Richard Flanagan – First Person

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Richard Flanagan – First Person

Kif Kehlmann is dreaming of being a writer. With his wife pregnant with twins and their financial situation rather critical, the offer of writing a book is welcomed. Yet, the frame conditions are hard: he will receive 10 000 dollars if he writes the autobiography of Australia’s most wanted fraudster within 6 weeks. Money is money and writing is writing, so Kif accepts the deal not knowing what lies ahead of him. His friend Ray warns him, as Siegfried Heidl’s bodyguard, he knows him quite well and he knows what Heidl is capable of. What sounded like an easy tasks reveals itself a mission impossible. First, Heidl varies the story of his life again and again, Kif does not even know the basic facts and the more he listens to him, the more confused he gets. Second, Siegfried Heidl seems to get into his head, he cannot let go of him anymore and slowly, Kif starts to question his whole life.

If have read other books by Richard Flanagan which could really thrill me, unfortunately, “First Person” does not belong to those. It took almost a third of the book to really get into the novel. Admittedly, it is getting better and better in the course of the time, but I am sure many readers will never reach this point.

Flanagan presents two strong protagonists who are quite appealing and interesting. Kif with his dream of writing a novel sold thousands of times and at the same time struggling with his private life. His head is full with other things, diving into a task such as the ghostwriter’s job seems rather impossible at this moment of his life. And both, his life and the writing, turn out to be incompatible.

Siegfried on the other hand is fascinating because we can never really make up a picture of him. Is he a con man or is he actually super-clever? Which pieces of the story he tells are true (in as much as fiction can be true), which are just narrative? Or as Kif puts it:

“For Heidl wasn’t so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making.” (pos. 3055)

It is his strange charisma that makes him enthralling and captivating. Kif, too, in his description is oscillating between adoration and disdain:

“I couldn’t decide whether I hated Heidl or admired him, if I was his friend or his enemy, if I wanted to save him or kill him.” (pos. 2877) and yet, “He was the closest thing to a man of genius I ever met.” (Po. 3747)

The dance they do is shows that Flanagan is one of the best writers of our time, but nevertheless, this story just was not one that could capture me completely.

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Edward St Aubyn – Dunbar

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Edward St Aubyn – Dunbar

Henry Dunbar has lead his whole life a successful businessman whose orders are carried out immediately and who is not only in charge but in control. But now he finds himself in a sanatorium somewhere in the British countryside, locked away and sedated by his doctors. His eldest daughters Abby and Megan and the family doctor Bob have complotted against him to take over the Dunbar imperium. With his roommate Dunbar decides to flee and to get his life back. His youngest daughter Florence has also gotten wind of the other daughters’ doings and is rushing for help. While the old man is roaming the unknown country in a fierce storm, the sisters and their accomplices are plotting how to get out of the mess best, each one is fighting the others with insidious plans and tricks. But the old man is stronger than anyone would have thought.

“Dunbar” is part of the Shakespeare Hogarth project in which famous authors have transferred the bard’s stories into our modern time in honour of the 400th anniversary of his death. One of the four major tragedies provides the basis for this modern madness: King Lear.

Edward St Aubyn clearly is one of the most gifted authors of our time. He masterly managed to create a gripping story in which the core conflict of Shakespeare’s play can clearly be seen, but which speaks for itself and is a great pleasure to read from the very first to the last page. First of all, the setting. Transferring the king’s household to a media mogul’s family is absolutely adequate for today, it’s not only about power, but much more about the stock market and money. That’s what drives many people nowadays and for which they are willing to sell their own grandmother – or their father as it is here.

Strongest are the characters in the novel. The stubborn old head of the family who cannot be broken by medication and a remote clinic, who develops superhuman survival forces if needed but who finally finds the wisdom of the elderly and can see when in his life he was wrong – that’s one side of the story. Yet, I had a lot more fun with the beastly sisters Abby and Megan, they both are that sly and cunning – it was just a great fun to read (“Oh, God, it was so unfair! That selfish old man was spoiling everything”, Megan complains about her father when she learns that he has fled and her carefully designed plot is about to crumble down). Admittedly, I did not feel too much compassion for their Victim Dr. Bob, who, he himself, also was not the philantropic doctor whom you wish for but much more a turncoat seeking for his own benefit.

