The Infatuations by Javier Marías

Although violent death hangs over the narrative from the very opening of The Infatuations, this is a book whose action happens in remembered and imagined conversation with the living and the dead. Though this can be disconcertingly circumlocutory, there is a beautiful talking heads art to the narrative.

The narrator, María, works in a publishing house dealing with pompous modern novelists and breakfasts everyday in a café close to work where she observes a couple who also breakfast there everyday. She calls them the Perfect Couple (it later transpires they had named her the Prudent Woman) and although they don’t ever exchange words, María finds comfort and hope in the happiness they project and looks forward to seeing them as some kind of good omen for her day. Then, one day, the husband is stabbed to death by a homeless man and María’s expression of condolence to the widow compels her into a world of infatuation far from perfect. She falls in love with the deceased husband’s best friend and sees quite clearly his infatuation with the widow. The apparently random death of the husband starts to look more like an orchestrated crime passionnel.

However, romantic infatuation is only part of the story. Most of the main characters have a passion for literature. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Balzac’s Colonel Chabert are the most frequently mentioned literary references and their stories impinge upon the plot until ‘Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention.’ This beautifully salacious idea about the compelling nature of narrative – it has recently been proved that we experience the lives of the characters we read about, see – to shape our reality is pleasingly offset by María’s scathing opinions of modern writers and her belief that ours is an age in which we are compelled to listen to others ‘regardless of what they have done, and not just in order to defend themselves, but as if the story of their atrocities were itself of interest.’ We have to conclude, in the end, after all the talk and contemplation that opposing truths can exist at the same time and that, unless something directly impacts upon us, it is easier to allow things to fade into the background. This makes María the embodiment of the Prudent Woman and an unnerving example for our age.

The Infatuations is spellbinding novel, feeding our desire for plot with a diet of thought. I thoroughly recommend it. A paperback edition comes out this March.

Next week I’m reading Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey and then The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (because I’m keen to know what happens next). As before, suggestions for further reading are very welcome.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I’m glad I’ve read this book. There is no doubt that A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a significant achievement. Surrounding five days in the life of a little girl, Havaa, who loses her father in a late night Russian raid, we follow a few men and women connected by her village in Chechnya as the war for independence unravels and remakes them, creating a book as much about the nature of family as war. ‘You are mine. I recognise you. We twist our souls around each other’s miseries. It is that which makes us family.’ (p307)

Akhmed, Havaa’s neighbour and the local doctor, wants to save Havaa from her father’s fate and takes her to the city hospital where he’s heard of a female doctor, the only name outside the village he knows. Sonja, the only doctor and surgeon left at the hospital, begrudgingly takes Havaa in creating another event in a series of phenomena that slowly form a constellation, a connection between these people that projects some kind of life or hope into the future. ‘Life’ being what the title of the novel describes in one of Sonja’s medical text books, and something that Sonja’s sister, Natasha, circles in red as she attempts to make a life for herself in the ruins of her city.

Both Natasha and Akhmed are artists of disappearance. Akhmed is better at drawing portraits of remembered dead than he is of healing the sick and Natasha creates a mural in the hospital that recreates the city skyline before war turned it to rubble. The art is pleasing – early anatomists were artists – but there is something in the neatness of these artistic expressions that holds true of the whole novel. There is an all-seeing authorial voice, whose authority – phrases like ‘She would die at the age of one hundred and three’ or ‘In sixteen years, when glass replaced the plywood boards’ or ‘three days after Dokka disappeared, when Ramzan closed the satellite phone and ended the last of the three conversations he would have with the Cossack colonel’ – is both pleasing and faintly reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernieres, and unnerving: the possibility of neatly tied endings feels as full of the magical realism that Marquez and Bernieres have and Marra lacks. Could it be that Marra’s authority is consciously reminiscent of magical realism? That is, mocks it’s own certainty? The sense of an over-arching narrative that makes sense of it all is poignantly fiction’s domain and perhaps I’m more of a fan of the messy ending, even if it is strangely less brave.

