Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex Two

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Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex Two

Vernon Subutex is living in the streets of Paris now; he found a quite comfortable place in the parc des Buttes Chaumont and doesn’t really care about his old acquaintances. But they show up one after the other since there are still things going on all connected to him. First of all, Emilie’s apartment was broken into and Vernon’s rucksack has been stolen. He didn’t really care about it, but he had something that many people were keen on seeing destroyed: tapes with recordings of Vernon’s and Alex Bleach’s discussions in which the later and now dead musician reveals that Vodka Satana hasn’t died from an overdose but was killed. A whole bunch of people gathers on the Parisian hill, all grieving their own kind of loss, searching for meaning in their life and finding in Vernon the piece that holds them all together.

I liked the second instalment of the Vernon Subutex series a lot more than the first. I had the impression that the different stories which are told somehow better fit together and they are a lot more interesting than in the first. Even though Vernon Subutex still gives the novel the title and he is definitely the linking item between all of the characters, he just plays a minor role here.

It is not obvious from the beginning how all the characters relate, sometimes it needs a longer explanation to reveal the missing link. But Virginie Despentes has equipped them all with stunning lives that are not only interesting to read but also very diverse and each offer something completely new. What she manages in this way is to offer a broad picture of the French society, especially since her characters come from all kinds of classes and normally they wouldn’t really interact. But here, it does not only work, but it is convincing and great to read.

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Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

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Liese O’Halloran Schwarz – The Possible World

Being invited to a birthday party isn‘t something that comes easy for Ben. Too many things can happen, all is so unpredictable with other boys, but his mother can convince him to go nevertheless. And then, the most unexpected happens: a murderer comes to the party and kills the two mothers in the house as well as all of the kids, except for Ben. In hospital, Lucy can only determine that he hasn’t been hurt physically, but there seems to be a kind of trauma since Ben wants to be called Leo and remembers life with a certain Clare. At an elderly home somewhere in town, Clare is fighting again against having to socialise. Her life alone in a recluse hut and later with her foster child Leo has simply been perfect. How come Ben remembers being Clare’s son Leo?

Liese O‘Halloran Schwarz‘ novel is one of the rare books that you just open and then get completely lost in. I read it in just one sitting because I simply did not want to get away from her characters. It is bittersweet, often melancholic, but you see the good heart the characters have and you are convinced that there must be something good coming from them. It is a perfect feel-good book, even though it tells harsh reality in an emergency room and the story of a child given away by his mother.

I liked the alternate narration of the three protagonists, even though it did not completely make sense at the beginning, you slowly manage to put together the puzzle pieces that form a new and complete picture. All three are very sensitive characters, misunderstood by the people around them and therefore lonely. I guess these kind of people recognize each other what helps them to find each other. What also links them is the fact that they are highly intelligent and question the world: why do the things have to be the way they are and why don’t people change something about it?

A beautifully written story about non-mainstream characters who can easily be overlooked.

Jo Piazza – Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

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Jo Piazza – Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win

She is one of the most successful women in the Silicon Valley, but now she wants more: Charlotte Walsh is running for Senate in her home state Pennsylvania. She has got a great team, her campaign manager Josh has won several times before and is an experienced spin doctor and her assistant Laila has been with her in San Francisco before. But the most important are her husband Max and their three young daughters. So, the family leaves the bay area and moves in the house in the small town Charlotte grew up and that thirty years before she had sworn never to come back to again. Once the campaign starts, Max and Charlotte have to realise that they had no idea what these eighteen months would mean and the brittle marriage is getting closer to breaking. And their well-kept secrets suddenly threaten to come out when the fight for the win becomes ugly.

I really adored the character of Charlotte from the start. On the one hand, she is the successful businesswoman who made her way from a poor background to the top and is not afraid of taking hard decisions. On the other hand, we get her thoughts and years of success and a place at the top cannot prevent her from self-doubt and insecurity. She never really could get rid of the small town girl coming from a non-academic family.

Also the fact that she is constantly torn between having a career and being a mother seems to be quite authentic. Max takes a sabbatical to support her, but he is considered a wonderful and extraordinary husband – yet, he only does what thousands of women have done for their husbands and he still expects her to take over household duties. Even though they have quite an equal partnership, some traditional roles just cannot be abdicated that easily and more than once Charlotte wonders why this is the case and why she is treated differently from any male candidate.

