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‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien ***

The Little Red Chairs marked my first foray into Edna O’Brien’s work of over twenty novels.  She is an author whom I have heard a lot of wonderful things about over the last few years, but reception for this, her newest novel for ten years, has appeared rather mixed.  Regardless, there are some wonderfully positive reviews splashed across the cover; The New Yorker deems it ‘Astonishing… A remarkable novel…  A vital and engrossing experience’, Claire Messud calls it ‘At once arduous and beautiful’, and Philip Roth thinks it ‘a masterpiece’.  The Little Red Chairs was also shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2016, and was a book of the year for the Sunday Times, the Observer, and the Sunday Express.

9780571316281The Little Red Chairs is set in a village on the west-coast of Ireland.  A faith healer, who calls himself Dr Vladimir Dragan, or ‘Vuk’ for short, arrives from the Balkans, mystifying residents and putting the community ‘under [his] spell’.  He attempts to ‘set himself up’ in the village as an ‘alternative healer and sex therapist’, which is a shock to the shrouded and traditional Catholicism of the place. One villager in particular, Fidelma McBride, ‘becomes enthralled in a fatal attraction that leads to unimaginable consequences.’

The opening description of the novel, in which O’Brien masterfully captures a wild river, and its effects upon the faith healer, is sweeping, and really sets the tone for the first half of the novel: ‘He stays by the water’s edge, apparently mesmerised by it.  Bearded and in a long dark coat and white gloves, he stands on the narrow bridge, looks down at the roaring current, then looks around, seemingly a little lost, his presence the single curiosity in the monotony of a winter evening in a freezing backwater that passes for a town and is named Cloonoila.’

The Little Red Chairs is at first largely quiet, involved almost entirely with people and their interactions, as well as their reception of the faith healer.  One gets a feel for the villagers immediately, along with their differences and similarities.  The way in which O’Brien tends to reveal characters at random, with Fidelma and Vuk as her main focus, is effective in this respect.  The plot seems a little sparse to sustain itself over the entire novel, but the twist which comes changes the tone entirely, and adds something rather sinister to the whole.  One can tell throughout that O’Brien is an accomplished author.

O’Brien’s novel rather chillingly begins with the following memorial: ‘On the 6th of April 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces, 11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along the eight hundred metres of the Sarajevo high street.  One empty chair for each Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege.  Six hundred and forty-three small chairs represented the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains.’  The reasons for this become more and more clear as the novel goes on, and details of the faith healer’s past emerge.  I was a little surprised by some of the outcomes of the novel, but feel as though O’Brien handled the content with both sensibility and sensitivity.

Whilst rather disturbing in places, and surprisingly so, all of the story’s threads were well pulled together.  Unfortunately, there were a couple of instances in which it felt as though the plot had been rushed, or something had not quite come to a natural conclusion.  I very much enjoyed O’Brien’s prose, but the dialogue felt awkward at times.  Conversations were jarring and rather unlikely, often veering towards the pretentious.  I would definitely like to try O’Brien’s other work in future, and believe I may plump for some short stories next, to see how they compare.

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‘The Standing Chandelier: A Novella’ by Lionel Shriver ****

‘From the award-winning novelist and short story writer, Lionel Shriver, comes a literary gem, a story about love and the power of a gift. When Weston Babansky receives an extravagant engagement present from his best friend (and old flame) Jillian Frisk, he doesn’t quite know what to make of it – or how to get it past his fiancee. Especially as it’s a massive, handmade, intensely personal sculpture that they’d have to live with forever. As the argument rages about whether Jillian’s gift was an act of pure platonic generosity or something more insidious, battle lines are drawn… Can men and women ever be friends? Just friends? Described by the Sunday Times as ‘a brilliant writer’ with ‘a strong, clear and strangely seductive voice’, Lionel Shriver has written a glittering examination of friendship, ownership and the conditions of love.’

36454237I really enjoy Shriver’s writing, and whilst I’ve not even got through more than one of her novels to date, I wanted to see how she would craft a shorter work stylistically. The main nub of The Standing Chandelier – can a man and woman be ‘just friends’? – sounded rather twee and overdone, and is something I would ordinarily avoid. I was more than intrigued by the way in which Shriver might handle it, however, and was pleasantly impressed. She manages to avoid an awful lot of cliched tropes, and creates an exploration which is more unusual than usual.

