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‘The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial’ by Maggie Nelson ****

I was supposed to be reading established poet and non-fiction author Maggie Nelson’s  The Argonauts for a book club I’m a member of, but unable as I was to find a copy, I plumped for The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial instead.  This piece of extended non-fiction, which deals with the aftermath of her aunt’s unsolved murder in the late sixties, and new evidence pointing to her killer, was first published in 2007.  Of all of Nelson’s books, this was the one which appealed to me the most.

The blurb piqued my interest immediately when browsing for Nelson’s books on my local library catalogue.  It reads: ‘After asking for a lift to her hometown for spring break, Jane Mixer, a first-year law student at the University of Michigan, was brutally murdered in 1969; her body was found the next day, a few miles away from campus.’  Jane was shot twice in the head, and then ‘strangled viciously with a stocking that did not belong to her’.  Nelson, whose aunt was killed before she was born, uses The Red Parts to trace her aunt’s death, as well as the trial which took place thirty-five years afterwards.  Jane’s case was reopened in 2004 ‘after a DNA match identified a new suspect, who would soon be arrested and tried.’9781784705794

‘Resurrecting her interior world during the trial – in all its horror, grief, obsession, recklessness, scepticism and downright confusion – Maggie Nelson has produced a work of profound integrity and, in its subtle indeterminacy, deadly moral precision.’   The Red Parts has been hailed by various critics as ‘remarkable’, ‘Didion-esque’, and a ‘darkly intelligent page-turner’, which gives ‘the sense that the writer is writing for her life’, as well as Jane’s.

Within her book, Nelson is candid from the very beginning.  She writes of the process of putting such a painful familial past down on paper, and how the trial and its evidence impacted upon her, her sister, and her mother, Jane’s elder sister.   In her preface, Nelson calls the book ‘a peculiar, pressurized meditation on time’s relation to violence’.  She goes on to say: ‘One aim I had while writing was to allow the events of the trial, the events of my childhood, the events of Jane’s murder, and the act of writing to share a single spatial and temporal moment.’

Initially, police attributed Jane’s murder to a man who had killed many other young girls in what were collectively called the ‘Michigan Murders’.  The new evidence found, however, attributed her murder to someone else entirely, a retired nurse.   When Nelson sees him on trial, she writes: ‘I feel disoriented too.  Where I imagined I might find the “face of evil,” I am finding the face of Elmer Fudd.’  She goes on to describe the difficulty which she has in coming to terms with what he may have done: ‘I watch the light and I watch his hands and I try to imagine them around the trigger of a gun, I try to imagine them strangling someone.  Strangling Jane.  I know this kind of imagining is useless and awful.  I wonder how I’d feel if I imagined it over and over again and later found out that he didn’t do it.’

The Red Parts is very brave and directly honest; it is as objective as it can be, and whilst emotional at times, it does not read – as one imagines it so easily could have done – as a piece of overblown melodrama on the part of the family.  She talks openly about all of the grief in her life, from her father’s death, to seeing her boyfriend overdose more than once.  The Red Parts is a multilayered and well thought through work, which merges biography and autobiography in a seamless and interesting manner.  Nelson’s writing is engaging from the very beginning, and is sure to appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the likes of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

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‘The Power’ by Naomi Alderman ***

My interest in Naomi Alderman’s The Power was piqued after it won this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.  With regard to her other fiction, I had only read Alderman’s The Lessons beforehand; I did this three or so weeks before the announcement of the Bailey’s Prize.  I very much enjoyed it – almost loved it, in fact.  This, twinned with the hype around the title, made me want to read The Power sooner rather than later.  The novel has been deservedly hyped, it must be said.  Margaret Atwood calls the novel ‘Electrifying!’, and the New Statesman deems it a ‘thrilling, spark-throwing version of the future detonates almost everything that seems normal about gender in the present.’  The Guardian calls it ‘an instant classic’, and Grazia writes of it as ‘The Handmaid’s Tale for the Gone Girl generation.’9780670919963

Comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale are too obvious, and have been done; needless to say, The Power is probably closest to it in terms of the dystopian books which I’ve read to date.  I would also suggest that those who have enjoyed The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood pick it up, as similarities can be drawn between the two.  It also, perhaps strangely, reminded me of Roald Dahl’s The Twits and The Magic Finger; you may well see what I mean when you’ve read it.

The novel’s blurb is immediately enticing: ‘All over the world women are discovering they have the power.  With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain – even death.  Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control.’  The Power is supposed to have been written by an author named Neil Adam Armon, who has been looking into the history of this mysterious, dangerous power which women are found to have possessed for centuries.  Neil is rather a dry historian, but has decided to present something a little different in his newest book: ‘… What I’ve done here is a sort of hybrid piece, something that I hope will appeal more to ordinary people.  Not quite history, not quite a novel.  A sort of ‘novelization’ of what archaeologists agree is the most plausible narrative.’  Neil introduces the story in a series of letters to Naomi.