Apart from those serious topics, the novel is first and foremost hilarious to read. There are so many comical situations that I several times wanted to laugh out loud, like e.g. when Charlotte picks a random pair of shoes for her first big speech since she is late and her baby daughter had “eaten” the one she wanted to wear and the media make a hype out of the question why she refuses to wear high heels and consider this an important statement – what she actually said was of only minor interest.

“Charlotte Walsh wants to win” is the perfect summer read, it gives insight in a political campaign which is fought with all means, also the very hideous ones, and adds to the discussion of gender roles and the question if women actually can achieve everything that men can.

Michael Donkor – Hold

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Michael Donkor – Hold

Belinda knows her place in the world, when her father cannot pay for her anymore, her mother sends her away to work in the household of people she calls Aunt and Uncle in accordance with Ghanaian customs. She is not the only maid there, also 11-year-old Mary works for them and quickly becomes something like a sister Belinda never had. When Belinda is sent to England to take care of Amma, a girl her own age, the two have to part which isn’t easy for either of them. Yet, they manage to stay in contact over the thousands of kilometres that now separate them. Mary wants to know everything about Belinda’s posh life in London, but the older sister cannot tell everything that she experiences in England. Her role is different now which is hard to get used to and people behave in a different way. She misses her home town, but also sees the chance that she is given since she can go back to school and study. When a tragic incident calls her back to Africa, Belinda realises that only a couple of months were enough to change her completely.

Michael Donkor was born in England to a Ghanaian household and trained as an English teacher and completed a Master’s in Creative Writing. He was selected as a “New Face in Fiction” by The Observer in January 2018. “Hold” is his debut novel in which also autobiographical elements can be found even though his protagonist is female and he has lived all his life in the UK.

What I liked about the novel were the different perspectives on life that you get and the difficulties that living between different cultures can mean for you personally but also for the people around you. First of all, I hardly know anything about Ghana so the beginning of the novel when we meet Mary and Belinda, young girls who work full time as maids, gives a short glance at what life in other parts of the world might be. They were not treated especially bad, quite the contrary, but the fact that the lack of money in their family leads to giving up education is something which is far away from our world in Europe.

Most interesting also Belinda’s arrival in London and her awareness of being different. She has brown skin, but this is different from the Asian brown of the Indians or the skin of the girls from Jamaica. It is those slight differences that are of course seen by the members of those groups at the margin but often neglected by the majority society. Even though she shares the same cultural background with Amma, the two girls could hardly be more distinct. The most obvious is their sexual orientation where Belinda sticks to a romantic understanding of love and where Amma has her coming-out as homosexual. Belinda can easily adapt to a lot of things, but this clearly transgresses a line that she will not cross. The girls’ friendship is nothing that comes easy for both of them, but it splendid how Donkor developed it throughout the novel.

Without a doubt, Michael Donkor is a great new voice among the British writers who themselves have made the experience of belonging – but not completely, of being trapped between cultures and having to find their identity while growing up.

Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

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Anne Tyler – Clock Dance

Willa Drake is only eleven when her mother suddenly disappears and leaves her two daughters and husband to themselves. Since their father is a good man but incapable of managing the household, Willa has to take over the mother’s role. Ten years later, she has almost finished her studies and dreams of a career in linguistics when her boy-friend proposes and expects her to give up her studies. Another twenty years later, a preventable accident kills her husband and leaves her alone with their two sons. When she is already sixty, again somebody makes a decision which has a deep impact on her life. A neighbour of Denise calls her – the ex-girl-friend of her son has been shot in the leg and now her 9-year-old daughter Cheryl is left to her own devices in Baltimore. Willa decides that she is needed even though she neither knows Denise nor Cheryl and heads to Baltimore accompanied by her second husband Peter. What she finds there is what she has been longing for for years: somebody who is grateful for what she does and a group of people who are, on the one hand, lonesome, but on the other hand, take care of each other.

In the first part of Anne Tyler’s novel, we only get short episodes, decisive moments which will make a change in Willa’s life: the mother’s disappearance, the proposal and the death of her husband. What they have in common is not only the impact on Willa, but first and foremost the fact that she is on a position where she has no power over her own life, it is others who make a decision for her without consulting her and without taking her own opinion into consideration. First her parents, then her husbands and she never openly opposes them, but gives in by far too soon. The second part is quite different since here, we accompany Willa travelling to Baltimore and taking care of Cheryl and Denise. Even though she was always there for her husbands and sons, Willa does not really seem to be loved and appreciated by them. It is those strangers that give her the impression of being important and needed and what she does is not taken for granted.

