Salman Rushdie – The Golden House

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Salman Rusdie – The Golden House

When the new neighbours move in, René immediately declares them his object of study and protagonists of the film he is going to make. The Golden family are simply fascinating, the father Nero and his three sons Petya, Apu and D. Interestingly, all carry ancient Roman names even though they obviously come from India. There must be more they are hiding. Their male idyll is threatened when Vasilisa shows up, the father’s new Russian lover. When René’s parents die in an accident, the Goldens become his replacement family and he moves in with them which gives him the opportunity to study them from much closer. The more time he spends with them, the more secrets are revealed and finally, he himself becomes a part of the family secret. Yet, the past the Goldens wanted to flee from catches up and they have to pay for what they thought they could leave behind them.

Salman Rushdie is well known for his politically loaded novels which never go unnoticed. Again, his latest novel puts the finger in a wound, this time the American and the question which played a major role in the 2016 presidential election: who is a true American and what makes you and American? Apart from this, in “The Golden House” the supervillain The Joker wins the election which is not very promising for the nation.

Even though there is an obvious political message, this hides behind the family story of the Goldens. Here, unfortunately, I had expected much more. Admittedly, the four men are drawn with noteworthy features and fates and to follow their struggles after settling in the USA is far from uninteresting, but it also is not as fascinating and remarkable as I had expected. It is the chronicles of an immigration family, not less, but also not more. Their numerous secrets can create some suspense, however, much of it is too obvious to really excite.

Where Salman Rushdie can definitely score is in the side notes:

True is such a twentieth-century concept. The question is, can I get you to believe it, can I get it repeated enough times to make it as good as true. The question is, can I lie better than the truth.“ (Pos. 3380) and

“You need to become post-factual. – Is that the same as fictional? – Fiction is élite. Nobody believes it. Post-factual is mass market, information-age, troll generated. It’s what people want. “(Pos. 3390)

These are the times we are living in. Truth is created by the ruling classes and repeated as often as necessary until the people believe it. It is even better than fiction. This should definitely make us think about our consumption of media and question the producers of the news.

I appreciate Rushdie’s capacity of formulating to the point, the masses of references to novels and films are also quite enticing, at least they show that Rushdie himself in fully immersed in the western culture, but, nevertheless, I missed something really captivating in the novel. It was somehow pleasant to read, but not as remarkable as expected.

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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.

Helen Sedgwick – The Growing Season

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Helen Sedgwick – The Growing Season

With FullLife’s service, women can finally get rid of all the negative aspects of pregnancy. No more sickness, no more pain during child birth and no more abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes and all the fun. And the best: the men can play a part, too! Simply use the pouch and have your baby cuddled in the perfect environment for 9 months. It does not take too long to convince the people that this is real evolution, the next step that makes mankind throw away the ballast and dangers connected to a pregnancy and child birth. And not to forget: this is how non-traditional families can finally fulfil their dream of having a baby. That’s what science is for, to lift mankind to a higher level, isn’t it? But progress normally also demands a price to be paid, it never goes for free. Up to now, however, only few people know how high the price really is.

Helen Sedgwick’s novel which is somewhere between Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale, raises a lot of questions. First of all, how far do we want to go for comfort and the fulfilment of our wishes. It only sounds too attractive to overcome all the negative side effects of being pregnant. And of course, the line of argumentation that now men and women are really equal since women cannot be reduced to reproduction anymore is also tempting at first. Second, we see scientists who – for different kinds of reason – act against their conscience and subordinate everything to alleged progress. Ethics cannot be ignored, undeniably, but sometimes there seems to be the time and space when you can sedate these thoughts and mute them in a way. Yet, quite naturally, this does not make the questions go away.

The novel tells the story from a very personal point of view which allows the severe topic to come across in a very human way with characters who have feelings and who suffer. In this way, you get involved in what they go through, the loss, the hopes, the fears. It does not provide easy answers to huge ethical dilemmas, but it adds some perspectives and reveals that quite often, there is much more than just black and white and that it is the different shades of grey which make it difficult for us to decide on the core questions of life. Lively characters portray this dilemma in a convincing way thus the novel can take it on with the great names of the genre.

