Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee

Where did I get this book? The library.

In this dystopian novel, Chang-Rae Lee depicts a future where economic and class divisions have become formalized in separate communities. The story revolves around Fan, a young tank diver in a fish farm. She is a quiet and hard-working member of her community, B-Mor, where order and family come first. B-Mor is a facilities settlement, established to provide agricultural products to the wealthy Charter villages.

The Charters hold significant power over B-Mor, determining the residents’ access to medical care and the minimum occupancy for their communal residences. A tiny percentage of students pass a test allowing them to leave for a presumably brighter future in the Charters, but ambitions are modest at best for most of the population.

When Fan’s boyfriend, Reg, disappears after a mandated medical check-up, Fan slips away from B-Mor. Their love and their fates beyond the boundaries of the settlement become the subject of a communal obsession among those they left behind.

If at this point you are imagining a breathless first-person present narrative featuring a young, action-star heroine on a mission to save her lost love, I’m going to have to stop you right there. This story is told primarily from the collective perspective of the B-Mor residents, a choice that sometimes renders the story frustratingly opaque and emotionally distant.

That being said, Fan’s journey is a compelling one, revealing a landscape marred by inequality and self-interest. Outside the safe walls of the facilities and the Charters lie the counties, where lawlessness and violence prevail. Fan uses her youthful appearance to pass for a child and demonstrates remarkable presence of mind in the face of numerous threats. Somehow she retains a quiet, centered gift for compassion that the world in all its cruelty cannot touch. Whether that will be enough remains uncertain, even in the book’s final pages.

Genre: Literary dystopia.

Read it if: You enjoy speculative fiction by literary novelists; you enjoy dystopias that explore potential outcomes of current societal trends; you like stories that raise more questions than they answer.

Skip it if: You dislike first-person plural narrators; you object to ambiguous endings; or you prefer your dystopias fast-paced and action-packed.

Movie-worthy: Maybe. It would be an unsettling indie film, for sure.


Review: The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

Where did I get this book? The library.

Where did I get this book? The library.

Jane, a 34-year-old archivist at the Chester Museum, is haunted. Haunted, not only by a tragic incident that occurred when she was fifteen, but also by an indeterminate number of spirits who follow her life in hopes of learning something crucial about who they once were. Even to each other they are mostly voices: the soft-spoken one, the poet, the theologian, the idiot. Jane has no idea that they exist.

Now the Chester Museum is closing, but Jane is unable to concentrate on finding a new job or even carrying out her final duties. She is distracted by the prospect of seeing someone from her past for the first time in 20 years, a meeting that will send her tidy life off the rails. She takes refuge in the search for answers to a long overlooked mystery: the story of N., a young woman who apparently disappeared from the Whitmore insane asylum in the mid-19th century.

Perhaps it’s Jane’s fixation with the past that draws the others to her. They watch over her shoulder as she examines documents from the old asylum and the Farrington household at Inglewood, places that are familiar to some of them. They cling to flashes of recognition and debate the meaning of their own persistence.

While Jane and her unseen companions are able to put some mysteries to rest, other questions will never be answered. This lyrical and thought-provoking novel suggests that Jane, and the reader, will have to learn to live with that uncertainty.

Genre: A literary blend of contemporary and historical fiction, with a dash of the supernatural for good measure.

Read it if: You like your genres fluid, your protagonists conflicted, and your endings ambiguous.

Skip it if: You are strongly anti-ghost; you dislike reading about 19th-century British people roaming about in nature; you can’t stand it when a novel ends with the main character writing down the first line of the actual novel you just read.

Movie-worthy: Everyone would say the book was better.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it's GORGEOUS!

Where did I get this book? Bought it, and it’s GORGEOUS!

Set in the world of post-Arthurian England, The Buried Giant is Kazuo Ishiguro’s first foray into the world of fantasy. While it’s true that ogres, pixies and dragons play pivotal roles in the story, The Buried Giant is a fantasy novel in the same way that Never Let Me Go is science fiction; Ishiguro’s exquisite skill as a storyteller ultimately makes the question of genre irrelevant.

Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons, resolve to leave their subterranean village and undertake a journey to see their son. They have become increasingly marginalized by the other villagers, taunted by children and reduced to spending their nights in darkness when their candle is taken away. More troubling, however, is the mist that seeps through the region, clouding and erasing memories. Axl and Beatrice can recall only that they love each other; details of their past together, even of their son, are scant and difficult to retain.

When the two shelter at a nearby Saxon village, Beatrice seeks out a wise woman, hoping to get help for the pain in her side and perhaps learn more about the cause of the mist. Her friend advises her to travel to a monastery to find a monk reputed to be a healer. Axl agrees to the detour, even though it means a more arduous climb, and soon they have acquired a pair of unexpected traveling companions whose fates become intertwined with their own. It becomes clear that there may be a way to lift the mist and recover what they have forgotten, but will they want to remember?

The Buried Giant displays the  gorgeous, heartbreaking subtlety that makes all of Ishiguro’s novels so deeply affecting and powerful. Axl and Beatrice are pulled toward the conclusion of their quest by the enigmatic power of dream logic, their lost memories an irresistible unknown.

Genre: Fantasy quest with surreal elements and existential resonance.

Read it if: You loved (and/or were permanently scarred by) Never Let Me Go; you enjoy movies like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or books like Kafka’s The Trial or Harvest by Jim Crace; you are intrigued by the unreliable nature of memory.

Skip it if: You dislike ambiguity, fantasy elements, fairy tales or stories weighty with meaning; you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure story; you prefer your protagonists young and spry.

Movie-worthy: I don’t know if it could be done. I never saw the movie they made of Never Let Me Go because a) it sounded too emotionally painful to contemplate and b) it seemed impossible for a movie to even approach the level of the book.


The Chennai Lit for Life Festival

Lit for Life logoThis weekend, Chennai welcomed authors from all over India and beyond for a three day literature festival. Free and open to the public, Lit for Life was a fantastic opportunity to sit in on some fascinating conversations between authors and to celebrate a shared love for literature.

The White TigerThe festival kicked off with a chat between Aravind Adiga, Booker Prize winning author of The White Tiger, and his agent, David Godwin. Adiga shared the inspiration for The White Tiger, recalling the time he went to visit a friend in Delhi and saw the friend’s driver sitting nearby reading a magazine entitled “Murder” in Hindi. He asked the driver about the magazine and learned that it was very popular among drivers, and that it contained stories about drivers who murder their employers. In the stories, the murderous drivers are always caught; Adiga was intrigued by the idea that these tales offered some form of catharsis, and he wondered what social mechanisms prevented this type of crime from actually happening, and under what circumstances those mechanisms would fail.

HitchedEqually interesting for completely different reasons was a panel entitled “Rough Passage: The Coming of Age of the New Indian Woman.” The five female authors in discussion seemed to agree that women had come a long way in India, but they also acknowledged that their experiences differed significantly from those of many women here, who don’t often have the educational and career prospects the panelists enjoyed.

losing-my-virginity-and-other-dumb-ideasAfter the panel was over, I stopped by the festival’s book stall and picked up a few titles by these authors. Two might best be described as chick lit: Losing My Virginity and Other Mistakes by Madhuri Banerjee and What Would You Do to Save the World? by Ira Trivedi. The third, Hitched: the Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage by Nandini Krishnan, is a non-fiction book based on interviews with young Indians about arranged marriage. I haven’t cracked them open yet, but based on the panel discussion, I suspect these books will offer some interesting insights into how the “modern woman” in India views her role and her world.

Another standout panel included popular authors Ashwin Sanghi (The Krishna Key) and Ravi Subramaniam (The Bankster) and critically acclaimed author Anita Nair (Ladies’ Coupe) in an often funny and sometimes contentious discussion about the merits of self-promotion and the novel as product. The two commercial authors talked about the ways that they market their novels and engage with their readership, while Anita Nair focuses on the creative act of writing and leaves the rest to her publisher. The quick thinking moderator, Naresh Fernandes, got some of the biggest applause lines of the talk. When an audience member asked “What is the point of this discussion? Anita Nair and those two are clearly on parallel tracks and will never meet,” Fernandes replied that train tracks are also two parallel tracks that never meet, and yet they get you somewhere. When another audience member asked for advice on how to “make waves as an author,” referring to the title of the panel, Fernandes said to “write the damn thing.” Truer words.