Willa is not a perfect woman, she also has her flaws and seems to be rather ordinary in many ways: the life she leads is the one many thousands of women of her generation lead, her view of herself and her place in the world is also shared by millions. She regrets the weak bonds she has with her sister and also with her sons when they are grown up and hardly stay in contact with their mother. However, this does not have to be like this and there is always the chance of escape as Anne Tyler shows. It is not the big sudden decision, but a long and slow process which also has some steps backwards and isn’t easy at all. It is hard not to like the protagonist, even though at times I had the strong urge to push her a bit to stand up for herself, but this would have been completely against her character.

“Clock dance” is a novel narrated in a very lively way. The dialogues as well as Willa’s thoughts seem to be absolutely authentic and easy to imagine. The characters are realistic in the way they are modelled, none of them is really outstanding from the crowd, but this makes them this interesting: Anne Tyler captures those particular aspects, the traits easily to be overlooked that make them lovable and important to someone. Her style of writing is smooth and makes you just rush through the novel. It is one of those novel which do not need the big event or outstanding character but captivates the reader through its authenticity which shows that the average person can make a change.

Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

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Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Marguerite und ihr älterer Bruder Bailey werden schon als kleine Kinder von den Eltern weggeschickt und wachsen bei der Großmutter und dem behinderten Onkel in Arkansas auf. Die ländliche Gegend ist geprägt vom Rassismus gegenüber den Schwarzen, davor schützt auch der relative Reichtum der Großmutter nicht und schon in jungen Jahren müssen die beiden Geschwister lernen, dass sie in diesem Land nur Menschen zweiter Klasse sind. Unerwartet können sie die lieblose Zuflucht bei der Großmutter beenden und wieder zu ihrer Mutter, die Marguerite wegen ihrer Schönheit immer bewundert, ziehen. Dort jedoch wird das Mädchen vom Freund der Mutter vergewaltigt und soll vor Gericht aussagen. Zu sehr eingeschüchtert kommt es so nur zu einer geringen Strafe des Mannes, der jedoch unmittelbar nach dem Urteil der Selbstjustiz zum Opfer fällt. Auch als Jugendliche wird das Leben nicht einfacher, zwar entwickelt sich Marguerite nach einer Phase des Verstummens ob der grausamen Erlebnisse zu einer belesenen und intelligenten jungen Frau, aber weiterhin begleiten Rassismus und offener Hass auch innerhalb der Familie ihren Weg. Verwirrt von ihren Gefühlen glaubt sie schließlich lesbisch zu werden; um dieses abzuwenden, bittet sie einen Nachbarsjungen sie zu entjungfern, was prompt in der Schwangerschaft des Teenagers endet.

Maya Angelou, geboren 1928 und eines der Gesichter des Civil Rights Movements, verarbeitet in dem Roman ihre Erlebnisse als Kind und Jugendliche. „I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings“ ist der erste von sieben Bänden ihrer Autobiographie und steht repräsentativ für das Leben vieler Schwarzer in der ersten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Sie war mit Martin Luther King ebenso befreundet wie mit Malcolm X und wurde Anfang der 1980er Jahre zu einer der ersten schwarzen Frauen mit einer Professur.

Der Titel ist einem Gedicht von Paul Laurence Dunbar entnommen, das beschreibt, wie der verletzte Vogel sich dennoch in seinem Käfig auflehnt und nach Freiheit begehrt; sein Schrei ist nicht einer der Freude, sondern ein Gebet an den Himmel geschickt und aus tiefstem Herzen kommend. So wie der Vogel ist auch die junge Marguerite gefangen in einer Gesellschaft, die ihr nicht die Möglichkeiten gibt, von denen sie träumt, sondern brutal immer wieder vorführt, welche Rolle man für sie vorgesehen hat. Angelou lässt nichts aus an Hass und Gewalt, die das Mädchen miterleben muss. Auch die Folgen dieser Erlebnisse, wie etwa das Verstummen des Mädchens für mehrere Jahre, werden sehr deutlich nachgezeichnet. So wie sie im wahrsten Sinne des Wortes ihre Stimme wiedererlangt, wird sie auch zu einer Stimme für die Unterdrückten werden und ein Leben lang ihren Kampf für Gerechtigkeit kämpfen.