Rodrigo Hasbún – Affections

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Rodrigo Habún – Affections

A German family emigrating to South America shortly after Worl War II. Hans, a famous film-maker and alpinist who had worked with Leni Riefenstahl, his wife and the three girls Monika, Heidi and Trixi. The father wants to explore the new world, Monika and Heidi accompany him, but they cannot find the lost Inca city. Soon after, the life of the family falls apart. The father is travelling the world, Monika gets married and Heidi is returning to Europe. Only Trixi remains with the mother who is already suffering from cancer and finds her death in the 1950s. The girls’ lives and interests couldn’t hardly differ more. Heidi leads a traditional life in Germany, Trixi is somehow forlorn in Bolivia and Monika has become a fierce supporter of Che Guevara and the guerrillas in South America.

Rodrigo Hasbún, one of the major Spanish-speaking voices in contemporary literature, has based his novel on the true story of the Ertl family. It is supposed that Monika Ertl was to avenger of Che Guevara’s death: in 1971, Bolivia’s ambassador Roberto Quintanilla Pereira was killed in his office in Hamburg by a woman who is supposed to have been her. Off all things, Monika was her father’s beloved child of in whom he saw his only true heiress.

Monika’s life a most intriguing considering the close connection to the Nazi regime, then her fight with and for the guerrilla, the assassination ascribed to her and her death in the Bolivian jungle. Yet, the novel could not really catch me. The characters remain too distant, too vague to really become fascinating and captivating.  I would have liked to get in Monika’s head, to learn how she develops her ideals and her conviction for the fight. But also the others are too distant for me to really get interested in their life and emotions and thoughts.

Apart from the rather shallow characters, the story is centred around the family life. Yet, there are too many leaps in time, too many gaps unfilled to create a complete picture. When Heidi leaves for Germany, her story is lost. Why Trixi is so much detached from the world, remains unclear to me. And the father’s end of career is explained in just one or two sentences.

All in all, an interesting historical figure who could have translated into a great story, but the novel is a bit too superficial in many respects to really convince me.

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.

Steve Schafer – The Border

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Steve Schafer – The Border

It was meant to be the great celebration as it is a tradition in Mexico: Carmen’s 15th birthday, the so called quinceañera to which many friends of the family were invited. But then suddenly shouting and gunshots. Just a couple of minutes later, almost all guests are dead, shot in the head. Only the teenagers Pato and Arbo, best friends since they were born, and the siblings Marcos and Gladys have survived because they had gone outside and could hide in the backyard. Then they are seen and they have to run. In Mexico under to law of rivalling gangs no one can escape their verdict. They must go north, to the USA, take the hard route through the desert without money, without knowing how. An old friend of Pato’s father helps them at first, and hides them for a couple of days, but the gangs are after them and soon the four lost souls find themselves out in the blazing sun without water or orientation.

Steve Schafer’s novel narrates a story we mainly know from the news: Mexico, a country in which the governmental institutions are powerless against the well-organised gangs who rule not only the drug market but also the human trafficking business. It is with them you have to come to terms with and either you accept their rules or you find yourself shot dead. The story thus seems to be quite authentic and especially the people’s fear which is omnipresent throughout the plot gives a good impression of what life is like there.

In the centre, we have two main aspects. The first is the illegal transgression of the northern border. It is not only the danger of being caught by the border patrol – neither on the Mexican nor on the US side this is something you can with for. It is also the dangerous and often fatal route through the desert. During daytime, the sun is burning hot and since you cannot carry as much water as you’d normally need, it is a tricky calculation if your supplies will suffice for your route. On the other hand, without a local guide, you are soon lost and erring around the sandy landscape. The four teenagers, too, make these experiences which more than once bring them close to death. Also the other refugees who pop out now and again tell the same story. Additionally, this is a market and again, you cannot just you what you want to without following the rules of the gangs.

The second and even more interesting aspect is the relationship between the four of them. For one thing, they are too young to know why their parents were shot. This question is looming over them, especially when Pato and Arbo come to realise that Marcos, who is a bit older, seems to know something. And when the two boys have to accept that their fathers’ business might not have been what they always thought it was and that they, too, might have made deals with the gangs, they have to adapt everything they ever believed in to this. Further, being threatened by death brings them closer together at times and more apart at others. They are on the edge with their nerves and often close to just giving up.

The author especially succeeds in the psychological portrayal of the characters under those extreme conditions. They are lively and never act like adults might in their place. They have a survival instinct but nevertheless stick to their teenage convictions shaped by the idea of friendship and mutual support. All in all, a young adult novel with the typical topics of the genre presented under the most awful conditions and written at a high pace which makes you read on.

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.

