Sunday, 16 January 2011

Book of the Month: Little Boy Lost (Marghanita Laski)

The backdrop of Little Boy Lost, Marghanita Laski’s 1949 novel, is France, ravaged and extirpated at the end of the Second World War. The ‘schwerpunkt’ of the novel is the encounter between an Englishman and a five year old boy over a period of a week.

Hilary Wainwright is an Oxbridge educated poet who learns at the height of war that his little boy, whom he had left behind in France with his wife when France felled to the advancing German army in 1940, is lost. Two years later, the war finally over, Wainwright returns to France and amidst the devastation and desolation begins a search for his lost boy, on whom he had laid his eyes only once—on the day he was born.

Wainwright’s Jewish wife, Lisa, had stayed behind in Paris when her country was occupied by the Germans, and had been heavily involved with the resistance movement. Wainwright has received three letters from her, the last one sent a day before she was captured and killed by the Gestapo. She had passed the care of their son to her friend, Jeanne, who was also involved in the resistance. It is Jeanne’s fiancĂ©, Pierre, who, in 1943, had given the news to Wainwright that his only child was lost. Jeanne too was caught and killed by the Gestapo; however, the day before she was betrayed, she had passed the boy on to another contact. The trail has gone cold at that point. It is Pierre, who has meticulously followed all the possible traces and, to the extent one can be certain, has traced the missing boy to a Catholic Orphanage in a bucolic town fifty miles north of Paris.

Wainwright arrives in France. He has to decide whether the boy in the orphanage is really his own.

Wainwright is deeply ambivalent about what lays ahead. The reappearance of the boy who may or may not be his son has brought to surface emotions, and, linked to them, self-knowledge he has learned to suppress or ignore since he first learnt of his wife’s death and the disappearance of his son. Ever since Pierre informs him that he has traced a boy who might be his son, Wainwright has tied himself up in knots about how he is going to determine with certainty that the boy in the orphanage is his own, acknowledging only fleetingly what this doubt is masking: he is not sure whether he wants his boy back in his life. Ever since he learnt about the disappearance of his son—‘something that was made from the only security (his relationship with Lisa) he had ever known’—who, Wainwright had, until then, felt would one day provide him with comfort and warmth, he had learnt to cope with the sense of loss and despair by not thinking about the child, not thinking what fate might have befallen him; and, by not thinking, he has stopped feeling, to the extent that he has become almost comfortable with the wretchedness of his existence. So acute are his misgivings of love and tenderness that he is distrustful of the one chance that is given him that might bring back happiness in his life. ‘I don’t want them [love, tenderness, and happiness],’ he tales Pierre. ‘I can do without those things. I couldn’t endure being hurt again . . . I have got nothing to offer a child . . . I just want to be left alone so that I can’t be hurt again.’ Wainwright, who has had a very difficult relationship with his own mother, is far from convinced that he would be an ideal father, especially to a boy with whom he has not bonded and who may not even be his own son. The night before he leaves for the town in which the orphanage is situated, Wainwright subjects Pierre to repeated questions, expressing doubts about Pierre’s methods, all of which serve to confirm that it would be impossible to confirm beyond any shadow of doubt that the child in question is his own. At the same time, this is his only chance to trace his child; there are no other leads, and if he does not catch the next day’s train, he would have to live forever with the knowledge that he let go of the one chance of finding his son, whom, his wife had written him in what turned out to be her last letter, he must save. ‘Trust your instinct,’ Pierre advises him. ‘If this is really your son . . . you will know as soon as you set eyes on him.’

Still assailed by doubts, Wainwright decides to travel to the town, but without Pierre whose presence, he fears, would put pressure on him to accept the child as his own. ‘I’ve got to be free to escape,’ he tells Pierre.

Upon reaching the town (referred to throughout the novel as town A___), the desolation around him, the humbling of the once proud people, and the widespread corruption does nothing to alleviate Wainwright’s gloom. And when he meets the boy, whom the nuns at the orphanage have named Jean, his instincts tell him nothing. At the behest of the Mother Superior, Wainwright agrees to spend a week in the depressing town and spend two hours every day with the boy. Over the next few days a bond develops between Wainwright and the boy. The boy clutches to the comfort of the nascent relationship with the avidity of one deprived of personal warmth and love. This only serves to increases Wainwright’s unease. He is none the wiser whether the boy is his son. He has not shown even a flicker of recognition at the name of his mother and her friend, and Wainwright has seen no resemblance between his features and those of his dead wife. He is therefore surprised when more than one person draws his attention to the resemblance between the boy’s facial features to his own. He also remembers that his wife’s Polish aunts had large dark eyes just as the boy. However, none of this, he keeps repeating to himself, clinches the issue. As the week draws to a close, and the Mother Superior becomes less and less subtle in her suggestion that he should accept the boy as his own, Wainwright’s resistance grows; he is only too aware that the little boy is dangerously close to reawakening his sensibility to love, and he is not sure he is capable of dealing with it.  He tries to escape the predicament by finding succour in short term, purely sexual, relationship with the niece of the owner of the hotel in which he is staying. The niece is to return to Paris on what would be Wainwright’s last day in the town. He decides that the boy is most probably not his own; thinks of a number of practical difficulties he would face if he were to return to England with the boy; rationalises that there is no urgency; that he can always return to the town some other time, perhaps next year, and make a decision; and resolves on finding comfort in the ample bosom of the hotel owner’s niece in her apartment in Paris. Then, the day before his return journey, in a Funfair in the town, Wainwright notices an object that rekindles an old memory which would give him the courage to do that which he must.

