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Reading the World: ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’ by Haruki Murakami ***

Haruki Murakami is an author whom I consciously wanted to read during 2017.  Prior to picking up South of the Border, West of the Sun from the library, I had read and enjoyed Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, and been a little baffled by The Library Book.  This rather short novel has been translated from its original Japanese by Philip Gabriel, and was first published in Japan in 1992, and in its first English translation in 1998.

9780099448570Our protagonist is Hajime, an only child who grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in postwar Japan.  As a child, he was relatively lonely; indeed, his ‘sole companion was Shimamoto, also an only child’.  When Hajime’s family choose to move several miles away, however, the pair soon lose touch.  When we first meet him, Hajime is in his thirties, and is married with two daughters; his profession is the owner of a jazz bar.  It takes him rather by surprise when Shimamoto, ‘beautiful, intense, [and] enveloped in mystery’, and whose first name we never learn, reappears one night.

The pair, perhaps unsurprisingly, begin an affair, which has a strong effect upon Hajime: ‘As I drove away, I thought this: If I never see her again, I will go insane.  Once she got out of the car and was gone, my world was suddenly hollow and meaningless’.  We are taken right into the mind of Hajime, and are able to see the turmoil and sense of impending doom which he feels: ‘What would become of me tomorrow I did not know.  Buying my daughter a horse – the idea took on an unexpected urgency.  I had to buy it for her before things disappeared.  Before the world fell to pieces’.  Despite these insights, I did not really feel as though I knew Hajime very well once I had closed the final page.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is well translated, and just after I began to feel that the prose was too simplistic, there would be a sudden flash of beauty such as this: ‘Her hand, which up till then had lain on the back of the sofa, she now placed on her knee.  I stared vacantly at her fingers tracing the plaid pattern of her skirt.  There was something curious about it, as if invisible threat emanating from her fingertips was spinning together an entirely new concept of time’.

Whilst not my favourite Murakami, this novel is rather absorbing, and Hajime’s narrative feels highly realistic.  There are small puzzles lain in place along the way, and several unanswered questions come to light.  This adds a certain depth to the plot, whilst also making the novel more engaging.  It is undoubtedly the most interesting from a psychological standpoint, and a lot of analysis could be done, I feel, on the protagonists.  There is a lack of emotion at points, but I find that this aspect is often missing with Japanese fiction. South of the Border, West of the Sun is multi-layered and well tied together.  Despite this, the plot was quite predictable, and the whole, I felt, tended toward underwhelming overall.

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One From the Archive: ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’ by Claire Fuller ****

Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days was purchased with some of my Christmas book vouchers, and was the eighth entry for my Read My Own Books project.  I chose to purchase the novel for two reasons – firstly, I had heard so many good things about it, and secondly, the initial sentence of the blurb captivated my attention entirely: ‘Peggy is eight years old when her father takes her to live in a cabin in a remote European forest’.  I adore books which feature child narrators or protagonists, who are wrenched from their comfort zones and have to find a way to cope with their new and unfamiliar surroundings.  I was half-expecting a dark, modern fairytale retelling to spiral from the pages.

Our Endless Numbered Days was the winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2015, and is also part of the Waterstones book club.  The novel has been so well reviewed.  The Sunday Express call it ‘Bewitching.  A riveting, dark tale, full of wonders, suspense and revelation, light and shadow’, and Esther Freud believes it to be ‘Utterly gripping, hypnotic.  I tore through it’.

Peggy is our first person narrator for the entirety, telling her story from a position of retrospective, a technique which allows her past to feel just as vivid as her present.  Her father, James Hillcoat, is part of the North London Retreaters group, which prepares for imminent disaster, and her mother, Ute, is a world-class pianist: ‘No one ever described Ute as beautiful – they used words like striking, arresting, singular.  But because she was a woman to be reckoned with the men composed themselves’.  Peggy’s parents came together through a turmoil of sorts: ‘For the public and critics, her relationship with James Hillcoat was a scandal.  Ute was at the height of her career and she gave it all up for the love of a seventeen-year-old boy.  They married the next year, as soon as it was legal’.  9780241003947Her father’s best friend, Oliver, is frank about his beliefs, telling him: ‘You know what the trouble is with you, James?  You’re so damn British.  And the rest of you – you’re all living in the dark ages, hiding in your cellars, driving off to the country like you’re going on a fucking Sunday picnic.  You still call yourselves Retreaters; the world’s moving on without you.  You haven’t even figured out that you’re survivalists’.

