lot about the world’s proclivity for religious zealotry, and it’s politically on the money but somehow THE MIRAGE feels as fake as its premise. Perhaps because it’s trying too hard or because the main characters are under-developed, it never quite gets into its stride as a gripping story above and beyond the concept. It’s a shame because it ought to be better and the idea has so much potential – interestingly it was originally commissioned as a script for a TV series but it was decided there’d be too much hostility from US audiences. So I really wanted to like this, especially as I am a big Matt Ruff fan, but whilst it’s good enough to keep reading, overall THE MIRAGE just doesn’t deliver – and the ending is most disappointing of all.
I picked up this book a couple of years ago because of what it says on the back cover:
We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It’s a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there…Once you have read it you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.
This is all true. I have passed it on to lots of friends since and on this second reading found even more to treasure and share.
Please read it.
Filed under comedy, drama
This is one of those books that if you see someone else reading it on the tube or train you want to strike up a conversation, ask them how far into it they’ve got, and promise them it only gets better and better. GONE GIRL has been billed as the Observer’s thriller of the year, but although I read it in about 3 sittings it’s not the thriller elements that impressed me the most. Rather it’s the very clever way that the story messes with your mind and the twists that force you to question all you have read previously. The two main protagonists possess traits that I can certainly recognise in myself – but more extreme. As a portrait of a marriage, it features all the familiar tensions and conflicts – taken to the extreme. And the way that the characters deceive one another and themselves is not that extraordinary – albeit that the lengths to which they go is extreme. Amazing Amy and her husband Nick do revenge like nobody else and their love hate relationship means you are never quite sure where the story is going until it gets there. Suffice to say, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and this novel about obsession, control and whether we should settle for anything less than perfection, is addictive in the extreme, unusually well written and as sharp as pins.
Some of Barbara Kingsolver’s previous novels I loved from page one (The Lacuna, Pigs in Heaven), others grew on me more slowly (Prodigal Summer, The Poisonwood Bible). FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR falls into the latter category, but when it did get me I fell hard. It’s been widely praised for taking on the topic of climate change and the way Kingsolver deals with the science, the sceptics and the sheer scale of environmental catastrophe packs a real punch. But what’s really wonderful about the novel is her insight into why people are responding to climate change as they are – including those that are effectively not responding at all. The story centres around Dellarobia Turnbow, unhappily married mother of two, who sets off one morning to embark on a fling and stumbles upon what she takes for a lake of fire. That lake turns out to be millions of orange Monarch butterflies whose presence attracts a frenzy of media, scientists, sightseers, pilgrims and campaigners – and prompts Dellarobia to start to view her past and her future in a brand new light. As her extended family struggle to decide whether the land where the butterflies have settled is more valuable if sold off to a logging company or exploited as a tourist attraction, Dellarobia chooses to fight for the butterflies and in doing so fight for a chance at happiness.
This, of course, marks her out as different from all those that choose flight over fight – or denial over confronting the enormity of the challenge we face as a world – but Kingsolver is never judgemental and her depiction of the myriad of reasons behind our collective failure to grasp reality is gentle, sensitive and incredibly understanding. She also takes a swipe at those who lack her ability to see different perspectives and one of my favourites scenes is when Dellarobia is confronted by a zealous climate campaigner and his list of pledges to reduce a carbon footprint. To an impoverished farm wife like her, the advice to invest in ethical stock is meaningless, the suggestion that second hand shopping is better assumes she does any other kind, and the recommendation to “fly less” leaves Dellarobia speechless that anyone might think flying at all is within her means.
Everything about this novel is subtle. The obvious directions it could go in just don’t happen. The character development is gradual and genuine, and despite the climate change theme, you never feel you are being lectured. Yet climate change sits there as a backdrop that dwarfs climaxes, crises and life changing events; a backdrop that only gets bigger and more powerful as the novel unfolds. Given this, it’s real testimony to Kingsolver’s skill as a writer that FLIGHT BEHAVIOUR is so hopeful at the same time as being true to itself. And a novel that’s a challenge to both sceptics and believers alike.
When I first read this book, more than twenty years ago, it completely blew my mind. I had never come across anything like it and it seemed to go right to the heart of where I was at politically. The Gospel According to Shrug went up on my wall for inspiration and I devoured everything else Alice Walker had written. If I had to choose the one novel that had most changed my life, this would probably be it. And, thankfully, with twenty years distance, it still has the power to talk to me, to challenge me and to set me thinking. Indeed, on this reading I finally understood why Alice Walker backed Obama, as a black man, for US President, rather than lending her support to a white woman – really properly understood and felt it, rather than just getting it intellectually.
Through the interwoven lives of Arveyda, Carlotta, Suwelo, Fanny and Mary Ann, we learn about all manner of different relationships, how they form, evolve, break – and can be healed. And through the glorious Lissie, who remembers each and every one of her previous lives, as both a black and white woman, and even as a lion, we discover a history that’s rich with glimmers of freedom amongst all the oppression, a history full of lessons for the future. My favourite memory is of pygmies living in the trees in harmony with their cousins the apes, and men and women in separate camps. All the memories and stories have one thing in common though – the importance of fighting for what you know to be right, for those you love and for justice. Whilst the impact on me is less dramatic now, because the ideas and themes are what have shaped my life ever since – they have become my familiar if you like – nevertheless, I still find enormous beauty and peace in the pages of this novel. And it still blows my mind.