Jessie Greengrass – Sight

jessie-greengrass-sight
Jessie Greengrass – Sight

When is the best moment to have a child? Can you ever be ready to become a parent? And what does being a “good” parent actually mean? Jessie Greengrass unnamed narrator has to face these questions. Her husbands would like to have children, she is unsure. Her own childhood comes to her mind, her mother and grandmother, the way they treated her when she was a child, their complex family relationships and the fact that neither her mother not her grandmother is still alive. Yet, families and relationships are never easy, thus, Röntgen and Freud come to her mind as well as the beginnings of modern child birth.

Jessie Greengrass debut novel directly made it to the short list of the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is an unexpected and uncommon combination of medical history, on the one hand, and a very personal reflection on the narrator’s own life and her feelings about motherhood. It starts with the narrator confronted with the essential question of becoming a mother or not when suddenly her rumination is interrupted by the report about Röntgen. Again and again, these two perspectives alternate which is interesting, but also difficult to follow since it often seems to lack a red thread. They are not isolated accounts, she cleverly combines the topics, e.g. her grandmother was a psychoanalyst like Freud, to give a reason for these interludes.

I can see why the novel made it to the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s short list. The topic tackles a core question of human beings and a deep wish we all share: knowing something for sure, being able to use medical precision for personal decisions and knowing that you do the right thing. Being able to look at something from a neutral and objective point of view, analysing and then making a decision – that’s what we often wish for, however, that’s not how life works.

Contradictory emotions, uncertainty – a lot of apparent opposites come together in the novel. Even though I found the narrator’s thoughts often easy to following and from a topical point of view most interesting, the novel as a whole did not completely convince me. I would have liked to stick with the narrator’s thoughts. Maybe it was all a bit too philosophical for my understanding.

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Michael Ondaatje – Warlight

michael-ondaatje-warlight
Michael Ondaatje – Warlight

Rachel and Nathaniel were still teenagers when immediately after WW II their parents packed to leave the country. The kids were supposed to attend boarding school after summer break, but only a few days after the school had begun again, they left and went completely to live with a man they named „The Moth“ who was supposed to be their caretaker while the parents were away. Even though they at first felt left behind, it was a time of freedom and carelessness, the house often full of interesting and mysterious people and both, Nathaniel and Rachel, became somehow used to the situation. When their mother suddenly showed up again, they understood that things were not what they had thought them to be. It was only after their mother’s death, when Nathaniel is approached by special operations, that he gains insight in who his mother had actually been.

“Warlight” – during the time of the second world war, when there were frequent blackouts in London, there was only the so called “Warlight”, dimmed lights to guide emergency traffic, the rest was covered in black and you could only sense movements in the shadow but not see them. This is the perfect title for Michael Ondaatje’s novel: a lot of what happens remains somewhere in the dark for the protagonist to see. He can only assume things from the quick glances he is granted, but he cannot be sure if his hypotheses are correct. It also represents quite well the atmosphere which is always a bit gloomy and melancholy and certainly never joyful.

At the beginning of the novel, the reader just as the protagonist and narrator is quite irritated by the parents’ behaviour. They leave the country, neither telling their children where exactly they are headed too or why after all they have to leave. The teenagers stay with people they hardly know and not to forget: the war has just ended and the memories of the bombings are still fresh. How could ever parents do such a thing? It becomes even more infuriating when they find their mother’s luggage which she obviously didn’t take with her. It takes some time to figure out the mother’s real role and thus to understand her behaviour. This is also when the novel becomes the most interesting.

This is also where Michael Ondaatje’s virtuosity becomes evident: none of the characters, no matter how random he or she seemed, was introduced without a reason and they all have their specific role in the novel. It all makes sense and culminates in much greater questions than the nucleus of a single family we are presented with at first can ever offer: how far would you go for your country? What are you willing to sacrifice? And it clearly shows that the two categories of “good” and “bad” are simply inadequate for the world we are living in.

Gunnhild Øyehaug – Wait, Blink

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Gunnhild Øyehaug – Wait, Blink

It is a random and unexpected encounter that brings the student Sigrid and the author she has been admiring for years together. They are mutually attracted immediately and in a café try to get closer without revealing too much of them at first. Trine, however, is ready to reveal a lot as a performance artist who works with her body. But she is struggling with being a mother. Another couple is somehow trying to imitate a film scene which is originally set in Paris but transferred to Copenhagen by the director Linnea. It is just a short glance at their lives, but we see the decisive moment that has to potential to transform everything.

