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One From the Archive: ‘The Hundred Year House’ by Rebecca Makkai ***

The Hundred Year House is author Rebecca Makkai’s second novel.  It follows the success of her quirky book-loving The Borrower, which was published in 2011.  The Hundred Year House is marketed as ‘a dazzlingly original and deeply rewarding generational saga in reverse’.  Thus, the novel begins in 1999, and is consequently split into four parts – 1999, 1955, 1929 and 1900.  Interestingly, the unusual structure of the novel has allowed Makkai to end her work with a prologue.

9780434023431The Hundred Year House focuses upon the eccentric Devohr family, who, in the novel’s opening, are living on the family’s land somewhere near Lake Michigan.  The family’s mother, Gracie, claims that she can tell one’s lot in life solely by examining their teeth, and her husband Bruce, is busy obtaining supplies for the impending Millennium apocalypse.  Gracie’s daughter, Zee, is: ‘a Marxist literary scholar – this was how she actually introduced herself at wine and cheese receptions, leaving Doug to explain to the confused physics professor or music department secretary that this was more a theoretical distinction than a political one’.  Her husband Doug, fancying himself as a serious biographer, has been tasked – rather embarrassingly – with ghostwriting a series of young adult books when finding that he is short on work.

As well as these living characters, we as readers are also introduced to Zee’s great-grandmother, Violet, a ghost whose presence is rooted firmly within the walls.  It is said that Violet killed herself in the house at the turn of the century, but nobody seems to know quite how, or why: ‘For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming.  She had lived, she was unhappy, and she died by her own hand somewhere in that vast house.  If the house hadn’t been a mansion, if the death hadn’t been a suicide, if Violet Devohr’s dark, refined beauty hadn’t smoldered down from that massive oil portrait, it wouldn’t have been a ghost story at all’.

The focus of Doug’s biography is tragic poet Edwin Parfitt, who lived in the Devohr’s family home when it was Laurelfield Arts Colony.  Rather than allow him access to the archives of this period in the house’s history, Gracie ‘guards the files with a strange ferocity’, as though she is unwilling to give up any of the house’s secrets.  In order to fully introduce all of the protagonists, the novel takes each of them in turn as the focal point for consecutive chapters.  As the periods change, we learn more about the mysteries surrounding the house, and subsequently the Devohr family.

Whilst The Hundred Year House is well written – the prose can be witty and quite dry in its humour and asides, as well as exquisitely rendered – there are some flaws within the novel.  Whilst the scene is set well at first, not enough use has been made of either the social or historical settings as the story reaches its earlier periods, and nothing seems to be tethered quite as well as it should be to make Makkai’s a believable journey through the history of a grand house.  At first, her characters and situations feel realistic, but this element too is lost as we are taken back in time.  Whilst the first section serves to engage and intrigue, subsequent parts of the novel do not; they feel, on the whole, flat, repetitive, and nowhere near as well written.  Whilst The Hundred Year House is an incredibly interesting novel in terms of the backward approach to its structure, it appears rather inconsistent and is even a little disappointing.

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‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus ****

I have wanted to read Albert Camus’ The Plague for such a long time, and was pleased that I was able to select it for the Algeria stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I have really enjoyed what I have read of Camus’ work in the past, and tried my best to ignore the reviews which mentioned how gory, vivid, and disturbing this novel was, squeamish as I am.  Of course, I expected a novel about a plague to have some level of gore within it; how could it not?  Several paragraphs were stomach-turning, but actually, the clever storyline and the intelligent writing shone through, and were at no time overshadowed by drama or melodrama.

The Plague is set in a fictional Algerian town named Oran, a French port on the coast, and takes place sometime in the early 1940s.   It was first published in 1947, with initial English translation coming out just a year later.  Camus immediately sets the scene, making Oran appear vivid, if dull: ‘Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it…  Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.’9780141185132

Dr Rieux, who is introduced at the beginning of the second chapter, is a composed and determined individual, one of those who tries ‘to fight the terror’, remaining in Oran to stop the spread of the plague, and to treat those who are infected.  Camus sets the tone, as well as Dr Rieux’s composure and determination, when he writes: ‘A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender.  They will resist the plague.’