Little Boy Lost is one of those rare novels that can be enjoyed at different levels. The dilemmas facing Laski’s taciturn protagonist have themes that go beyond the confines of the narrative structure. How does one come to terms with loss? How does one deal with uncertainty? Can one trust one’s instincts? Does one have the moral compass to guide oneself to take decisions that have far-reaching consequences?  However, the novel works extremely well as a straightforward tale of a father looking for his lost son. Laski’s prose—pellucid and not overburdened with sentimentality—has a hypnotic quality to it. Each sentence is more than just a conveyer of facts; it has the exciting quality of saying what it has to say distinctly; each sentence conveys more than what its length might allow it to portray. This is a writer who obviously cares deeply for her prose, who has fully invested herself in it.  The novel is expertly paced and reads like a thriller. With minimal of fuss Laski makes the reader aware of the subintelligitur—she does not have to spell everything out; she credits the reader’s intelligence. The denouement, when it arrives, leaves the reader feeling incredibly moved.

In Little Boy Lost Marghanita Laski combines sharply observant eye with penetrating psychological understanding. She writes like a dream. Nothing can be bettered in this excellent novel. 

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Books read in 2010 (Non-fiction)

In the non-fiction category I read quite a few interesting memoirs in 2010. Two of which were Becoming British: the making of Mr. Hai’s daughter by Yasmin Hai (who is a television presenter of Pakistani descent) and A Beginner’s Guide to Acting English by Shappi Khorasandi (who is a stand-up comedienne of Iranian descent). Every society, as the writer Will Self once said, needs ‘the other’ who is demonised. I’d say that ‘the other’ also helps the majority community to define itself. At a time when the former British Prime-minister Toni Blair has identified militant Islam as the biggest threat to our society, I was interested to read the experiences of Khorasandi and Hai, who both come from migrant Muslim families. These are warm, affecting recollections of growing up in the London of 1970s and 1980s, and if there is one lesson you can take away it is that it is foolish to paint the fastest growing religion in the world with a broad brush.

Other winsome memoirs I read were Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and Laura Shane Cunningham’s Sleeping Arrangements. Bryson is very popular in the UK because of his travelogues. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid has all the hallmarks of a Bill Bryson book: a benign, humourous view of life cloaked in witty prose. Laura Shaine Cunningham is not a household name in the UK; however, judging from her utterly delightful memoir of having been brought up by two eccentric uncles in the 1950s’ America, she ought to be.

Marrying Anita is an unusual account of an American woman of immigrant Indian stock to fine love in modern India. Anita Jain, who has a degree in journalism from Harvard shifted to New Delhi a few years ago with the mission of finding a life-partner. What follows is a witty, at times hilarious, at times thought-provoking, unprejudiced, and always entertaining account of what happened during Jain’s one year stay in New Delhi. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this memoir.

Another hugely entertaining and absorbing memoir was Bringing Nothing to the Party, Paul Carr’s memoir, in which he tells about his (ultimately unsuccessful) account of becoming a web millionaire in a year. Carr is a very witty writer and the memoir also allows the readers a peek into the world of geeky, twenty-something millionaires.

Piers Morgan’s Misadventure of a Big-Mouth Brit is the kind of book you read in the loo when your brain goes into theta and anus does the thinking. Very amusing, though. Morgan knows how to belt out clever, sparkling sentences.

Diana Athill’s After A Funeral, by contrast, is relentlessly grim. I guess, when you set out to tell the story of an alcoholic gambler who spent his whole life torturing himself and those who tried to help him, before he decided to remove himself from the gene-pool, it is difficult to be cheery. In wondrous prose Athill presents a character study of a man who could have been—probably was—a genius, and, with candidness that is characteristic of her other memoirs, lays bare all aspects of her relationship with the man she refers throughout the memoir as ‘Didi’ (the only bit, perhaps crucial, about which Athill is less than candid is the identity of the person). I read ‘After A Funeral’ in December. It is the kind of book that imparts great wisdom about the human condition, but it definitely does not make a festive reading.