I was eager to read “Wait, Blink” since I usually like the Scandinavian way of telling stories. However, I couldn’t really get into the novel. I assume this is due to the fact that there is not one story, but several quite independent stories are told alternatingly and I was always waiting for the moment in which they connect and form a whole which I didn’t really find.

The scenes about Trine were hardest for me since this character is quite unique and I could hardly follow her thoughts and actions. I liked Linnea and her idea of reproducing “Before Sunrise” – “Before Sunset” in her own life. Sigrid is not really a sympathetic character, but I could link with her thoughts and her struggle to appear as a strong and independent woman while she is actually insecure and afraid of human beings.

Even though the content did not really convince me, I adored Gunnhild Øyehaug’s style of writing. She has found an exceptional tone for her narration and the way of the narrator to talk to you as the reader like he was a good friend and his slightly ironic undertone were great to read. Øyehaug shows what she is capable of and I am looking forward for another novel by her.

Helen Callaghan – Everything is Lies

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Helen Callaghan – Everything is Lies

One evening when Sophia is out with her colleagues, she gets a strange phone call from her mother who asks her to come back home. It is always the same and thus, she cuts her short and goes on amusing herself. The next morning, the bad conscience is nagging and she gets in the car to visit her parents. What she finds in their house is horrible: her mother hanging from a tree, her father badly injured. What happened? The police soon close the file, for them the case is clear: an extended suicide. But when Sophia find her mother’s diaries, she is convinced that her mother would never have attempted suicide. And what about the burglaries? Over months, her parents had been the victims of break-ins. The deeper Sophia digs in her mother Nina’s past, the more complex and strange things seem to be, but there are not many people who believe her.

Helen Callaghan caught me immediately. Even though the beginning leads into a completely different way, centring about Sophia’s work at an architectural agency, she soon accelerates and with the first part of Nina’s diary, I was completely absorbed by the novel.

The most striking part is definitely Nina’s past in the cult she joined as a student. It is a wonderful example of how easy it is to manipulate a young woman who lacks self-confidence and experience. Cleverly they approach her and they use the right amount of charm to trick her into their community. At the moment she arrives at their house, there is no way out anymore for her, she is already too deeply involved emotionally to think and act clearly.

The thriller is full of suspense, offering twists and turns at the perfect moment to keep the plot running on. The protagonist also seems to be quite authentic and you can easily sympathise with her.

I really enjoyed the novel, it is a most accomplished psychological thriller which leaves nothing to be desired.

Katy Regan – Little Big Man

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Katy Regan – Little Big Man

With his eleventh birthday approaching, Zac decides that it is time to actively look for his father. He has never met him because his father was not interested in him and left his mom before he was born. His friend Teagan is going to help him with his search and they are quite determined even though they have to keep their mission secret since in Zac’s family, it is forbidden to ever mention his father because of what he had done. But it’s not only the Dad-finding-mission that keeps Zac occupied, for months now he has been bullied due to his weight and now the school has written a letter to his mother. Life is not easy when you are ten years old. Especially when there are adults around you with secrets they want to keep.

I really loved this book even though in its story, there is not much that is positive after all. Zac’s life is all but easy: his mother Juliet is fighting, but as a single parent with a low income, they cannot afford any fancy pastime activities and the lack of a partner doesn’t make things easier. Both find relief in food which isn’t helpful after all, so another war that has to be fought. However, the love they show for each other is genuine and the only actual ray of hope.

The story is told alternatively from Zac’s, Juliet’s and Mick’s point of view – this is a bit astonishing as in the beginning you cannot really figure out why Juliet’s father Mick is that important while his wife’s perspective isn’t given. Yet, the secrets the adults have kept from Zac for more than ten years are slowly unfolded and the more you hear from Mick, the more obvious his role becomes.

Katy Regan did a great job in portraying what life in school can be for outsiders like Zac and his friend Teagan. It is hard to say, but all the bullying is just too authentic. And she also shows what this does to the kids – luckily, Zac has found a friend he can confide in. It would be a lot harder if he was on his own. The author also found the perfect voice for Zac, his diary entries sound like the one’s of a 10-year-old, a clever one but nevertheless a child.

