Books I had to read and mostly did not like, Part 1

I was recently given a stack of books to read for a literary prize which should probably remain nameless. Part of my duties was to write a short review of each, justifying why it should or should not be recommended for the prize. I present these here, and should warn you that despite striving for fairness, I probably failed at times. I have an insurmountable aversion to some genres (barring the honorable exceptions that exist in each), and so may not have been as fair to the several books of quasi-mystical self-help masquerading as novels that the pile contained. To their authors, I can only apologise, and wish them better luck in the next prize-giving year.

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

This is the story of how Ella, an affluent woman with a slightly unhappy marriage reads a manuscript about the poet Rumi, and is so overwhelmed by its timeless precepts about the human heart that she falls in love with its author, and the way of Rumi, and subsequently leaves her affluent life and slightly unhappy marriage. That this is going to happen is telegraphed to the reader with incredible haste.

And it happened fast, so fast in fact that Ella had no time to realize what was happening and to be on guard, if one could ever be on guard against love. (3)

Little did she know that this was going to be not just any book, but the book that changed her life. In the time she was reading it, her life would be rewritten. (14)

The novel takes no chances that Ella’s decision to leave her husband and children will be seen in a negative light. From the moment of his introduction,  it is clear that he has mistresses and is conscending. Yet when he discovers her affair with the manuscript’s, even this unlikable man is remarkably understanding:

I don’t blame you Ella, I deserve it. I neglected you, and you looked for compassion elsewhere.

The prose throughout the novel is over-scented, constantly attempting a kind of emotional wisdom that lacks foundation in either believable characters or even the ideas of Rumi. The morning call to prayer is described as being  ‘beautiful, rich and mysterious. And yet at the same time there is something uncanny about it, almost eerie. Just like love.’ (345)

Even after the death of the manuscript’s author, emotional depth is absent.  Ella simply says that she has learned ‘that ‘death was not something to be afraid of’. This last-gasp at profundity is immediately undercut by her chirpily telling her daughter,

‘I’m going to Amsterdam. They have incredibly cute little flats, overlooking the canals. I can rent one of those. I’ll need to improve my biking.’

The Wilding by Maria McCann

The Wilding is set in England in 1672, just after the end of the Civil War. Jonathan Dymond, a young man who works as a cider-maker, lives with his loving parents and leads a quiet, life, travelling around the neighbouring villages with his mobile cider-press. When Jonathan’s father receives a mysterious letter from his dying brother, Jonathan grows suspicious and decides to visit his uncle’s widow to investigate. At his Aunt Harriet’s house he meets Tamar, one of his aunt’s servants, and begins to unravel the circumstances surrounding his uncle’s death.

This is a well-written novel, with a fast-moving plot, which seems well-researched  (not least in the minutiae of cider making). Thematically, it ably charts Jonathan’s journey from an initially bucolic existence to one that is more alive to the tensions and dangers inherent in people’s relations. The main problem with the novel is that the characters lack depth, especially its protagonist, which makes it difficult to be interested in his minor evolution.  Perhaps the use of at least one other perspective in the novel (for example, Tamar’s) would have brought variety and balance to the book, which for the most part lacks genuine tension- even when two women try to murder Jonathan, there is no real sense of danger. For the most part, the novel also lacks a strong sense of period. There is rarely the impression of a different culture and sensibility to that of the present.

Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History is the third novel in Gibson’s foray into the contemporary techno-thriller, a genre whose rules he subverts (or perhaps ignores), as this novel lacks the violence and sense of imminent catastrophe that such books rely on. The  plot centres around the attempt to locate the designer of a secret brand of clothing, with the aim of getting them to design clothing for the US military. Behind this, there are occassional , vague hints that Something Big Is About to Happen. Barring a few, somewhat dutiful chase sequences, the book mainly consists of fairly roughdrawn, though likable, characters serving as vehicles for Gibson’s observations of our contemoporary Western mores. At their best, these allow Gibson to make familiar moments into something unsettling.