Leider steht Maya Angelou meist im Schatten Harper Lees und Toni Morrisons, wenn es um weibliche Stimmen im Kampf gegen den Rassismus in den USA geht. Völlig zu Unrecht, denn die Tatsache, dass ihre Romane autobiographischer Natur sind verleihen ihnen noch mehr Aussagekraft. Auch sprachlich kann sie mit ihrem direkten und in diesem Roman noch etwas naiven Stil überzeugen, trifft sie doch genau den Ton der jungen Marguerite, die ihren Platz im Leben erst noch finden muss.

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Swan Song

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Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott – Swan Song

He has been one of the most fascinating writers of the last century, not only his works but also his private life offers much to talk about. Both are closely linked since he used the people around him as a source for his creative work. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott retells Truman Capote‘s life as it might have been. From his first steps in writing as a boy – the chance to win a puppy was motivation enough to take part in a competition – to his well known novels „Breakfast at Tiffany’s“ and „In Cold Blood“. He had his charms, could easily win people for him, but then he misused their trust and confidence, played his games and made fun of the people who took him for a close friend.

The novel is lively told, the fact that Greenberg-Jephcott does not stick to the chronological order but springs back and forth in time adds to the liveliness. The dialogues are vivid and you get quite a good idea of how the people around Capote might have been, especially his mother and Babe. It is not a biography, but real life events taken and told a story out of the facts – just what Capote himself did. Also from a psychological point of view quite impressive.

Stuart Evers – If this is Home

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Stuart Evers – If this is Home

When he left the UK, Mark Wilkinson also left behind his name and entered the US as Joe Novak. By now, he is known as Mr Jones and selling apartments in Las Vegas. But something from his past is haunting him, he has episodes, hears voices or better: one voice: the one of Bethany, his girl-friend when he was still a teenager and living in England. He is thirty now and Bethany has been dead for thirteen years. He had wanted to leave their sad hometown together with her, to build a life together in New York, but then, she was murdered. After an incident with a client, he returns to England, now to find out the truth about Bethany’s death.

I was eager to read the novel due to the high praise I could read everywhere. After having finished, I am somewhere between disappointed and deeply confused. Either I didn’t get it at all or it absolutely didn’t work for me.

First of all, I had the impression that the first and the second half of the novel didn’t work together at all. It’s like having completely different characters and two independent stories told. In the beginning, we get a lot of clichés about men who are by far too rich and who think they own the world. It might be quite realistic, but not very interesting and ultimately, it leads to nothing for me. The second part, when Mark tries to figure out what happened to Bethany made a lot more sense, even though he hears her ghost talking constantly. I was waiting for the stunning moment when the circumstances of Bethany’s death are revealed, I expected something unusual, unforeseen and really surprising. Yet, this didn’t come. Actually, I didn’t even understand why he had to change his name all the time and what he was running from after all.

Edward St. Aubyn – Never Mind

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Edward St. Aubyn – Never Mind

Ein Sommertag in der französischen Provence. Eleanor und David haben sich eigentlich schon lange nichts mehr zu sagen, sie ist eine einzige Enttäuschung für ihn, hat sie sich seinem Willen doch sofort unterworfen. Allerdings erfordert der britische Adelsstand gewisse Standrads auch in ehelichen Fragen und so bleibt diese Ehe zumindest nach außen bestehen und mit ausreichend Alkohol schon am frühen Morgen kann Eleanor ihren Mann auch halbwegs ertragen. Zwei ihrer Gäste sind bereits angekommen, zwei weitere reisen mit dem Zug an und Eleanor wird sie trotz deutlich messbarem Alkoholspiegel mit dem Auto abholen. Der Tag nimmt seinen Lauf, doch bevor das Mittelschichten-Bashing während des abendlichen Diners seinen Höhepunkt erreicht, muss der junge Patrick Melrose, gerade einmal fünf Jahre alt, noch seinen persönlichen Tiefpunkt durchleben: der Missbrauch durch Vater David, der sich danach nicht der geringsten Schuld bewusst ist.