Even though the lives of the characters are not too joyful, the novel is often full of humour and definitively of love – a classic bitter-sweet story that hits the heart.

Aminatta Forna – Happiness

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Aminatta Forna – Happiness

They meet by accident, but somehow they have known each other forever. Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist, has come to London to give a speech at a conference. He is a specialist in post-traumatic stress and has seen the worst the world has to offer. But this is not the only thing he has to do there. First of all, he has to find the daughter of some of his friends who hasn’t called for a couple of days and who, together with her son, seems to be missing. Another thing task waiting for him is to visit Rosie, his former colleague and lover. She is in a home, not aware of the world anymore, waiting for her life to come to an end. While Attila is occupied with the humans around him, the American biologist Jean cares a lot more for the animals. Especially foxes around town. She is fighting a hopeless battle against those who want to kill them all and do not understand that this is not how things work with wild animals.

Aminatta Forna’s novel has a title which could hardly fit better: “Happiness”. The whole story is about happiness and the question what you need in life to be happy and what happiness means after all. But maybe it is not happiness that we are looking for, but rather – as one of the characters puts it – hope. Without hope, there is not future, but you can have a whole lot of future without happiness.

Both Jean and Attila are most interesting characters in their very own ways. The author has done a great job in creating them and in opposing them, their view of the world and the way they approach life. They have some similarities, too, their principles and beliefs and the fight for what they believe is the right thing – it is not easily nowadays to find people with such strong convictions.

Yet, what I loved most about the novel were the really poetic ways of unobtrusively talking about life and love in a philosophical way. She captures the fragility of love and our existence in a way that is hard to excel. I really fell for the language in this novel and was waiting eagerly to find more of those passing comments that capture so much truth in this unassuming, shy way:

The reckless open their arms and topple into love, as do dreamers, who fly in their dreams without fear or danger. Those who know that all love must end in loss do not fall but rather cross slowly from the not knowing into the knowing.

It is a bittersweet story, full of love and loss, life and death. And certainly one of the most remarkable novels of this spring.

Carrie Blake – The Woman Before You

carrie-blake-the-woman-before-you
Carrie Blake – The Woman Before You

Isabel Archer is the typical girl from the Midwest. Having grown up only with her mother, she has high hopes and big plans for the time after school. She dreams of a career as an actress in New York, but soon finds herself rejected in every audition and due to lack of money selling mattresses. The only moment when she can still take over a role is when she dates men she finds on Tinder. When she meets Matthew, things change, she is immediately attracted by him and definitely wants more. Matthew, too, has some kind of liking for her, but first of all, his boss needs a woman to support him in the little jobs he does for him. Isabel could be the perfect partner for these strange little games. But soon not only Isabel has to asks herself who is playing games with whom.

Carrie Blake’s debut novel starts quite interestingly and I immediately could indulge in it. However, I quickly had the impression to find some kind of prop and cliché I had read many times before. Even though Isabel was described in the first chapters as a young, intelligent and aspiring woman, she then is reduced to the dumb girl waiting for the boy to call her. She loses all her independence and there is a huge lack of motivation for whatever. From the attractive woman she turns into a pretty facade with nothing behind it. Matthew however, is simply a handsome and ruthless man who is the marionette of his boss without any will of his own.

Thus, I was a bit disappointed in the two protagonists who tell the story alternatingly. The plot itself has variations of “How do I seduce her without having actual intercourse” which was a bit too much for my liking of a thriller. I missed the real thrill and suspense since most of what happens is quite foreseeable as it is based on just a few pieces of information.

All in all, I was quite deceived by it, since most of the plot seems to be a pretext for having the characters go to bed and it strongly reminded me of “50 Shades of Grey” in the setting and character make-up.

Scott O’Connor – A Perfect Universe

scott-oconnor-a-perfect-universe
Scott O’Connor – A Perfect Universe

“A Perfect Universe“ is a collection of ten stories all set in California, yet not the Hollywood California of stars and success, but the part where life is a bit sadder and less full of hopes. It’s about a young man buried under a building which had crumbled, a business woman hated by the other clients in a coffee shop, a relationship which ended and does not provide solace anymore, a woman’s preparation for a big day which ends in a disappointment, a girl hearing voices, a class of men trying to control their emotions and others. Scott O’Connor provides a huge variety of topics, yet all taken right from life. His characters are not the rich and famous, not the especially talented or gifted. It’s the average boy and girl or their grown-up version.

