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Two Not-For-Me Novels: ‘Gardening at Night’ and ‘Suddenly’

As a long-time reader, my eye has often been caught by a single short review, or by a cover design. I am not always sucked in by such things, and tend to do a bit more research into a title before I decide whether it is for me, but occasionally, I take a chance. I did so with the two novels which I will be reviewing in this post – Gardening at Night, by South African author Diane Awerbuck, and Suddenly, by Canadian author Bonnie Burnard. Neither of these novels lived up to what I hoped they could be – something, I am sure, which every reader has gone through at one point or another in their literary life. I have tried to be as objective as possible here, and not too negative, but I feel it is important not to just focus on books which I have loved.

Gardening at Night by Diane Awerbuck

I took a chance on this novel mainly because I haven’t read anything set in South Africa for quite some time, and I am so interested in the period – the 1980s and 1990s – in which it is set. I am also a sucker for a coming-of-age story, particularly when it features a young girl railing against what surrounds her, as Gardening at Night purports to do.

The narrator of the piece, also named Diane Awerbuck, lives in a South African town named Kimberley, a former mining area, where ‘the only tales are those of leaving’. The novel is told in a series of vignettes, which feel a little muddled at first, but then take on a more chronological structure. Throughout, we follow different individuals whom the Diane of the novel knows; there are quite a few of these characters. There is a lot of sadness and difficult occurrences within the pages of Gardening at Night, and suicide and violence form just two of the trigger warnings.

Awerbuck’s prose is strange, and can sometimes be a little confusing. Stretches of time pass between vignettes, with children far older from one segment to the next. At first, I found Awerbuck’s writing beguiling, but this cooled for me after a relatively short time. Due to the structure, the narrative often has a broken quality, and it is not always – or even often – the easiest book to read. I can see why this has so divided opinion; on Goodreads, it is definitely a love-hate book, with barely anyone seeming to fall within the middle.

I really liked the inclusion of local slang and products here, which allowed me to gain more of a view of what life in South Africa was like during this period for ordinary people. However, there are a few too many pop culture references which are very specific to the region, and which are not explained. Given its publication in 2003, and its setting of the two decades beforehand, the novel does feel rather dated.

Although I was mildly interested in Diane’s story during her childhood, I found myself becoming less so at the point at which she moves away to college. Sections of Gardening at Night are rather dull, and much of the narrative seems concerned with Diane climbing into people’s cars, and driving around with no real purpose in mind. This seems fitting, given the story; although Diane grows up during the narrative, she never really gets anywhere.

Suddenly by Bonnie Burnard

I stumbled across Bonnie Burnard whilst browsing books published by Virago, undoubtedly one of my favourite houses. I was drawn to the storyline of Suddenly, which deals with a woman who has terminal cancer, and is trying to live fully during her remaining days, whilst remembering those which have passed. I was also most interested in the fact that Suddenly was blurbed by both Alice Munro and Carol Shields, heavyweights of Canadian authors whose work I love.

At first, I really enjoyed Burnard’s writing style. In the first chapter, she writes with insight about how it must feel to know that your life is limited, and that you face incredible amounts of pain. She writes: ‘What she is finally beginning to understand is that all these years of talk, the pleasure of idiocy, the bouts of worry, the complaints, the humouring of memory, even the offhand, underdone affection, these are the least of it. The best of it is being known. Known over time.’ Burnard has real strength here too, in showing how Sandra’s illness progresses.

Sadly, there is no sense of constancy within Suddenly. The consequent chapters have rather plain, matter-of-fact prose, and a great deal of the author’s thoughtfulness and exploration into terminal illness, both on an individual level and within the wider family unit, seems to vanish. There are many secondary characters here, and they are introduced in quick succession, which becomes rather confusing. None of these characters is particularly interesting, either; even a couple of days after finishing the novel, I found myself unable to remember much about any of them aside from protagonist Sandra’s husband, Jack.

My interest in the present-day story did hold somewhat, but the forays into the past, which are made with no delineation between time periods, I found boring. The structure feels a little disorienting at times, and the main threads of the story are lost, entangled in a dull recounting of mundanity. Burnard also has a habit of switching from one character to another without mentioning the new character’s names; instead, she merely uses pronouns, which tend to make everything so confusing.