The prose throughout the novella is intelligent and taut, as I was expecting, and I was pulled in straight away. Shriver still involves a lot of depth when crafting her characters, and both Weston and Jillian come across as fully-formed and believable individuals. Darkly funny at times, the story carries one through from beginning to end at a perfectly adjusted pace. Rather than lose herself in the constrained form, or having to drop more interesting elements of storyline in order to obey the conventions of the novella, The Standing Chandelier is rather perfect in terms of its size. Yes, it can be read in a couple of hours, but it still feels rich, and has a lot of emotional depth to it.

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Two Reviews: ‘The Year of the Runaways’ and ‘The Paper Menagerie’

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota **** 9781447241652
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever.

The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.

 

24885533The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu ***
So many reviewers have loved The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, and as I am always keen to discover new short story authors, I borrowed a copy from my local library. I am neither a fan of science fiction nor of fantasy, and so wasn’t sure if I would enjoy these tales as much as a lot of my friends have. I found some of the inclusions to be quirky and inventive, and preferred Liu’s writing when the magical realism was present, and no robots, etc., were. Some of the tales here engaged me far more than others, although I half expected as much when reading the blurb before I began.

The Paper Menagerie is varied in terms of its content, but I found it rather a mixed bag. I adored the rather beautiful title story, but a lot of the others fell short in comparison. However, his voice has a wonderful consistency to it regardless of the perspective used, and each tale is nicely told. Liu clearly has an expansive imagination, and comes up with some fascinating ideas, but a lot of them were too firmly rooted in science fiction for my personal taste. The Asian culture which is dispersed throughout was fascinating, however, and was one of the real strengths of the book for me.

 

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‘This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression’ by Daphne Merkin ****

This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression is, says its blurb, Daphne Merkin’s ‘rare, vividly personal account of what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression.’  This Close to Happy is Merkin’s fourth book, following two works of non-fiction and a novel.  Memoirs and illness narratives such as this have been rather popular in recent years, and are, I feel, incredibly important tools for helping those who do not suffer with depression or linked mental illnesses to empathise with those who do.  I am in the former camp in this respect, but know a lot of people who have struggled, or are struggling, with various forms of depression and anxiety, and want to ensure that I can be as well informed as to what others are going through every day as is possible.

There is still a stigma and a taboo about mental illnesses such as depression, and Merkin sees the importance of being as transparent as she can in her account, in order to show that one cannot simply ‘man up’ or ‘pull oneself together’; depression is as serious and life-threatening a condition as a lot of physical ailments.  Of this, she writes: ‘In spite of our everything-goes, tell-all culture, so much of the social realm is closed against too much real personal disclosure…  We live in a society that is embarrassed by interiority…’.

9780374140366Merkin has been hospitalised numerous times, most poignantly in grade school for childhood depression, for the postpartum depression which she suffered when she had her daughter Zoe, and following the death of her mother, when she suffered with ‘obsessive suicidal thinking’.  From the very beginning, Merkin is as honest as she can possibly be about the tumultuous thoughts which tumble around in her mind on a daily basis, and the effects which this has upon her life.

Merkin continually compares herself, at least at first, to others, and how her mindset stops her from being able to cope in the world.  In her introduction, she writes the following, which gives one an insight into how she sees herself, and her place within society: ‘Now you can no longer figure out what it is that moves other people to bustle about out there in the world, doing errands, rushing to appointments, picking up a child from school.  You have lost the thread that pulled the circumstances of your life together, nothing adds up and all you can think about is the new nerve of pain that your mind has become…’.

In the first chapter, Merkin writes of “Everywoman”, describing certain scenarios and obvious reactions to them.  After her creative and insightful passages which are written in this way, she posits herself, ‘of course’, as the person within the example which she gives, and then says, ‘but she might be anyone suffering from an affliction that haunts women almost twice as much as men, even though it is, curiously, mostly men who write about it.’  She goes on to say that the solidarity one finds when discovering that the “Everywoman” exists is comforting to her, as ‘there is solace in the knowledge that company can be found, even in the dark.’