In 1976, whilst her mother is on a tour of her native Germany, Peggy’s father, under a mysterious cloud of anger, takes her to live in a forest, in a dilapidated structure called ‘die Hutte’, far away from civilisation, and a world away from the life she knows.  James tells her that her mother has died, and that is the reason why they are unable to return to their North London suburb.  The reality of Peggy’s situation really hits home with the position of retrospect which she adopts: ‘I had no idea that this wind-worn woman, creased and bag-eyed, standing outside her barn with her cow on a rope, would be the last person I would meet from the real world for another nine years.  Perhaps if I had known, I would have clung to the folds of her skirt, hooked my fingers over the waistband of her apron and touched my knees around one of her stout legs’.

From the start, Fuller’s writing is quite lovely in places; evidence of her Creative Writing MA, it seems: ‘And I thought that maybe it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Knowing that the sun had shone, and the piano must have been played, and people had lived and breathed whilst I had been gone, helped steady me’.  The entire work is filled with interesting and intriguing details, which often add a sense of mystery to the whole as the plot unfolds: ‘The summer the photograph was taken, my father recast our cellar as a fallout shelter’ proclaims the first sentence of the second chapter, for instance.

Peggy is a lovely character, whom one cannot help but warm to.  Her childish observations and ways of trying to take life by surprise are endearing: ‘I liked to wake without moving my body to see if I could catch myself in that empty place between sleeping and walking, just as I became conscious of the world and the position of my body’.  She is made to grow up at the age of eight, little shocks coming at pivotal points in her journey to attaining adult levels of understanding: ‘As I followed behind him the diamond of blue canvas [from what used to be their tent] mocked me, the awful knowledge staring me in the face whilst I climbed that we wouldn’t be going home’.

The spacing of the plot points ensures that the reader’s interest in Peggy’s tale is sustained throughout.  Our Endless Numbered Days put me in mind of Frances Greenslade’s wonderful Shelter and Claire King’s charming The Night Rainbow from the very beginning.  The novel is engaging, and the tension builds quite marvellously.  Fuller’s writing is taut and emotionally charged, and Peggy is a believable narrator who lingers in the mind for a long while after the final page has been read.

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One From The Archive: ‘Saving CeeCee Honeycutt’ by Beth Hoffman ****

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt begins in Willoughby, a rather quiet town in the state of Ohio, in the 1960s. The main protagonist of the novel, Cecelia Rose Honeycutt, is known by the affectionate nickname of CeeCee. Her story is intriguing from the outset due to its strong opening line: ‘Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road.’

In her writing, Hoffman creates a feeling – almost a sense of foreboding – that things are not quite right from the outset. CeeCee’s father, Carl, is away on business at the start of the book, and her mother Camille’s behaviour becomes rather erratic. When he returns, the entire family structure changes dramatically. Carl spends his time in a fit of rage and takes little notice of CeeCee. He is essentially a cowardly character who often turns to alcohol in order to drown his sorrows. In a round-about way, Carl relies almost entirely upon CeeCee and expects her to look after Camille almost constantly. Hoffman places much focus upon Carl and Camille’s fractured relationship and how uncomfortable it makes their daughter feel from the outset.

It is clear that Camille is unstable. Her behaviour is unpredictable and she has rapid mood swings, which are terrifying for CeeCee, the only other permanent member of the household, to witness. Camille becomes more and more obsessed with a 1951 beauty pageant in which she was crowned ‘Vidalia Onion Queen’, believing that her past is her ‘real life’. The relationship between mother and daughter which Hoffman portrays is incredibly sad. It is wrought with misunderstandings and dawning understanding, along with strong personality clashes.

