Reviews: Fiction

Review: “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt [2003]

Ah, Siri Hustvedt. Even before I’d read a single page of Hustvedt’s work, I was already slightly terrified of her reputation of being insanely brilliant and intelligent (not to mention one half of another equally brilliant and prolific writer). Of course, it’s sad when an author and the book’s reputation outstrips the work itself so I pushed it all out of my mind when I began the first page.

[Some necessary SPOILERS in the review].


What I Loved begins fundamentally as a memoir written by an aging New York art historian, Leo Hertzberg. It is a story about love and lovers that begins in the 1970s – the romance between Leo and his wife, Erica, and the tangled relationship between Leo’s best friend, Bill, his wife Lucia and his lover, Violet. The friendship and bond between Leo and Bill is especially endearing and powerful. Initially intrigued and attracted to peculiar pieces of art created by Bill, Leo seeks him out and the two men connect. Art forms the basis of their friendship: Leo is a prolific art historian and academic teaching at an Ivy League university while Bill slowly builds up his reputation as an avant garde artist. The pieces that attracted Leo were a series of self-portraits of Bill – except that it featured a beautiful woman, a bewitching model named Violet. As Bill struggles to maintain his marriage with his wife, Lucia, a reserved and cold poet (is this an oxymoron? Can a poet ever be cold?), Leo and Erica, a literature professor, revel in theirs.

Soon enough, babies are on the way. Both Erica and Lucia have their pregnancies at the same time, only a few months apart and both babies are boys. Erica and Leo name their son Matthew and Lucia and Bill name theirs Mark. Time goes by and the two boys take their first steps, ride their first bikes, lose their first tooth, begin their first day of school. The two families live in the same apartment building, one floor apart, and spend their summer vacations together. Without giving everything away, the story begins to turn when the boys are ten years old and Matthew is taken away. Leo and Erica are left devastated and everything in their lives changes as they struggle to get through their loss.

Time flows. People leave and some return. Leo and the teenage Mark develop a close relationship although Leo begins to notice odd and unexplainable behaviour in Mark that Leo had previously dismissed when Mark was a child. One particular trait is the discerning way Mark is able to lie as Leo realises:

Mark had lied to me. He had quoted Violet so smoothly. He had smiled so easily. It had never occurred to me to doubt him, but even more curious was the fact that if he had told me he had eaten the doughnuts, I wouldn’t have cared. When I bought them, I had been thinking of him. – p. 170

Throughout his childhood, Mark had been a placid, quiet and agreeable boy. Now a teenager, Mark has become a charismatic man, able to read the room and its people, but still retaining his placidity which now prevented anyone from reading the ‘real’ Mark. Falling into a questionable crowd, and with the love of the nightlife and alternative lifestyle, Mark falls under the influence of a self-proclaimed provocative and narcissistic artist named Teddy Giles. Giles creates sadistic and violent art to mock and caricature the media and society’s obsession with violence although the art doesn’t sit well with Leo. As Mark gets further entwined with Giles, and with his uncanny ability to lie and increasingly creepy placidity, the more Leo, Bill and Violet lose him.

What I Loved contains so many streams that one brief review could never cover. It is four stories/themes in one: it is a musing on the question of what constitutes as art; a story about family; a psychological thriller; and finally, a story about love and loss. Mark is one of the most intriguing and infuriating characters I have ever met, at once both sinister and pitiful largely due to early childhood trauma but he is largely frightening towards the end simply because of our inability to ‘read’ him.

Hustvedt’s writing is intense and you know that she’d poured her entire being into this novel. I simply felt exhausted when I finished this! But this is one amazing novel. Everything felt so real, particularly the artworks that Hustvedt describes. If they were actual artworks, I would be running to see them. The book’s timeline spans over twenty-five years and Hustvedt’s writing makes the time flow by seamlessly. Everybody grows and yet, you don’t feel like you’ve missed anything in the characters’ lives, particularly anything crucial.

When I first began reading this book, I thought far too much about it but I just recommend that you bunker down somewhere (like I did at the airport and plane) and go for it. Let it wash over you and simply absorb it all in.

[SPOILERISH DISCUSSION!!!  – for those who have read the book or simply don’t care!]

At first I was very confused about what or who Mark represented. Was he some sort of psychotic villain? Was his childhood so traumatised by his parents’ separation and constant abandonment by his parents? Of course, that played a crucial part but it finally hit me what Mark ultimately represents. Hustvedt is sly (or maybe I’m just slow). Mark’s uncanny, and very creepy, way of presenting the face each person wanted to see in him makes him a blank canvass. He is literally a walking blank canvass. He has no personality, or if he does, nobody has seen it and is kept down deep within Mark. We project our likes and dislikes, hopes and fears onto Mark’s blank canvass and in return, he reflects something pleasant and pleasing to us. We make our own art.