A memoir that is less than candid is Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae. The great Spark, it seems, set out to settle old scores when she decided to write her side of the story. Marked by Spark’s sardonic wit, the memoir is very readable—especially the first part where she describes her childhood in Edinburgh—but it reveals more about the things Spark chooses to remain silent about.

The Tongue Set Free is the first volume of the celebrated memoirs of Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel prize for Literature in the 1980s. I had read ‘Auto da Fe’, the only full length novel Canetti wrote, last year, and had enjoyed it tremendously. ‘Tongue Set Free’ is the account of Canetti’s childhood spent in three countries. It is an astonishing book, astonishing for the intense and close relationship Canetti had with his mother. I plan to read the other two volumes of Canetti’s autobiography in the coming year.

Elias Canetti was born in Bulgaria, in the family of Saphardic Jews, in the first decade of the twentieth century. His childhood could not have been more different from that of Kapka Cassabova, who was born in the same country, but in the seventh decade of the twentieth century, by which time Bulgaria had become one of the satellite countries of the Soviet Union. Cassabova’s account of growing up in a Communist Bulgaria is different from Canetti’s—but still very readable—not just because she seems to have very few happy memories, but also because Canetti’s recall of his childhood is not censored by his adult self (always a more difficult thing to do, I think) whereas Cassabova’s memories strike you as having been filtered through the colander of her adult self. That said A Street Without A Name gives you an interesting first-hand account of how it was in the Communist, Eastern Bloc countries.

Barbara Demich’s Nothing to Envy, which I have reviewed on this blog gives a sobering account of what passes for life in one of the two countries in the world that have seen no reason to jettison centrally controlled economy.

China, these days, is Communist only to the extent that the Party dictatorship controls the power. In every other sense the country has left the philosophy of Mao Tes-tung, the father of Communist China, whose poster looks down on people in the Tiananmen Square far behind. One wonders what Mao would have made of China in the twenty-first century. The Chinese-Canadian journalist Jane Wong’s account of her trip to China to atone for past sins when she believed in all the lies Mao fed to the world (Chinese Whispers) has been reviewed on the blog

Communism these days exists only in North Korea, Cuba and in the heads of the members of the Socialist Workers’ Party. Said Sayrafiezadeh’s bitter-sweet memoir (When Skatebords Will be Free) —more bitter than sweet, although he is remarkably rancour-free—of growing up in a dysfunctional family, where the only thing common between his parents was that a socialist revolution was going to take over America any time, brings a tear to your eyes even as you smile. Eminently readable.

Geoff Dyer is a Jack-of-all-Trades. He is a novelist, an essayist, a critic, a reviewer, and a writer who, according to the introductions to many of his books, specialises in writing genre defying works. Last year I read one of his genre defying works and quite liked it. This year I read a novel (Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi) which was dreadful, and another, non-fiction, genre defying work—Out of Sheer Rage, Dyer’s account of his attempts to write a book on D.H. Lawrence of whom he claims to be an admirer. It is an interesting book. It is more than interesting; it is a double bluff. On the face of it, it is a book about how Dyer never got round to writing a book about Lawrence, yet you are faced with the fact that he has written a book. The book is littered with Dyer’s comical self-observations and laments about his indecisiveness, lassitude procrastinations, and being a premier-league idler, none of which is supposed to hide the fact that in fact he is a very clever dude who has many intelligent things to say about Lawrence.

Julian Barnes is a favourite writer. I did not read any novels by him this year, but read Nothing to be Frightened of, Barnes’s meditation on death, which I have reviewed on the blog. Barnes take on what it means to be approaching death is thought provoking and amusing which, despite the morbid subject matter, brings a smile to your face.

Two books, of different genres, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading were The House of Wittgenstein, Alexander Waugh’s fascinating account of the family of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the tragic trajectories the lives of many of his siblings took; and  The Suspicions of M Whicher, Kate Summerscale’s utterly absorbing recreation of a Victorian murder, which is on par with the best of Agatha Christie murder mysteries.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Books read in 2010 (Translated Fiction)

I do not read enough translated works of fiction. In 2010 I read about a dozen.

Amas Oz is Israel’s most famous writer, and his Rhyming Life and Death is probably the best translated novel I read in 2010. It is difficult to pigeonhole this novel and I don’t think I can do better than what Oz himself said in an interview: it is an ‘introspective, experimental piece of writing that ushers the writer behind the scenes of a fiction making process.’

The Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov is most famous for his surreal classic, the mother of all magic realism, The Master and Margarita. Black Snow was one of the last novels Bulgakov wrote. He was not able to complete it (probably because of his failing health), and the novel had to wait for almost thirty years before it was published (by which time Bulgakov had been dead for several years). Black Snow is a black comedy, and is apparently very autobiographical, reflects as it does the censorship problems Bulgakov was facing in Stalin’s Russia. The protagonist, Maxudov (Bulgakov’s alter ego) has written a ‘dreadful novel’. As Maxudov is seriously contemplating suicide the novel gets picked up by a literary journal and from there it is brought to the notice of a famous independent theatre, which gets interested. Suddenly, Maxudov, the failed novelist, becomes a playwright. What follows is Muxadov’s experiences in the world of theatre and literary elites whose egos are as petty as their reputations are high. Black Snow is a delightful comedy; Bulgakov had a great knack for bringing to the fore the absurdities of life. The novel pullulates with characters, many of which are apparently based on real life characters in the Moscow theatre world on the 1930s. However, you don’t have to know the real life connections of them to enjoy the novel, although I got a tad confused with several similar sounding Russian names.

The Elegance of Hedgehog, French writer Muriel Barberry’s second novel, became an international best-seller upon its publication. Barberry taught philosophy before she became a writer. That perhaps is the reason why there is a lot of ersatz philosophy in the novel. The novel crackles with wit, but that is not enough, I am afraid, to sustain your interest, as it suffers fatally from poor construction of plot and main characters that are about as believable as mannequins.

I read two novels of Irene Nemirovsky, whose Suite Francaise, discovered decades after her death, became a best-seller. I have not yet read Suite Francaise; the two novels I read, The Courilof Affair (which has a kernel of historical truth at its centre) and Fire in the Blood, give glimpses of the talent Nemirovsky possessed. Fire in the Blood, discovered accidentally a couple of years ago, was Nemirovasky’s last completed work. She wrote this novel in what turned out to be the last years of her life that ended squalidly and unfairly in Auschwitz.It is an intense, claustrophobic little novel, and at no time is the reader unaware of the menace lurking beneath the idyll.

I haven’t read very many Japanese novels, and the one I read in 2010, Yukio Mishima’s Thirst for Love did little to increase my ardour for Japanese fiction. I am sure it is cultural, but I just didn’t get the novel. The characters spend inordinate amount of time being scrupulously polite to one another and express their intentions so obliquely that you have got to be a mind-reader to figure out what they actually mean. A tedious read.

Night Train to Lisbon, another philosophical best-seller by Pascal Mercier, was a disappointment: too many loose ends and the central character hell-bent on behaving inexplicably just for the sake of it.

I had wanted to read Giorgio Bassinni’s The Garden of Finzi-Continis, hailed as one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century, for a long time. It tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family (Finzi-Continis) which fell on bad times, to put it euphemistically, once the Fascists seized power in Italy and the Second World War began. The narrator of the novel is a bit like the narrator of Willa Carhter’s A Lost Lady (although the two novels could not be more different in their subject matters and their treatments). He is partly in awe, partly jealous, of the Finzi-Continis, for whom nothing seems to go wrong until everything begins to go wrong. May be it was the translation, maybe it was the dour subject matter, but I found the novel very hard-going. When the reader reaches the end of the novel, I guess, the expectation is that he would ponder and shake his head in sadness at the cruel blow the fate dealt to the Finzi-Continis. I just felt relieved that I managed to finish the novel without skipping the pages after pages of tedious descriptions of the garden of the Finzi-Continis.

 Journey into the Past is the second Stephan Zweig novel discovered in the past few years (the other being The Post-Office Girl). Zweig, a short-story writer of great eminence in Austria and a friend of Freud, left the country after its annexation by the Nazis in the 1930s. After spending a few years in England, he went to live in South America, where, in 1941, he killed himself. Zweig, like Joseph Roth (another talented German Jewish writer who became ‘homeless’ after the Nazis came to power in Germany), continued to have fond nostalgia for the bygone world, namely, the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Journey into the Past, in its theme and the principles that guide its narrator, is very Old World. If you really want to enjoy Journey into the Past you have to suspend your twenty-first century sensibilities of how affairs between men and women are conducted.

Imre Kerteszz won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. I had read Fateless, Kertsez’s astonishing autobiographical novel of a young boy’s experience of the German concentration camp (Kertesz is a survivor of Auschwitz), a few years ago. It is one of those novels that stay in your mind for a long time after you have finished reading them. The novel I read in 2010 was A Detective Story. At barely hundred pages, it is more like a novella. Set in an unnamed country in Latin America, the novel tries to make an oblique point that the constant surveillance and persecution can have consequences as much for the victim as for the perpetrator. 