A lively family vendetta which completely gets out of control perfectly framed by Edward St Aubyn’s gifted writing. Great dialogues alternate with extraordinary inner monologues – for me so far one of the best works of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

 

Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

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Tomoka Shibasaki – Spring Garden

Taro lives alone in one of Tokyo’s anonymous block of flats. His family is far away and they are hardly in contact, his father died already ten years ago, yet the memories of him are still alive. His neighbours, he only knows the names that were given to the flats they inhabit, but not who is living close to him. Since the flats are going to be destroyed soon, they will have to leave anyway.  One day, he observes a woman walking around the sky-blue house neighbouring their block. She seems to try to look into it through the window. When she realises that she is spotted, they make contact and Nishi explains Taro why she is behaving this strangely: the house is actually quite famous, she even possesses a book about its interior and her greatest wish is to enter and have a look herself. A singular friendship forms between the two neighbours, centred around a building close but far away for them.

Tomoka Shibasaki’s novel “Spring Garden” has many typical features of what I expect from Japanese literature. First of all, the characters. We have two protagonists who seem to live a life without close connection to other people, loneliness and isolation are reoccurring themes in Japan’s novels and from the news I read about the country this really seems to be a major topic. Yet, it is not the suffering from being alone that is central, they seem to have accepted that this is just how it is for them. When they finally bond with somebody – even if it is just a weak connection like the one of neighbours – there are many societal rules which prevent an honest friendship in my opinion. E.g. when Taro is given a present he does not like, it is not easy for him and he nevertheless feels obliged to behave in a certain manner. Even to eat things he doesn’t like in order not to appear impolite.

Some aspects I found really strange and I do not know if this is the case because the character of Taro is a bit bizarre or if this is just a cultural matter which is quite far from the world I life in. Taro keeps the mortar and pestle in his kitchen cupboard with which he turned the remains of his father’s bones into powder to distribute them. They remind him of the father and he frequently thinks about him when he comes across the two utensils. Both, first the idea of working on a deceased’s bones and keeping the utensils close to pots and pans is very astonishing to me to put it politely.

The most interesting part of the novel for me was the house that Taro and Nishi go to explore, first through the book and the outside, later also from the inside. It is not only the poetical language, especially about the lighting of the colourful windows, which makes it quite impressive, but also how human boing have an impact on the outer world. Even though the walls and windows are the same, with the change of the inhabitants, the whole ambiance can change and everybody leaves his mark on his surroundings.

Eliza Robertson – Demi-Gods

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Eliza Robertson – Demi-Gods

Summertime in the early 1950s. Willa and her older sister Joan would like to have a relaxing time at their summer home together with their mom. But the mother has a new lover, Eugene, and to the girls‘ surprise, Eugene has invited his two sons to spend the summer with them. Kenneth and Patrick are slightly older than the girls immediately attract their attention. No, they definitely are not like brothers and sisters, Joan and Kenneth quickly fall for each other. For Willa and Patrick things are not that easy. Over the next years, they regularly meet and between Willa and Patrick a strange connection is formed. On the one hand, the boy can arouse feelings in her, but on the other, what he is doing to her repels her and she senses that his behaviour is far from being normal and acceptable. But what is there she can to about it? It will take years until she can free herself.

“Demi-God” – according to the Merriam-Webster definition, it is a mythological being with more power than a mortal but less than a god or a person so outstanding as to seem to approach the divine. For all female members of the family, the male counterparts are somehow demi-gods, at least in so far as they cannot refrain from their attraction. The mother is charmed by Eugene, Joan falls for Kenneth and also Willa has a special liking for Patrick. It is not quite clear what makes those three that outstanding, but their appeal is obvious. They can exert power over the women in different ways, but it is only Patrick how openly abuses this.

Before coming to this, what I liked especially about the novel was the atmosphere. You can sense immediately that Eliza Robertson is great at creating certain moods and you actually can feel this carefree time of being young during summer holidays when the days seem endless, when the sun is shining and when there are no worries and fears. I also appreciated her characters, first of all the mother who is neither completely stereotypical but nevertheless clearly represents a certain kind of woman of her time. In the focus of the novel are the girls and their relationship. It is not always easy to be sisters, at times they can confide in each other, at others they can’t. Yet, there is something like unconditional love between them, if one needs the other, she can surely count on her.

