Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

You can’t regard love head on – maybe off to the side a bit

Perhaps this is what historical fiction is supposed to be - not the disgorgement of two tons of researched facts, but the creation of a world, of an emotional climate, of a characteristic feeling. I learned a few things about the late eighteenth century- People died young, and therefore everyone is stricken with dread, and there’s a lot more seizing the day. I learned women had more power than you’d think and Goethe was kind of a dick.

This novel is about Novalis, the German Romantic writer, aka Fritz.  It's also about his family, and the chronicling of his courtship of a 12 year old rather dense girl with TB. The novel is not really about the lovers, who come across as ciphers, but about the ring of caring people, mostly women, trying to do the right thing for the lovers.

It’s very well written - a master class in showing not telling. The characterization is boiled down, each distinguished with a phrase or two or scrap of dialogue. The opening scene is spectacular, as is the final scene. I lost heart in the middle and it grew onerous to read as I didn't really care about Fritz who seemed a flibbertigibbet. But it picked up at the end. This wooly headed philosopher has to work in the salt mines – that’s funny. They all end up dying – that’s sad.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Time to grow up

Jack and Ma live in Room beneath Skylight.  They exercise every day and watch a lot of Television.  At night Jack is shut up in Wardrobe while Old Nick spends time with Ma.  One day Jack turns 5and Ma lets him know a secret, entrusting him with a job he does not really want - help them escape from Room.  And when he succeeds, his view of the world entirely changes.

This novel has its gimmicky moments but it really is very skillfully executed. Narrated by a five year old child, the first part is a legitimate white knuckled thriller.  It is impossible to put the book down - what will happen to our appealing five year old narrator and his resourceful mother, little more than a child herself? A horrible fate threatens. Heroism ensues. The source of a lot of the emotion (and the gimmick) is the child relying the terrifying facts of his situation –which to him is perfectly normal – their incarceration for years and years in a garden shed.

There are other things going on, of course, other levels of meaning. The garden shed is almost a platonic ideal – there’s one of everything – Duvet, Comb, Bath. There’s a fairy tale element here as well – Alice in Wonderland, a scary ogre. The most frightening part is the idea of having to entertain a young child for five years in a confined space. The tremendous amount of attention Ma pays to Jack in the garden shed is unlikely to be repeated on the Outside, with its distractions.  Their unnatural life giving bond is also depicted.

And then we get Outside. And in this section Emma Donoghue skillfully reveals numerous other characters by their dialogue. And it’s comical. I really enjoyed this book.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

After World War II, something haunts a crumbling English mansion

Perhaps my opinion here is more a commentary on modern attention spans, rather than the quality of this one book. But I couldn’t finish it. Nothing happened for pages and pages. I usually read on a plane (ideal) or in 15 minutes chunks at the end of the day, which is how I read this novel. I had heard good things about this writer and was eager to read her, but the novel was like a pleasant warm bath that you could see was going to go on for 9 hours. The prose style was relentlessly bland. The characters seemed distinct but not really very compelling and the story was so slow moving, even though the story was haunting and I did think sometimes about the book when I wasn’t reading it. I debated stopping several times before I finally did. My son asked me to check his math homework and I happily dropped the book to do so. That’s when I knew I should quit.

Part of it is probably that the demise of the English class system holds little resonance for an (Irish) American.