Sandor Marai’s Esther’s Inheritance is thematically similar to his best-seller Embers. It describes a dramatically charged meeting between its protagonists after a gap of many years, and is open to all types of interpretation as regards the symbolic meaning of the encounter. Marai, a prolific writer who rose to fame in Hungary before the Second World War, and died in obscurity in the USA (he shot himself) made a post-humus entry on the world stage when the manuscript of Embers was accidentally discovered.  Esther’s Inheritance has all the hallmarks of a Marai classic, and, since, I had read Embers years ago, I was not troubled too much by the thematic similarity between it and Esther’s Inheritance

(to be continued . . .)

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Books read in 2010 (Fiction)

2010 is gone, over and done with. The world has dragged its sorry hide across another year.

Reading is a good hobby to have. It broadens your horizons, gives you (sometimes) a different perspective on life, and (in my case) improves the way you can employ the language to express yourself more effectively. Books help you to develop a philosophy towards life, which can help you to have a handle on when the going gets tough. 

2010 was a bumper year for reading. I read more than 100 books this year, a personal milestone. Hopelessly anal, I have kept a record of books I have read every year, for almost a decade. I also give them stars, ranging from five (books I absolutely loved) to no stars (complete waste of time and money). In 2010 I easily beat my previous best of 75, which was in 2005.

My target, every year, is to read at least fifty books; I try to read one book every week. This year I averaged almost two books a week. As usual fiction outnumbered non-fiction by a ratio of almost three to one. I love reading fiction. Writing fiction, I believe, is more creative than non-fiction. But the main reason I end up every year reading a lot more fiction than non-fiction is that there are very few non-fiction subjects that interest me.

I read more than 75 novels this year and, as I went through the list, I realised that I could not clearly remember the plots of a few of them, which probably reflects nothing more than that I read far too many books this year.

I began the year with Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby. I have read most of the novels of Faulks, some of which I have enjoyed immensely, such as his trilogy related to the First and Second World Wars, while some, such as Human Traces, disappointed. Engleby, a study of the aberrant mind of its eponymous hero, is a winner. If psychiatrists were the heroes of Human Traces Faulks turns his mind to the mentally unhinged, although not in the conventional sense, in this novel. Like Human Traces Engleby is hugely ambitious in its scope, the difference is Faulks pulls it off this time. It is a tense novel, and the reader heaves a big sigh of relief when the men in white coat finally arrive.

Another novel of Faulks I read, towards the end of 2010, is his latest: A Week in December. Here, Faulks turns his satirical eye on the contemporary London as he describes a week in the lives of its several protagonists in the week leading to Christmas in 2007. Faulks crams in everything that is of contemporary interest—from a critical examination (from a Western perspective) of Islam to the murky and morally ambiguous world of hedge funds—and nearly pulls it off. While the novel could have done, perhaps, with fewer characters, on the whole it is an enjoyable read. Faulks is a writer at the peak of his powers.

In Birds of Passage, Burnice Rubens, celebrated for her black comedies and satires, is in sparkling form. The novel (first published in the 1980s), which boasts of Rubens’s trademark deadpan humour, is also an exquisite comedy of manners. The novel is sadly out of print, but it is worthwhile searching for it in second-hand bookshops—that is how I found it—or ordering from the net.

I am a fan of Tibor Fischer. His 1993 debut novel, Under the Frog, is, in my view, one of the best novels of the twentieth century. Since then Fischer has published a few more novels which have failed to attract the same critical approbation as ‘Under the Frog’. Preposterous plots characterize Fischer’s novels, and the best way to enjoy them is to suspend your credulity and plunge into the bizarre worlds of his protagonists who seem to have only a nodding acquaintance with sanity. Good to be God, Fischer’s most recent novel, is no different from his earlier novels, like The Thought Gang. There is not much in the way of plot, but the novel is outrageously funny. Give Fischer a go if you haven’t read him before.

I read two novels of the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee this year. I have reviewed Diary of a Bad Year on this blog. The other novel was Summertime, the third autobiographical novel (or fictionalized memoir) Coetzee has published in the past decade, which follows Boyhood and Youth. Depicting a period of five years in the mid 1970s in the life of a dead author called J.M. Coetzee (who was, like the real J.M. Coetzee, also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature), ‘Summertime’ is intense, gloomy, sombre, and, at times, frankly depressing—something which I have come to expect from Coetzee. In almost all of his recent fiction Cotzee’s protagonists bear a striking resemblance to the author himself. Quite why Coetzee has chosen to publish these as works of fiction instead of as memoirs is not clear to me, but it is a pleasure to read Coetzee’s sparse, yet exquisite, prose.

One Day is David Nicholl’s third novel, and the first I read. His debut novel (Starter for Ten) was hugely successful and was made into a film. One Day was described on some blogs as ‘chick-lit for men’. I was not expecting a great deal from One Day and perhaps because of this reason it took me by surprise by its depth. It is a wonderful novel that is so true to the lives we lead in the twenty first century. There are passages of great wit in the novel, which I found to be in the same tradition as that of vintage Nick Hornby and Jonatthan Coe.