In this nice and loving ambiance now enters the evil that can be found in human beings. To name it openly, the novel is about sexual abuse, about menacing and exerting power over a weaker person. Willa is first too young, then unsure of how to react and how to qualify what happens to her. It is not the all bad and awful situation – this is what makes the novel especially impressive. It only happens at single instances, partly, she isn’t even sure if she did actually refuse it or even contributed to it happening. This makes it even more awful, because the girl is left alone with her feelings and worries. She plays normal and hides what has happened. It does not take much to imagine that there might be millions of girls out there suffering from the same abuse and feeling helpless and powerless.

Thus, the novel takes up a very serious topic and hopefully some readers might recognize that what Willa is going through is far from acceptable and can find a way of seeking help if they are in need.

Zoe Whittall – The Best Kind of People

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Zoe Whittall – The Best Kind of People

Avalon Hills, Connecticut. The Woodbury family is a kind of an institution in the small community. George’s father has helped to set up the town, George himself is a popular teacher and a hero since he prevented a school shooting ten years ago. His wife Joan works as a nurse and actively contributes to different kinds of charity work, their son Andrew is a successful lawyer in New York and their 17-year-old daughter Sadie a real prodigy. Their life is just perfect. Until one day, a bomb explodes and blows up their whole life: some underage girls accuse George of having tried to rape them during a school trip. What seems to be unbelievable is taken serious by the police and George has to go to prison. Slowly, the family’s confidence in the father’s innocence falls apart. Is he really the man they believed he was?

Zoe Whittall’s novel is a masterpiece in character study. She does not focus on sensationalist facts, actually the accusations, the arguments and the evidence brought forward to support George’s guilt just play a random role in the novel. The centre are Joan and Sadie, wife and daughter who are confronted with the question if they have been fooled and who have to struggle with conflicting emotions within themselves. Their development from absolute supporter, via sceptical but still loyal to building a life without him is remarkably and convincingly portrayed.

It is especially Sadie who can persuade me as a reader. A teenager who is completely knocked off the track, whose life was well organised, everything prearranged and clear in every respect has now to cope with uncertainties, with shades of grey, gets to know her former friends from a completely new and absolutely hostile side. Confused over whom and what to believe, she loses contact to her inner self, tries out pot and pills to numb down her irritating feelings. Strong only for hours or moments, then thrown back again. She is a very authentic character and her struggles appear to be quite authentic.

Since we only get one perspective, the one of the family, we do not really know what actually happened, we never really hear George’s point of view and thus the reader is kept in the dark throughout the novel. There are hints that all might have been set up, yet, then, there is evidence that George is guilty and has not been faithful – in this way, there is an underlying suspense which keeps you going on reading. I enjoyed the novel, for me, it absolutely fulfilled the expectations.

Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing

Leonie would like to be a good mother, but she just is not able to. Luckily her two kids Jojo and the toddler Kayla are mainly raised by her parents, Mam and Pop. But now, Mam is in the stadium of cancer and her days are numbered. Additionally, Michael, the kid’s father, is going to be released from prison after three years behind the bars. Leonie is still in love with he, even though Michael’s family hates her, especially his father does not want the black woman in a white man’s house. And not to forget, it was Michael’s family who is responsible for Leonie’s brother’s death. Nevertheless, Leonie takes her kids and her best friend to make a trip to collect Michael. Jojo would prefer to stay with his Mam and Pop, but he is too young to defy his mother. And he has a task to accomplish which can only be done by someone who can listen.

Jesmyn Ward, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, portrays in “Sing, Unburied, Sing” a family at the point of collapsing. Her description of Leonie, the mother who just isn’t a mother, is heart-breaking and upsetting. At times, you just want to slap her and shout at her to take care of her children and of herself. To forget about the good-for-nothing father of her children and his racist family. Her twelve-year-old son not only has to parent the toddler, but also throughout the story seems to be much more mature than his mother and remarkably more reasonable and wiser. The only solace when it comes to the kids is the fact that their grand-parents are fond of them and raise them with tenderness and affection. It is hard to read about such a mother, but, on the other hand, it seems to be very realistic. These women who always dream of a better life with the man they love and ignore the painful reality do exist, if we like it or not.

