Tag Archives: book review

I’m Cheating on Zadie Smith

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I was some place in the midst of Tea Obreht’s novel The Tiger’s Wife when it was announced winner of the Orange Prize for Best Fiction. I was hardly surprised, given the unexceptionally rave entrance she has enjoyed into the literary fold – she made The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list with no published work to her name; and the youngest on that list at 25. Yugoslavian by birth, her family left the country when she was 7; Obreht taught herself English by watching Disney films.

The awesome thing about it all is that she deserves it. The Tiger’s Wife is a mesmerizing feat of work that combines elements of Magical Realism and Fabulism to tell the war-time stories of a Yugoslavian doctor Natalia’s unique relationship with her recently-deceased grandfather.

Everything in Obreht’s book has character; everything! The guns, the dogs, the peasants, the deathless man and of course, the tiger. Each has an incredible back-story, little anecdotes that are as exquisitely wrought and entertaining as they are imperative to the main story. Obreht is not a writer. She is a masterful crafter of stories.

Another contender for the Orange Prize this year was Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, which I read after it took the Commonwealth Writer’s honor in May. The Memory of Love is an incredible book in its own right.

Incidentally, much like The Tiger’s Wife, it goes between two stories of war – this time, in Sierra Leone: in the 1960s and the 1990s. The 90s are represented by a young surgeon Kai Mansaray who is haunted by memories of the war, and torn over his decision to leave Sierra Leone for a better life elsewhere. He forms a friendship with a British psychiatrist Adrian Lockheart, through which we eventually learn of the terrible things he saw and did in the war.

It is also through Adrian’s work at the asylum that we learn of the psychological effects of war on ordinary people like Agnes and Adecali, witnesses to unspeakable horrors. Literally unspeakable. Adrian slowly coaxes stories out of them, which would otherwise have gone untold. And this is the crux of Forna’s book –

“It was almost as though they were afraid of being implicated in the circumstance of their own lives. Questions discomfit them. Remembering, talking … it’s as though the entire nation is sworn to some terrible secret.”

It is only Elias Cole, a professor on his deathbed, who willingly narrates to us a compelling story of betrayal and injustice set in the Sierra Leone of the 60s. Elias Cole is despicable – I haven’t met such an amoral character since Nabokov’s Humbert-Humbert.  While spewing my disgust on Twitter, Forna actually replied to say she was “glad. It means [my] moral compass is in good working order.” 🙂

And yet both Cole and Adrian’s asylum patients suffer what Forna calls the ‘fragmentation of conscience’ – he is tortured by the omissions of his history; they are tortured by the acts they are forced to commit.

The Memory of Love struggles a little to get off the ground, but on the whole, Forna has a very important message about post-war effects on the psyche of a nation. The Tiger’s Wife, on the other hand, is a thrill from start to finish which will leave you questioning superstition and science, and what it means to be an outcast.

I heartily recommend both books!

 

 

Perfume: the story of a murderer

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Is Patrick Suskind’s horrible and ingenious tale of young Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who has an extraordinary sense of smell and an obsession with finding and bottling the essence of perfection. 

Suskind writes as the young man’s shadow, a technique that works perfectly as he takes us into the murderer’s mind, a fascinating thing because he sees the world through his nose, as it were.

Grenouille isn’t introduced immediately as the single-minded killer he turns out to be. Instead we follow his journey from orphaned boyhood in Paris to the faubourgs of northern France, and learn more than we bargained for about the business of perfumery in the 1700s. Suskind never lets up on the evocative images and smells -never before has a story delighted and revolted all my senses like this one did.  

What is surprising is that I wasn’t once struck with revulsion at Grenouille’s sick quest – you find yourself going from pity to wonder to confusion and only occasionally, disgust. So well written is Suskind’s tale that it is hard to lose (what I think is) his message. Beneath the horror of a man who had to murder young girls to bottle their innocence – if such a thing were ever possible – I believe Perfume is a story about duplicity of belief.

The climactic scene of Grenouille’s public killing for his crimes turns into a rapturous orgy of worship – and yet Grenouille who has wanted this all his life wonders how people can worship what they do not understand – only he with the superhuman sense of smell knew that they adored his innocence, and yet the crowd believes they are in adoration of Grenouille himself.

Their adoration is rendered even more superficial because Grenouille doesn’t exist without the scent of innocence. Having no smell of his own, he has floated through life virtually unnoticed and strangely, everyone he comes into contact with dies.

Perfume is a grotesque caricature of our morality that will delight and shock you and make you think.

Plugging alert: I am loving Princess’ new book blog Book Lugambo!

Indians can write… also, I love Zadie Smith

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I just remembered this quote from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth

You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll–then we call them crazy… We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that their might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.*

which made me love her and that book all over again. Talk about uncomfortable truth. I must re-read it sometime soon.

The book I won’t be reading again ever is The Accidental by Ali Smith. I carried it with me to Gulu, and perhaps I didn’t do it justice in between taking pictures and falling asleep, but it is honestly not a book I can talk about in superlatives. It just falls somewhere between somewhat agonizing and mildly interesting. 

So this 30-something barefoot hippie woman Amber comes unexpectedly into the lives of the Smart family. Astrid the odd preteen daughter dying to stand out and fit in at the same time. Magnus, the sexually frustrated sixteen year old son. Eve, mother and writer who seems to have failed at mothering and writing but is desperately trying to keep up an appearance of the contrary; and Michael the children’s stepfather and Eve’s second husband – a pretentious Linguistics professor whose unfortunate students have to seduce his old ass to get any good grades.
When Amber shows up at their doorstep during a boring family holiday in Norfolk, they take her in.
Exposure of true personalities, emergence of frustrations and relative chaos ensue as Amber begins to bring out the best, worst and hidden sides of everyone, each Smart becoming infatuated with her ‘exoticism’ in their own way.
Ali Smith writes in an experimental manner that dispenses with norms like beginning your sentences, or quoting your dialogue; and inserts entire chapters of painful (to read) love-poetry. She’s like a chameleon narrator taking on her characters’ mannerisms and thought-flows to produce a personal yet jagged sequence of the same events told from several points of view.
I liked the book’s pace, particularly post-Amber’s entry – before that, the characters are so dead, you just want to shake them! I particularly liked Eve’s chapters which are like a QnA session with her soul. But it ends on an odd anticlimax and it’s hard to pick out Smith’s message – assuming there was one. I recommend only if you have spare time aplenty and great patience.
I’m nearly done with the delightful Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. She deals with very much the same themes as Jhumpa Lahiri in Interpreter of Maladies, which is my next to-be-read (thank you Princess). And then Jane Bussman’s The Worst Date Ever, an autobiography of a British celeb-journalist who finds herself in Northern Uganda during the war. It’s supposed to be comic and I want to see how (if) she pulls that off.
  
*of course I didn’t remember it for word. Google helped.