Book Reviews: James Tait Black Awards 2014 (Fiction)

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My shortlist:

 1. Siri Hustvedt. The Blazing World

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Hustvedt, Siri. The Blazing World

I have adored everything Siri Hustvedt has written, but when I first read this, months before the JTB judging began, I cast it aside, unfinished. I found the protagonist, artist Harriet Burden, irritating, and the fragmented nature of the book frustrating. However, on re-reading it for JTB, and actually finishing it this time, I found it to be fascinating, gripping and amazingly inventive. I realised that I had, on first reading it, fallen into the exact trap that so many of the critics who dismiss Burden in the novel fall into. Because she possesses traits that make for a compelling and charismatic male figure – she’s big, tall, loud, opinionated, well-read, scarily intellectual, angry – the critics are ‘put off’, and I was too. Hustvedt duped me just like Burden dupes her critics.

Burden rages at the world for largely ignoring her art and treating her as the mere appendage of her successful art dealer husband. She hatches a plan to expose the misogyny she feels is at the root of this, and devises three new art installations, each one presented to the world by a male artist who acts as her ‘mask’. However, something goes wrong with the third show. The artist fronting it, the handsome, egotistical and mysterious Rune, claims the work as his own. He dies not long afterwards, a bizarre death caught on his own video camera.

The narrative is presented as the critical work of editor I. V. Hess, written after Burden’s death, and is comprised of fragments from Harriet’s cerebral, meandering, alphabetised notebooks, as well as written and spoken accounts given by her daughter, son, lover, friends, acquaintances and critics. The narrative jumps from the past to the present to the future, and flits back and forth between strikingly differing perceptions of Burden. Each character is exceptionally well drawn, with their own particular ways of speaking and seeing the world around them, so that you feel that there are many lives and worlds going on between the pages.

Hustvedt is a genius at describing art installations so that you feel as if you are actually standing inside them. From the heated, life-size bodies Harriet creates, to the rooms which get progressively bigger as you walk through them so that you feel infantilised by the end, or the maze of the third show, which you can only escape if you pay close attention to the clues scattered throughout, the works of art here are eerie, evocative and enchanting.

The Blazing World deserves to win the JTB award because it is a gripping story presented in a complex and imaginative way. It is a novel which raises big questions about life, art, perception, masks, philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, gender, and so much more besides. A compelling and thought-provoking read, I highly recommend it for the shortlist.

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Johnston, Bret Anthony. Remember Me Like This

Remember Me Like This is about a boy, Justin Campbell, who goes missing from his family home in a small Texan town; but this is not a whodunit or even a whydunit. We know who the boy’s abductor is, and the reasons for the abduction are deliberately never fully explored. This is, instead, an account of what happens when the boy is found and returns to family life. As a study of a family’s complex, shattering grief and almost unbearable relief, the book is extremely successful. The boy’s mother, father, brother and grandfather are deeply convincing characters who each have their own conflicted thoughts, feelings and idiosyncratic coping mechanisms. Hearing the innermost torments and desires of the boy’s mother is particularly arresting, not to mention moving. The atmosphere of the Texan town is richly evoked by Johnston – the oppressive weather, the neighbours who know everyone’s business, the skate park where local kids hang out, the excitement over the forthcoming shrimp jamboree – and the dialogue feels flowing and true to life.

However, because Johnston deliberately side-steps why the abduction took place, and what exactly happened to the boy whilst he was missing – for over four years – I felt that too much was omitted. I wanted to know why the man who abducted Justin did what he did. I wanted to know what exactly Justin had suffered. I don’t think that this is salacious; I just could not make sense of Justin without knowing what he had experienced throughout these four years. The fact that his own parents and sibling never ask him what he has gone through seems bizarre to me. This left me feeling ultimately dissatisfied with the book, despite it being well written and engaging.

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 McCall Smith, Alexander. The Forever Girl

Set on the island of Grand Cayman, this tells the story of Clover, a girl who falls in love with a boy called James when they are only six years old. Despite the fact that James does not seem to return her affections, at least not in a romantic sense, Clover remains in love with him, even as they grow into adulthood and attend university in Edinburgh. As their story unfolds, a parallel plot takes place with Clover’s mother, who realises one day that she has simply and startlingly fallen out of love with her husband. The lush landscape of the island is beautifully drawn by McCall Smith, and the maze of emotions felt by Clover and her mother are subtly navigated. Clover’s constancy, particularly when set against her mother’s seeming capriciousness, is affecting and wonderfully observed by the author (who seems to have been a teenage girl in a previous life). There is a neat change of direction at the end, not quite a twist but a sweet surprise nonetheless. A delicious book, I read it in one sitting, but it feels more like an especially high quality holiday read, the kind of book you could devour on the beach in one day, rather than an inventive, prize-winning sort of novel.