Lonely CeeCee, who is unpopular at school, finds a friend in her kindly elderly neighbour Gertrude Odell. Aside from Gertrude’s occasional wisdom, CeeCee does not have much guidance whatsoever from the adults around her. She is quite often left to her own devices, becoming more and more absorbed in her books as time progresses. She strives to make her own life seem less like reality and more like a fictionalised tale which she is separate from, rather than an intrinsic part of. Her seeking solace in the library is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

As the story progresses, the reader really begins to feel for CeeCee and her plight. She yearns for normality and seems to have no choice aside from growing up incredibly quickly. Her child self has some very adult responsibilities thrust upon it. Her entire world is turned upside down when her mother is suddenly killed and she is subsequently amazed that life continues around her. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt follows the protagonist during the summer in which her life changes completely.

After her mother’s death, CeeCee’s Great-Aunt Tallulah Caldwell – known by all and sundry as ‘Aunt Tootie’ – arrives in Ohio. CeeCee is consequently sent away to live with her in a large house in Savannah, Georgia. When the action moves to Savannah, the characters become incredibly vivid and flamboyant. Aunt Tootie is an incredibly charismatic woman with a penchant for collecting vibrant hats, ‘old houses, antique clocks and Boston cream pie’. Other characters, the majority of which are single women, are Aunt Tootie’s black cook Oletta, ‘flap-jawed busybody’ Violene Hobbs and elegant Thelma Rae Goodpepper. CeeCee is welcomed with open arms by them all, and soon sees the society she is in as ‘a strange, perfumed world that… seemed to be run entirely by women’. Although life in Savannah seems like an alien concept at first, she soon fits in.

CeeCee is forced to grow up even more as the novel progresses. Shocking racial prejudices and attacks which she witnesses challenge her perceptions. She sees things which no adults would want to witness, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. CeeCee continually tries to make sense of the world itself and her personal place within it. She is inquisitive and is forever asking questions about everything going on around her. She soon embarks on a steep learning curve, as everyone around her has something to teach her or some wisdom to impart.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is told from the first person perspective of CeeCee herself. As well as the conscious narrative stream, the novel contains many flashbacks from CeeCee’s past. Hoffman really brings the voice of her protagonist alive and brilliantly captures her growing embarrassment regarding her mother’s behaviour and trying to constantly please those around her. There are lots of childish aspects in CeeCee’s narrative at first. She sweetly stores up advice for the future from events which she witnesses in her home town – for example, ‘I made a mental note that if I ever needed help from a man I would make him a pie’.

Hoffman certainly captures American dialect within the dialogue of her characters. She does not make too much of it and gets the balance of slang words and colloquialisms just right. The dialogue is well written on the whole but some of the characters do not really stand out when they talk. Carl’s speech patterns particularly seem a little abrupt in places.

The descriptions in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt are wonderful and, even with the story told from the point of view of a young girl, Hoffman’s use of vocabulary is far from mundane. Moods of Camille’s ‘spike and plummet like a yo-yo’, and she is viewed by her daughter as a ‘crown-wearing, lipstick-smeared lunatic’. Hoffman’s portrayal of houses and scenery in the novel is decent enough, but there are perhaps not as many descriptions in the book as the reader would hope for. She sets the scene, but does not do so as fully as she could have done.

The aspect of social history in the novel is certainly interesting, particularly with regard to racial prejudices and mental illness, but much more could have been made of both. Some of the period details in the novel didn’t seem quite right. Hoffman has not written about any stigma attached to mental illness, which would have been prevalent in society at the time. In the book, mental illness is talked about as if it is an everyday occurrence which is not to be worried about, rather than something to be hushed up and swept under the carpet. The novel would also benefit from a few page breaks in order to separate the story. Weeks pass between connected paragraphs which does make the novel a little difficult to follow in places.

In conclusion, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is a wise novel which is heartwarming and amusing in equal measure. It is a relatively easy read and an enjoyable one at that. The story is not overly action-packed, but it does not need to be. An overriding theme in the novel is triumphing over adversity. The strong women in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt clash with one another at times, but eventually overcome their problems. The novel is essentially a celebration of family, friends, community and, in part, America.

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Reading the World: ‘The Empress and the Cake’ by Linda Stift ****

I am at that stage in my reading life where I purchase Peirene books without even reading their blurbs, almost certain as I am that I will enjoy them, and find them striking and thought-provoking.  I have only been disappointed with one of their titles to date, and they firmly remain one of my favourite publishing houses.  When I spotted a deal on the Kindle store for Linda Stift’s The Empress and the Cake then, I jumped at the chance of buying it, and read it the very next day.  Given its title too, it seems fitting that I am scheduling this post on my birthday!

