Archive for January, 2016

January 15, 2016

Lila: Marilynne Robinson

by Team Riverside

Marilynne Robinson LILAThe third novel in Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, Lila is the eponymous story of the Reverend John Ames’ much younger wife, whose poverty-stricken and itinerant childhood in Dust Bowl America has shaped her into a deeply insecure, yet compassionate and courageous human being. The narrative is a mixture of omniscient third person narration and Lila’s own internal reflections, the impetus to move forward mainly derived from the vacillations of the fledgling and highly unusual relationship between herself and the aged Reverend, so that even after they are married the reader worries about the durability of the union, their very affection for one another part and parcel of their fear: ‘The more she might seem like a wife to him,’ Robinson writes, ‘the more he would fear the loss of her.’ It means that in a novel which meanders chapter-less through a plethora of apparently random details and decades, we never come to rest – or wish to – right up to the last page, so entwined do we become with Lila’s own fear-laden consciousness.

Though Robinson’s project is essentially spiritual, it is her deft characterisation (in this case, of Lila’s quietly burgeoning love for her husband, who has himself known great personal loss) along with her exquisite prose that make for an affecting and transcendent reading experience, rather than any overt dogma. The reason the spiritual dimension of Robinson’s world is so palatable is that it is ensconced in the everyday: a field, a little valley, a flock of pelicans, a day of snow and silence. What is more, her characters’ redemptive trajectories are couched in the gentlest, driest humor, so distinctively Robinsonian: Lila’s childhood friend’s experimentation with a member of the opposite sex, for example, is described as her getting ‘very curious’ and ‘finding out whatever it was she wanted to know’; once this curiosity has been sated she moves on to other things; ‘it had taken Lila’, Robinson tells us, ‘a little longer.’

At its’ heart Lila is concerned with reconciling a God of love with a world of suffering but because Robinson never alights on an explanation and places the debate in such halting and beautiful terms – in the mouths of characters whose search for meaning for the most part ends in uncertainty – the novel is far from a sermon. Take the concluding words of a letter written by the Reverend to Lila before they are married and little more than strangers, for instance: ‘I have struggled with this my whole life’ [Ames writes]…‘I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it, I may be learning something from the attempt’. And this attempt by Lila to understand a biblical verse that has captured her imagination:

And there was a voice above the firmament that was over their heads; when they stood, they let down their wings. She didn’t want to know what the verse meant, what the creatures were. She knew there were words so terrible you heard them with your whole body. Guilt. And there were voices to say them. She knew there were people you might almost trust who would hear them too, and be amazed, and still not really hear them because they knew they were not the ones the words were spoken to.’

It is in such a spirit of gracious humility that Robinson makes her offering, and it is hard not to be moved and awed by the result.

 

Review by Emily

January 12, 2016

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett

by Team Riverside

Claire-Louise Bennet PONDIt’s rare to discover a truly original book but Pond is just that. A series of short ‘stories’, sometimes no more than a few paragraphs, this highly eccentric and experimental work revolves around an unnamed woman whose rural isolation is the occasion of her meandering meditations upon everything from bananas, control knobs, a conglomeration of stones in a wall and modern dating etiquette.

Bennett withholds the conventions of fiction (namely plot and characterization) to the point of infuriating some readers I would imagine, though perhaps this is her intention. One ‘chapter’, for instance, consists solely of this ditty which is just two very short paragraphs:

‘Oh, Tomato Puree! When at last you occur to me it is as something profuse, fresh, erupting…

Oh Tomato Puree – let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!…’

It continues in a similar fashion.

While such strangeness can weary at times (when the reader is enmeshed in some particularly diaphanous, trance-like passage, for instance), the effort on the reader’s part to forge some sort of meaning is worth it. Bennett refuses to let anything figure – to let anything stand for pretty much anything at all; metaphor, we sense, is anathema to her; but there is a reason for this. In a brilliant passage that implicitly comments upon her own artistry and is simultaneously a cameo manifesto for the entire novel, she writes of her self/protagonist:

‘…she went off to place a cautionary notice next to the pond – which, by the way, has absolutely no depth whatsoever. If it were left up to me I wouldn’t put a sign next to a pond saying pond, either I’d write something else, such as Pig Swill, or I wouldn’t bother at all….’

She goes on to state that she knows the sign is to prevent children coming upon the water too quickly but says she herself, if ‘brought to a purportedly magical place one afternoon…only to discover the word pond scrawled on a poxy piece of damp plywood right there beside it…[would] be hopping.’

