The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is a first person account of Theo Decker’s relationship with the Fabritius painting of the same name. Theo walks unharmed from the bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with the goldfinch painting in a canvas bag. His mother is killed in the bombing and what begins as the salvage of a masterpiece that belongs to everyone, becomes the invisible anchor of Theo’s new and painfully unfettered life.

The novel is undoubtedly well written, full of poignant moments and beautiful descriptions, but there was almost too much. Sometimes I felt as if the narrative was sucking me into Theo’s numb, often drugged, world in a way that left me unable to account for paragraphs of text. Intentional or not, it left me unsympathetic towards Theo. I wouldn’t have been distressed by a suicide endnote. I was remarkably uninterested in his survival, but I was engaged in and frustrated by his behaviour.

It struck me while reading that there is a similar feel to all of Tartt’s fiction: a sense of lost childhood and of the adolescent’s yearning to unravel the mystery of that loss and the mystery of the human condition, which must face the red in nature’s tooth and claw. Freud, Jung, Kristeva, Neitzche, Dionysus, always hover at the edges of her work. Whilst there is a charm and intensity to this exploration and unending reinterpretation of memory and people, there can occasionally be a lurch into the sentimental or, even worse, intellectually postured musings on the meaning of life. Much of the last chapter I would happily have excised. Do we need the protagonist to explain the first person narrative? Somehow, setting down the reasons for writing, at the end of the novel, felt like an after note for any readers who may not have understood what Tartt was trying to say through the story itself. I felt saddened by it, partly because Theo summarises his love of the painting as a love of whispered provocation rather than hackneyed message:

‘The bird looks out at us. It’s not idealized or humanized. It’s very much a bird. Watchful, resigned. There’s no moral or story. There’s no resolution. There’s only a double abyss: between the painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later.’

He goes on to say,

‘As much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. / And – I would argue as well – all love.’

Though it seems to me that life is all about that middle zone where perception meets and indeed filters reality, the idea of truth as an illusion speaks to me. This is why I consider literature to be a more useful exploration of the world than philosophy: life isn’t just about thought, the subtler edge of perception should be a fundamentally accepted premis and accompaniment to thought. The chaos of coinciding event and experience feels, for me, too much for cold reason. Art, narrative in particular, can provide the muddied mess of that meeting point, whether it be considered beautiful or not. I’m not sure, however, that laying these ideas out as a kind of postscript to the events of the novel (it’s an irony that both of these quotes come from the last chapter), is the best way to provoke readers into questioning the value of art. Did we need a helpful summary of the pull and sway of art as it affected the characters in the novel? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions about this.

The nature of these criticisms, however, could only really arise from something that lives and breathes enough to allow the reader to grapple with it. I’m not sure that I would have given The Goldfinch the Pulitzer (though perhaps the idea of awarding prizes itself feels strangely arbitrary), but it is certainly a novel I would recommend, a novel that more than earns its literary status. Whilst I suspect other novels surrounded by less fuss may have moments that stay with me longer than any in The Goldfinch, I’ve deliberately left out much of a plot summary to allow more readers to read it unspoilt.

Next week I’ll be reading The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough, followed by In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman. As ever, please do send in suggestions for books you’d like me to read in future weeks.

Feral Youth by Polly Courtney

I’ve been meaning to read a book by Polly Courtney for some time and rather arbitrarily picked Feral Youth as the first one I wanted to try. Set around the time of the London riots of 2011, the novel follows the life of one young, mixed race girl from Peckham, Alesha. Alesha’s father has never been around and her mother is an alcoholic. Her only family, her fam, is JJ, and he isn’t her real family at all, but more like the brother – possible lover – she never had. As they become more and more reliant on the estate and the local gang to keep them off the streets, we learn how rage against the police and the authorities in general create an explosive climate.

As much as I would like to say that I’m not sure about issue-based literature, and that all that matters is a good tale, it wouldn’t be entirely representative of my own interests and practice. However, when approaching an overtly issue-based novel there is the worry that the story will get buried under the issue: characters can seem two-dimensional, storylines forced. But if a novel that sets out to explore some reasons behind the London riots of 2011 gives us a live character with whom we can sympathise or even empathise, then the issue should be subsumed in the story.

