The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

Rilke is an auctioneer in Glasgow who is asked to fulfil a quick house clearance. The customer, the inheritor and sister to the deceased, is particular about having everything in one room, the attic room, burned rather than put up for auction. Why?

Alongside an impressive collection of erotic literature are some unnerving photographs; are these the dark secrets a loving sister would like to destroy? Are the photographs staged or is there something more disturbing unfolding?

Very quickly Rilke becomes obsessed with trying to uncover the secrets of the photographs and their owner.

Desire then takes centre stage: Rilke’s promiscuity pales into innocence in the face of the darker predilections revealed through the photographs.

You can see what a fast-paced ride the reader undergoes and the machinations of the plot are impressively handled. I raced through the pages hoping to find answers in Rilke’s investigations. And yet, despite all my admiration for the craft of the story and macabre nature of the subject matter and protagonist, I was left hoping for something more. I wanted to go a little deeper, a little further into the darker world the novel begins to uncover. I didn’t want to leave the novel feeling safe. Perhaps, however, that would have made quite a different kind of book and in the end this reveals my literary preferences rather than any faults in the book itself. If you enjoy mystery and crime, if you love a detective with more than one Achilles heel, then The Cutting Room will definitely be a book for you.

Next week I’m reading A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of the times when I feel tempted to make my response to a novel very personal. Reading A Little Life is not an easy thing to do. Despite how compelled I was to turn the pages, I also found reading difficult because I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear more about the main character’s life. Jude, around whom all the other characters turn, has had such a traumatic childhood that unravelling more of his history is painful.

Jude is a bright and beautiful man who was left outside a monastery as a baby. To tell you all the horrors of his childhood and early adulthood would be difficult, partly because despite the length of the novel we never hear them all, and partly because it would spoil the plot. What did happen to Jude? Why is he so keen to keep his early life a mystery? How did he get his limp and why doesn’t he like to touch people?

Jude’s relationship to his body and to pain become easier to understand and, in some ways, harder to sympathise with as the novel goes on. Despite his physical disabilities – his spine was damaged in a car accident and this leaves his legs very susceptible to pain and infection – it becomes easier to understand why pain is a release for his mental suffering even as I grow increasingly frustrated with his self-destructive tendencies. He overcomes so much and yet I long for him to overcome more, to stop allowing his past to crush the potential of his present and future. And this is, of course, a response to Yanagihara’s brilliantly drawn character. I feel for Jude. I feel for his friends. I experience the events as if they really had happened.

Although Jude is the central character, there are several other carefully drawn characters, most notably his three college friends Malcolm, JB and Willem. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but part of what the novel achieves as a whole is an ability to track the special friendships between these four men as they move through early adulthood and into middle age. We see their desires and fears, their hopes and hang-ups. We follow how career drives – and they all have jobs in different fields so that the novel also gives an insight into law, acting, architecture and art – interfere with relationships and vice versa. The twists and turns of family, work and friends are depicted with surprising clarity and elegance.

However, part of my struggles with the book – if I put the personal connections aside, and these connections have to do with self-destructive behaviour and the nature of some of the illness that Jude has to face as he grows older – is the fact that there is little sense of redemption and while this is a struggle to face it is also what makes the book so challenging and successful.

A Little Life is about what we have to work with, just this life that we are given and nothing more. There isn’t a chance to do it again or to find peace in the afterlife. Any form of deliverance has to be won in life. It’s a tough message to take and though I read with a frantic speed, sometimes to rush through scenes that I found very upsetting, I am left wishing I hadn’t finished the novel after all. There are still characters whose lives I don’t want to leave; questions I would still like answered. To leave a reader both relieved to have finished and yet wanting more is testament to a remarkable talent.

I lived with the characters of A Little Life; they peopled my days, they troubled my nights. I didn’t always enjoy reading A Little Life, but I can’t deny the challenge of Yanagihiara’s writing. Though not for everyone, A Little Life is a powerful book worth reading despite the circumstances and emotions you are forced to confront.

Next week I’m reading The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh.

They Are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill

The emotional, geographical and moral scope of They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is surprisingly large and, despite the complexities, powerfully compelling.

There are two major tales, one set in Bosnia during the war, and one in Thailand around the time of the Tsunami in 2004, but any attempt to reduce the plot does a disservice to the craft of the telling of these stories that unravel around formative relationships, those special people who shape how we see ourselves.

Anya is a human rights researcher who receives a call from her ex, William, for the first time since they split up three years ago. That tug to reconnect is there despite her anger and when she realises she could answer some questions about possible war crimes in Bosnia by visiting William in Thailand – something about a resort by the ocean that cropped up during a visit to a dead soldier’s ex-girlfriend – she uses her job as an excuse to follow her heart and gets on a plane.