Edward St. Aubyn, derzeit sicherlich einer der bedeutendsten britischen Gegenwartsautoren, dessen Sprachgewalt unbestritten seinesgleichen sucht, hat in der Patrick Melrose Serie autobiografische Erlebnisse verarbeitet. „Never Mind“ (deutscher Titel: „Schöne Verhältnisse“) ist der erste Band, der auf die Kindheit Patricks blickt, den Missbrauch durch den Vater bezeugt und die psychischen Folgen der Vernachlässigung durch die Eltern bereits andeutet. Genau wie sein kleiner Protagonist ist auch St. Aubyn in ein altes englisches Adelsgeschlecht hineingeboren und zwischen britischen Privatschulen und Südfrankreich pendelnd aufgewachsen. Auch er erlebte Misshandlung und Vernachlässigung durch die Eltern und hat diese literarisch verarbeitet. Für „Never Mind“ erhielt er 1992 den Betty Trask Award, eine Auszeichnung für den Erstlingsroman eines Autors unter 35 aus dem Commonwealth. Nebenbei: für Benedict Cumberbatch war die Rolle von Patrick Melrose in einer Miniserie neben der des Hamlet eine der absoluten Wunschfiguren seiner Schauspielkarriere.

Man muss den Roman mit einem gewissen inneren Abstand lesen, sonst ist er nicht leicht zu ertragen. Die Figuren, allen voran David, sind kaum auszuhalten ob ihrer Arroganz und Versnobtheit. Auch ihr Umgang miteinander, vor allem zwischen den Paaren, ist fernab von gesunder Beziehungsführung und muss zwangsweise in Ausflüchten wie Alkohol oder Drogen enden. Wenn nicht Edward St.Aubyn ein Händchen für Sprache hätte, könnte man all dies kaum durchhalten. Obwohl er unsägliche Zustände schildert, die leider vermutlich so tagtäglich in vielen Haushalten vorkommen, von denen man eigentlich nicht lesen will, ist es doch gerade seine Ausdruckskunst, die Dinge als das zu benennen, was sie sind, sie auf den Punkt zu bringen, das den Roman letztlich so lesenswert macht. Die Dialoge sind scharfzüngig und entlarvend, das Verhalten der Figuren eröffnet Abgründe, die man sich kaum vorstellen vermag. Nur wenigen Autoren gelingt es, so ein Setting zu einem wirklich guten Roman zu machen.

Rachel Cusk – Kudos

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Rachel Cusk – Kudos

Faye, a British writer, is on her way to a book conference somewhere in southern Europe. She is expected to give several interviews and to take part in social events. The people she meets all have a story to tell – and they do. Faye herself hardly ever talks, especially not about herself, she somehow makes people around her open up and share their thoughts with her. First, it’s the passenger seated next to her in the plane leaving London. Later she meets interviewers who much rather talk about themselves than about their interviewee, her publisher shares her thoughts on the book market and fellow authors who want to convey a certain image of themselves.

“Kudos” is certainly a very special novel. I do not think I have ever read a book in which a first person narrator tells a story and at the end you ask yourself if you got only the slightest idea of the narrator herself. Faye hardly reveals anything, even though she is interviewed over and over again, we only know about a divorce and a son and the fact that she’s a writer – we do not even know what her current is actually about.

Yet, I think Faye might have another function that providing a clear picture about herself. She is more like a canvas, she motivates other characters to paint themselves on her, she is their means for expression. This goes quite well with the title “Kudos”, praise for exceptional achievement or fame, especially in the arts. However, what has Faye done? We know nothing of her own achievement, she is well known for sure, but what exactly for remains in the dark. What we know is that her private life has not been that successful, the separation of her partner and a son who prefers to stay much rather with the father than with her. Only once, at the very end of the novel, is she in contact with him, but only because he cannot get in touch with his father and needs an adult to share his nightly disaster with.

The things the characters share with Faye vary from professional fulfilment and familial shortcomings, over feminism to literature and its quality. Yet, their opinions are neither discussed not questioned, they are just statements that you can ponder. I do not really know what to make of this, I like characters sharing strong opinions on something and thinking about it, but I also appreciate if an author provides a kind of objection or agreement.

“Kudos” is the concluding novel of Cusk’s trilogy which started with “Outline” in 2015 and continued 2016 with “Transit”. I haven’t read the previous ones thus I do not know if we get a better idea of her protagonist through them. However, I didn’t feel like having had to read them to enjoy “Kudos”.

The novel is remarkable in several ways, it reveals a lot about human nature and in particular human narcissism. The words are carefully chosen and the sentences wisely constructed, the language is simply beautiful. All in all, an outstanding piece of art. Kudos for that.