Apart from the outstanding character-painting, Ward’ novel plays with the supernatural. Yet, it is not that unbelievable fictitious creation of fantasy, much more does she derive her idea from some kind of pagan or religious belief in forces beyond our recognition that only the specially gifted can see or hear. Within the family, the blood of the super sensitive seems to run since Mam, Leonie and the kids can obviously communicate with those in the world between the living and the dead. Narrated like this, this seems to be a bit strange and unrealistic, the author, however, integrates this idea in a remarkable way which makes you accept it as a normal part of life and genuine fact.

All in all, a novel which can persuade with the strong characters and a poetic style of writing which affects you deeply.

Nathan Englander – Dinner at the Center of the Earth

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Nathan Englander – Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Berlin 2002. A young Palestinian helps out a Canadian businessman to sail on one of the lakes. The more often they meet, the more intimate they get. Paris, the same year. Prisoner Z falls in love with a waitress. A young woman who turns out to be a super-rich daughter with unlimited opportunities. Israel 2014. The General is in hospital, dying, it is just a question of time until he passes away. The same year, the same country, but in a secret prison cell. Prisoner Z sets all his hopes on the General unsuspecting of the latter’s poor state of health. Slowly, all pieces fit together to narrate a story of spying and love in one of the most conflict-laden regions of the earth.

The short description of the novel was really appealing and promising. I was expecting a suspenseful and tedious story which brings the characters to their limit and in which they oscillate between ethical values and commitment to their country and personal interests and emotions. Yet, the plot is slowly flowing without any remarkable peaks in suspense. It took me quite some time to get an idea of the characters and their connection, how they relate isn’t obvious at all.

The narrative style is quite enticing, the dialogues are vivid, also the presentation of the single characters is effective and thriving. However, due to the various places and side plots, the red thread got lost a bit. We have just fractions of the Israel history of which I really would have liked to read much more. Yet, as it is, there are a lot of narrative paths lain out which, unfortunately, nobody ever walked.

Gabriel Tallent – My Absolute Darling

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Gabriel Tallent – My Absolute Darling

It’s just the two of them, 14-year old Julia, called Turtle, and her father Martin. Her mother ran away a long time ago. And there’s her grandfather living close to them, but staying mainly apart. Her father loves her, more than anything else in the world, she can feel it, despite his strange way of showing his affection. He hurts her sometimes, but only because she has not been nice and provoked him. And he loves her, like a man loves a woman. She likes being close to him, that’s normal, isn’t it? But as Turtle is getting older, somewhere deep inside her doubts start to grow. Is all this correct? When she meets Jacob and gets to like him more and more, suddenly the fragile family construction of Martin and Turtle is threatened, even more when Martin brings the small girl Cayenne to their home. Turtle finally realised that she has to do something because nothing is right in their home.

Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel has a weird fascination just like accidents have. On the one hand, you do not want to look (or in this case: read on), because it is all to awful and you know that you had better not read this. On the other hand, you want to see what’s happening and this drags you back to the novel again and again.

Surely, this is nothing to read for highly sensitive readers. It is about child abuse, violence and psychological pressure of the worst kind. However, even though from an outsider’s point of view, this is horrible and unbearable, Gabriel Tallent manages also to convey another perspective which, it remains to be feared, is only too real and can be found in many victims. Julia loves her father, she loves his tenderness and warmth and even the physical contact isn’t something she loathes, quite the contrary. If she did something against it, she’d lose him and thus she has to calculate very accurately what she is doing. This is not easy to understand and even worse to support in a novel, but at a realistic view, this might be a quite common interpretation of the situation.

All in all, not a novel you enjoy to read, but one that takes an interesting perspective and might add something to our understanding.

C.E. Morgan – The Sport of Kings

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C.E. Morgan – The Sport of Kings

The saga of a family. A family whose life is linked to the soil on which they live and to the horses they breed. John Henry Forge raises his son Henry in the tradition of the white settlers of Kentucky. The supremacy of the white race is never questioned and on the family farm, the roles are clearly ascribed. Young Henry has a dream, already when he is just a small boy, he sees their land as the perfect place for breeding horses, but his father will hear nothing of this. When he takes over the farm, his chance arises and he becomes one of the best in the business. Yet, not only in horses is it important to take care of the blood line, he also chooses his wife with care and thus can produce the perfect white child: Henrietta. Like father like daughter does she grow up learning about the white race’s authority and rule. But times are a changing in the 20th century and creating the perfect race horse and the perfect daughter might not be enough anymore.

