Monthly Archives: February 2015

THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan

the children act by ian mcewan

All too often I find McEwan’s books emotionally detached,  I fail to connect with his characters, albeit that intellectually I can appreciate their fullness, the flaws that make them human. As a result, I often don’t care very much what happens to them and that, for me, spoils my enjoyment. THE CHILDREN ACT has as its central character, high court judge Fiona Maye, someone I initially found interesting, the kind of woman I’d like to meet and listen to, rather than likeable or sympathetic. She rules in cases such as whether Siamese twins can be separated, who to grant custody to when parents are separating and, in the central case to THE CHILDREN ACT, on whether or not a boy on the cusp of turning eighteen has the right to refuse a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia because it’s not permitted by his beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness. The case comes at a difficult time in Fiona’s life – her husband has just told her he wants to have an affair with someone, is hoping she’ll let him do so within the boundaries of their marriage. She kicks him out. A few days later he returns, contrite, nothing having happened with the other woman. Fiona is disappointed he didn’t stay away longer but she accepts him back. Things are frosty but eventually they are reconciled. Against this backdrop, she hears both sides of the argument in the Jehovah’s Witness case, goes to the hospital to visit the boy in question, Adam. Her ruling has a profound effect on his relationship with his faith and Fiona comes to signify something very liberating to Adam. They cross a line, she fails to live up to his expectations. It all ends badly and sadly.

McEwan’s prose, as ever, is sparing. THE CHILDREN ACT is so slim it’s more a short story than a novel. He remains enamoured of professional life and those who have reached the – precarious – pinnacle of their careers. He continues to dissect ethical dilemmas, especially those that pitch science against religion, with microscopic attention. And here in this moment, all that works for me. Perhaps because, as I said earlier, Fiona and her work are interesting to me, and that means I can somehow move beyond the distance McEwan keeps from her. Not quite close enough to feel as she does, but certainly close enough to care a little about her. Then something else happened.

THE CHILDREN ACT is one of the best McEwan books I have read for a while – most of his more recent novels have left me cold. It’s far from perfect. I am still very conscious that I am reading something written by a man who I don’t think is particularly good at creating impressive women characters. Here, for example, there’s a complete failure to accept that Fiona might be fulfilled without a child of her own and he seeks to define her by that, builds the novel around that premise, with Adam cast as the son she never had. But I deliberately chose to get over that, look for a different Fiona, dispute what McEwan is saying. As a result the woman becomes so much more than the writer envisaged and her career is no longer limited by his perception of her. Meeting Adam, her husband’s departure; these events set Fiona free somehow and I let her hold onto that freedom, rather than let McEwan curtail it again. I connected with her far more than makes any kind of sense, turned her into something McEwan’s writing denies, into who I wanted her to be rather than what he had created.

It’s not often I respond like this to a novel – usually I am much more accepting of what the writer gives me. But Fiona touched a nerve in me – maybe because of her age and circumstances, as well as her work – that combined with McEwan’s style seems to have generated something quite unsettling. I am still working it out to be honest. Part of why I value this blog is it makes me think about why I have enjoyed or not enjoyed certain books and occasionally I find I don’t really know. The process of writing a review takes me on a journey, even takes me full circle. But it can also distract me from a gut feeling, a connection that cannot be explained or justified, that’s difficult to put into words. I might never figure it out and that may not matter. It’s unexpected that it’s this book and this writer that’s made me stumble, feel so conflicted, but that in itself is part of what’s interesting.  I read after all to be challenged, to be made to think, not simply for answers.

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HER by Harriet Lane

her by harriet lane

When I started reading this I was in serious need of a very particular kind of book. Something easy but distracting, something that would pass the time and engage me, but not overtake the back to back viewing of every episode of House of Cards in my affections. HER did just what I demanded of it and nothing more. It’s the kind of book you can lose yourself in momentarily but which is almost instantly forgettable. The ending is disturbing, haunting even if you allow it to be, but beyond that I am struggling to remember much about what happened. I can tell you it’s about revenge, features a seriously screwed up woman, and that the writer seems to think women are in endless competition with one another.  I can tell you it switches between the lives of two very different women, Emma and Nina, whose paths have crossed and from which point become more and more embroiled. We get the same events from different perspectives and lots of detail about their domestic arrangements. That makes it sound dull. It isn’t but whilst that kind of detail is great at helping convey certain aspects of someone’s life – and Lane uses it to this end very well – it’s not hugely memorable or generally worthy of special note.

If you are the kind of person who thinks that nobody deserves happiness, that you’ll be punished for all your transgressions, even those of which you were utterly unaware, don’t read this book. It will probably scare you shitless. If, however, you have time to spare, and want a book that’s in a similar vein to films like Fatal Attraction and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. but not nearly as menacing or original, then you’ll probably enjoy this whilst it lasts. HER isn’t a bad book, on the contrary, it’s just not worth writing home about. Nothing more to say really.