Marko is a Bosnian living in Cambridge, England. He fled Bosnia after burying the man he considered to be his brother, the war hero Kemal Lekić. Kemal was killed in a devastating bomb attack on their hometown. As none of his remains were found they carried an empty coffin to the grave. But when he gets a call from his cousin explaining that Kemal’s body was found in Thailand after the tsunami, he returns to Bosnia to bury Kemal again and to unearth the truth about who Kemal became in the war and afterwards. It’s also an opportunity to see Kemal’s ex-girlfriend, Vesna, a woman Marko was once in love with.

And then there’s William. He runs an English language school in Bangkok but he’s living in a haze. He longs for the holiday with Anya to develop into something, but it’s 2004 and deep beneath the waves tectonic plates are shifting, building momentum for devastating upheaval that will tie all these lives together.

In telling the story like this, it feels like a thriller. Certainly, I turn the page in order to find out what really happened back in Bosnia, but there is so much more to this novel than that (this is a mere fraction of the tale that also explores, Karate, rape and miscarriage and includes a dizzying number of characters all somehow relevant to the novel’s themes). The different places are described with care and affection. I can see and feel the differences in terrain, the weight of the air and sun. I can also read the story as a narrative about learning to live with loss, loss of a home, loss of a loved one, loss of a sense of self. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is all about how to put yourself back together in the face of tragedy be it personal or global. Understanding the story of your loss, carrying it like a beacon into the world, allows you to move with and beyond it.

It’s a powerful novel and quite how David Savill managed to juggle all these narratives and all these places and histories in a relatively short novel is staggering. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is a phenomenal achievement; a beautiful, global, novel that will stay with you long after you finish reading the final page. Pre-order your copy now as it comes out in April this year.

Next week I’m reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara mostly because I so enjoyed her article in The Guardian, ‘Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?’.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest is a novel that undoubtedly divides readers. Any of you who follow my blog will know that it has taken me over two weeks to read and review this book and this is in part a response to some things that have been happening in my own life, but also because David Foster Wallace’s prose demands attention; you cannot speed read Infinite Jest, there are too many turns in a sentence, too many phrases that require an aural reading of the language, too many hidden delights buried in technical discussions of film-theory or tennis demanding thought in a way that even someone like me, who isn’t that interested in tennis (though does like a little film theory now and then), can’t turn away from.

Even reading this first sentence of mine, you can see how hard it is to break free from the D.F.W. way of writing. No surprises that those who like Infinite Jest are near-on obsessives, possibly mostly young male American literature-geeks who find themselves understood and expressed in the playful yet earnest prose.

There are three strands to the plot set in a near-future world where time is subsidised. Most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment in the Boston area where a tennis academy and a halfway house for addicts share a hillside. One plot strand follows some of the addicts and residential wardens of the halfway house, most importantly Don Gately a former burglar who began his addiction issues at the age of 10 drinking his mother’s vodka. One plot follows the lives of those at the tennis academy, especially those of the rich and talented Incandenza family. The final plot is about the war for Canadian and Québécois independence since the USA, Canada and Mexico signed a deal to become the Organisation of North American Nations in which the USA gave Canada all of its toxic territory destroyed by years of bad waste management (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents, violent Québécois seperatists in wheelchairs whose squeaks provide fodder for many nightmares, are some of Wallace’s more amusing if bizarre inventions).

The tennis academy was set up by James O. Incandenza, who also dabbled in making films, was an alcoholic, and who killed himself by putting his head in a microwave. The last film he made, ‘Infinite Jest’, becomes the pivot around which the plots converge. Whoever views this film finds it so pleasurable that their mind is unhinged and they are reduced to a state in which all they can do is crave further viewing of the film. But who has the original cartridge from which further copies of the film can be made and who will use it for what political purpose?

With much of the text being about addiction of one kind or another, the novel itself is addicted to flexing and stretching language in a way that exercises the reader. If you want something to chew over, there is plenty in Infinite Jest both esoteric and mundane, a language rich in slang, obscenity, dialect, acronym and challenging grammar. Any word that carries meaning, even if it requires explanation in the voluminous number of endnotes, is as valid as another; there is a pleasing parity of expression. This doesn’t mean that such a book is always a delight to read and this is where readers, I assume, divide: some will revel in the occasionally convoluted prose and Wallace’s divergent discussions of, for example, the demise of commercially subsidized television or the reason for the failure of the videophone; others will feel frustrated by it and lose the heart to continue especially as the plot evolves relatively slowly. However, the sheer wealth of detail and knowledge, whilst occasionally overwhelming, is also revealing and intriguing.

David Foster Wallace has a voice that lives up to the hype (I say has despite being aware that he can add no further words to the voice already committed to the page) and in Infinite Jest he unabashedly confronts us with our desire for pleasure and asks us what we are willing to risk to sustain that pleasure and whether we should consider redefining the meaning of pleasure itself. I would argue that the sheer volume of words is part of Wallace’s joke on our endless desire for more. If you don’t like the idea of wanting more and more of this kind of narrative, I would advise that you don’t even begin.

Next week I’m reading They Are Trying to Break Your Heart by David Savill.