I was concerned that I would find Feral Youth issue heavy, rather than character heavy and I’m pleased to say that in general I did not. Whilst I can’t in any way account for the veracity of Alesha’s experience growing up in an estate in Peckham, I can honestly say that I cared about what happened to her and felt that I could understand at least some of the reasons why she behaved in the way she did. I’m not sure if the connection with her old piano teacher, Miss Merfield, who is white and privileged, certainly in relative terms to Alesha, quite worked for me. Miss Merfield becomes a possible ticket out of the estate and whilst I certainly believe in their connection, is it too neat that Alesha has a talent for music or that the middle classes, namely Miss Merfield, can have problems too? I don’t know. I wanted to feel attached to this novel in the way that I’m attached to Of Mice and Men, which is mentioned in the opening pages. I wanted the voices of the characters to strike chords whose echoes would continue to reverberate years later, but Feral Youth isn’t that kind of novel. It’s pertinent, it’s interesting, it’s provocative, it’s well crafted, but it doesn’t transport me. Again, as with Little Egypt, I hanker for raw edges, for emotions that escape careful plotting.

Feral Youth is an interesting read, but perhaps in my naivety, I wanted to see more. I wanted to know more about JJ. I wanted to see what lies behind his street face. Perhaps I wanted more voices. Perhaps in the end the issues do overwhelm the narrative, whether simply because they are predominant in my mind or because the writer has been unable to push beyond them, I remain unsure of. I suppose ultimately I’m unconvinced and again it has something to do with the novel’s neatness and clarity. But perhaps you won’t be unconvinced. If you have read it, or read it in the future, let me know what you think.

Next week I’m reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, followed by The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. Do get in touch if there’s a novel you would like me to read and review.

The Wrath of Napolo by Steve Chimombo

In many ways, The Wrath of Napolo reminded me of The Luminaries: it’s an epic unravelling of a tragedy that involves a re-evaluation of nationhood. Though set in the fictional country Mandania, this is a very obvious veil for Malawi, and the tragedy of the novel, the sinking of the Maravi, is a representation of the historical sinking of the M. V. Vipya off Florence (now Chitimba) Bay, Lake Malawi, in 1946.  This national disaster was buried by the politics of several governments, colonial, independent dictatorship and newly democratic. Ignored for 50 years, freedom of speech and a need to expose historical truths encourage the protagonist, Nkhoma, a journalist from the South, to investigate what really happened in 1946 and to uncover who could be considered responsible for the deaths of so many Mandanians. Nkhoma’s interest in discovering the truth comes at a time when other events of previous administrations are under scrutiny, and other leaders see the Maravi as a political tool for gaining power. The search for truth is rarely unmotivated by personal gain and this struggle with the past becomes a personal as well as a national journey.

The whole novel is about unravelling Malawi’s identity. How do you uncover the past and forge the future of a country using colonial tools and with previous administrations’ influence, both colonial and independent dictatorship, still at work? What does it mean to take responsibility for your own and your country’s actions? Heroism, racism, sexism, slavery, tribalism, religion, infidelity, AIDS – all of these are explored through Nkhoma’s search for the truth about the sinking of the Maravi. In the end Nkhoma recognises that redressing the past of his country requires redressing his own past, and the novel ends with him intending to start a truth commission into his own life.

There were things in the novel that worked less well for me. I felt the dialogue sometimes ran away with itself and there is a tendency to speechify. My main issue, however, is with Chimombo’s invention of a country, Mandania, to talk about his own Malawi. It felt disingenuous, especially when the acknowledgements and dedications make it more than clear where the novel is really set. Although being ‘accidentalised’ (murdered if you were thought to speak or act against Banda’s Life Presidency) must still feel fresh to Malawians, the fictionalisation was so overt I wasn’t sure what the point was. I’d be keen to hear other people’s views on this, though of course the likelihood of anyone getting hold of copies of this novel is very slim. I read The Wrath of Napolo sitting in the British Library.