The Power opens in the following way: ‘The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree.  Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers.  The shape of power is the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.’  This quote is attributed to ‘The Book of Eve’ from a kind of inverse Bible.  In fact, The Power comes across as a reversed history, with many fantastical elements, and a worldwide, almost epidemic scale, thrown in.

The first character whom we meet is Roxy, who discovers that she has the Power after two men hurt her mother: ‘Roxy feels the thing like pins and needles along her arms.  Like needle-pricks of light from her spine to her collarbone, from her throat to her elbows, wrists, to the pads of her fingers.  She’s glittering, inside.’  Roxy becomes one of the youngest, and one of the first, to have the Power.  Other stories and cases are soon outed upon the Internet, with videos appearing on YouTube.

The Power, in all, follows four different characters, three of whom have the Power, and one of whom, Tunde, is exploiting it in a way, shooting footage and selling it to newspapers, before he becomes a correspondent for CNN.  These characters live in destinations as far-flung as Wisconsin and Moldova, and their paths cross and converge as the novel goes on.

The structure of the novel works on a kind of countdown basis.  At the beginning of the story, there are ‘Ten years to go’, then nine, then eight.  Rather than ensure that the hierarchical world power structure is destroyed, there soon evolves a hierarchy between those who have the Power; there are leaders and minions.

This seemed like a very good time in history for Alderman to publish such a novel; I think we all need to know that the future can be markedly different in all manner of surprising ways.  The Power provokes so much thought, and has a storyline which cannot be easily forgotten.  The Power is a clever book, but it does rely a little too much upon religion and bureaucracy; in fact, these draw attention away from the main thread of the novel.  I was not personally keen on the ‘mixed media’ which is spattered throughout the story, with its diagrams and ‘extracts’ taken from chatrooms and other webpages.  The fantastic element of The Power has been well thought through, but I found it too drawn out in places, and even got a little bored of it toward the middle.  I will say that The Power, in my opinion, is nowhere near as compelling as The Lessons, but it does make some interesting comments upon the modern world, and is worth reading for this alone.

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Reading the World: ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus ****

Albert Camus’ debut novel, The Stranger, was first published in its original French in 1942, and in its first English translation in 1946.  Its blurb highlights the fact that it has had ‘a profound impact on millions of American readers’; one can only imagine that the same could also be said for readers of other nationalities.

In The Stranger, Camus presents the story of ‘an ordinary man who unwittingly gets drawn into a senseless murder on a sundrenched Algerian beach’.  The author’s intention was to explore what he termed ‘the nakedness of man faced with the absurd’.  The translator, Matthew Ward, notes in his introduction that ‘The Stranger demanded of Camus the creation of a style at once literary and profoundly popular, an artistic sleight of hand that would make the complexities of a man’s life appear simple’. 9780679720201

The Stranger opens in the following, rather detached, manner: ‘Maman died today.  Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.  I got a telegram from home.  “Mother deceased.  Funeral tomorrow.  Faithfully yours.”  That doesn’t mean anything.  Maybe it was yesterday.’  The voice of the protagonist, Meursault, is used throughout.  He is an interesting character, both in terms of his traits and his view of the world.  He immediately travels to another place in Algeria, the country in which he lives, to keep vigil over his mother’s body until her funeral.  During this sensitive time, he converses with the caretaker: ‘… he told me he had lived in Paris and that he had found it hard to forget it.  In Paris they kept vigil over the body for three, sometimes four days.  But here you barely have time to get used to the idea before you have to start running after the hearse.’

There are many themes at play here, from loss and grief, to identity and belonging.  Meursault is not at all sensitive, and whilst his character alters along the way, following first his mother’s death, and then the murder he is blamed for, there is little by way of his innermost feelings revealed to the reader.  I am sure that some more critical readings point to his falling somewhere upon the Autism spectrum, due to his inability to connect with sad situations, and with his own grief.

With regard to demonstrating the setting particularly, Camus shows real strength; the simplicity with regard to his descriptions of Algeria makes it all the more striking and vivid: ‘I had the whole sky in my eyes and it was blue and gold’, and ‘The street lamps were making the pavement glisten, and the light from the streetcars would glint off someone’s shiny hair, or off a smile or a silver bracelet’ are two of my favourite examples.  Camus’ use of two distinct sections, ‘Before’ and ‘After’, was simple yet effective.