HarvestA particular highlight of the festival was hearing Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) chat with Jim Crace (Quarantine, Harvest) about the art of the literary novel. Their temperaments, philosophies and approaches to writing are clearly quite different, but they expressed mutual admiration and offered some insights into what constitutes a literary novel. Crace posited that a literary novel raises questions but refuses to deliver easy answers. Verghese suggested that a literary novel requires equal participation, and effort, from the reader; the author provides the words, and the reader provides the imagination.

The Bone SeasonI was also delighted to hear Samantha Shannon talk about her book The Bone Season as part of a panel on “Tall Tales: Fantastical Stories from the East and West,” along with Ashwin Singhi. I knew she was young, but wow, is she young! I finished reading her novel over the weekend. It was definitely a darkly entertaining read, the kind of world that hooks you in and leaves you feeling let down when you remember the book is over and you can’t return to it until there’s a sequel.

To a Mountain in TibetThe most powerful and affecting presentation of the festival, at least for me, was given by travel writer Colin Thubron. He spoke about the journey to Tibet that resulted in his most recent, and most personal, book, To a Mountain in Tibet. Following the death of his mother, his last living family member, Thubron felt the need to undertake a “bleak pilgramage” to Mount Kailash, a stark and isolated peak near the Himalayas that is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. His description of this trip was exquisitely lyrical, and I immediately added his book to my to-be-read list.

This weekend was such an extraordinary treat for me as a reader and would-be writer. Although not on the same grand scale as the Jaipur Literature Festival, which I was lucky enough to attend last year, Lit for Life is a gift to the residents of Chennai, and judging by the turnout, one they clearly appreciate.

Next stop: the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in August!

Review: Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanPoor Professor Beard. A Nobel Prize winning physicist, his intellect is exceeded only by his appetite–for food, alcohol and women. Although he associates himself with efforts to find clean, renewable energy and save the Earth from the ravages of climate change, the truth is that Beard isn’t particularly worried about the Earth or its fate. As McEwan notes, he is a solipsist, uninterested in a future world in which he does not exist.

And anyway, “the past had shown him many times that the future would be its own solution.” After discovering his famous Beard-Einstein Conflation, the work that would earn him the Nobel, Michael Beard has found it remarkably easy to coast along on the prestige of that early triumph. It is sufficient to earn him a comfortable living attaching his name to various research centers and boards, and makes him attractive enough to woo and wed five consecutive women despite his portly stature and slovenly habits.

I expected this book to be weighty and solemn, but in fact it was sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, in the way that I also can’t resist laughing at people who crash in spectacular fashion while attempting ridiculous stunts on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s a combination of astonishment and appalled horror that compels the reader to plow onward as Beard makes a spectacle of himself. Maybe it’s possible to laugh because Beard is so completely lacking in self-awareness. Indignities and humiliations never penetrate his confidence and self-regard, any more than his doctor’s admonitions to exercise and stop eating so much have any impact on his weight.

Ian McEwan has succeeded in holding up a mirror to humanity, as we consume without a thought for the consequences, despite the fact that we all know the consequences will inevitably follow; unless maybe they won’t, right? Maybe the technology will race ahead of our appetites, maybe that ominous growth will go away if we ignore it, maybe the perfect answer will fall into our laps. Maybe the future will solve itself. Even a logical man like Dr. Beard finds himself succumbing to the temptations of magical thinking as he grows older. Beard’s failure to believe that other people are quite as real as he is, that their needs and desires are as strong as his own, that his choices result in actual consequences–that is the sustained illusion in which he lives. Eventually, of course, there will be a reckoning, for Michael Beard as for everyone else.

Genre: Literary fiction with a suprising element of farcical humor

Read it if: You aren’t afraid to face the realities of human nature, climate change and aging, but you’d appreciate the occasional laugh while you do it.

