Reviews: H

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.

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: “The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days” by Kate Holden [2010]

I adore Kate Holden and have great admiration for her and her writing. Her fortnightly columns in Saturday Age and her musings on her website are filled with wit and a wry sense of humour. I also loved her first autobiography In My Skin.

So it really pains me to say that her second autobiography left me quite disappointed. The Romantic follows up after the seemingly ‘happily ever after’ in the first book where Kate kicked her heroin addiction, left her job as a prostitute and finally got herself sorted enough to get on a plane and leave for Italy and to make a clean break. (Note: you don’t need to have read the first book in order to understand the second). In Italy, Kate, now twenty-nine, roams listlessly between Rome and Naples and have a long string of affairs. The book is basically a description of her string of affairs and sexual escapades in Italy. She wanders through the sights, learns some Italian, writes in her diary and reads the romantic poets in her spare time.

The book is divided and titled on the man Kate is happening to have an affair or sex with. There is Jack, a married man twice her age; Guido, a cheeky hotel worker; Massimo, Guido’s cheekier and charismatic brother; Rufus, a writer; Gabriele, a charming, hardworking and sweet Italian man; Donetella, a woman who gets entangled with Kate and Gabriele; and finally, Kate alone. There is a lot of sex. Kate likes sex, that point is clear, but there seems to be very little character development and the pacing stumbles with its aimlessness, perhaps intentional to capture Kate’s own feeling of aimlessness. There is also the struggle within Kate as she tries to distinguish herself between the Prostitute Kate and Clean Kate. Men seem to fall instantly in love with Kate and she does not discourage them. In being with so many different men and giving herself so easily and freely, it seemed like she was trying to find acceptance somehow and a place for her somewhere, anywhere, in society although almost all the men Kate was with were all unavailable one way or another.

In a moment he’s gone. She watches them drive away. This is the city where they met; they have said goodbye here before.

‘You are in my heart,’ he had said.

‘You are my heart,’ she replied.

But her heart is gone. She was always trying to give it away. – p. 233

Despite being let down by the book, the writing is beautiful even when the content is crude. The whole idea of identity is at play here (as it tends to be when a book is an autobiography!) and Kate really loses and distances herself as she refers to herself in third person in the book as if to point out that the Kate then is not the Kate now.

Review: “Jude the Obscure” by Thomas Hardy [1896]

Jude the Obscure is significant for two reasons – one, being Thomas Hardy’s last novel and two, the topics the novel covers. The criticisms Hardy received for Jude caused Hardy to become disillusioned with novel writing which is such a shame because it’s a remarkable book and Hardy is a very talented, if a little bleak, writer.

The story follows Jude Fawley from childhood where he is inspired by a leaving teacher to study and hope to one day become a university student at the collegial town of Christminster, dubbed the most religious town in England. Sadly, it seems that from the beginning, Jude is doomed to a life of poverty and bleakness. When he is older, Jude is apprenticed to a stonemason and as he learns his trade by day, he studies biblical texts in ancient Greek and Latin by night using old and superseeded copies of the texts. At 19, Jude is seduced by Arabella Donn, the local pig farmer’s daughter, and after a quick courtship and one drunken night, the two are quickly married which also kills any hope of Jude ever attending university.

The marriage fails after a few months and Arabella leaves Jude to go to Australia with her family. Jude also leaves his hometown of Marygreen and finally travels to Christminster, finding work as a stonemason. At Christminster, Jude is disappointed by how its students and academics treats him, looking down at him and unable to see past his poverty. As Jude works his way around Christminster, doing numerous restoration work, it only serves to hammer in Jude’s longing to attend the university and to satiate his hunger for learning.

The Christminster ‘sentiment’, as it has been called, ate further and further into him; till he probably knew more about those buildings materially, artistically, and historically, than any one of their inmates. – p. 102

Jude’s dreams are finally crushed when he writes to the master of one of the colleges who replies with a condescending letter advising Jude to stick to his way of life and trade. After a drunken night out, Jude retaliates by writing on the walls of the college:

I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these? Job xii. 3. – p. 142

Quitting his job and returning home, a bitter Jude confesses to a clergyman

Well, here I am, just come home; a fellow gone to the bad; though I had the best intentions in the world at one time. Now I am melancholy mad, what with drinking and one thing and another. – p. 150

While in Christminster, Jude also meets and falls in love with his headstrong, intelligent and seemingly emancipated cousin, Sue Bridehead. Having been alone ever since her father disowned her for living with a man, with the two sharing a platonic relationship, in London for two years, Jude manages to find teaching work for her with his old teacher, Mr. Phillotson, who was the original inspiration for Jude’s academic dream. To Jude’s dismay, Mr. Phillotson proposes to Sue who accepts on the condition of a two year engagement while she attends a teaching school. After spending a night out with Jude, Sue is expelled from the school and she marries Mr. Phillotson to clear both Jude’s and her name.