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McEwan, Ian. The Children Act.

Told from the viewpoint of Fiona Maye, a middle-aged High Court judge, The Children Act concerns a seventeen year old cancer patient, Adam, who is refusing treatment on the grounds of his religion. As a Jehovah’s Witness, he and his family do not believe in blood transfusions, and so Fiona must decide whether the court can enforce medical treatment on the boy or not. As a study in ethics, there are some interesting ideas raised here. Passages in which legal cases are described are fascinating but brief, and the parallel plot concerning Fiona’s crumbling marriage feels lacklustre in comparison.

My biggest problem is with Adam, who speaks like no teenage boy I have ever met. His dialogue is just plain weird, precocious, flowery and irritating. He beguiles his nurses with his poetry and his violin, but a scene in which he plays his instrument while Fiona sings by his bedside is hideously awkward and, I felt, unintentionally funny. Seemingly in love with her after one fleeting bedside meeting (although only Jehovah knows why), Adam stalks Fiona to a country retreat and they share a kiss. His motives for doing so are never explained and the whole thing feels odd and tawdry. The ending is meant to be heart-searing but it left me feeling cold and totally unmoved. The grief and torment surely felt by Adam’s parents is basically ignored. Despite dealing with BIG IDEAS, the book felt like much ado about nothing, tedious and strangely lightweight.

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Moore, Lisa. Caught

Having escaped from prison after being caught smuggling marijuana, 25 year old Slaney must make his way across 1970s Nova Scotia, all the way to Columbia and across the sea, encountering a rag-tag bunch of truck drivers, strippers, sleazy motel owners, drug dealers and undercover cops along the way. Eager to pull off another drug heist that will make his fortune, Slaney’s journey has all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll you could want from a road trip thriller. However, Moore’s prose elevates the novel above more mainstream thrillers. Her forensic attention to detail, describing the tiny things about a scene which might otherwise go unnoticed – the elephant pattern on a burst footstool, the noise of swishing lupins like the pages of a glossy magazine – renders the book far more memorable than your average cop chase page-turner. Her depictions of people tripping on acid are particularly vibrant and, at times, very funny, and the dialogue is crackling throughout. This is a good old-fashioned yarn, accessible and enjoyable, but it is what it is: a thriller about a man on the run, another great holiday read without the inventiveness that would make me want to shortlist it.

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Pinto, Jerry. Em and the Big Hoom

This novel is essentially a character study of a woman, Em, who has bipolar disorder. Set largely in their Bombay apartment, Em’s son gives an account of his mother’s wild mood swings, which range from flamboyantly joyful to morosely suicidal. Em’s sense of humour is, at manic times, riotously inappropriate, and she often makes sexually explicit jokes to her young children. Her husband, nicknamed ‘the Big Hoom’ because of the grumpy noises he makes, is a stoical but largely silent figure who has endured his beautiful and capricious wife’s mood swings and suicide attempts throughout the decades simply because he loves her.

There is a lot of humour in the book, despite the often grim subject matter, and the outrageous character of Em is wonderfully drawn. Her disgust at being brought low by her status as mother manages to be funny, feminist and horrible all at once, given that she aims this statement at her own son: ‘[Men] just sow the seed and hand out the cigars when you’ve pushed a football through your vadge. For the next hundred years of your life, you’re stuck with someone whose definition isn’t even herself. You’re now someone’s mudd-dha!’ Em smokes like a chimney (developing a little cauliflower-like tumour on her tongue which mysteriously disappears overnight), develops ‘pica’ in some of her manic phases, wanting to eat the most extraordinary things, and makes statements that are jabberwocky-nonsensical.

My problem with the book is that Pinto often doesn’t allow his dialogue – which is great – to do the work for him. At one point, Em is being so outrageous that all he can reply is ‘mother!’, ‘stop!’ etc. Just as I was thinking ‘his mother has reduced him to exclamations’ he writes: ‘my mother had reduced me to exclamations’. I also didn’t get a vibrant enough feel of Em’s family, or of the apartment and the city in which they live in. What I will remember from this is Em and only Em, and, for me, that doesn’t feel like enough to have taken from a book.

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Rahman, Zia Haider. In the Light of What We Know

This is a weighty and cerebral tome, 555 pages long and choc-full of ideas about politics, love, identity, exile, roots and rage, with musings on philosophy, finance, class, culture, science, faith, war and everything in between. An unnamed investment banker, wealthy but brought low by the economic crisis and the breakdown of his marriage, narrates the tale, which is basically a conversation between himself and his old friend, Zafar, who turns up on his doorstep one morning looking dishevelled and distracted. The narrative flits between Kabul, New York, Oxford, London and Islamabad as we hear the story of Zafar’s life, from his humble beginnings to his elite education and career, as well as his ill-fated love for a complicated and troubled woman who treats him with disdain. There are so many books, scholars, poems, theories etc. referenced throughout the narrative that Zafar’s mind seems like an encyclopaedia. It can feel quite dizzying, the breadth of topics discussed throughout.