Merkin discusses the difficulties of diagnosing mental illnesses, honing in on her own experiences with depression when she writes the following: ‘If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.’  She also talks quite candidly about her experience of writing such an account, and the length of time which it took – fifteen years in all – from a publisher first asking her to put down her own actuality onto paper, following an article which she wrote for the New York Times.  Her depression acted as a block in this process.  ‘The slaying of ghosts,’ writes Merkin, ‘is never easy, and my ghosts are particularly authoritative, reminding me to keep my head down and my saga to myself.’

I read This Close to Happy directly after finishing Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which deals with the death of her daughter.  It proved a marvellous continuation in many ways; whilst Merkin and Didion have approached the topic of mental illness differently, and their prose styles are quite unlike one another’s, the continuation of themes certainly brought some cohesion to my reading.  In her introduction, as in Didion’s, Merkin discusses colour and its influence upon her moods, which was one of the most striking discussions within the book for me: ‘They come on, such suicidally colored periods, at times like this – I am writing this in the winter, at my desk in New York City – when the days are short, evening starts early, the sky lacks light, and you have ceased admiring your own efforts to keep going.  Although they can also come on when the day is long and the light never-ending, in early spring or ripest summer.’

Merkin demonstrates, through a series of memories and reflections upon her moods, that she can never be free of her depression, despite peaks in her life, and that she can be struck by symptoms at any point, without the slightest warning.  She examines her past to see whether being the child of Jewish-German immigrants of the Second World War generation altered her character, or whether she would have exhibited such feelings regardless.

This Close to Happy is not the easiest of books to read at times due to its content, but it is a determined and brave memoir, and one which I found very insightful.  To conclude, I admired the way in which Merkin includes rather startling facts about depression, which she prefaces some of her own experiences with.  For instance, 350 million people suffer with depression worldwide, and that, to me, is why books like this should be read by wide audiences; we all need to make an effort to understand one another in our chaotic world.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Long, Long Life of Trees’ by Fiona Stafford ****

Whilst it is a genre which I perhaps do not read much, I love nature writing, and Fiona Stafford’s The Long, Long Life of Trees felt to me like the perfect read.  Here, the Oxford University lecturer presents ‘a lyrical tribute to the diversity of trees, their physical beauty, their special characteristics and uses, and their ever-evolving meanings’.  I had never read a book which was purely about trees before I came to this one, aside from, I suppose, Sarah Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest.

9780300207330The book’s introduction is far-reaching, and Stafford’s passion for the natural world certainly shines through.  Each chapter focuses on one particular species of tree, from the yew and oak to the cherry and apple.  The historically rich pasts of the trees, and how they have been treated by humans throughout the ages, was striking.  I love her descriptions too; on describing the formation of the gardens at Cumbria’s Leven Hall in the 1690s, for instance, she writes that the topiary has ‘gradually grown into a looking-glass world of fantastic forms: giant top hats and helter-skelters, startled mushrooms and stacking rings, birds and beehives, pyramids and chess pieces, an evergreen tea party of cups, cones, dark doughnuts and irregular jellies’.

The breadth of Stafford’s research is breathtaking; she covers everything from the Renaissance to Sylvia Plath.  All of the photographs and illustrations which accompany each chapter were a lovely touch, and made for quite a delightful read.  The Long, Long Life of Trees is not a book which I absolutely adored and will find invaluable for the rest of my life, as I am sure others will, but I feel as though I have learnt a lot, and would definitely recommend it to green-fingered friends.

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‘Blue Nights’ by Joan Didion ****

I very much enjoyed Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking when I read it a couple of years ago, but had strangely not sought out more of her work in the intervening months.  I finally requested a copy of the markedly poignant Blue Nights from the library, and ended up reading it in one sitting.

9780007432905The blurb of Blue Nights describes the way in which Didion has used writing as a tool to try and make sense of a traumatic event in her life; it is a work which displays ‘a stunning frankness about losing a daughter…  [It] examines her thoughts, fears, and doubts regarding loving children, illness, and growing old.’  Didion also uses Blue Nights in order to explore ‘her role as a parent… [and] asks the candid questions any parent might about how she feels she failed either because cues were not taken or perhaps displaced.’  The book proper begins in July 2010, on a date which would have marked her daughter’s wedding anniversary.