Ward justifies his translation choices in the following way: ‘In addition to giving the book a more “American” quality, I have also attempted to venture farther into the letter of Camus’ novel, to capture what he said and how he said it, not what he meant’.  This is perhaps the widest admission of a translator adapting the text to convey what they want to, rather than what the author intended, that I have come across in my Reading the World Project thus far.  Stylistically, The Stranger is very easy to read.  As demonstrated in the introduction, the sentences are rather short throughout, and have very little complexity.  As this engaging volume runs to just 123 pages, it is the perfect tome with which to introduce yourself to Camus’ work, and a great book to snuggle up with if you have a free afternoon.

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Two Reviews: ‘Take Courage’ and ‘Falling Slowly’

9781784740214Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis ****
I am, and always have been, a huge fan of Anne Bronte, and when I first heard about Samantha Ellis’ focused biography of her life, I was rather excited. I found Take Courage absorbing, and quite enjoyed the relatively casual writing style which the biography takes. Ellis’ account is far-reaching, and includes a lot of interesting critique about her prose and poetry, as well as thorough studies of each of her siblings, and her parents. The way in which chapters follow different figures, from Branwell and Emily, to the Brontes’ housekeeper, Tabby, is effective.

Take Courage is well written on the whole, although it did feel a little too colloquial at times. I did, however, like the way in which Ellis added her own personal story alongside Anne’s, giving a more personal dimension to the whole. Take Courage is well thought out and enjoyable, and awfully touching, particularly toward the end.

 

Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner *** 9780375704246
There is a slight detachment at play within Anita Brookner’s Falling Slowly. The plot is rather drawn out, and it did not feel as though there were enough occurrences or character developments here to sustain a novel of this length. Very little happened, even in comparison to other, slower books of Brookner’s. The characters never really came to life; I found them unrealistic, particularly toward the end of the book. The relationships drawn between them too are very bizarre, and not at all what I was expecting. Although Falling Slowly follows similar conventions to some of Brookner’s other books, I did not enjoy it anywhere near as much. Whilst it is not badly written, the dialogue feels awfully dated, and it is perhaps therefore more of a 2.5 star read than a 3.

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‘The Pumpkin Eater’ by Penelope Mortimer ****

I reread Penelope Mortimer’s 1962 novella, The Pumpkin Eater, for my Goodreads book club.  It is a wonderfully vivid and harrowing novella in equal measure, which charts an emotional breakdown, and was published a year before Sylvia Plath’s seminal The Bell JarThe Pumpkin Eater is heavily autobiographical, with its markedly realistic scenes and character development throughout.

One is immediately pulled in to this important book.  The unnamed protagonist, who is identified only through her married surname as Mrs. Armitage, is ‘Everywoman’, really; she has a husband and children, and a large house, with another being built in the countryside.  Her fourth husband makes a great deal of money, but she is not at all fulfilled in her life.  All she sees herself to be fit for is to give birth to one child after another; they, indeed, are not rendered as individuals within26021671 the novella, but are distinguished only by their birth order and fathers – there are the ‘older children’ and ‘Jake’s children’.  Only the eldest of these, a daughter, is given a name – Dinah – and her own singular identity.  Her current husband, too, is Jake, rather a childish moniker for what he is supposed to represent; whilst he has personal freedom afforded both by his profession as a filmmaker and the money this makes them, and by his gender, he is also the main force behind which our narrator feels trapped.

When our narrator tells Jake how much she cares about him, he verbally explodes: ‘”You don’t care about me, all you care about is the bills being paid and the bloody children, that great fucking army of children that I’m supposed to support and work my guts out for, so I can’t even take a bath in peace, I can’t eat a bloody meal without them whining and slobbering all over the table, I can’t even go to bed with you without one of them comes barging in in the middle’.  Her reaction to this is rather interesting; she seems to thrive on being confronted and scolded: ‘He was shouting as though I were a mile away.  His shouts delighted me.’  Jake makes her feel like a burden, essentially, and the affair which he conducts with a much younger woman only serves to exacerbate the crisis which she feels.

The entirety of The Pumpkin Eater is told from the sometimes unbridled perspective of our narrator.  She is at a loss to see her worth, and when we meet her father, we can see why this is perhaps the case.  He has been squashing her emotionally since she was a small child, and the fact that she has established herself as a wife and mother does nothing to alter his opinion of her; he patronises her along with Jake, and makes decisions about sending her children to boarding school, and where the family should live.  She is utterly sidelined, and one can certainly see the reasoning for her deep-set insecurities.  Jake is arguably more like the narrator’s father than she is herself; both are self-obsessed and utterly selfish.