The Empress and the Cake has been translated from its original German by Jamie Bulloch, and is set in Vienna.  Its Austrian author has won many awards for her writing.  The novella is part of Peirene’s Fairy Tale: End of Innocence series.  Of it, Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes: ‘On the surface this is a clever thriller-cum-horror story of three women and their descent into addiction, crime and madness.  And at times it’s very funny.  But don’t be fooled.  The book also offers an exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities and – quite often – deludes us into believing that we control what is actually controlling us.’ 9781908670304

The Empress and the Cake is split into two distinct parts, and opens with our narrator standing in a cake shop, where she sees a woman acting rather strangely: ‘She had no intention, so it appeared, of buying anything; she simply seemed to enjoy gazing at the layers of light and dark chocolate, the white cream toppings and the colourful sugar decorations’.  This woman, who later introduces herself as Frau Hohenembs, asks the narrator to share a splendidly named Gugelhupf with her.  Without explanation, the narrator then follows Frau Hohenembs to her apartment, under the pretence of eating cake and drinking coffee: ‘And I really didn’t have a clue what I was going to do with half a Gugelhupf after stuffing myself with cake at this woman’s place.  Even contemplating what might happen with my share was giving me a headache.’

A distinct contrast to Frau Hohenembs is her housekeeper, Ida: Frau Hohenembs ‘definitely fell into the category of thin, if not emaciated.  [Overweight] Ida rapidly ate four pieces of cake, one after the other…’.  We find, rather soon, that our narrator suffered with bulimia when she was younger, and the gluttony of eating of the cake – something which she would ordinarily avoid – brings on a relapse: ‘The grotesque face of my abnormality, which had lain dormant within me, resurfaced.  It was the first time in fifteen years.  I had always known that there was no safety net.  But I hadn’t suspected that it would arrive so unspectacularly, that it would not be preceded by a disaster such as heartbreak or dismissal or a death.’

The present-day story is interspersed with extracts from a fairytale-like text, which allows the reader to muse somewhat upon whose story it is, and who is doing the telling of it.  These sections render the whole peculiar, yet beguiling; there is almost a compulsion to keep reading.  Stift has cleverly, in such a restricted space as a novella, presented an almost impossible plot to correctly guess at.  The Empress and the Cake is rather unsettling, particularly toward the end, but if you like quirky and unusual books, it is one which is well worth picking up.

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‘The Dark Circle’ by Linda Grant **

‘The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.’

9780349006758I have read and very much enjoyed a couple of Linda Grant’s books to date.  With all of the hype currently surrounding this novel, particularly as it has just been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize, I was left distinctly unimpressed.  Whilst I am all for historical novels set in and around the sanitorium, this fell rather flat for me.

The Dark Circle is interesting in terms of its historical setting, and whilst the story begins in rather a promising manner, there is no real consistency to the piece.  I also felt that it was sorely lacking in terms of its characters.  They were shallow and stereotypical; the only one whom I wanted to know more about when she was introduced was Valerie, and she soon succumbed to being just as predictable, naively privileged as she was, as Lenny and Miriam.  The characters in The Dark Circle are not realistic enough to carry the whole, and the lack of plot hooks or twists makes the whole feel rather lacking.

The Dark Circle has an awful lot of promise, but I am afraid that I did not find it lived up to this.  The final part of the novel felt altogether unnecessary; rather trite and irrelevant.  I did not care enough about the protagonists to want to know what happened to them in their post-sanitorium lives.  Sadly, <i>The Dark Circle</i> disappointed me, and I am now in two minds as to whether to read any more of Grant’s novels in future.

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Anita Brookner and Sarah Duguid’s ‘Look at Me’ ****

I hardly ever link together reviews based upon shared book titles, but I recently read two entitled Look at Me, and thought that they would be interesting to show in this way.