I would recommend this book and I admire it, but even though it had me weeping in parts, I think I prefer something messier, something more raw. Then again, it could just be my jealousy talking. I can’t claim anything so accomplished as my first novel.

Next week I’m reading The Infatuations by Javier Marias and the week after I’m reading Blood Fugue by Joseph D’Lacey. Feel free to send in suggestions.



Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood

Oryx & Crake is a brilliant and compelling read. The protagonist, Snowman, tells us the story of our future and its undoing as the attempt to feed everyone, provide healthcare and satisfy an unending desire for sex and youth, takes us beyond a divided society into a new world where Snowman may be the only normal human left.  Whilst the future world of guarded compounds and an intellectual elite busy playing with our DNA to keep humanity limping along on the earth, is one cartoons have long made our children familiar with, Artwood’s telling emphasizes the darker side of these experiments and the uncaring nature of market forces. But Snowman is not elite. He is a wordsman, useful only for his marketing potential. His life is as barren as any salaryman, until his old best friend from school, Crake, takes him to the richest compound and puts him in charge of marketing his latest products aimed at enhancing sexual prowess while secretly containing birth control elements, or so Crake tells him.  Crake is also working on a top-secret project to reinvent the human race.

Crake’s new breed of men are spliced with various animal DNAs to weed out the potential for violence through eliminating sexual disappointment and therefore ownership. Crake keeps them in a false wooded dome and has Oryx, a woman whom both Crake and Snowman have adored from afar since they were teenagers watching her porn, now a lover to both men, teach the Crakers. Both Crake and Oryx make Snowman promise to look after the Crakers should anything happen to them and of course something, a knock-out virus unsurprisingly developing in areas trialing Crake’s latest product, does happen to the whole world. And then Snowman is left to wander this new empty world with the Crakers doing the only thing he has ever been good at, spinning stories.

It is these stories that make Oryx & Crake different to many other speculative visions of the future. Snowman has always loved language, collecting old, unused words. He understands that words can become obsolete in the face of social change, but a resonance of meaning lingers on in modern versions of the language that left them behind. Narrative is written into the very words we speak and in the face of a world without any but Craker humans, all that Snowman has is narrative. Even the Crakers, hard-wired against hierarchy and violence, can’t be stripped of a desire to know who made them and why and in this need to explain their world they use narrative to rework Snowman’s stories turning Crake and Oryx into mythical, godlike beings and giving Snowman a last laugh: their need for narrative will muddle the waters of the evolution Crake imagined for them.

At the end of the novel, Snowman glimpses three old-fashioned humans through the trees and we are left wondering what will happen, eager to reach out for the next book in the trilogy.

Oryx & Crake is a pleasure to read. It turns a barren future into everyday experience, leaving slithers of hope in a future where most of humanity has rotted with disease. At the end, what do we have left? Stories. That is the only art that holds a dying race together, or builds a new one. I’m looking forward to the next book and will read it after A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra next week, and The Infatuations by Javier Marias the week after.

Wounding by Heidi James

What I hope for most from reading is to be forced into new avenues of thought, or even old avenues that feel rusty or could be further excavated. Reading Wounding did exactly that. The novel is about Cora, a woman in her thirties, seemingly with everything: a loving husband, two children (boy and girl), a good job, a house with a garden. But Cora is not happy, she is lost, she has slipped into a world in which the demands of others, specifically of the family, define her. They define her body – the marks that childbirth leaves; the power of instinct to enforce a soothing hand – and they empty her mind: she must do what is expected of her, she must mimic a happiness she does not feel because marriage and children have robbed her of selfhood.

Half of the narrative is in Cora’s husband’s voice. He tells us the story of how they got together and their life as a couple. He is so desperate to make their marriage work, but he fails to really see Cora. He believes she is intimately close to her children, not following carefully thought out steps to manage their well-being.