As always in collections of stories, you like some more and others less. I cannot really say why this is the case, since it’s neither due to the topic nor the protagonist that I prefer some. The first one, “Hold On” got me immediately. The man waiting to be rescued, finding comfort and hope in the woman’s voice who is reading out their names, thus signalling them that they are not forgotten but searched for. His anger when the mayor decides to give up and the joy of surviving after all – you could easily feel the emotional rollercoaster Robert went through.

“Interstellar Space” also caught me, but this time there isn’t much hope, it’s a really melancholy story of schizophrenia. Her slowly deteriorating condition is sad to read. She seemed to be bright, joyful and lively and suddenly her mind decides to play tricks on her and have her finished in a hospital, locked-up in her body and the world outside shut out.

One which made me ruminate a bit was “The Plagiarist”. I often wonder if there can be indeed something completely new that can be written or if not rather all has already been said somehow. How can today’s works actually be “original”? There are some plot concepts that you can easily recognize, phrases that have been used again and again – so, what is invented and what is rather copied?

Kim Fu – The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

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Kim Fu – The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

A summer camp for young girls aged nine to twelve. Mostly rich, but there are also some poor ones granted scholarships so that they can take part, too. The rules have been the same over decades, everything in Camp Forevermore is as it has always been. Part of the camp experience is a kayak tour which the girls complete in small groups and which leaves them on isolated islands for a night. Siobhan, Nita, Andee, Isabel and Dina thus are assigned to the oldest and toughest camp supervisor. Yet, unexpectedly, the girls do not end in the spot they were destined to but find themselves on a different, much larger and completely isolated island, their chaperone dead and they themselves running out of food. Now, the real survival lesson begins.

The idea of a bunch of girls having to face raw nature and survive in unknown territory sounded quite intriguing to me. I anticipated it to be a bit like a girl version of the “Lord of the Flies” and I was curious to read how a group of girls develops under those conditions. Yet, the story of the lost girls is just a part of the novel. Their adventure is broken up by narrations about what happens to the girls later in life, their fate after surviving Camp Forevermore. This not only came a bit unexpected, but also shifted the focus away from the actual story to what such an experience makes with people and how they can never really get over it.

Kim Fu has a very lively style of writing. The characters seem authentic and you quickly get a good idea of their different personalities. I liked her writing most in the parts where the girls struggle to survive, she is great at portraying their fears, hate and desperation. Without any question, the girls’ later lives are also interesting and the author actually did a great job in developing the girls further as adults. However, I would have preferred to read more about Camp Forevermore and the girls desperate situation.

Amy Bloom – White Houses

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Amy Bloom – White Houses

Life does not endow much to young Lorena Alice Hickok. When her mother dies, her father sends her away and she has to make her way on her own. Thanks to her stubbornness and perseverance, Lorena becomes one of the first woman journalists of the United States. In 1932, she works for Associated Press and reports on Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s electoral campaign. This is when she meets Eleanor for the first time. They women fall for each other immediately and this, Lorena gets closer to the famous couple and finally becomes Eleanor‘s lover.

Based on the known facts, Amy Bloom tells the story of two unorthodox and progressive women of the 1930s. It is especially Lorena who is an extraordinary character. She is not particularly charming, nor very attractive at the first glance, nevertheless, there is something fascinating about her, her independence makes her stand out and her courage and self-confidence irritate the men around her.

On the other hand, Eleanor Roosevelt is an outstanding first lady. Educated in the best boarding schools and acquainted with the manners of the high society, she moves smoothly around the rich and famous. When she entered a room, all eyes were on her. Yet, this did not prevent her husband from betraying her and obviously, she was aware of this. His lovers lived under their roof and Eleanor could watch them closely. But, had Franklin and Eleanor lost interest, they could be awful, nasty people.

Amy Bloom unveils a scandalous affair and tells the story of a woman, or rather two women, who followed their instincts and thus were quite ahead of their time.