Like Jude’s, Sue’s marriage soon begins to fail when she discovers that she can’t let go of Jude. The two share a passionate and fiery bond and who believes that their beliefs are far too advanced for the times of their day. Sue asks Phillotson to let her go live with Jude and he eventually agrees, later giving her a divorce.

‘And do you mean, by living away from me, living by yourself?’

‘Well, if you insisted, yes. But I meant living with Jude.’

‘As his wife?’

‘As I choose.’

Phillotson writhed.

Sue continued: ‘She, or he, “who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” J. S. Mill’s words, those are. I have been reading it up. Why can’t you act upon them? I wish to, always.’ – p. 267

Jude and Sue live happily together for several years and overcoming various obstacles including the return of Arabella. The only problem is Jude and Sue’s reluctance at marrying, preferring to only live together on their own free will.

‘I just have the same dread lest an iron contract should extinguish your tenderness for me, and mine for you, as it did between our unfortunate parents.’ – p. 307

This becomes increasingly problematic when the children come and they are continuously shunned by their community, causing them to move to different towns every so often.  Their time together comes to an end after an incident to their three children causing deep distress in Sue who believes she is being punished for choosing to lead the life she wanted. She leaves Jude and returns to Phillotson  leaving Jude stricken and lost.

Jude is a sad read, a tale of a man and woman who are eventually beaten down by social constructs and unable to rise despite their intellect and enthusiasm. Jude’s inability to enter university is crushing especially when it is clear Jude has the intelligence and diligence to deserve a place in the ancient university halls that were theoretically designed for people like him:

‘You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’ – p. 181

Sue and Jude’s dismay of the idea of marriage is probably the most controversial aspect in the novel, with the two preferring to live together as unbound partners. The fact that all their union was missing was a piece of paper is irrational particularly since the two have demonstrated that the sanctity of marriage license has not saved their first marriages. The book is quite racy, in comparison with the other Victorian novels. Copious amounts of alcohol and obvious sexual relations take place and proven when there are children.

It’s a pretty devastating novel, particularly since it was Hardy’s last. The poor man was crucified for daring to explore the ideas of sex, marriage and relationships. Ironically enough, I thought it was a quite religious read too with many references to the bible going over my head. A very bleak read but very rewarding. It has also made me highly appreciative of having attended university!

If you are still reading this very long review, this is a great trailer for the book. This was really what made me want to read the book because I didn’t know anything about it.

Beware: there are spoilers in it.

Review: “A Child’s Book of True Crime” by Chloe Hooper

I wished I really were a little girl. Little children can transform themselves from magic birds into flying strongmen. At play, children wear intense expressions and make a range of hero noises … running with their arms stretched straight ahead, the children become the most powerful and beautiful – the most super – people in the universe. – p. 19

Kate Byrne is a 22-year-old primary school teacher living alone in a sleepy, quiet town of Endport in Tasmania, Australia. She is having an affair with the father of one of her brightest pupils and whose wife has recently released a novel based on an unsolved crime in Endport of a young adulteress – Murder at Black Swan Point. With an vivid, and unnerving overactive imagination, Kate retells the unsolved crime through the eyes of a community of local animals which is interwoven with her narrative.

“Wally,” said Terence breathlessly. “Whatever has happened?”

“Oh dear!” sobbed the usually gruff wombat. “Poor Ellie Siddell …”

Terence raised an eyebrow.

“Well,” Wally murmured, slightly shamefaced, “I guess you’ve heard about her torrid personal life?” – p. 10

Ellie Siddell was the young assistant and lover to the local vet, Graeme Harvey, until she was brutally murdered, having been repeatedly stabbed in the face and chest. The most obvious culprit of the crime was Margot Harvey, Graeme’s wife, but she was never seen again after that night. Her car was found parked at the Suicide Cliffs and, although her body was never found, it is assumed Margot was the murderer.

As Kate becomes more paranoid about her affair being discovered, she increasingly begins to draw parallels between her life with Ellie Siddell’s. Kate further discovers clues that her lover’s wife knows, with strange late night phone calls to her house, an eerie scratching on her classroom door ‘I know’ and with her brakes tampered with, Kate fears for her life.

But Kate herself is an unusual character and an unreliable narrator. She is a teacher, an adult, but she is fascinated with the world of children and is almost a child herself. She asks her fourth-graders philosophical questions and it utterly rapt with their responses, particular her lover’s son’s replies. In some more slightly disturbing passages, she baby-talks to her lover.

Chloe Hooper’s debut novel is an amazing read. It reads like a hybrid of true crime fiction, a thriller, a children’s story and history. The plot is tightly written and consistently builds up the tension leaving you to constantly wonder how the story could possibly end? The downside to this is, of course, the ending might not reach people’s expectations. I thought it was slightly an anti-climatic ending and a little disappointed. However, this was a thrilling and extremely enjoyable read and I finished it in one sitting.

Review: “The Seance” by John Harwood

The Seance is the second novel from Australian writer John Harwood. His first was the amazingly creepy and wondefully gothic The Ghost Writer and his second novel carries on the gothic theme. Unfortunately, and most disappointingly, the novel largely falters and the writing never quite captures the atmosphere it deserves.