Our narrator first realises that something is wrong with her when she gets into bed beside Jake, who is sleeping: ‘I thought of waking him up, but for the first time I could not touch him.  Thus paralysis, this failure of my will to make my body move, revived all my fear, and I lay there sweating, shaken by great beats of my heart, ignorant as in a first labour but with no instinct, or memory to help me.  It must have been then, I think, that Jake and life became confused in my ind, and inseparable.  The sleeping man was no longer accessible, no longer lovable.  He increased monstrously, became the sky, the earth, the enemy, the unknown.  It was Jake I was frightened of; Jake who terrified me; Jake who in the end would survive.’  Her subsequent breakdown is harrowingly evoked.  Jake, of course, is unsympathetic, asking her: ‘Do you think you’re going to get over this period of your life, because I find it awfully depressing?’.  Jake undoubtedly has a lot of issues too, but as he is a male, he remains unscrutinised by psychologists.

The children occupy an interesting space within the novel; they both hold the narrator together and pull her apart.  They ensure that she has very little time for herself, or to spend with Jake, and demand so much that she is constantly exhausted.  She recognises, however, that she exists for them.

The Pumpkin Eater has been incredibly well handled, and there is an awful lot of depth to it.  The autobiographical elements, which can be found in any of Mortimer’s biographies, make it all the more harrowing.  It also raises an awful lot of questions, particularly in its final paragraph.  The Pumpkin Eater is a wonderful and memorable novella, which feels incredibly modern over fifty years after its initial publication.

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Reading the World: ‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

I had read two of Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s books before making my foray into Hotel Iris: The Housekeeper and the Professor (review), and Revenge (review). The Times Literary Supplement writes that in this particular novel, ‘Image by perfect image, we are led down into a mysterious and gripping universe, simultaneously beautiful and terrifying’.  The Independent goes on to say: ‘This is a brave territory for Ogawa, and she manages it with sharp focus; she creates moments of breathtaking ugliness, often when least expected… but also sometimes a longing that is touching and tender’.  Hotel Iris was first published in Japan in 1996, and in its English translation in 2010.

Hotel Iris, the third of Ogawa’s books to be translated into English, centres upon Mari, a seventeen-year-old who works on the front desk in a ‘crumbling, seaside hotel on the coast of Japan’.  One night, a middle-aged man and a prostitute are ‘ejected from his room’.  Mari finds herself infatuated with the man’s voice.  Just so you, dear reader, are warned, what follows is rather harrowing.  After several clandestine meetings, Mari is drawn to his home, where he ‘initiates her into a dark realm of both pain and pleasure’.9780099548997

Mari is as perceptive a narrator as Ogawa is a writer; of the prostitute, she observes: ‘Frizzy hair hung at her wrinkled neck, and thick, shiny lipstick had smeared onto her cheeks.  Her mascara had run, and her left breast hung out of her blouse where the buttons had come undone.  Pale pink thighs protruded from a short skirt, marked in places with red scratches.  She had lost one of her cheap plastic high heels’.  When her male companion first appears, the following is described rather lyrically: ‘The voice seemed to pass through us, silencing the whole hotel.  It was powerful and deep, but with no trace of anger.  Instead, it was almost serene, like a hypnotic note from a cello or a horn’.

The novel is told from Mari’s perspective, and we learn an awful lot about her.  At first, she comes across as a little naive, but she is soon cast under the translator’s spell, and allows him to do whatever he wants to her: ‘Indeed, the more he shamed me, the more refined he became – like a perfumer plucking the petals from a rose, a jeweler prying open an oyster for its pearl’.  Like the Professor in Ogawa’s aforementioned novel, we are never given the man’s first name; rather, he is identified only by his profession, and known therefore as ‘the translator’.  The passages which include him tend to be rather sinister at times: ‘The translator’s hand was soft.  So soft it seemed my hand would sink completely into his.  This hand had done so many things to me – stroked my hair, made my tea, stripped me, bound me – and with each new act it had been reborn as something different’.  He is a peculiar and rather complex character, who made me feel uncomfortable throughout.  Ogawa has included an interesting contradiction when writing about him; whilst he revels in violent acts with her, his correspondence to Mari expresses a real tenderness.

As in her other books, some of Ogawa’s prose in Hotel Iris is deceptively simple.  The novel feels markedly different from The Housekeeper and the Professor, which has a wonderful, quiet beauty.  There is violence in Hotel Iris, and I found a couple of the scenes incredibly disturbing, something which I was not expecting.  Perhaps it just asserts what a diverse and skilled writer Ogawa is that she can write two very different novels in so confident a manner.  Hotel Iris is, I would say, far closer in its themes and occurrences to Ogawa’s short story collection, Revenge.

Hotel Iris is a continually interesting and unsettling novella, which becomes rather disturbing in places.  I tend to shy away from such novels, and whilst I did enjoy this overall, and have rated it highly, I cannot help but be glad that my usual reading fare is unlike this.  I found the reading process rather exhausting, despite the fact that I easily read it over a single afternoon.  Well plotted and multilayered, with a cleverly rendered ending, Hotel Iris is well worth seeking out, but it’s not something which I would recommend for the faint of heart!

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