Skip it if: You really don’t want to know to what lengths a middle aged man will go to urinate in the Arctic.

Movie-worthy: The right director could probably make a hilarious movie out of this. Maybe the Coen brothers…

Review: Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois

CartwheelIn Cartwheel, Lily Hayes, a young American student on a semester abroad in Buenos Aires, is accused of the murder of her roommate, another American girl named Katy Kellers. Although the idea for this novel was sparked by the notorious case of Amanda Knox, an American student tried for murder in Italy, author Jennifer duBois has written a subtle and psychologically astute exploration of human nature, not the sensational true crime thriller one might expect.

Lily is an odd girl, her emotional intelligence considerably less evolved than her academic abilities. She bops around Buenos Aires, playing the starring role in the ongoing production of her life, uncertain why she sometimes evokes such negative reactions in other people, like her landlady, Beatriz Carillo. Beautiful, studious Katy Kellers, on the other hand, knows how to stay out of trouble and win people over. It is this striking contrast between Lily and her alleged victim that works against her from the start.

The story jumps back and forth in time, from the moment Lily’s father arrives in Buenos Aires to visit his incarcerated daughter, to the events of the month preceding the murder, and alternates perspectives, offering very different glimpses of Lily and her situation.

Lily’s father, Andrew, has already suffered the greatest loss imaginable: his first child, Janie, died of aplastic anemia as a todddler. He and his now ex-wife Maureen have handled this devastating tragedy by assuming the worst, bracing for impact at all times. Yet nothing could have led him to imagine this possibility for his second, and favorite, surviving daughter.

Sebastien LeCompte, Lily’s improbably named sort-of boyfriend, resides in the deteriorating mansion next door to the couple hosting Lily and Katy. Still mentally reeling from the death of both his parents three years before, Sebastien has developed an affected style of communicating that keeps others at a distance, and he rarely leaves his house except to purchase necessities. He falls in love with Lily, but she doesn’t take his declarations seriously; understandably, since almost everything he says is freighted with irony.

And then there is Eduardo Campos, prosecutor. It is his zeal for justice, his firm belief that Lily is at heart a sociopath, that drives the case against her. He struggles with depression, and the erratic behavior of his beautiful, unstable wife Maria, but for him this case is an area of clarity. Once he is certain that Lily is guilty, nothing will persuade him otherwise.

So much complexity is revealed inside the minds of these characters, yet how others interpret their actions, what motives they attribute to them, can be wildly, tragically wrong. Even Lily, maybe especially Lily, hardly knows why she makes some of the choices she does. Why did she do a cartwheel in the interrogation room when she thought no one was watching? What does that say about her? In the end, you have to wonder if she is being tried for murder, or for some failure to meet the world’s expectations of normal behavior, her oddity enough reason to suspect her capable of any crime imaginable.

Genre: Gripping psychological literary fiction

Read it if: You enjoy ambiguity, multiple perspectives, and fascinating insights into the human mind, or you’re looking for a perfect book club pick.

Skip it if: You’re looking for a lurid novelization of the Amanda Knox trial.

Movie-worthy: Only if they cast actors gifted enough to convey a wealth of information in a single glance; so much of this book goes on in the minds of its characters.

Review: The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya

The Sly Company of People Who CareQuick, tell me what you know about Guyana! I’m going to give you a second, because I suspect this is not an easy question for most people. Is it an island? Nope. Is it in Africa? Wrong again. (That’s Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and/or the Equatorial Republic of Guinea you’re thinking of.)

Guyana is a South American country that borders Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil. In The Sly Company of People Who Care, a young man from Mumbai travels to Guyana for a year, intent on rekindling a feeling he experienced on a previous, much briefer visit. The unnamed narrator is, like the author, a journalist who covers cricket. His work had brought him to Guyana for only a week or two, but he felt he’d glimpsed a deeper truth there and felt compelled to return.