I did not get round to read Jonathan Coe in 2010, but read Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked, which tells the story of a nerdy forty something stuck in a non-job in a dreary English sea-side town, obsessively following a reclusive one hit wonder singer and composer from the 1970s. Hornby writes with his trademark wit and pithy observations. Although often billed as a comic writer, Hornby has always tried to tackle grander issues facing modern men. In Juliet, Naked Hornby attempts to fathom how and where it all goes wrong. It is an almost good novel. I wouldn’t rate it as Horby’s best, but even when he is not at his best Hornby is readable.

Continuing with the theme of novels about the dilemmas facing modern men and women, a novel I enjoyed reading was Tim Lott’s The Seymour Tapes. It is an entertaining novel, a page-turner, but Lott makes a serious point too: the constant Orwellian surveillance to which we are subjected does not necessarily bring us nearer to truth, and, into the bargain, can have tragic consequences.

Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn attracted rave reviews and accolades upon its publication. It is also the first Toibin novel I read. Brooklyn tells the story of an Irish immigrant in the United States, in the 1950s. Through its protagonist, Toibin tackles the perennial dilemma of an immigrant: where is home?  It is a modest novel that is formulaic and dewy-eyed at places, but it works mainly because of Toibin’s alluring prose. I shall read more of Toibin in the coming years.

Sadie Jones burst on to the UK literary scene with her debut novel Outcast, which I had read in 2009 and liked. Jones’s second novel, Small Wars, which I read in 2010, is set, like her debut novel, in the 1950s. It tells the story of a young soldier, stationed in Cyprus, whose world begins to fall apart. Jones is a master of quiet hysteria and the reader gets sucked into the stories of her protagonists, helped along by Jones’s clipped sentences and sprinty dialogues (she was a screen-writer before she turned her attention to novel writing).  Not a great novel, but a satisfying read.

A novel I would have no hesitation in calling great is Barbara Kingsglover’s The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 2010. At more than 600 pages it is a behemoth of a novel (but don’t worry, the print is big). Through the life of its protagonist, Harrison William, Kingsglover tackles big themes with big success: the uneasy relationship between art and politics in the United States (the witch-hunt of artists suspected to have Communist sympathies during the McCarthy era) and the lacuna between a life reported and a life lived.

Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap outsold all the Booker nominations in 2010, in the UK. The premise of the novel is like this: at a family barbecue, an obnoxious, over-pampered child is faintly threatening to another child, and is slapped by the father of that child. This action sets in motion a series of events in the lives of the participants. The novel has an insistent energy, and Tsiolkas uses the event as a launch pad to delve into the inner lives of the eight primary characters and to examine the tensions lurking under the surface of multicultural Australia. Very entertaining.

William Boyd is a favourite writer of mine. I have read most of his novels and have liked most of them. Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd’s most recent offering, is endlessly inventive and continually entertaining, which more than makes up for its lack of pace and the plot that could have been tighter. Boyd aims to please, and please he does.

Matt Beaumont is probably not a big league writer in the sense he is (probably) not very well known outside of the UK. I have read a couple of novels of Beaumont and found them rip-roaringly funny. His most recent novel, Small World, which I read in 2010, is slightly different in that for the first time Beaumont introduces a dark element in his novel; it is not all laughs. A good holiday read.

Another good holiday read is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peeling Society. The novel overflows with clichés and the overdose of saccharine sentiments makes you sick; but if you can cope with it, the novel is an undemanding read. I have reviewed it on the blog earlier.

Louis de Berniers's Notwithstanding is a collection of stories set in the fictional English village of ‘Notwithstading’ which appeared, over the years, in different magazines. Berniers draws some memorable characters, and the stories which are superficially linked, are suffused with a sense of nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. I liked it.

The Infinities is John Banville’s first novel since his 2005 Booker winner, The Sea. The novel has all the linguistic elements which, depending on your predisposition, you will either adore or hate. I bet that 90% of people will need a dictionary to understand the meanings of at least half a dozen words in the novel. Banvilles has a ponderous, almost affected, style of writing. That said The Infinities is a jaunty little novel that will put you in a sunny mood.

Talking of novels delving in a ‘bygone era’, I read a couple of novels of Barbara Pym: Jane and Prudence which is set in the 1950s, and The Sweet Dove Died, which is set in the 1970s. Pym’s is a world populated by middle class housewives, spinsters, and parish priests (who are held in high esteem). They are undemanding reads and almost always comedy of manners. Pym has been compared to Jane Austen, which does her an injustice; she is far more entertaining than the dreadful Austen.