As with Camus’ other work, the pace within The Plague is just right, and I was gripped immediately.  There is such a sense of atmosphere throughout, and Camus is always aware of the human aspect.  To use a striking example, when the town is put under quarantine, Camus describes the way in which the people who are trapped within the walls all change over time: ‘Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.  This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility.  For instance, some of our fellow-citizens became subject to a furious kind of servitude, which put them at the mercy of the sun and the rain.  Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious.  A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood.  A few weeks before they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone…  But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.’

Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague feels entirely fluid.  The hopelessness which comes of living under such conditions, particularly for an extended period of time, has been both well wrought and evoked: ‘But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone.  No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared of all.’  Every element of plague hitting such a populated area seems to have been well thought out; there is consequently a sort of realism to the novel, which makes it feel downright unsettling in places.  I was reminded rather of John Wyndham’s work whilst reading the highly thought-provoking The Plague.

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‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

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‘Young Anne’ by Dorothy Whipple *****

Young Anne by Persephone favourite Dorothy Whipple is one of the publishing house’s new titles for Spring 2018.  First published in 1927, Young Anne is Whipple’s debut novel, and the final book of hers which Persephone will be printing, bringing as they have done all of her wonderful novels back into print.

Young Anne, which includes a lovely preface by Lucy Mangan, is a ‘quasi-9781910263174autobiographical novel about a young girl’s journey to womanhood.’  Mangan addresses the double-edged sword which comes with the publication of the final Whipple novel; whilst thrilled that all of her fiction is now readily available for scores of new fans to discover, she writes that ‘to be reaching the end of her work entire feels positively injurious to health.’  Mangan explores the ways in which protagonist Anne’s life echoes that of Whipple’s, and the way in which, even as a debut novel, this has many of the qualities which can be found and admired in her later work: ‘… naturally her unmistakeable voice is already there.’  She goes on to write: ‘Whipple, from the off, keeps her ego and her insecurities in check.  As in all her later, more experienced works, she is not a showman but a patient, disciplined archaeologist at a dig, gently but ceaselessly sweeping away layers of human conventionality and self-deception, and on down to deeper pretences to get at the stubborn, jagged, enduring truths about us all beneath.’

In Young Anne, Anne Pritchard, the youngest of three children and the only girl, is first introduced when she is a small child.  Whipple’s description of her feels fresh and perceptive, and one is immediately captivated: ‘Anne at five was indescribably endearing.  A small, sweet, wild-rose thing.  Her hair came diffidently out in tendrils of gold, curling outwards and inwards, this way and that, trying to make a softer thing of the stern sailor cap that proclaimed itself “Indomitable” above her childish brow.  Her folded mouth had, for the moment, the gravity of the very young.’  At this point in time, Anne is scolded rather regularly for small misdemeanours, such as for her ‘favourite occupation’ of sinking her teeth into the wood of the pews at church.  Her only confidant comes in the form of the Pritchards’ housekeeper, Emily, whose tasks are many; they consist of ‘running the house, of keeping Gerald in his place, Anne out of scrapes, Philip from overeating, of coping with her mistress’s indifference, her master’s indigestion and his righteousness.’

From the outset, Anne feels so realistic, filled as she is with childish whims and ideas.  Whipple pays so much attention to her sense of humour and imagination, which are always getting her into trouble with her father.  In one memorable instance, Whipple recounts something which leads young Anne into disgrace: ‘Henry Pritchard was outraged.  He was dumbfounded.  The impertinence of the child to come in and laugh at his singing!  To laugh at him!’  Anne’s response to this is as follows: ‘She knew what fathers were, and God and Henry Pritchard had much in common.  They were everywhere at once, and all-powerful.’  The other characters portrayed in Anne’s world are, even when secondary figures, described with such vivacity and depth.  Of Mildred, a spoilt playmate of Anne’s, Whipple writes that ‘she was a very correct young person.  She even ate jelly with a fork at tea.’  Anne’s formidable Aunt Orchard is described as follows: she ‘did not hold for higher education for women, but she liked to destroy people’s pet hopes, or at least scratch them a little in passing.’

Whipple’s writing, as ever, is gloriously detailed.  When, early in the book, Anne leaves home early in the morning to catch a silver fish at the local park, the following is described: ‘No one about.  She had the world to herself, and the pink-and-white hawthorn blossom was thick on the trees and the laburnum dangled tassels of gold.  Here was quiet pool under a tree.  Just the place where a silver fish might be!  She lay down on the grass and peered into the water.  The ends of her hair slid into the pool, her breath ruffled its surface.  What a strange was there under the water, green moss, spread in waving patterns, silver bubbles coming up from nowhere, and under the roots of the tree, dim caves…’.