Henry James – Portrait of a Lady

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Henry James – Portrait of a Lady

Die junge Amerikanerin Isabel Archer wird von ihrer Tante nach England eingeladen. Bald schon lernt sie dort den Nachbarn Lord Warburton kennen, der sofort von der unkonventionellen Art der Amerikanerin fasziniert ist. Aber ebenso wie den Verehrer aus der Heimat, Caspar Goodwood, lehnt Isabel auch Warburtons Heiratsantrag ab, um ihre Freiheit als Frau zu genießen. Nach dem Tod ihres Onkels steht Isabel plötzlich ein Vermögen zur Verfügung, das ihr eine ausgedehnte Reise auf den europäischen Kontinent ermöglicht. In Italien trifft sie auf einen weiteren Expat, Gilbert Osmond, den sie schließlich heiratet und dessen Tochter Pansy aus erster Ehe sie ins Herz schließt. Was als glückliche Ehe beginnt, endet für Isabel schon bald im Schrecken, denn sie ahnt nicht, welche Motive ihren Gatten eigentlich umtreiben.

Ein Re-Read (oder besser Re-Listen) nach vielen Jahren. Henry James, einer der wichtigsten Autoren des 19. Jahrhunderts und sowohl der amerikanischen wie britischen Literatur zugehörig, bringt in seinem bekanntesten Werk einmal mehr die Diskrepanz zwischen dem alten Europa, das in seinen Konventionen und strikten Moralvorstellungen verhaftet ist und dem ungezwungenen, Freiheitsliebenden Amerika auf den Punkt.

Isabel Archer wie wir sie zu Beginn des Romans kennenlernen, kümmert sich nicht um Standesdünkel, sondern folgt ihrem Herzen und genießt dank des Geldsegens ihre Unabhängigkeit. Doch mehr und mehr unterwirft sie sich den gesellschaftlichen Vorschriften und wird zur Lady, die weiß, was sie gehört und was nicht. Dies führt nicht nur zum vollkommenen Verlust der Freiheit, sondern zur unterwerfen unter ihren despotischen und hinterhältigen Ehemann. Das offene Ende überlässt es dem Leser, sich ein Urteil zu bilden, ob ihr ein Ausbruch gelingt oder ob sie sich ihrem Schicksal ergibt.

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.

Simon Lelic – The House

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Simon Lelic – The House

Finding a house in London is more or less impossible; therefore, Sydney and Jack are happy when they finally get one. It is not what they have dreamt of, but, with the time, they became realistic about what is possible and accepted the offer. Soon after they move in, strange things start to happen and they become more and more alert: is the house haunted or is somebody playing tricks on them? Is it because they interfered with the neighbour? His daughter confided herself in Sydney and awoke bad memories in her: just like Betsi, Sydney was suffering under her father’s temper and violence throughout her childhood. Unable to find help, she ran away at the age of 14 and left her younger sister with the situation at home alone. A bad conscience makes Sydney support the young neighbour, but obviously, her father is going to stop this. Or is the threat coming from somewhere completely different? No matter what is behind, soon Sydney and Jack find themselves in danger and even start losing faith in each other.

Simon Lelic’s novel starts a bit as a surprise, it’s not the typical third person narrator we have, but a kind of diary entries or letters that the two protagonists write to each other. So we have Jack’s and Sydney’s perspective in alternation which makes it quite lively and authentic, especially since you get the impression of the highly stressful situation they are in and which has gone out of control. The way they write reflects their emotional state, it is repetitive, not well organised and thought through but rather like a stream of consciousness just coming out of their mouth.

The plot itself has many surprises to offer, at first you are with the protagonists, not knowing what is happening and always trying to make sense of what they write. Then, slowly, you realise that Sydney and Jack have hidden some useful and important information from you, too, and you start getting sceptical about actually trusting them. As the novel moves on, you have to adjust your idea of the characters and the action again and again which I liked a lot since you could never feel absolutely secure about it.

 

“The House” really deserves the label “thriller”. Quite often, you feel a cold shiver running down your spine when again something strange happens in the house. The characters’ actions are all credibly motivated and the plot itself is convincingly constructed. The strongest aspect for me was the psychological construction behind the story; knowing what Sydney went through, you can understand her reaction when she finds out about Betsi’s life at home. But also Sydney’s mother – even though she is a rather tragic figure – can be understood in her way of behaving. So, the novel is not just playing on your nerves with a thrilling plot, but also offer some insight in emotionally induced actions and decisions.