She hung up before he could say goodbye. Stood there with her arm cocked, phone at ear-level, suddenly aware of the iconic nature of her unconscious pose. Some very considerable part of the gestural language of public places, that has once belonged to cigarettes, now belonged to phones. (103)

He was elsewhere, the way people were before their screens, his expression that of someone piloting something, looking into a middle distance that had nothing to do with geography. (179)

At other times, Gibson seems to be trying to hard to impart significance to the quotidian, as in this description of driving through London, which seems somewhat sub-Pynchon.

Like entering a game, a layout, something flat and mazed, arbitrary but fractallly constructed from beautifully detailed but somehow unreal buildings, its order perhaps shuffled since the last time he’d been here. The pixels that comprised it were familiar, but it remained only provisionally mapped, a protean territory, a box of tricks, some possibly even benign. (37)

For the most part, the prose is taut and smooth flowing, though Gibson does over-punctuate at times, as in the following sentence which has too much going on it.

The van slowed, honked, changed lanes, stopped briefly, turned. (373)

The novel is written in short numbered sections of between 1 and 6 pages, which serve to flick attention between Hollis and Milgrim, the two narrative subjects of the novel. Though this makes the book easy to read, it might have been profitable to deepen our understanding of some of the other characters- even a brief diversion from the alternation of the two main characters would suffice. Another issue with the novel (and its predecessors in the trilogy) is the sense that Gibson likes his main characters too much for anything truly bad to happen to them. As such, the resolution of the novel is somewhat flat, with most the main characters forming stable couples, a modern equivalent of the traditional all-the-good-people-get-married kind of ending. With regard to the (somewhat half-heartened) promises of a paradigmatic shift in society, this turns out be somewhat ludicrous- a way of predicting the financial markets’ behaviour seventeen minutes in advance. Gibson has written better, more imaginative novels, with a greater sense of threat, than this. Though an enjoyable read, it is not recommended for the prize.

The Faithless Wife by Jo Eames

The Faithless Wife is billed as a novel about secrets, in both the present and the past. Kate, the main character of the novel, has run away to Menorca, a place she last visited as a child. After seeing a body on the beach, she finds that the dead man was an old man named Luis she had met as a child. The novel is written in short sections that shift quickly between Kate’s present, her childhood, and Luis’s experiences during the Spanish civil war. Though there’s a lot of promising historical material in this latter narrative strand, Eames struggles to portray the people during this era in a convincing manner. Many of its characters speak as if auditioning for the part of Revolutionary:

“Married? You? I’d like to see the man brave enough to try that, comrade. Even Stalin might not be man of steel enough for that job” (23)

“This time it’s our land, our people’s land. We’re not mercenaries or occupiers. We’ve sworn loyalty to the Second Republic that the people elected, that we elected. And the only way I’m giving up this island to an invader is with my last breath!” (115)

This wooden characterisation means that the past is not particularly interesting, which thus deprives the gradual revelations about it (during the present) of their importance. This isn’t helped by some fairly unsubtle foreshadowing. Luis tells Kate:

“You think adults can’t keep secrets. You think secrets are for kids, eh? To keep things from their parents? No, my child, the adults have their secrets too. Here especially, on this island, there are many, many secrets. Too many.” (90)

As for Kate’s secret- that she has cancer -this occupies curiously little narrative space during the first half of the novel. Though this can be explained as part of her wish to avoid the truth, the sense of threat and fear is not enough to generate interest in the ‘mystery’ of what she has come to the island to escape.

sub-Pynchon, as in this description of driving through London.

Like entering a game, a layout, something flat and mazed, arbitrary but fractallly constructed from beautifully detailed but somehow unreal buildings, its order perhaps shuffled since the last time he’d been here. The pixels that comprised it were familiar, but it remained only provisionally mapped, a protean territory, a box of tricks, some possibly even benign. (37)

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