At the end of this chapter she removes the sign altogether, her reasoning being, as mystics and philosophers have pointed out before her (and there is definitely something of the mystic about Bennett’s protagonist), that words erect an artificial interface between us and the world, preventing us ‘moving about in deep and direct accordance with things.’ And it is true, as you read Pond, you feel all the strangeness of a heightened reality, much more a decipherer than simply a reader, as you do with most books. Despite the impression that Bennett’s writing is steeped in philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and Derrida among them – there is such lightness, such whimsy, that reading Pond is not like reading a philosophical work at all, however resonant it may feel; for ironically, despite Bennett’s protestations to the contrary, her implicit suggestion that there is no ‘depth’ to her work only serves to make it all the more esoteric and enigmatic.

The experiments of post-modernism have left little room for literature to move forwards, but Bennett, in subtle yet inimitable fashion, has been able to suggest how it might. Pond is sign-posted. There are no poxy pieces of plywood, just plenty of magic.

Review by Emily

January 12, 2016

The Incarnations, Susan Barker

by Team Riverside

Susan Barker THE INCARNATIONSA ghost is this highly original novel’s second protagonist; its’ first is Wang, a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing who is the recipient of a series of mysterious letters purporting to be from a soul he has encountered in past lives. Barker weaves a seamless and gripping narrative between the modern-day and a dozen brilliantly realized pasts, from the brutal days of a sorceress, to the might of Genghis Khan, the giddying cruelty of the despotic Emperor Jaijing, a pirate ship during the Opium Wars, and the treacherous climate of the Cultural Revolution. Betrayal of one sort of another colours all of the stories, even if both souls feature as friends or lovers; at some point they are always at enmity.

This book is not for the squeamish. It portrays unimaginable, nightmarish cruelty, often and graphically. But the barbarity is not pointless. It shows the depths of horror human beings can sink to and how any one of us could be perpetrators of such horror, depending on when we are born and whom we are born to. Barker also suggests that evolution and transformation, however slight, requires some degree of awareness; though she leaves us very much in the dark as to whether any of her characters actually succeed in securing their personal freedom and reading their own destiny – a destiny that has already been spelt out in their incarnate lives.

January 10, 2016

Disclaimer: Renee Knight

by Andre

Disclaimer RENEE KNIGHTDisclaimer is yet another book being marketed with comparisons to Gone Girl on the cover. In fact, this clever debut set in London and Spain has its own distinctive style and deliciously sinister concept. When Catherine Ravenscroft and her husband downsize, she finds an unfamiliar book by her bedside just as she’s settling into a new chapter in her life. To her horror, the story of The Perfect Stranger is apparently her own: a 20-year-old secret about the tragic Spanish holiday she’d tried to forget. Its lurid plot details a holiday seduction by a married woman who’s also a bad mother – a deadly combination to appear in print. To underline the mysterious author’s baleful intentions, the standard disclaimer is scored through with red ink: any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is definitely not a coincidence.

Catherine is an award-winning documentary maker; perhaps this professional woman who charms her way into other people’s lives deserves this fictional intrusion into her privacy. Disclaimer’s dual narrative pits her against disgraced teacher and widower Stephen Brigstocke, who discovers a fiction manuscript by his wife that reveals his family’s fatal connection to Catherine. When he self-publishes and carefully distributes The Perfect Stranger, Catherine has to fight to regain control of her life – and her story – as the poisonous prose suggests a reckoning is coming. Knight is adept at creating suspense as the gradual revelation of family secrets builds to a shocking denouement in the Spanish sun. Disclaimer is a superior psychological thriller shot through with cruelty, tragedy and insights into the artful nature of fiction, though perhaps not best suited as a beach read.

January 4, 2016

Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Faber and Faber, £18.99, out nowEdna O'Brien LITTLE RED CHAIRS

In 2012, in memory of the Sarajevo siege which began in 1992, “11,541 red chairs were laid out in rows along… the Sarajevo high street. One empty chair for every Sarajevan killed during the 1,425 days of siege. Six hundred and forty-three small chairs for the children killed by snipers and the heavy artillery fired from the surrounding mountains”. So opens Edna O’Brien’s new novel.

An on the run Serbian alleged war criminal sets up as a New Age healer in a village in Ireland, and one local woman in particular is mesmerised by him. The fallout from this for her and others is dealt with humanely in this often shocking but always thoughtful book. I was reminded of some aspects of the story of Radovan Karadžić, currently awaiting judgement following a five year trial for war crimes in the Hague (http://www.icty.org/x/cases/karadzic/cis/en/cis_karadzic_en.pdf).

Impunity in committing war crimes, and attempts to hold individuals to account for them, are such huge issues that the destruction wrought on individual human lives can be lost. O’Brien manages to capture and convey such human stories in this remarkable novel. Exile of all types and refugee status are also explored: it feels like nothing is too challenging a subject for the author to address. She humanises refugees and exiles, which is more important than ever given the current refugee crisis.

Review by Bethan