Suddenly held promise at its outset, but I found it to be poorly executed on the whole. I had to keep stopping myself when I was reading, in able to try and orient myself – to work out who was related to who, and what their relationship consisted of. Suddenly is a disappointingly muddled novel, which I had hoped to enjoy, but which did not continue as I expected. The story is bogged down in ordinary details and bland conversations between flat characters, and there is also a curious lack of emotion throughout, particularly given the present-day storyline.

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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.

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‘Frankie and Stankie’ by Barbara Trapido ****

I have wanted to read this book for many years, and really hoped upon borrowing it from the library that it would not disappoint.  So many books which I have believed that I would adore have been far less absorbing than I would have hoped of late, July’s People by Nadine Gordimer being a prime example.  I had not read any of Trapido’s work before I picked this up, and was not quite sure what to expect from it.

I love the premise of this novel – two sisters growing up in the shadow of apartheid, and their naivety and the actions of others confusing them entirely.  Joanna Briscoe, the author of the book’s short yet rather lovely introduction, says that Frankie and Stankie should be read as a ‘thinly-disguised memoir’ of life in 1950s South Africa. I adore coming of age novels, particularly those set against important historical events.  Lisa and Dinah, the sisters whom we follow from babyhood to early adulthood, are the daughters of liberal parents – a Dutch immigrant father and German mother.  I really did like Dinah, and the progression of her character from start to finish was ultimately believable.

The third person perspective which Trapido uses in her sixth novel is engaging from the first.  The social and historical elements which she has utilised are well portrayed, and all help to build up scenes of life in the tumultuous period.  The plot is not chronological; rather, the whole is made up of fragments of memories, and the whole is almost entrancing in consequence.  Throughout, Trapido writes so well, and the novel is beautifully crafted.  It reminded me a little of Carol Shields’ stunning The Stone Diaries – high praise indeed.

In Frankie and Stankie, Trapido has written a fascinating portrayal of an horrific period in South African history.  The vast disparities between the black and white races have been intelligently set out and dicussed.  The only qualm which I had with the novel was its afterword – it did not seem all that necessary, felt too matter-of-fact, and detracted from the splendidly woven story.  If the afterword had not been present in the novel, I would have happily awarded the whole five stars.

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Two Disappointing Reads

I have begun to read and subsequently abandoned two novels which I was very excited about of late – The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer.  The reasons as to why neither story really gelled with me are as follows.

‘The Valley of Amazement’ by Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
I have very much enjoyed Tan’s work to date, and when I spotted this beautiful behemoth in the library, I picked it up immediately (and then silently cursed it on the way home for weighing me down).  It is an enormous book, and took Tan eight years to write.  The story begins in 1905, and tells of Violet Minturn, the daughter of an American woman who ‘grows up in the confines of Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house’.  When the Emperor is deposed in 1912 and ‘celebrations rock the city, a cruel act of deception separates Violet from her mother and she is forced to become a virgin courtesan’.

Throughout, the novel is told using the first person perspectives of Violet and her mother, but from the very start, it does not feel quite real.  There is an unusual sense of detachment which plants its seeds from the first.  Stylistically, it is much the same as Tan’s other books, what with the use of Chinese and American nationalities and the differences between the two, the female perspective, and telling the same story from the point of view of more than one character.  The cultural details which Tan includes are relatively interesting, but sadly, it felt as though there was nothing at all original about The Valley of Amazement.  I did not have the patience to read through six hundred rather large pages, and am now unsure as to whether I will read more of Tan’s future publications.

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‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer

 

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
On reflection, this was probably an odd choice of book to take with me on a long weekend to France, dealing as it does with segregation in South Africa.  July’s People was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, so I was expecting great things from it.  I really liked the storyline, and the way in which Gordimer challenged the racial differences which were so prevalent at the time:

“The members of the Smales family, a liberal white couple and three young children, are rescued from the terror [in which armed militants ruthlessly killed innocents all over the country] by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his native village.”

In terms of its prose style, it was not at all as I had thought it would be.  Gordimer writes in a contemporary manner – she does not use conventional techniques, but instead puts dashes in the place of speech marks, occasionally starts sentences with lowercase letters, and so on.  For me, July’s People was not executed as well as it could have been.  The whole felt too matter-of-fact and rather detached to be an absorbing novel.  Based upon my experiences with this book, I am not sure I’ll be trying to read more of Gordimer’s fiction any time soon.

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