Look at Me by Anita Brookner ****:
9780241977774‘Once a thing is known it can never be unknown.’ By day Frances Hinton works in a medical library, by night she haunts the room of a West London mansion flat. Everything changes, however, when she is adopted by charming Nick and his dazzling wife Alix. They draw her into their tight circle of friends. Suddenly, Frances’ life is full and ripe with new engagements. But too late, Frances realises that she may be only a play thing, to be picked up and discarded once used. And that just one act in defiance of Alix’s wishes could see her lose everything …’

Look at Me is an undoubtedly intelligent novel.  I did not find it as immediately engaging as I did Leaving Home, but there was the same minute level of detail within our protagonist, Frances, and she felt rather realistic in consequence.  There are some elegant turns of phrase here, and an effective unsettling feeling soon creeps in.  Look at Me is an absorbing novella, with such a quiet power.

 

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid **** 9781472229847
‘Lizzy lives with her father, Julian, and her brother, Ig, in North London. Two years ago her mother died, leaving in a trail a family bereft by her absence and a house still filled with her things: for Margaret was lively, beautiful, fun, loving; she kept the family together. So Lizzy thinks. Then, one day, Lizzy finds a letter from a stranger to her father, and discovers he has another child. Lizzy invites her into their world in an act of outraged defiance. Almost immediately, she realises her mistake.  Look at Me is a deft exploration of family, grief, and the delicate balance between moving forward and not quite being able to leave someone behind. It is an acute portrayal of how familial upheaval can cause misunderstanding and madness, damaging those you love most.’

I spotted this in the library catalogue quite by chance when I was searching for Anita Brookner’s novella of the same name.  It wasn’t a book which I’d heard of before, but its storyline sounded so good that I decided to add it to my reserve list.  Tinder Press is also a favourite publishing house of mine, which was a further reason to borrow it.

Look at Me is absorbing, and so cleverly written; its suspense is built beautifully, and a claustrophobia becomes apparent at around the halfway point.  It put me in mind of books by Harriet Lane (also a positive).  It is especially vivid in terms of space and place.  Well written and well paced, Look at Me kept me interested and entertained throughout, and I am very much looking forward to Duguid’s next novel.

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Book Haul: May 2017

I have decided that I need to refrain from telling myself that I won’t buy any books in any given months.  It rarely (if ever!) works, and I just end up feeling a little disappointed that my willpower so easily crumbled.  In this frame, I told myself that I wouldn’t add anything new to my shelves in May, and I inevitably did.   Without further preamble, here are the purchases which I made during May.

9780857524430The first book which I just couldn’t resist was, contrary to what I normally buy, a new release in hardback format.  I so enjoyed Paula HawkinsThe Girl on the Train, and headed to Waterstone’s on the release day of her second novel, Into the Water.  In my defence, it was half price, and I did read it immediately; I also wasn’t at all disappointed with it, which is always a bonus on tomes which have been so hyped up!  Later on in the month, I also took another trip to Waterstone’s in order to buy a travel guide for a wonderful holiday which my boyfriend took me on for an early birthday treat at the end of May.  They had very little available in store, so I plumped for a DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Bulgaria.  It was largely useful, but not quite up to the standards of my beloved Lonely Planet Guides.  I also ended up buying three of the latter for future holidays, after receiving an email saying that they were all three for two from the Lonely Planet website.

I’m on a quest to read all of Anita Brookner‘s work, even though she probably isn’t an 9781840226812author I’m going to include in my thesis.  My sister managed to find three of her tomes in old orange-spined Penguin editions in a secondhand bookshop for me: Providence, Falling Slowly, and A Closed EyeTalking of my thesis, I had to buy a physical copy of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and The Years.  I plumped for a Wordsworth Edition, as I really like their designs, and find their introductions quite informative.  Plus, you can’t scoff at the price!

I also added a few more books to my Kindle this month.  I spotted 9781509810116that several Mary Stewart tomes which I did not already have were priced at just 99p, and couldn’t resist.  I chose Touch Not the Cat, Nine Coaches Waiting, and Madam, Will You Talk?.  I also decided to purchase a copy of Gabrielle Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve‘s The Beauty and the Beast, as I had never read it before.  My final choice was one of Richmal Crompton‘s non-Just William books, The Holiday, which I absolutely adored.

Which new books have you welcomed onto your shelves of late?  Do you find that book-buying bans ever work?