Time passes rather quickly in Young Anne; our protagonist skips from young child to teen, and then to young adult, at the beginning of successive chapters.  She is soon sent to a convent school, which allows her some semblance of freedom.  After her first day, as she is walking home, ‘she had an exciting sense of having started a new life away from the paternal eye at last.’  The advent of the First World War then ensues, and both of Anne’s brothers are sent to the Front.  When she goes to the local station near their Lancashire home to say goodbye, Whipple observes: ‘Anne waved them away, her difficult control terribly shaken by the wet faces of the women round her; mothers, sisters, sweethearts, who, like animals, would have hidden themselves when they were hurt, but were compelled to stand out on the crude, cruel railway station and expose their inmost souls.’

Young Anne is an accomplished debut, and as Mangan points out, Whipple’s wonderful writing and ‘unmistakeable voice’ are already prominent throughout.  Young Anne is a heartfelt, searching, and introspective character study.  Anne comes up against many hurdles in her life, and Whipple seems concerned, above all, with how she deals with, or overcomes, them.  As all of Whipple’s later novels can contest, Young Anne is poignant and thoughtful, shrewd and intelligent.  I became absorbed within the story immediately, and found the character arc which Whipple has so deftly crafted eminently believable.  The human condition is centre stage here, and rightly so; Whipple has much to say about the difficulties of growing up, and so much compassion for its consequences.

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‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel ****

I read one of Hilary Mantel’s earliest works, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I love how varied her books are; rather than deal with a historical setting here, as she does in the much-lauded Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety, this is a contemporary story of Saudi Arabia. Whilst it has not been favourably reviewed on the whole on Goodreads, Time Out calls it ‘A Middle Eastern Turn of the Screw with an insidious power to grip’, and Literary Review heralds it a ‘stunning Orwellian nightmare’. 9780007172917

The novel feels rather autobiographical, in that Mantel herself lived in Saudi Arabia, and Africa before that, as her protagonists here do. Mantel is most involved with the story of Frances here, a British woman who has moved to the country with her husband Andrew, who has found work on a large and well-paid project as an architect.

Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

On her first morning in Jeddah, after an exhausting journey the previous day, Frances is accidentally trapped within the flat: ‘When Andrew locked me in, I thought, it doesn’t matter, because I won’t be going out today. As if not going out would be unusual. I didn’t know that on that first day I was setting into a pattern, a routine, drifting around the flat alone, maybe reading for a bit, doing this and that, and daydreaming. I can see now that it will need a great effort not to let my whole life fall into this pattern.’ She writes later that the regime in Saudi Arabia, which so suppresses females, ‘is like being under house arrest. Or a banned person.’

Incredibly enlightening, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is told from two perspectives – that of the omniscient third person, as well as Frances’ diary entries. A lot of people have mentioned in their reviews that barely anything happens within the novel, but I think that this works well; there is a mystery at its heart, but this is very much a secondary storyline. Rather, Mantel is more concerned with demonstrating what life is like in Saudi Arabia for a woman, and a European one at that. I found the novel engaging and engrossing, and felt that it is just as valid now as it was when it was published thirty years ago. Very little seems to have changed, in fact. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a tense and chilling novel, despite the fact that one can feel the claustrophobic, searing heat of Jeddah throughout.

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‘Ways of Going Home’ by Alejandro Zambra ****

Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Ways of Going Home, which was first published in 2011, was chosen for the stop in Chile on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I had originally decided that the novella would be the last stop on my reading journey, but I was so intrigued that I just had to pick it up earlier.  This particular winner of the English Pen Award is set in Pinochet’s Chile, circling around districts of the capital city, Santiago.  This particular edition has been translated from its original Spanish by Megan McDowell.

9781847086273Every single review which I had seen of Ways of Going Home prior to reading it myself was highly positive.  Nicole Krauss notes that ‘Zambra’s novels are like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend, and afterward, I missed the charming and funny voice on the other end, with its strange and beautiful stories.’  Edwige Danticat proclaims: ‘I envy Alejandro the obvious sophistication and exquisite beauty of the pages you are about to read, a work which is filled with the heartfelt vulnerability of testimony.’  The Observer calls it ‘Complex yet sophisticated…  Zambra [weaves] some of the continent’s most difficult historical themes into an exciting modern art form.’