Wounding is painful to read because it asks difficult questions we prefer to avoid. At the heart of Wounding is what society sees as the unnatural mother, the monster we hide in a labyrinth of excuses, tiredness mostly. Every mother has experienced a longing to be alone and a subsequent feeling of horror once the longing is granted – we feel lost; what are we now the needs of others are not there to direct our actions? – every mother has lost control, shouted, felt remorseful, a failure. Cora is the deepest expression of those anxieties and though she does nothing beyond what could be tamed into normality, her coldness is shocking, her behaviour to her son on one walk to school when he steps in dog mess, is shocking, but Cora understands this, she understands her own monstrosity and seeks to absolve herself in pain. Some may find this search unnerving, it is a religious sort of purging she seeks, and eventually it consumes her. The pain remakes her, allows her to feel herself again. The beginning of the novel suggests that that remaking process is ongoing, that the challenges of marriage and parenthood cannot be easily shrugged off, and remain even after the darkest of actions.

Whilst these are essential modern themes – what is a modern, educated, independent mother? – ones that Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin tried to address amidst much controversy, Heidi James’ novel is not only contentious but, unlike We Need To Talk About Kevin, it is also beautifully written. You feel drawn in to the extent that I almost couldn’t breath as the words compelled me to absorb myself in Cora’s world. It felt like Wounding was in conversation with my favourite female writers – Elfriede Jelinek, Marie Darrieussecq, Zeruya Shalev, Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag – highlighting new ideas and turns of phrase for our lives as we live them right now.  Wounding is a beautiful, brutal novel that should be on the top of all the most important reading lists of 2014. Out in April and published by Bluemoose Books, make sure you pre-order your copy now.

Next week I will be reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, followed by A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, The Infatuations by Javier Marias and The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees.

The Mall by S. L. Grey

I was excited about reading the duo that is S. L. Grey and The Mall was no disappointment. Set in a shopping mall in South Africa, The Mall is like reading a computer game. Rhoda, a black English coke head, and Daniel, a white emo bookshop employee, get lost searching for a boy Rhoda was meant to be minding for a friend. They think they have found themselves in the unfinished basements and grounds of the mall extension, but soon realise they have entered a new world of subterranean filth, through which they are instructed and threatened by text messages to their phones that no longer have signal or battery. Chased by some heavy breathing monster, they eventually make it to what their messages call the market, a new mall in which the rules of the game are once more reinvented.

This mall takes the modern consumer world to its extreme. Beauty enhancement is no longer simply about large breasts and six packs, it’s about amputation. It is fashionable, and encouraged by management (the texters), to be painfully thin or grossly over weight – the easier option given the food, which has greater sugar, salt and fat content than any fast food of our world. Salespeople or Customer Care Officers, are happy to be chained to their cash registers and have an implant in their brains that enhances their helpful attitude. Shoppers literally shop till they drop, shops competing over their custom. There are a small number of those that chose to flaunt the system, but they live miserable, mad lives hidden in warren like tunnels, breedings rats and sleeping next to their own shit.

Despite the gripping nature of the plot and the intriguing changes that both Rhoda and Daniel undergo individually and together, I think I had hoped for something more dramatic, but in fact, the surreal differences of the new mall are more challenging than overt horror. There is a structure to the mall more coherent than anything in ours: everyone knows their place, their world is limited and their expectations managed (even famous celebrities have paunches and saggy breasts). I might have wanted the new mall to make our own consumerism seem closer to the brink of that level of exploitation (which of course it is but in different ways), or to seem more free in contrast, but comparing the worlds is more complicated and perhaps more brilliant than that. The Mall makes us ask whether contentment is best found in constraint and these uncomfortable thoughts make The Mall a haunting read without even stopping to question what management gets from it all.

If you like horror that pokes a few fingers at modern life, The Mall is for you.

