Monthly Archives: November 2014

WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES by Karen Joy Fowler

we are all completely beside ourselves by karen joy fowler

I picked up a few books before settling into this – none seemed to grab my attention and I assumed it was because work was filling my every waking moment. But turns out I just needed to find the right book to get my reading mojo back and this was most definitely it. A book about the space where feelings, actions and who we are meet, it’s very special.

Rosemary is our narrator and she starts in the middle, as she was taught by parents anxious to give their daughter ways to curb her talkativeness. We get the beginning and the end too, as Rosemary gradually shares the incredible story of a brother and sister she hasn’t seen since she was a child, how memories are tricky things, and why she now barely speaks to anyone, especially not about her family. Quirky, hilarious and often terribly sad too, it tackles important themes such as what makes us human, the release that comes from forgiving ourselves as well as others,  and the nature of loneliness.

There’s a huge fact at the centre of Rosemary’s story that I am not going to reveal, as it blew me away when I read the words on the page, and I am really glad I’d not read any reviews beforehand that gave it away (or the back cover of the book). It makes this review difficult to write but I can tell you there’s also a cast of colourful characters, a ventriloquist’s dummy named Madame Defarge and one of the most dysfunctional families you’ll ever come across in literature.

Captivating, challenging and smart, this book took me completely outside of myself. Oh and if, like me, you have come across this writer in connection with THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB and have therefore avoided like the plague, don’t worry this is nothing like the girly drivel I assume that to be!

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THE LIVES OF OTHERS by Neel Mukherjee

the lives of others by neel mukherjee

Be warned, this is a big book. But that’s not why it’s taken me ages to finish it. It’s taken me ages because I just didn’t care about anyone in it, about what was happening or about to happen. Rather than pick this book up, I’ve been thumbing the pages of Christmas catalogues in the bath and scrolling through articles recommended by Facebook friends on the train.

All of which is such a shame because it promised so much: several generations of the Ghosh family living in one house together in Calcutta in the late 1960s, their interwoven stories, their relationships laid bare.  At the nominal centre is Supratik, who has abandoned his family to take up arms as a Maoist Naxalite guerilla. He records his exploits in unsent letters home and the main dramatic tension in the book comes from his return and subsequent arrest for murder and terrorism.

The household has it all – incest, a child maths prodigy, a bitter cross-eyed 30 year old who nobody wants to marry, a loyal life long servant, a struggling family business, an incorrigible younger son, and an emotional matriarch. Underpinning everything is a rich seam of hypocrisy, which Mukherjee mines relentlessly. And yet,  despite a handful of very vivid flashes of colour – almost all of which are concerned with unbearable pain and graphic violence (a father strangling his daughters before committing suicide, interrogators using pliers to inflict torture) – the book failed to engage me. It’s best described as a collection of episodes about a collection of people, which would be fine apart from the fact that those people never come alive. They are the side show to the main event, so their potential is never fully realised, and yet the main event itself  never really happens. The overall effect is one of a missed opportunity.

It’s also quite inaccessible. The novel remains true to the Bengali tradition of people addressing one another relationally but this isn’t properly explained until a note at the end and I read the entire thing never really getting to grips with how each person fitted into the complex family tree. And the background political elements remained elusive too –  the contrast between rural poverty and the Ghosh family’s materialism is pronounced, but it’s never really clear whether this is what drives Supratik to extremism or something else besides. In a similar vein, many of the story lines peter out and I found this infuriating.

There are some redeeming features – I did keep reading after all (mainly out of stubbornness than enjoyment, it must be said)  – but personally I am struggling to see why this was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014.  Put simply, THE LIVES OF OTHERS can be endlessly fascinating, but in Mukherjee’s hands they are not.

 

 

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THE ELEPHANT KEEPERS’ CHILDREN by Peter Hoeg

the elephant keepers children by peter hoeg

It’s almost impossible to tell this is by the same writer who gave us MISS SMILLA’S FEELING FOR SNOW  and whilst to start with I struggled with having my expectations confounded, I was won over within pages. The children of the title are Peter (our narrator), Tilte and Hans Fino who hail from a Danish island also called Fino, and this is the story of how they track down missing parents, evade the authorities who wish to take the siblings into custody, and uncover a criminal plot hatched by their father, a charismatic church Minister, and his multi-talented special effects maestro of a wife.  The result is a mad cap and surreal adventure taking in escape from an asylum disguised as a lizard, co-opting the help of a former drug addict who takes instructions from little blue men that bring him magic mushrooms, absconding with a coffin then hiding the dead body in the freezer compartment of an arms dealers’ cruise ship, matchmaking police officers, and a band of terrorists who make liberal use of liquid soap.

By far and away the best thing about this book is Hoeg’s attention to detail and this is especially true of his conjuring of the 3 main protagonists. The characterisation of Peter is a triumph – he is brazen, mischevious and articulate yet remains on the right side of credible throughout a series of incredible events. Tilte, who is obsessed with death and manipulates all around her by posing existential questions, is an equally skilled creation. Handsome heartbreaking Hans can pick up horses lay them on their backs and tickle their tummies. Enough said.  The island of Fino is populated by similarly wonderful creations – from absurd, to both sublime and ridiculous – all of whom romp through the novel with abandon, adding richness and colour to the plot. If you like your narratives straightforward this may drive you to distraction, but persist and you’ll find that the diversions and subplots come together beautifully, with all the various characters amassed in a Copenhagen castle and the children trying to foil an attack on a high profile international convention of the world’s religions.

The title of the book apparently comes from an old Indian saying: “In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper, make certain to have room for the elephant.” Peter talks about his mother and father having “something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control” – a “yearning as big as an elephant” to know what God really is and to meet him. This leaves the adults with a sorrowful look that’s beautiful to behold but leads them down some questionable paths. It has also prompted the children, who have seen the size of their parents’ elephants,  to adopt a rather different approach to life, involving finding answers within, opening doors to spiritual enlightenment and tempering the religious with a healthy dose of practical realism. Peter’s philosophical musings are perhaps the least successful feature of the book but they do provide a framework for some of the big moral questions all 3 children encounter on their adventures, especially whether the ends justify the means.

Riotous, funny and endlessly endearing, if you enjoyed THE HUNDRED YEAR OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT OF THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED, you may well like this too – just don’t expect it to be anything like Peter Hoeg’s previous books!

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