Whatever minor quibbles I might have with character or style, The Wrath of Napolo is an impressive novel of substantial weight that tackles the rebirth of a nation. There is intrigue, danger, beauty and myth. Napolo is a creature of Malawian folk law, an underground serpent, a conflation of ancestral spirits, that causes earthquakes, tornadoes, destruction and death wherever he goes. Why is he angry? Who is he angry with? The Wrath of Napolo suggests that whatever answers you give, his destruction forces the land to be reforged. This is a novel that deserves a wider readership. It saddens me that literature from the developing world, unless published first in America or the UK, is so hard to access. If any English publishers read this, please consider adding Steve Chimombo to your list.

Next week I will be reading Feral Youth by Polly Courtney, followed by The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough. As always, please do suggest ideas for future reading.

Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

There is a lack of pretention to the writing of Beauty that is very enticing. This is storytelling in its richest, oldest form, and as new twists to old fairytales unwound I was taken right back to a period in my childhood when all I did was read Anderson, Grimm and various other fairytale collections. Such stories are dark, full of the metaphoric transformations that mirror the divisions of what it means to be human. Sarah Pinborough’s Beauty brings all of these mesmeric myths to life.

A story about royalty, beauty and beastliness, wolves, spindles, girls with hoods, shining slippers, promised children and witches, what is not to love? Beauty is a reworking of all those familiar tales that weaves new life into their telling, hinting at the impossibility of escaping the recurrence of stories that speak from the foundations of human sensibility. It is not a reworking into the modern day, however, rather a retelling that works for the modern day. If you enjoy fairytales, you will love Beauty.

Next week I’m reading The Wrath of Napolo by Steve Chimombo, followed by Feral Youth by Poly Courtney and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Any suggestions for future reading would be very welcome.

Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister

Little Egypt is a manor house in decline. It is all that remains of an estate sold piecemeal first to fund exploration and excavation in Egypt and then to fund the excavation fall-out. Set in the brief gap between the world wars, and in modern day England, Little Egypt follows the life of Isis, or Sisi as she later calls herself, as she lives under the burden of her parents’ obsession with Ancient Egypt. Hers is a childhood of parental and peer absence, but for her twin brother Osiris who is just as obsessed with Egypt as his parents. Despite frequent visits from their mother’s shell-shocked twin brother, their only real carer is Mary, the housekeeper. When Mary too falls foul of ancient obsessions, Little Egypt and all its secrets become Isis’ responsibility.

I wanted to really like this novel. My parents lived in Egypt for five years when I was in my early teens and I have a hugely sentimental love of the country. I did really enjoy the passages set in Egypt and felt the heat, the sandy, dusty grittiness of everything, and the young person’s confusion over poverty and stray dogs, mixed with the strange faith that adults know better and will navigate you through a world you do not understand. It came as no surprise that an awakening to adult sexuality and responsibility began in Egypt.

Set in beautiful contrast to ancient Egyptian glamour was the older Sisi’s love of consumer gaudiness. Part of the estate was sold to a supermarket chain and for Sisi it becomes a lifeline to the modern world.

However, I wasn’t always happy with the divisions between the past and present. It was almost too neat to wipe away the quiet uneventfulness of the years in-between childhood and old age. It also made the older woman’s forgetfulness divisive, given that we could fill in her memory losses for her. It gave question to Sisi’s reliability in a way that was not supported by the rest of the novel.

I did enjoy reading Little Egypt, but felt frustrated by it because I felt the author had more to give. I wanted to breathe the characters and their experiences, I wanted to feel my gut wrench alongside theirs, but I was somehow distanced from them. Perhaps it is the ease of arranging a novel in a way that avoids all but the most salient of moments? I know any creative writing or literature teacher would tell you that choosing the salient moments is what good writing is all about, and it is true that structure is half of the business, but there is more to it than that and in the end the heart of the novel didn’t beat loudly enough in my ears. What really did happen to Isis in that tomb? My response to the novel is undoubtedly personal and it wouldn’t put me off reading another of Lesley Glaister’s novels, I just have a longing for raw edges, and I would have liked a few more in Little Egypt. Perhaps I like my dark secrets to be darker?! If you don’t, then Little Egypt is probably the well-crafted, compelling novel for you.

Next week I’m reading Beauty by Sarah Pinborough followed by The Wrath of Napolo by Steve Chimombo, Feral Youth by Poly Courtney and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.