American writer Willa Carther’s A Lost Lady is also concerned with the passing of the old order (as A.S. Byatt notes in the introduction). It is an interesting character study of a lonely woman and her attempts to find an anchor in her life.

I read an Anita Brookner novel after a long time: Latecomers. In it Brookner examines the lives of two sixty something Jewish refugees, and lifelong friends, who have devised different strategies to cope with their experiences as well as to create traces of home in a society neither feels totally at home. At least in case of one, the cocoon of security is very fragile. It is a pleasure to read Brookner’s exact prose, in which not a single word is wasted. Anita Brookner is a superb writer and Latecomers is a wise novel.

The protagonist of Lisa Appignanesi’s The Memory Man, Bruno Lind, like one of the protagonists in Anita Brookner’s novel, is troubled by his past, especially that part which he can’t remember. It is an authentically researched novel, but the problem for Appignanesi is that the terrible subject matter (the Holocaust) has been dealt with by a number of haunting autobiographies and memoirs, in comparison with which fiction runs the risk of coming a poor second.

Another novel which has a Jewish figure at its centre is Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. Hemon is hailed as an exciting and refreshing new voice in American literature, and much is made of the fact that he writes in English which is his second language, although I guess there are many Indian writers out there writing in English which is surely not their first language. That said Hemon does have a quirky way of wrestling with the language. At the heart of Hemon’s ambitious novel is a real life historical figure: Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish refugee from the tsarist Russia who fled the 1903 Kishinev pogrom (in what is now Moldova) and arrived in Chicago, only to be shot by the police five years later. The modern day narrator of Hemon’s novel becomes interested in the life and death of Lazarus Averbuch. Where the novel succeeds is in drawing parallels between the xenophobic hysteria that gripped Chicago in which the Jews were perceived as the fifth element bent upon overturning the existing system, and the anti-Muslim paranoia that gripped the country after 9/11. Where the novel succeeds less is the part where the narrator decides to retrace the footsteps of Lazarus, ultimately leading to Sarajevo, Bosnia, from where the narrator (like Hemon himself) hails.

Towards the end of the year I read Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen. Ali’s debut novel, Brick Lane, received widespread accolade (I think it was also made into a film). ‘In the Kitchen’ is her third novel. Ali’s prose has the panache, and there are passages of great warmth and wisdom in the novel, but on the whole, it did not work for me, primarily because the plot structure is weak, and the main protagonist of the novel, Gabriel Lightfoot, is a hollow man.

I read Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman, which has recently been made into a film entitled ‘The American’ (starring George Clooney), just before Christmas 2010. Booth has attempted a psychological thriller and its hero is in the tradition of many an anti-hero in Graham Greene novels. Booth was a prolific and underrated writer, and this was his first novel I read. I suspect it is not his best.

Ian Mitchell’s Winter in Berlin is a strange little novel. Set in the former East Germany, it is a densely atmospheric novel. There isn’t much in the way of plot, but Mitchell has successfully managed to bring to life the shadowy world of East Germany.

I do not much read historical novels (the reason why I have not read a single novel of Philipa Gregory). I can just about cope with the novels which have historical background and in which a real life historical figure is not the main protagonist. Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels, has the backdrop of Mesopotamia as the world stood on the cusp of the First World War. It is a richly imagined, cannily planned tale of intrigue and subterfuge. It is also a thoroughly researched novel. Unsworth mobilises and positions his facts and myths in such a manner as to give the reader a tantalising glimpse into one of the most glorious empires of the Antiquity, the Assyrian Empire. Barry Unsworth is a favourite writer and my expectations were high when I took up reading Land of Marvels. And I was not disappointed. It is a smashing read.

A writer whose novel I read with great expectations is Sarah Waters. Having thoroughly enjoyed two of her Victorian mysteries, I had high expectations of The Little Stranger.  I picked up the book without reading any reviews. It is a beautifully written novel, very atmospheric, and, as it progressed, I could not wait to reach its end where, I was sure, Waters would provide some clever explanation. I was therefore a tad disappointed that the explanation was in the supernatural realm. It is a good ghost-story, though, if you like ghost stories.

In 2010 I read a few novels republished by Persephone Books, which, according to its website, publishes ‘neglected classics’ of the twentieth century, usually written by women. The novels I read were Marghanita Laski’s Little Boy Lost, Monica Dickens’s Mariana, Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at A Distance, Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Julia Strechey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Of these the one I liked the most was Little Boy Lost—it is a masterpiece. Someone at A Distance stands out in memory for its clinical dissection of the end of a marriage. I would be tempted to describe Mariana as the 1930s’ chick-lit (with no pejorative connotation) and a coming of age story rolled into one. Adorned by beautifully constructed sentences (Monica Dickens was the great Dickens’s great-grand daughter) and amiable wit, Mariana is a pleasure to read. The other two Persephone novels are slight, but easy enough reads. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which was recently made into a film starring Frances Mcdermot) is a cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (in particular, Vile Bodies).