This coming week I am taking a sneak preview at Wounding by Heidi James and the following week I will be reading Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, a book that’s been on my reading list for far too long! Any further suggestions for future reading would be very welcome.

The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr

The Last World is a reworking of the banishment of Naso, Publius Ovidius, told by one of his admirers, Cotta, who leaves Rome under false papers to verify the rumour of Naso’s death. Tomi, on the Black Sea, is Naso and Cotta’s last world. We aren’t sure at the end of the novel if either man is dead, but they are lost to the gothic landscape of Tomi whose mountains and gorges are at the mercy of a cruel nature that sends storms and landslides as well as heat waves and fertile rains.

Unsurprisingly, Metamorphosis is the inspiring wind beneath the sails of The Last World. Because in the novel Naso burnt his only Metamorphosis manuscript, Cotta’s journey is as much to uncover the poetry as it is the poet and the lost manuscript allows Ransmayr to reinterpret and reinvent the tales of Metamorphosis in the town of Tomi. Despite the strange liminal time period, where Rome has microphones, a projectionist can give film performances in Tomi, and the people have cans and batteries but still need fire for heating, we are led into a world in which human transformation seems more than credible. There are nice touches that link past literature to more modern myths – Lyceon, the ropemaker that Cotta lodges with, is revealed but unnamed as a werewolf – or draw intellectual connections only hinted at in the annals of history – Pythagoras becomes Naso’s servant when he recognises a man of his experience and understanding in Naso.

There were also moments in The Last World that sprang on my imagination with a fierce and beautiful power. For example, when Cotta first finds Naso’s retreat in the mountains he stays overnight on a reeking pelt by the fire. He is then woken up by the entrance of a herdsman whose head and shoulders are covered in a teeming blanket of eyes. The herdsman comes to sit by the fire, his cow lowing beside him, and is then lulled into a half sleep by beautiful music that mysteriously echoes across the mountainside, his eyes opening and closing in tired waves. Suddenly the music stops and a shadow darts into the room killing the herdsman with an axe. As the blood bubbles up through his skull, the herdsman’s eyes fall from him, lodging fast to the planks of Naso’s floor which rise into the feathers of a peacock that then disappears off into the night leaving Cotta screaming. Here, as throughout the novel, we are allowed to doubt these transforming, monstrous visions, as either dreaming or the result of some unusual natural occurrence. The inhabitants of Tomi are particularly adept at letting miracles drift into the mundane.

Despite all of my pleasure at parts of the book, and despite its hold over me at the novel’s end, The Last World did not grip me in the way I think I had hoped it would. Whether it was the time I chose to read it or whether it was simply my lack of classical knowledge, I’m not sure. What The Last World did do, was make me want to go back to Metamorphosis. It also reminded me of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso, which was perhaps less radical in its retelling of old stories, but which I enjoyed more. Ultimately, The Last World is a brave and imaginative work that reminds us of the enduring, adapting strength of story as a means to make sense of our world.

Next week I’m reading The Mall by S L Grey and the following week I’m taking a sneak peak at Wounding by Heidi James, which comes out in April this year. Further suggestions for the reading list would be most welcome.

Love Life by Zeruya Shalev

Love Life is a truly beautiful book: beautiful in its turn of phrase, in its intensity and beautiful in the way that people are beautiful – you stare and stare and then suddenly beauty breaks down into individual features and for one terrifying moment beauty is the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and you can’t look away.

Ya’ara is a young married woman trying to find a place for herself in the world. She is trying to understand her past – what role her dead brother played, how her parents’ relationship turned sour, who her parents are. She is trying to understand her choices and her desires, which are so readily fettered to others’ expectations. She is unhappy in her married life. She is unprepared to work for her university career. She dislikes her parents and her friends. She wanders around hungry for something that will help her change and she finds it in her parents’ old friend, Aryeh. Despite the age difference, despite his painful indifference, she debases herself for him, throwing her life at his feet all in order to discover more about Aryeh and his past with her parents and his past with his dying wife, and his every passing thought and movement in the present. Their relationship is suffocating in a completely opposite way to that of her relationship with her husband and ultimately that is what saves her and leads her love life to force her into loving life. Of course, she is also saved by the pages of an old book.

