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Three Disappointing Books: John Wyndham, Belinda Bauer, and Samanta Schweblin

Today I bring together three reviews of books which I expected to enjoy, but which I found disappointing.

 

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham ** 9780141032993
I have read and enjoyed several of John Wyndham’s books to date, despite the fact that his plots and science-fiction focus are not part of my usual reading fare. I found the storyline of The Kraken Wakes intriguing, and was expecting that I would be pulled into the story quite quickly.

However, this novel feels like a real anomaly in Wyndham’s oeuvre. It took too long to get going, and I did not connect at all to the story. The narrative voice was relatively dull, although it is perhaps fitting that it mimics the style of an article of sorts throughout, given protagonist Mike’s profession as a journalist. The plot is meandering, and the writing stodgy.

Had The Kraken Wakes been the first book of Wyndham’s which I had picked up, I doubt that I would have sought out any more of his work. I got halfway through the novel, before acknowledging that any interest that I had in it had completely disappeared. I expected The Kraken Wakes to be engaging and thought-provoking, particularly with regard to the current climate crisis which the world is facing, but I feel as though a real opportunity has been missed here.

 

9781784164034Snap by Belinda Bauer ***
I purchased Belinda Bauer’s Snap on a whim whilst browsing in a local Oxfam store. It has received a lot of hype – and quite a bit of criticism, too – for being long listed for the Man Booker Prize last year.

Snap was not quite what I was expecting, if I’m honest. I found it an easy, quick read, and it did not always feel as though there was enough substance in some of its chapters. The writing was rather matter-of-fact – perhaps too much for my personal taste – although it does fit with the general style of thrillers.

The different threads of the story caught my interest enough that I read to the end, but I did not feel as though the mystery element was strong enough. I’m unsure whether the novel disappointed me, as I came to it with a few reservations, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t pick up another of Bauer’s books at some point in future.

 

 

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin ** 51jifqcd9ml
I really enjoyed Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s novella Fever Dream, her first book to be translated to English from its original Spanish.  I was therefore keen to get my hands on her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, a copy of which I found in the library.  These tales have been translated by Megan McDowell.

Publishers Weekly calls Mouthful of Birds ‘canny, provocative and profoundly unsettling’, and the Library Journal deems it ‘surreal, disturbing and decidedly original’.  I felt as though I knew, therefore, what the collection would hold.

The twenty stories here are incredibly strange, on the whole.  The first story, ‘Headlights’, is about new brides abandoned by their husbands by the roadside; the narrator of ‘The Test’ is tasked with killing a dog (I was unable to read this gory story in full); in ‘Olingiris’, six girls have to pull out every single hair on a woman’s body, only using tweezers.  The premises are odd, and a lot of the imagery caused me to feel queasy, rather than in awe of the author’s imagination.

There is little emotion to be found within these stories, and I felt rather detached from them.  I imagined that Mouthful of Birds would be highly immersive and unsettling, as Fever Dream was, but most of it simply did not sit right for me as a reader.  The writing is largely matter-of-fact, and I found it impossible to connect with any of Schweblin’s characters.  Whilst I might pick up a longer work of the author’s, and perhaps another novella, I am certain that her short stories do not work for me.  The characters and scenarios were flat, and I was unable to suspend my disbelief.

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Reading the World: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin ****

Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world.  An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley.  Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.

9780399184598The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic.  She is dying.  Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock.  ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’.  Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.

David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream.  His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to…  She wouldn’t know where he’d gone.  She also said the migration would have its consequences.  There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit.  The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body.  Something of each of them would be left in the other’.

The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story.  Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours.  That’s going to happen, isn’t it?  It’s strange how calm I am.  Because even though you haven’t told me, I know.  And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’.  She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago?  What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers?  These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.

Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel.  It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you.  One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.

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