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Review: “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir [1954]; translated from French by Leonard M. Friedman [1957]

At over 700 pages long and filled with sweeping political and philosophical ideology and debates, not to mention a rather large cast of characters, this book won’t be easy to review! It was intimidating enough to simply read it.

The story begins shortly after the liberation of France from German occupation in the Second World War. A group of friends, largely made up of notable Parisian intellectuals, are gathering at a celebratory party.

The party is thrown by Paula and Henri. The two have been together for ten years. Once passionately in love, the two now share a dysfunctional relationship. Paula, having given up her singing career, now devotes herself entirely to please and love Henri. Henri, the founder and editor of the independent newspaper, L’Espoir, no longer loves Paula but cannot leave her due to feelings of obligation and guilt. Having been a resistance fighter during the occupation, Henri is eager to assert his intellectual and physical freedom once more.

Henri’s best friend and mentor is Robert Drubreuilh, a university professor, who is now looking to enter politics with his socialist party, the SRL. His entire life is consumed with writing and politics. Robert’s wife Anne is a successful psychotherapist. She is twenty years younger than Robert and married him after a whirlwind romance while she was his student. The couple have one daughter, eighteen year-old Nadine, a surly and angry young girl. Anne and Nadine has always had a tempestuous relationship with Anne slightly resenting the interference of Nadine so early in her marriage. Similarly, Nadine resents Anne for competing with her for Robert’s attention. Still traumatised and angry after her lover is killed at a concentration camp, Nadine flits from one man to another. Anne, feeling unappreciated by her family and questioning her value as a psychotherapist to traumatised war victims, falls into an affair with an American writer.

The narrative alternates between Henri and Anne. All the characters struggle to place themselves in the new, post-war world and unable to reconcile who they once were and who they have become. The intellectuals also question their value and place in society and whether what they do make any difference any more or if they are simply just heard as empty words. As writers, Henri and Robert question their contribution to literature and if literature itself is worth anything anymore:

‘You [Robert] believe your major works are still ahead of you and just five minutes ago you said you were going to begin a new book. That implies that you believe there are people around who want to read what you’ve written…’

‘Oh, it’s not as horrible as you might think,’ [Robert] added cheerfully. ‘Literature is created for men and not men for literature’. – p. 55.

Anne, having been invited to a psychotherapist conference, wonders if it’s even worth learning new ideas or having new experiences anymore after the trauma the world and its people have just been through:

[Henri] gave me an encouraging smile. ‘You’re bound to make a few little discoveries, but I’d be very much surprised if they upset your whole life. The things that happen to us or the things we do, they’re never really so important in the end.’

I bowed my head. ‘It’s true,’ I thought. ‘Things always turn out to be less important than I thought they’d be. I’ll leave, I’ll return; everything comes to an end and nothing ever happens.’ – p. 251

Whatever one does, things will always stay the same while nothing will ever remain as they were (!), or as the other and more eloquent saying goes, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Known as the defining figure of feminism, it always surprises me that de Beauvoir writes such frustrating female characters. As in She Came to Stay, in this book both Paula and Nadine (and to a lesser extent, Anne) are unbelievably frustrating women, particularly Paula. This woman devotes herself to Henri’s existence and deludes herself into thinking that nothing has changed in their relationship. She comes up with elaborate excuses for Henri’s behaviour and whatever he does, she excuses it and turns the blame onto herself:

‘Above all, don’t apologize!’ She looked up at him, her face trembling with humility. ‘The night of the opening and in the days that followed, I came to understand a great many things. There’s no standard by which you can be measured against other people, against me. To want you as I had dreamed of you and not as you are was to prefer myself to you. It was pure presumptuousness. But that’s over. There’s only you; I’m nothing. I accept being nothing, and I’ll accept anything from you.’ – p. 486

To be clear, Henri is not a horrible man nor does he treat Paula badly which makes Paula’s obstinacy and emotional blackmail all the more hateful. Of course, Paula’s situation can be somewhat understood. Having been with Henri in the prime of life and having given everything to him and the relationship, Paula is only trying salvage any semblance of the only life that she now knows.