This love of narrative and the hidden meanings in old stories – much of which I need more time to understand because they are Jewish legends surrounding the fall of the temple – is another reason I loved this book. Truth is hidden in the interpretation of the stories others tell and the stories we tell ourselves. It’s hard to resist quoting the book, so here’s one:
‘This was apparently the root of love, to want to tell someone about every trifle that happened to you, in the hope that on the tortuous path from your mouth to his ear, the story would achieve its meaning, its justification, as if it had all happened simply so that I could tell it to Aryeh when he came to me at night, and not only it but every little thing that had ever happened, that was happening, that would happen in the future, this was their whole point, to tell them to Aryeh, even if Aryeh wasn’t in the least interested.’ (p181-182)

Whilst the description of intelligent Ya’ara being buffeted by the whirlwind of her relations with Aryeh is often extremely unpleasant, it is usually when it strikes some chord of familiarity – ‘I wondered to myself if this was harassment or pleasure’ (p199). There are moments when the dreadful things we sometimes think appear in black and white, unerased from the narrative of her life and they are both pleasing and horrifying because the intensity of her voice is hard to breathe especially when it holds up the dark mirror of mania. Perhaps, what I’m really saying is that, unlike Intuition by Allegra Goodman, Love Life is my kind of book and has an unpalatable quality that fascinates me.

I loved Love Life and would read it again. This is a bestseller you should buy and treasure.

I’m relieved I’ve managed to make the Christmas blog. Next week I’m reading The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr in what will be probably be a cold and windy New Year in Brittany.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

There is absolutely nothing to dislike about Intuition. It is a well-researched book that takes a choppy ride over the seas of life in scientific research, specifically cancer research, where the tiniest results can extrapolate out with life-saving possibilities. We follow one particular lab, the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, in its battle against cancer, looking at its postdocs and lab technicians, as well as the lab directors and their families.

When one disgruntled postdoc announces significant cancer beating results in his mice experiment, opinion becomes divided about the veracity of those results and the lab is torn apart by the battle between self-glorification and scientific truth, played out against the politics of government funded research and all the responsibilities that should engender. Whilst there is a wealth of material here, and Intuition is by no means written badly, I couldn’t get excited about the book. In the end I felt it came down to me simply not being Intuition’s ideal reader.

I enjoyed reading Intuition and I would encourage those interested in scientific research and its complexities to read it, but I like books to be more than a good read and whilst there was nothing in Intuition to rile me, neither did I find myself lost in the pleasure of a turn of phrase or in the run of the narrative. Intuition could be about the search for truth, and certainly critics have read it that way, but for me it was more about humanity’s incessant and unrealistic desire for longevity, something I’m not entirely sure the book wanted me to think about. However, in this instance, I’m putting my feelings down to taste. Given the subject of longing for eternity, I’d rather read something less scientific, like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

Next week, I will be reading Love Life by Zeruya Shalev and of course indulging in Christmas. It remains to be seen whether I can manage both…

The Human Script by Johnny Rich

The Human Script is an unraveling of the code of Chris Putnam’s life. It is about DNA – Chris works in a lab mapping some of the human genome and has an identical twin, someone theoretically made to be exactly the same who is in practice quite different. It is about the religious possibilities of creation – Chris’ father is a Calvinist who believes in predestination. It is about Chris’ father, who dies early in the novel but who nevertheless has fathered Chris, has influenced his development and his thinking in ways Chris does not find easy to accept. It is also a reworking of Roland Barthes – Chris’ twin, Dan, goes mad, plagued by the controlling interference of Johnny (the author), and as the novel progresses Chris feels the presence of Johnny too and attempts to confront him. In the end The Human Script reminds us that the code only has meaning when it is read.