The blurb on the Granta edition is beguiling in its sparsity: ‘A young boy plays hide-and-seek in the suburbs of Santiago, unaware that his neighbours are becoming entangled in the brutality of Pinochet’s regime.  Then, one night a mysterious girl appears in his neighbourhood and makes a life-changing request.’  Claudia, this ‘mysterious girl’, meets the narrator on the 3rd of March 1985, the night of an earthquake in Santiago.  Of their ensuing relationship, which is more of an infatuation than a friendship, the narrator tells us: ‘She was twelve and I was nine, so our friendship was impossible.  But we were friends, or something like it.  We talked a lot.  Sometimes I think I’m writing this book just to remember those conversations.’

Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes.  These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood.  This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece.  Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost.  I was six or seven.  I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore.  I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did.  They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost.  That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

The undercurrents of politics are interpreted by the child narrator in very thoughtful ways. The angle from which the perspective has been shaped is fascinating, and adds so much depth to the whole.  Zambra shows rather than tells, demonstrating that though young, his child narrator knows that horrendous things are happening to people he knows due to the regime.  He cannot quite fathom why, however and, quite like Scout in Harper Lee’s wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird, he devotes a lot of thought to the hatred present around him, and whether any justified reasoning can possibly explain its existence.  Of his young life in Santiago, for instance, the present-day narrator writes: ‘Now I don’t understand that freedom we enjoyed.  We lived under a dictatorship; people talked about crimes and attacks, martial law and curfew, but even so, nothing kept me from spending all day wandering far from home.’  He goes on to say, rather poignantly, ‘While the adults killed or were killed, we drew pictures in a corner.  While the country was falling to pieces, we were learning to talk, to walk, to fold napkins in the shape of boats, of airplanes.’

Zambra has been selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists for a reason.  Ways of Going Home drips with beauty, and vocalises the impact of violence in such a harrowing and memorable manner.  It is beautiful; it is striking; it is profound.  It is my first taste of Zambra’s work, but I am certain that it will not be the last.

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Around the World in 80 Books: Abandoned Reads

Whilst I have made some fantastic choices so far for my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge, there have been several which just haven’t worked for me, and which I have consequently given up on.  I felt that it would be a good idea to group together these choices and, as always, would love your thoughts about any of these books if you have read them.

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart (Madeira) 9781444715033
I have been thoroughly enjoying reading through Mary Stewart’s work, and have only been a little disappointed by one or two novels from her oeuvre thus far. Never did I think that I’d actually give up on one of her novels; that is, until I started Touch Not the Cat. I love Stewart’s writing – her descriptions in particular, but I just did not feel myself becoming immersed in this particular book.

It is not only the silly, overblown telepathic angle which I disliked here; there was no hint of the strong characterisation which I have come to expect from Stewart’s books, and barely anything happened in the first fifth of the novel which I made myself plod through. The pace, something which Stewart is normally so good at getting spot on, was off, and even the isolated country house setting – something which immediately endears me to a book – did very little to pull it out of its funk.

9781472152848Johannesburg by Fiona Melrose (South Africa)
Fiona Melrose’s Johannesburg has been inspired by, and written as a response of sorts, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, a novel which I absolutely love, and which I have read several times. I found Melrose’s comparisons and echoes to be too obvious, and also found that there were far too many characters to try and keep track of. The writing was abrupt as it shifted from one character to another in the space of just one or two pages, and nothing quite melded together. A lot of people have mentioned in their reviews that they adored Midwinter but were quite disappointed by Johannesburg, so I am not going to let it put me off reading Melrose’s debut.

 

Rotten Row by Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe) 9780571324194
I tend to adore short story collections, and whilst I admired the use of a single road in Harare as the geographical setting for each inclusion in Rotten Row, this book simply did not work for me. I read the first three stories, all of which seemed quite exaggerated at times in terms of the cultural stereotypes which they portrayed. I did not connect with any of these tales, or feel anything for their characters, and so I gave up on it; quite disappointing, as Rotten Row sounded like a promising and enlightening read on the face of it.