Nadine, on the other hand, is more understandable and perhaps symbolic of a generation. She is bitter, angry and suspicious at the world, having had her first love and innocence ripped away from her due to simply being the victim of circumstances. She cannot understand the world, its violence and ideals. While her cruelness is a way for Nadine to cope, I did find this a rather admirable skill:

He grabbed her by the wrists. When [Anne] finally reached them, he was so pale that I thought he would faint. Nadine’s nose was bleeding, but I knew she could make her nose bleed at will – it was a trick she had learned during her childhood when she would with her playmates around the fountains of the Jardin du Luxembourg. – p. 456

This review, of course, is really only a general outline but the over arching theme is the eternal struggle of finding one’s place in the world, particularly the post-war world where everything has changed and once unthinkable acts carried out. The meaning of their actions during their life and the worth of its impact, if any, and if anything the characters do matter at all in the end:

‘First of all, it’s important that suicide be difficult,’ Robert said. ‘And then continuing to live isn’t only continuing to breathe. No one ever succeeds in settling down in complete apathy. You like certain things, you hate others, you become indignant, you admire – all of which implies that you recognize the values of life.’ -p. 433

The book was a great read. While it get fairly political in some points (it’s so strange reading the kudos of communist Russia) it never gets boring or slow. In fact, time often flew while I was reading it! There is also the more infamous autobiographical notes in the novel widely understood to be modelled on de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus (whose character I correctly guessed) and Nelson Algren to whom the book is dedicated to.

Review: “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier [1938]

Well, after many stop-start attempts, I have finished Rebecca after nearly ten years! Why has it been so difficult, you may ask? It is a long story but it has to do with Jane Eyre being one my most favourite books and a very impressionable and eccentric favourite Literature teacher in high school who went a rant one day about how Rebecca was simply ripped off of Jane Eyre. So – it has taken awhile to get those prejudices out of my head so I could read this book from an objective and open perspective.

Narrated by an anonymous voice (we never know her real name), with the added benefit of age and time,  the second Mrs. de Winter both reminisces and is haunted by Manderley Hall and her time there. Plucked from obscurity and from a world of drudgery as a companion, the recently widowed Maximilian de Winter courts and quickly marries the young girl. They return to Manderley Hall, a formidable estate complete with an infamous past. The new Mrs. de Winter quickly feels the presence of the first wife, Rebecca, who has left a lasting impression everywhere in the house, its servants and county.

Young, naive and insecure, the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to slip into the role as quietly as possible but soon realises that it is impossible to fill Rebecca’s shoes and nor, she soon realises, does she want to.

I took one out and looked at it, unwrapped it from the thin tissue of paper. ‘Mrs. M. de Winter’ it said, and in the corner ‘Manderley.’ I put it back in the box again, and shut the drawer, feeling guilty suddenly, and deceitful, as though I were staying in somebody else’s house … at any moment she might come back into the room, and she would see me there, sitting before her open drawer, which I had no right to touch. – p. 98

Everybody in the household seem to be against the new wife particularly Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper, who obsessively remains dedicated to Rebecca and refuses to acknowledge the new authority or the reality. On top of the new Mrs. de Winter’s ongoing battle against her new household and her jealousy at the memory of Rebecca, Maximilian becomes distant and harbours a dark secret.

The story can effectively be split into two parts. The first part reads like a sinister, Gothic tale of the young, rootless, new wife finding her place in domesticity and old wealth while the second part reads quite like an Agatha Christie mystery! I quite enjoyed Rebecca and it was rather gripping although the naivety of the young, nameless Mrs. de Winter really frustrated me, particularly with the constant bullying from Mrs. Danvers. (Whenever I read Mrs. Danvers, I couldn’t help thinking of one of Jasper Fforde’s books where the character had to battle an army of Mrs. Danvers! :-)) The obsession that Mrs. Danvers have for Rebecca made me think that I could possibly write an essay on the homo-erotic relationship between the two. All in all, I am glad I have finally read this and while there are the obvious similarities between this and Jane Eyre, there is nothing wrong with a double dose of a good thing.

Review: “The Last Dragonslayer” by Jasper Fforde [2010]

Jasper Fforde always makes me giddy and jump a little for joy whenever he releases a new book. I’m almost always guaranteed a mind-bending read bursting with creativity and tongue-in-cheek fun.  The Last Dragonslayer, while marketed towards the YA market, does not read like a YA novel. It retains all of the typical Fforde (Ffordian?) elements.