Despite the overt intelligence working behind the novel, the catholic quotations, the philosophical and psychological conversations Chris has with his flatmate, Elsi (the only woman with a real voice in the book), that ripple out into his work and love life, and of course the science, I found myself looking forward not to what would happen next in The Human Script, but to what Johnny Rich would write next. This is a first novel that promises a glittering second. Whilst I was inhabited by the characters in a very engaging way – in particular I was caught up in Chris’ relationship with Leo, the publicly heterosexual, privately homosexual, famous actor – the narrative took turns I had not anticipated from its early pages and in the end became weighed down by the theory. The creationist grappling reminded me of Borges’s story ‘The Circular Ruins’ where a man dreams a son into existence, only to discover that he too is the progeny of dream. Borges’ ability to embed fiercely intellectual theory in narrative is something I would like to see Johnny Rich do more of in his next novel.

The Human Script is an ambitious and intriguing novel. Johnny Rich’s voice is one I hope we will all become more familiar with.

Next week I’ll be reading another overtly scientific novel, Intuition by Allegra Goodman, then Love Life by Zeruya Shalev, followed by The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr and then The Mall by S. L. Grey.

Cain by José Saramago

I can’t help it, I really enjoy reading Saramago and his translator, Margaret Jull Costa. Whilst there are books of his I haven’t enjoyed – I’m thinking of The Double – I was looking forward to reading Cain and I wasn’t disappointed. I like the lack of capitalization for proper nouns. I like the lack of punctuation for speech, indeed the lack of paragraphing for speech because despite all of that, you know who is speaking and you also know you are being asked to question the veracity of the speech being written down by an author who didn’t even hear the speech to begin with. So, reading Saramago is a pleasure and the words flow with a compelling retelling of an old story.

Cain is a new version of the Old Testament, one in which Cain challenges God’s interaction with humanity. After killing his brother, something Cain gets God to admit he is partly responsible for, Cain wanders through some of the salient points of the Old Testament (the destruction of the tower of Babel, the near sacrifice of Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Job’s trials, the battle of Jericho and so on) witnessing the limits of God’s power and compassion. Eventually Cain challenges God’s will by destroying all life on board the arch leaving God with no new humanity to repopulate the earth, only Cain, whom he has decreed he will not kill. So Cain ends his days arguing with the lord. He says no one will miss the human race. Even the angels, described in every instance as compassionate, have explained that to their mind human beings do not deserve the life God gave them – and by that they mean the freedoms of life outside of heaven. Heaven is as boring as life in the Garden of Eden. But the life the angels covet comes with a price for God, his creations will not always comply with his wishes. God is the foreman in creation and Cain is keen to remind him that there is a greater force than God at work in the universe, perhaps the very force that had Cain wander through time to follow how God manages his human creations.

At first, I was disappointed in the ending of the book because I wasn’t ready for the end of humanity, or the story to end, but perhaps that is Saramago’s point. Really we are a plague upon the earth, polluting and endangering the world and ourselves. Who would miss us? And how could any God, allowing us to live in this way, be more loving, more just, less blood-thirsty than us? When does a parent step in? Usually before serious harm comes from a child’s actions. Perhaps an ongoing debate between God and his creation, between Cain and God, as happens at the end of the novel, is all God could really have hoped for? This God at least?

Cain is a pleasurable way to remind ourselves of the foundations of our culture, of the angry God of the Old Testament who still seems to rule the way we live today. The stories of the Old Testament are so rich, and Cain does them justice, unwinding the threads of civilization with humour and beauty.

Next week I’ll be reading and reviewing The Human Script by Johnny Rich. Then the reading list is as follows: Intuition by Allegra Goodman, Love Life by Zeruya Shalev, The Last World by Christoph Ransmayr.