Quintana Roo, the adopted daughter of Didion and her husband, fell ill with a mysterious virus, and was soon in a coma.  Whilst very little – in fact, next to nothing – is written about this, or the process of Quintana’s death, Didion details, with an almost matter-of-factness, Quintana’s mental health as a young woman: ‘Of course they were eventually assigned names, a “diagnosis.”  The names kept changing.  Manic depression for example became OCD…  and obsessive-compulsive disorder became something else…’.  Eventually, it is pinpointed that Quintana suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, its effects of which Didion captures in the most beautiful and startling way: ‘Her depths and shallows, her quicksilver changes.’

In her introductory chapter, Didion writes candidly about why she selected Blue Nights as the title of her memoir.  She says: ‘During the blue nights you think the end of the day will never come.  As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone.  This book is called Blue Nights because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness.’  Metaphorically, this fading of the summer is something upon which Didion is able to project feelings of her grief.  On a more base level, she feels blue without her daughter and husband, and the position of retrospect in which she is writing, as well as the death of two beloveds, unsurprisingly makes her mood drop all the more.

Throughout Blue Nights, Didion recalls a stream of memories from her life, of family and friends, and relates them to us using almost a stream-of-consciousness style.  For instance, she writes: ‘Time passes. / Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.’  She is tough upon herself and past decisions which she has made in places, particularly when thinking about her daughter’s childhood: ‘She was already a person.  I could never afford to see that.’

Blue Nights is both a wonderful work of love, and a showcase of the heartbreak which Didion has gone through, after first the death of her husband, and then of her only daughter.  To those who are grieving, comfort can be found within its pages.  The ‘incisive and electric honesty’ which the blurb details can be found throughout; it feels as though Didion is writing as a form of self-therapy, using her voice to expel her doubts, and keep her memories of Quintana alive.  Blue Nights is searingly honest, and its non-linear style really gives a feel for how jumbled a mind with grief in can become.  Touching and sad, Blue Nights feels like a moving tribute to a lost daughter.

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‘The Blind Owl’ by Sadegh Hedayat ***

I, perhaps shamefully, had never heard of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl before spotting it in the Modern Classics section of the library.  Whilst originally banned in the author’s native Iran, it soon became a bestseller, and he is now heralded as one of the fathers of modern Iranian literature.  First published in 1937, and in English twenty years later, a 75th anniversary edition was published in 2011.  Hedayat’s masterpiece has been compared to the likes of Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edgar Allan Poe, which may give you a feel for the kind of story which is going to unfold.

The Blind Owl, in less than 130 pages, feels masterful in the way in which it takes the reader into the ‘nightmarish exploration of the psyche of a madman’ after the loss of a mysterious lover.  It sounded stra9789186131449nge but intriguing, and I have read very little literature which discusses and examines madness from a male perspective.

This madness, or rather the process of spiralling into it, is captured wonderfully by the haunting and immediate voice of Hedayat’s narrator: ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people and have realized that my best course is to remain silent and keep my thoughts to myself for as long as I can.  If I have now made up my mind to write it is only in order to reveal myself to my shadow, that shadow which at this moment is stretched across the wall in the attitude of one denouncing with insatiable appetite each word I write.  It is for his sake that I wish to make the attempt.  Who knows?  We may perhaps come to know each other better.  Ever since I broke the last ties which held me to the rest of mankind, my one desire has been to attain a better knowledge of myself.’

The sense of the ‘Other’ which Hedayat is aware of from the very beginning of The Blind Owl is emphasised through repetitions of certain phrases and paragraphs, which form a kind of backbone within the novella.  There is little plot here really, but it is the way in which Hedayat handles his protagonist, and the changes which he goes through so suddenly, which is the real strength.  The reader is swept along, entirely adrift in the narrator’s mind; it feels as though we have no control, and are entering a world of manic thoughts along with him.  The urgency and confusion of the prose adds to this effect, and it soon begins to feel rather claustrophobic.

Dark and rather gruesome, The Blind Owl gives a real insight into an extremely troubled mind.  Whilst it does not demonstrate, or even really touch upon, its Iranian setting, which was a shame, the translation by Naveed Noori makes it feel fresh and contemporary.  Occasionally, The Blind Owl feels quite jarring to read, but perseverance makes it worth it.  The Blind Owl is a haunting novella, with a powerful voice, and rather a terrifying message buried beneath it.

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