In alternate Britain, fifteen year-old (almost sixteen) Jennifer Strange is acting manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management. In that world, magical power is slowly dwindling and it takes a team of wizards to complete magical tasks. Low on magic and funds, Kazam finds work for its wizards with jobs such as re-wiring houses in less than a day without the need of pulling out wires and walls or clearing drains. As long as there had been wizards, they have also been agents like Jennifer behind them:

“Argumentative, infantile, passionate and temperamental, they need people like us to manage them and always have done. Two paces behind every great wizard there has always been their agent. They always took a back seat, but were always there, doing the deals, sorting out transport, hotel bookings, mopping up the mistakes and the broken hearts, the sort of thing.” – p. 43

Life changes dramatically for the precocious Jennifer when several soothsayers predict the death of the last dragon in Britain sending the country into a scramble. Several hundred years ago, in a treaty to maintain peace between the dragons and humans, the dragons were  given their own land with the agreement that they must not harm the humans and, in return, humans must not harass the dragons. So for centuries, the dragons (and here Fforde is at one of his satirical best) have been sitting on prime real estate in Britain.  When each dragon dies, the magic of the land that protects the boundaries and treaty dies with it and so the land is prime for those looking to mark out their own piece of the country.

As long as there had been dragons, they have also been a dragon slayer although their job is nothing like what the name suggests. The dragon slayer’s role was to protect the dragons and to maintain the peace. To her surprise, Jennifer finds that she is the last dragon slayer, the last protector of the last dragon. To the chagrin of the hordes who have parked themselves outside the dragon’s land and the government, all waiting for its death, Jennifer refuses to speed it up and shows strength of character and morality:

“I have a very good idea of the value of the Dragonlands. But you and I are talking abotu different currencies. You’re talking about gold and silver, cash and securities. I’m talking about the sheer beauty of the land, the value of the unpolluted parkland made wild and staying wild for ever.” – p. 257

I loved this book and it’s really on par with The Eyre Affair. It’s witty, funny, another great heroine and, I don’t know how he does it, Fforde makes another ridiculous pet so endearing (first the Dodo ‘plock plock’ and now the Quarkbeast ‘quark’). Old magic, wizards, bureaucracy and red tape, nature, capitalism and commercialism and the old fashioned fights between good and evil, David and Goliath – it’s all here. I can’t wait for the next installment in this trilogy.

Review: “The Small Hand: A Ghost Story” by Susan Hill [2010]

I’ve been going on a Susan-Hill-ghost-story splurge that began a few months ago with The Woman in Black (although I didn’t blog about). I followed that up with The Man in the Picture which was another quick, thrilling read. Her horror novels sends just the right amount of tingles up your spine and conjures the right atmosphere in the shortest of time frames because her three spooky novels are quite short.

In The Small Hand, antiquarian book dealer Adam Snow becomes lost after leaving a client’s house in the countryside. He comes across a deserted estate with the most marvellous overgrown garden and is unable to resist the urge to explore it. The house, Adam later learns, is called ‘The White House’ and it was once famous for its gardens. Adam wanders through the gardens in the twilight, he pauses to stare at the derelict house:

And as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm and rested there, and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. – p. 7

Adam is driven to find out all he can about The White House and the ghostly hand does not frighten him until it suddenly become malevolent, particularly around water such as ponds and lakes.

Now the small hand was tightening in mine and I felt the dreadful pull I had experienced before to throw myself forward into the water. I could not look at the child’s face, because I knew that I would be unable to refuse what he wanted. His expression was one of such longing and need that I could never hold out against him. – p. 78

As the mystery surrounding the identity of the boy and what had happened to him all those years ago to cause the sudden abandonment of the White House deepens, Adam becomes unsure if he is losing his mind, like his older brother once did, and have been imagining the events.

This is a terrific book to read in one sitting. I particularly loved the bookish elements thrown into the spooky mixture where Adam travels to an isolated monastery in France where there is a beautiful library housing a first edition of Shakespeare’s Folio.

Lessons learned:

1) Never wander around deserted and derelict mansions with overgrown gardens while lost in the countryside at dusk.

2) Never squeeze back a ghostly hand, no matter how small or seemingly innocent.

Review: “Light Boxes” by Shane Jones [2009]

Originally published in Baltimore, USA in 2009 with an original print run of 500, it quickly gained notoriety through word of mouth and the underground. Penguin then purchased the rights and republished it under their imprint Hamish Hamilton and that’s how one copy landed in my hands all the way down in Australia.

In Light Boxes, February is punishing the townspeople and it has frozen the season for more than 300 days and counting. The townspeople have suffered through a never ending onslaught of snow and ice. Flight has also been banned and the sky is empty. Theddeus, Selah and their daughter Bianca try to keep their spirits up. Theddeus have drawn balloons on Bianca’s arms to inspire them all that they will one day fly again in their hot air balloons and their kites.

Every night, Selah makes a concoction overpowering with mint to repel February and to keep their family safe. Children have begun to disappear with increasing frequency. Some townspeople, calling themselves The Solution, are waging a war against February. They wear masks of birds as disguises. Theddeus joins in the war effort although their efforts do minimal damage to the all mighty February. One night, Bianca disappears from her bedroom with only the scent of smoke and honey lingering and Selah is overcome with grief. When Theddeus attempts to exact revenge and goes to find February in his house at the edge of the woods, the mystery of February deepens.