C.E. Morgan’s novel has been nominated for most of the important prizes for literature in 2016 and 2017: It has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017, for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2017, for the James Tait Black Fiction Prize 2016; it was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017 and won the Kirkus fiction prize 2017 and the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize 2016. It made the second place on the BBC books of the year 2016 list. Coming with so much glory, the expectations were high and the author easily matched them.

To say what the novel is actually about, is not that easy. Quite logically considering its length, there is a lot in it. First of all, the Forge family. The way the children are raised, the relationships between the generations but also between the spouses are interesting to observe in the way not only they are at a fixed moment in time – I really pitied young Henry when he wanted to share his dreams and visions with his stubborn father – but also how they develop over the time, here Henrietta plays the most important role. Even though she is a woman and as such by nature inferior to men, she can take over the male role and successfully lead the dynasty. But there is not much affection between the characters. It is especially Henrietta who realizes that she is lacking love and warmth and since she has never learnt how to express her feelings, she seriously struggles in getting involved with somebody. It is the women who struggle most with society’s expectations and their inner feelings – not only at the beginning, but also after the year 2000:

“The irony was bare and bitter and unavoidable: she was a woman, so she was a slave to life. Never before had she understood the brutal actuality of life in a body she didn’t choose. (…) Women invited death when they let men inside their bodies! Why did they do it? Love couldn’t possibly be worth it.”

Apart from the humans, the breeding of the horses plays a major role in the plot. I am not into horses at all and know almost nothing about these animals. But it is fascinating to see how close the characters get with them, how they observe details and can communicate with and understand them Also the idea of breeding the perfect race horse is quite appealing and interesting. Admittedly, would I have been asked before if I was interested in the description of a horse race, I certainly would have disagreed, but I was wrong.

Last but not least, a major topic is also slavery, resp. the formal abolition of it but the remaining prejudices in the heads – of the whites as well as the blacks. Even in the year 2006, equally has not been established. There have been improvements, but due to inheritance, a family name and the like – unfortunately not only in literature.

Apart from the plot, it is also C. E. Morgan’s masterly writing which makes reading the novel a pleasure. To tell the stories of the different family members, she finds an individual tone for them. John Henry is reserved, unkind and rather factual. Young Henry is full of childish amazement and effervescent until he becomes the head of the family. Strongest are the women, first of all Henrietta, but also her mother Judith and the housekeeper Maryleen and Allmon’s mother. She gives them a voice and especially thoughts they share with the readers which make them really come to life. She finds metaphors as well as comments by the narrator which sometimes even addresses you directly. The tone is serious at times, funny at others, sometimes sad, rarely joyful – just as life can be.

Lauren Berry – Living the Dream

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Lauren Berry – Living the Dream

Two young women in their twenties, two dreams. Emma dreams of working as a writer, she blogs about her life with quite a remarkable success, but actually she is stuck in an advertising company where she has to be creative in the dullest of imaginable ways. Her best friend Clementine Twist has just returned to London from a Year in New York where she attended Columbia film school to become a screenwriter. The feedback to her work is throughout positive, but back home she has to secure her living and moves back in with her parents and accepts a job as a receptionist of a club. Only their friend Yasmin seems to get it all right: she’s got a fancy job that she exerts successfully and the wedding with Mr Right is just around the corner. The more goes right with Yasmin the more seems to go wrong for Emma and Clementine. When does the adult life they always dreamt of finally start?

Lauren Berry really managed to catch the mood of women at the end of their twenties. Emma and Clementine are full of energy and passionate about what they love, but somehow life is in their way and they are stuck between mundane everyday-life problems. Reality and dreams seem to be many miles away from each other. Even though they are good at what they want to do, the chances just do not come to really show the world what they are capable of. The necessities of the world keep them from just indulging in their creativity, bills have to be paid, food has to be bought, so the need to earn some money is overwhelming and paralysing.

What I liked about the novel is the fact that even though the girls could easily give up and despair, they somehow stick to their dream and they have a certain sense of humour not to take themselves and their lives too seriously. Many scenes are quite funny – as long as you just read them and do not have to live them through. Even though it is at times quite close to being chick lit, the author can keep some seriousness in the story and the fact that her protagonists find themselves in the same situation as masses of young women who can surely identify with them, gives the novel an actual relevance.