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THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton

the miniaturist by jessie burton

This is everything a book should be. It assaults all your senses, sends your imagination into overdrive and leaves you with just the right balance between feeling sated and wanting more.

18 year old Petronella (Nella) has been married off to a successful merchant, Johannes Brandt, many years her senior, and the book opens with her arrival, clutching a bird cage that contains her beloved parakeet Peebo, on the doorstep of her new husband’s Amsterdam house. She’s greeted by his formidable spinster sister, Marin, and the household staff made up of orphaned Cornelia  and former slave Otto. Johannes, it transpires, is away on business but even when he returns Nella struggles to connect with her husband. In an act of kindness and sympathy, he buys her an exquisitely crafted cabinet miniature replica of their home, as a distraction and a source of amusement. Nella sets about commissioning items to furnish what is essentially a doll’s house, a child’s play thing, and she is brought into contact with the Miniaturist of the book’s title, an enigmatic figure whose creations are a mixture of prophecy and magic. Nella finds herself in thrall to the items and dolls that start to fill the cabinet house, some of which she asks for and others of which simply appear.  She begins to wonder if the story of her life is something happening to her, with the miniaturist as narrator, or one in which she might wrest some control of her destiny.

Things come to a head when Nella discovers the reason for Johannes lack of interest in his child bride, unlocking in turn a series of secrets that threaten to destroy the household she has tried so hard to think of as home. Running parallel to this thread is a business deal that Johannes’ scruples are preventing him from concluding objectively, and which poses a further threat to his future, as well as the future of those who so depend on him.

Painted as much as it is written, this is a book about powerful women, about the gap between what society expects them to be and what occurs regardless. Marin in particular is a revelation; strong, loyal and, as Nella, says “in another life she could have led an army”. Trapped by the moral standards of the day, Marin, Nella and Cornelia do their utmost to avoid being buried alive by the religious hypocrisy that’s sweeping through Amsterdam, treading a careful line between being outcasts and trying to belong. It’s hard to tell how credible their behaviour and attitudes would have been in 17th century Holland – I suspect not in the slightest – but Burton certainly makes you feel it’s all real, an effect bolstered hugely by the almost tangible sense of time, atmosphere and place with which THE MINIATURIST shines.

Thrilling without being your usual thriller. Bursting at the seams with lavish historical detail yet a million miles from the average historical novel. A powerful story of love and yet so much more than a love story. THE MINIATURIST confounds expectations and definition. It is that rare and beguiling find – a book in which you can truly and deeply lose yourself and from which you emerge with a more profound understanding of who you are and the world around you. Suffice to say, I hope you will read and enjoy it too.

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THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

the luminaries by eleanor catton

I confess that whilst reading the final third or so of this book I was on a lot of drugs – post surgery to remove my gall bladder. However, even when combined with a serious lack of sleep, I don’t think this can be entirely to blame for the confusion and befuddlement I experienced throughout most of THE LUMINARIES. Sure, it’s a cleverly structured and crafted novel, but sometimes it feels too clever for its own good. And whilst I am generally willing to suspend understanding and put my faith in the story teller to make everything clear by the end, sadly Catton did not deserve that faith.

It’s not that I cannot cope with a complex plot, on the contrary. But THE LUMINARIES jumps around so much, is packed so full of misinformation and unreliable narrators, that complex becomes impenetrable, to such a degree that I stopped caring about ever understanding who had done what to whom and just wanted to finish the damn thing.

Set in 1866 in the goldfields of New Zealand, Catton has evoked time and place with remarkable skill. It’s this above all that kept me reading. The tale is one of intrigue, love, corruption, hypocrisy and greed. Everyone seems to be double crossing someone else, to have a secret they want to stay hidden, to be in the sway of fate and fortune. It opens with a new arrival in town, Walter Moody, stumbling upon a  meeting between 12 men brought together by the disappearance of a successful young man,  the attempted suicide of a local prostitute and the discovery of a vast amount of gold hidden in the home of a reclusive, and now dead, drunk. The men try to figure out what, if anything, links these events, who might be responsible and how best to protect their own interests as the fall out begins. With suspicion falling on each in turn, the narrative weaves between recent and distant past, present and future, revealing details that prompt us to question each individual’s motives and motivations.  So far so good – all the ingredients for a great book. But it’s this constant weaving that means, despite having turned the last page, I am still none the wiser about why who, when and what, still full of questions and still not very sure of exactly what all the 12 men had to with the events that bind them together.

This book has all the hall marks of a Man Booker prize winner – beautiful writing, universal themes and a significant dose of waffle that really should have been edited out. It’s a shame because there’s a good mystery story in here and much else that is enjoyable and well done. It just needed someone to straighten it out a bit, take a red pen to some of the sections and play the original role of luminary and shed some light on proceedings. Drugs or no drugs, every reader deserves to bid farewell to a novel with at least some sense of what on earth has been happening in its pages.

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