The novel is set in the mid-nineteenth century where mesmerism, spiritualists and seances were at its height of popularity. A young girl, Constance Langton, is emotionally shunned by her mother who is overwhelmed by grief after the death of Constance’s younger sister, Alma, and is ignored by her father. Constance grows up lonely and detached and wonders if she is really a foundling, an orphan or child put up for adoption, since her parents never appear to hold any love for her. When her father abandons the family, a desperate Constance takes her mother to a seance where there is an understanding between Constance and the medium. Her mother is momentarily happy again when she thinks she has spoken to Alma but Constance’s mother soon tragically dies.

Not long after the death, a lawyer named John Montague, gets in contact with Constance who has now inherited a mysterious and desolate manor called Wraxford Hall. She is advised the hall is a place where dark misforgivings has occurred in the past and to burn it down as nothing good has ever come to anybody who has owned the hall. The hall is also the site of a twenty-year-old mystery which has never been solved.

In order for the story to be told, the narrative has been broken up into several sections from several different characters as it skips through the century. While it does work to some extent and it draws out the suspense, it never quite meshes and it jarrs the story. Constance’s narrative is not particularly interesting and it takes quite awhile to work into the story.

It’s a good read but, unfortunately, it’s nothing memorable.

Review: “Dead until Dark: Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Series” by Charlaine Harris

This first book in the Sookie Stackhouse vampire series is another retelling of the timeless tale of the Vampire. I got interested in this series after watching True Blood and, from a literary perspective, I prefer the T.V. series as it corrects the faults evident in Harris’ novels. While I enjoyed the novel (I finished it in one sitting. A very easy read.) where Harris weaves a believable and fast paced story, there were moments of such corny and clunky dialogue that I burst out laughing at inappropriate times. For example, this is how Sookie describes herself to us:

“I’m blond and blue-eyed and twenty-five, and my legs are strong and my bosom is substantial, and I have a waspy waistline”.

There is a serious lack of character development in the book. Granted, it is the first in the series but after finishing the 177 page novel I felt as if I still didn’t know who Sookie Stackhouse is even though she narrates the story and is told in first person.

There are also some curious decisions taken by Harris. When Sookie loses her virginity to vampire Bill Compton, Sookie expresses her pain with “ow, ow, ow”. I found that a strange choice of words coming from the midst of sexual activity. Or perhaps it was meant to convey the comedic sense of the moment? However, I did enjoy the book. It is a new and modern take on the Vampire mythology, where vampires are now living out in the open, having “come out of the coffin”. This is due to the Japanese invention of True Blood which is able to provide Vampires with all their nutritional needs without their need to feast on humans. Of course, issues, instincts and satisfaction go much deeper than that. The small town where the novels are set features some unusual characters. Sookie, a telepathic waitress, is initially attracted to the vampire Bill Compton because of her inability to read his mind. I particularly like the idea that Vampire Bill has a fondness for plaiting Sookie’s hair and combing out knots after Sookie’s bath.

The traditional story of star-crossed lovers comes into play along with mystery, crime, allusions to incestuous acts, sex and drugs. This book certainly conveys the Vampire myth in a new and modern way.

Review: “Notes on a Scandal” by Zoe Heller

This dark, sinister tale is a recollection of a student-teacher affair. Barbara Covett, a lonely spinster in her sixties, is taken away by the new Pottery teacher, Sheba Hart, at St. George’s comprehensive school in London. Barbara’s notes detail, rather obsessively, the time when she first set sight on Sheba, their first interaction, their first outing, their first touch. As time goes on, Barbara worms her way into Sheba’s life and elects herself as Sheba’s rock and primary confidante. Sheba, a married mother of two, embarks on an affair with Steven Connolly, a year 11 student.

Notes is more of a tale of friendship than the scandalous affair and more of a study of Barbara than Sheba. A lonely outsider Barbara maintains the typical steely external armour but inside she is desperately lonely and maintains a grudge against society, having been scorned by friends and lovers throughout her life. The scenes depicting Barbara’s dying cat, Portia, is telling of Barbara’s isolation. The obsessive, sinister, and slightly mad nature of Barbara is also slyly revealed by Heller, particularly in the passage where Barbara describes the seeds of madness in certain people during her date with Bangs, and her admission to rubbing Portia’s nose in her own filth during the times when she didn’t make it to her litter box.

As the illicit affair reaches its climax (no pun intended!) Sheba increasingly relies on Barbara. Sheba naivety towards the affair and her seemingly innocent friendship draws her down as she becomes entangled in Barbara’s web.

The story was a great read and, despite the subject matter, it is also a surprisingly funny read. There were numerous times where I snickered or laughed out loud on the train. The characters are well drawn despite times where Sheba’s behaviour was almost unbelievable, at how blind she was. The sub-themes are contemporary covering issues of media coverage, tabloid newspapers and trashy magazines, and politics and bureaucratic and political red tape in the education system.