The only collection of short-story I read in 2010 was Jeffrey Archer’s And thereby Hangs a Tale. I am an unabashed, unapologetic admirer of Jeffrey Archer. I thoroughly enjoyed his latest collection of short-stories, many of which, if Archer is to be believed, are based on real life incidents. 

American Fiction

I read a few ‘American novels’ this year (in addition to The Lacuna A Lost Lady, and The Lazarus Project, which is partly set in America). One of them was Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. Moore has a formidable reputation in America as a short-story writer. I have not read any of her short-story collections (mainly because I don’t like reading short-stories, which I think is like conversing with several people at a dinner party for five minutes each as opposed to sitting down for a long chat in front of fireplace with your close friends). With A Gate at the Stairs Moore returns to the longer version of fiction writing, after many years. The result is a mixed bag. It is a kind of coming of age novel in which the protagonist looks back to the time, shortly after 9/11, when she was a student in the mid-western town of Troy. The novel is entertaining in parts—the protagonist has a GSOH and keen eye for the absurdities of life—but overall, the novel is dimly dissatisfying, not least because different elements of the story don’t gel well. The protagonist may be in her early twenties, but has wisdom of a fifty year old, which tends to irritate you after a while.

The Sorrows of an American was another novel, which I finished reading quickly (it is well written and very intimate). Siri Hustvedt’s prose is lyrical and it flows smoothly; there is also a bit of suspense; but there is no real plot to hold the story together.

I did not quite know what to make of Joshua Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed. The protagonist of the novel, Tim Farnsworth, is leading for all appearance a successful life—material wealth and a happy family; yet he has this irresistible urge to repeatedly walk out on this life—and I mean he literally walks out and keeps on walking aimlessly for months on ends. Is it a parable? I don’t know. Is there a bigger message here? I don’t know. Did I like the novel? I don’t know. Will I read another Joshua Ferris novel? I don’t know.

Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside is a hugely ambitious novel, too ambitious for its own good, if you ask me. As in Carter Beats the Devil, his immensely successful and entertaining debut novel, Gold weaves into his story historical facts and fiction against the huge canvas, that of the First World War. There are three strands in the novel—each a novel in its own right—which barely converge. It gets pretty exhausting after a while. I had to take a break after I read about 250 pages of Sunnyside; I kept the novel aside for a month, read a couple of chick-flicks (Rachel Hore’s A Place of Secrets and Marina Lewycka’s We are All Made of Glue) to recharge my batteries, before taking on the challenge of reaching the end of ‘Sunnyside’.

Joyce Carol Oate’s A Fair Maiden is a road-crash; it is not just a road-crash, it is a multiple pile up. Oates tells the story of a relationship between a vulnerable young girl and a much older man who has vulnerabilities of his own. The novel seems to have been banged out in a hurry, as though Oates wrote the novel only to fulfil her contractual obligations to her publishers and her heart was not in it.

The Ghost at the Table, Suzanne Bernne’s third novel, on the other hand, is superbly executed. In simple yet evocative prose, Berne explores the age-old theme of difficult family relationships, family secrets, and the result is a novel that is a pleasure to read.

Ed Park’s Personal Days takes a wry look at a group of New York employees in an unnamed corporation. Park has a sharp eye for the minutiae of the office-life, and he has taken so much effort to make the sentence witty, you can hear them creak.

Finally, I read novels of the two of the giants of American literature. Kurt Vonnegut is a favourite author; I like Vonnegut because he always poses twisters to our moral sense. In ‘Mother Night’, the novel I read in 2010, Vonnegut tells the story of Howard W Campbell, an American who is standing a trial in Israel for being a Nazi propagandist. Vonnegut’s books are frequently about ideas. In Mother Night he challenges the black and white dichotomy which influences our world view and makes us aware of the shivery shades of grey.

At a time when his contemporaries have retired from fiction writing, Philip Roth seems to be going through a late flowering of his creativity. I can’t keep with the man’s fecundity. The Humbling, the novel I read in 2010, tells the story of a once successful actor, whose talent and confidence desert him in his old age. He then starts a relationship with a forty year old lesbian who is also the daughter of his old friends. After 13 months of experimenting with heterosexuality the lesbian decides to revert to her former position, so to speak. The old man, who has somehow managed to survive the end of his acting career, has no resources left to cope with this humbling and kills himself. At 140 pages, The Humbling is a short novel, and Roth keeps up the pace, but that is about it. It is an unpleasant little novel and you can neither empathize with nor comprehend the motivations of the two main protagonists. Roth has published five novels in the past five years; on the present evidence he ought to take a break. 

(to be continued . . .)