My problem with the book is its structure. Zafar’s long, long story often shoots off into long, long tangents, so that an engaging plot line gets interrupted and isn’t returned to for another hundred or so pages, by which time the emphasis has been lost. I found this repeatedly frustrating and, at times, even confusing. The climax the book seems to be building to (a rape) happens ‘off-screen’ and is deliberately referred to only obliquely, as if some things are too terrible to name. It might be too terrible for Zafar to discuss, but I felt short-changed by this, and eager to know the details, not for any sort of macabre titillation, but so that I could better understand Zafar and his story. I found this to be an arduous read, though I appreciate how skilful the writing is, and how impressive the novel’s scope is. I almost recommended this for the shortlist because of its sheer erudition and depth, as well as Rahman’s ability to locate the personal in the political (and vice versa) and the generally epic feel of the plot – but it would be dishonest of me to suggest that I truly enjoyed this book. It was a slog.

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Waheed, Mirza. The Book of Gold Leaves

In Kashmir, Faiz, a painter of exquisite papier-mache pencil boxes, falls in love with Roohi, who has dreamed of a star-crossed romance all her life. As the pair’s relationship develops, a violent rebellion takes place in their city. Added to this approaching disaster, Faiz is Sunni and Roohi is Shia, so their love story seems doomed from the start. The first part of the book depicts the couple’s burgeoning love, whilst the second part focuses on the conflict. Having witnessed a minibus full of schoolchildren, as well as his own godmother, caught in crossfire, Faiz is radicalised, and is next encountered trekking across the mountainous border into Pakistan to join the uprising. He becomes known as the ‘papier-mache militant’, making bombs in a camp surrounded by unmarked graves in an uncanny mirroring of his gentle past life making pencil boxes.

The first section of the book feels clichéd, and I never really understood why the pair fall in love in the first place. Roohi is certainly beautiful, but Faiz seems to fall in love with her before he knows anything about her character. The same could also be said of her love for him. Added to the apparently shallow nature of their romance, Roohi is also just too good and too dutiful to be an interesting character, though Faiz certainly is engaging. Waheed shines a light on a conflict that is often wrongly forgotten, and he writes about it unflinchingly, often devastatingly, with wisdom and sensitivity, exploring the region’s religious politics through family dynamics, locating (as Rahman does) the personal in the political. In doing so, he presents the terrible moral toll of war. If the love story had been as convincing as the account of the conflict, and if Roohi had been a more vivid character, I might have recommended this for the shortlist.

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Walcott-Hackshaw, Elizabeth. Mrs. B

Presented as being loosely inspired by Madame Bovary, Mrs. B’s titular protagonist is a dissatisfied middle-class woman in her late forties, living in Trinidad with her husband Charles and daughter Ruthie. Having had an affair with a married professor during her time as a student in Boston, Ruthie has had a nervous breakdown and returned home to the island. When Mrs. B discovers that her only daughter is pregnant – the daughter who she has pinned all her pride and joy upon – she begins to feel keenly the pressures put upon her by her aspirational and catty social circle. A past secret affair with her husband’s friend feels like unfinished business.

The constant violence in Trinidad – rape, mutilation, murder – is ever present, an eerie and often politically-linked force that has compelled the Butchers to leave the secluded home they loved for a gated community where their neighbours may watch their every move. This creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, oppressive despite the island’s lush beauty, which is gorgeously evoked by the author throughout the narrative. Ruthie’s relationships with the professor, as well as with her friend Monique, are finely drawn, and the distance between her and her parents is subtly and sensitively achieved. Mrs. B’s disaffection from her husband is nuanced and sad, and her childhood, revealed in flashbacks, makes sense of her current predicament – her absent parents and wonderful, bibliophile aunt providing her with a sense of abandonment and love, respectively.

The blurb promises that these upper middle-class characters are carried ‘towards a deeper engagement with their fellow but less privileged islanders’ but this really isn’t the case. A few homeless people are described and referred to, but they have no dialogue and therefore no voice. The family’s servants also have almost no dialogue. We know that horrific violence with political motives is taking place, but it is never properly explained why this is happening and what has led to the island’s shocking predicament. As a nuanced study of a family, this book is excellent and thoroughly enjoyable. I finished it with an excellent feel for the characters of Mrs. B and her social circle, but with little understanding of the political climate of Trinidad and how this affects the island’s lower social strata.

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