This book, while short in length, is difficult to describe. It’s a play, an experiment on the traditional book form and prose but the storytelling is equally as effective. Light Boxes is enchanting, whimsical and rather brutal in some parts. The idea of February (aligned with the Northern Hemisphere seasons) dominating the townsfolk can also connote depression or seasonal mental disorders as suggested by this (one of many) great little list in the novel:

Lists of Artists Who Created Fantasy Worlds to Try and Cure Bouts of Sadness:

1. Italo Calvino

2. Garcia Marquez

3. Jim Henson and Jorge Borges – Labyrinth (s)

4. The creator of Myspace

5. Richard Brautigan

6. J.K. Rowling

7. The inventor of the Children’s toy Lite-Brite

8. D.A. Levy

9. David Foster Wallace

10. Gauguin and the Caribbean

11. Charles Schulz

12. Liam Rector

– p. 98

I’m not sure how accurate this list is but I do know J.K. Rowling did suffer depression.

Light Boxes was a unique, delightful and highly satisfying read not to mention that the cover is gorgeous. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend it.

Review: “Harbour” by John Ajvide Lindqvist [2008]; translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy [2010]

If anybody were to write a horror story about the ocean (yes, you read it right), John Ajvide Lindqvist is the man to do it. The third of Lindqvist’s novels to be translated into English, the other two being the now well known Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, Harbour follows Lindqvist’s rather unique take on the horror genre.

On the isolated island of Domarö, Anders takes his family to visit the lighthouse. His wife, Cecilia, are childhood sweethearts having spent their summer holidays at Domarö since their youth. Their six year-old daughter, Maja, is a fireball of energy and set in her own ways.

The narrative is split largely between Anders and his step grandfather, Simon, a retired magician. Simon and Anders’ grandmother, Anna-Greta, have been together for the past fifty years although they still live separately with Simon living in the garden’s summer house. Simon and Anna-Greta reside on the island all year round and are considered ‘natives’ although Simon moved to Domarö in his early thirties.

On the way to the lighthouse, Simon is watching the little family from his house. The trio are impossible to miss due to their bright coats against the stark white bareness of the icy landscape. As Simon is observing them, a neighbour suggests that Simon ring Anders and tell them to turn away.

‘I think you should ring him and tell him … he ought to come home now.’

‘Why?

‘The ice can be unsafe out there.’

Simon snorted. ‘But it’s half a metre thick right across the bay!’

Elof sighed even more deeply and studied the pattern on the carpet. Then he did something unexpected. He raised his head, looked Simon straight in the eyes and said, ‘Do as I say. Ring the boy. And tell  him to gather up his family. And go home.’ – p. 19

The warning does not come in vain. Later that afternoon, while the family rests at the top of the lighthouse in the viewing room, Maja runs off to explore the place. She is never seen again. Although an extensive search is carried out, Maja has left no prints and the snow around the lighthouse is pristine save for the set leading to the lighthouse. Devastated, Anders and Cecilia leave Domarö

Two years later, Anders returns after Cecilia leaves him unable to cope any longer with his alcoholism and inability to seek help for his despair at losing Maja. Returning to the Shack where his family last resided, Anders strongly feels Maja’s presence and it both unsettles and comforts him. Anders also finds the camera he used on that fateful day and decides to develop the roll of film. In the last photos of Maja, Anders discovers that Maja is persistently staring at the same spot in the distance and he recalls the conversation he had with Maja while they were both in the lighthouse’s viewing room:

Maja was standing with her nose and hands pressed against the glass wall. When she heard Anders coming, she pointed out across the ice, towards the north-east.

‘Daddy, what’s that?’

Anders screwed his eyes up against the brightness and looked out over the ice. He couldn’t see anything apart from the white covering, and far away on the horizon just a hint of Ledinge archipelago.

‘What do you mean?’

Maja pointed. ‘There. On the ice.’ – p. 22

As Anders investigates further, he discovers that Maja isn’t the first to disappear completely without a trace. The town’s natives also have an unexplained fear of the sea although one of the main industry is herring. There is a strange hold over the island and an unlikely source of fear and power is revealed, harking back to the history of the island.

Harbour is another great read by Lindqvist although at 500 pages, it could have done with a good edit. The use of various narrative strings also tended to detract from the main story although it did help fill in the background and help streamline the jumping time line. The story is creepy but Lindqvist, like his previous novels, marries the unnatural, supernatural and reality seamlessly.