Reading more like an exquisitely written travel memoir than a novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care takes its time, unspooling stories about people and places without any sense of urgency. Normally this would drive me crazy. I tend to be that reader who skims bland descriptions of scenery in favor of people and action. Yet in this case I was happy to slow down and savor the author’s remarkable prose and eye for the striking detail. The languid pace of the novel matches the pace of life in Guyana, where hanging out is an art form and waiting lacks the competitive tension of India.

The narrator’s openness to experience sometimes leads him into situations a more cautious traveler would avoid at all costs; for example, he goes diamond hunting (“porknocking”) with a con artist named Baby, a man who claims to have served time for murder. He attends weddings with a man known throughout Guyana for attending weddings. He listens to a wide variety of Rasta music, about which he is passionate. And as the book and his trip approach their conclusion, he embarks on a spontaneous trip to Venezuela with a young Guyanese woman he barely knows.

Along the way, he relates the history of Guyana, the legacy of Dutch and British colonialism, slavery and imported labor that has resulted in a country with a mixed population of Amerindian, African and Indian origin, with a little Portuguese, Chinese and random other thrown in for good measure. The narrator explores and comments on the ways that Indian nationals in Guyana maintain their culture and the ways it departs from what he knows from home. At one point he mentions the moment when he told his family in Mumbai that he would no longer wear the sacred thread indicating his caste; clearly he has become disaffected in his homeland, but whether he finds what he’s seeking in Guyana, whether it’s possible to find it at all, remains unclear.

While I found the writing almost hypnotic and the stories intriguing, the extended use of Guyanese patois and unfamiliar terms made the dialogue a bit oblique at times. I could have used a glossary for the wildlife alone. (It might be worth keeping the Guyana Wikipedia page open in front of you while you read. A kraieteur is a golden frog. Who knew?) I also wonder if this book would resonate even more if I’d read some V.S. Naipaul beforehand. The narrator mentions Naipaul’s work more than once and it might provide some context for his attempts to connect. Regardless, I was happy to go along on this beautifully aimless wander year in Guyana.

Genre: A novel that reads like a travel memoir (or vice versa?)

Read it if: You know nothing about Guyana and would like to know more; you can’t imagine heading into the bush with an untrustworthy diamond hunter, but would enjoy experiencing that vicariously through literature.

Skip it if: You are looking for a fast-paced, action-packed adventure story; you would prefer not to know the Guyanese terms for various body parts and curse words.

Movie-worthy: It would be a strange and beautiful movie, but I suspect they’d have to come up with a stronger narrative arc.


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Review: The Miracle Inspector by Helen Smith

The Miracle InspectorIn The Miracle Inspector, a young couple in London struggle with communication issues–and life in a totalitarian state. In this alternate or future version of the city, women are not allowed to leave home without wearing a head-to-toe cover and veil; even then, they are only permitted to visit female relatives. The authorities claim this is for their own protection. Similarly, children no longer attend school, in order to keep them safe from pedophiles. This is no country for old men: they’ve all been taken into custody for some infraction or other, and effectively disappeared. No one trusts anyone else, constantly fearing a trap or a test by the authorities.

Lucas and Angela have a nagging sense that this isn’t right, but they have only the vaguest ideas of what the world used to be like. As the Inspector of Miracles, handsome, selfish Lucas has an enviable position in the Ministry. He regularly investigates reported miracles, with no expectation that he will ever find a real one. No one at the Ministry knows of his connection to Jesmond, a poet of the revolution, one of the few old men still around.

When Jesmond leaves his journal and a packet of letters with Angela, she begins to read them, slowly, in order to savor the unexpected experience of knowing another person. She yearns for something more than her narrow, circumscribed life but she can’t articulate what it is that she wants. Lucas promises that someday soon they will attempt to leave London for the imagined paradise of Cornwall, land of the ocean and freedom.

It doesn’t end well, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say so. Smith repeatedly offers tantalizing glimpses of stories, only to cut them off abruptly. When Lucas visits the home of a woman named Maureen, who has reported a miracle involving her young daughter, Christina, Lucas daydreams through her entire explanation of the supposed miracle. We never learn what Maureen believed to be miraculous about her disabled child. Through the deft use of deceptively simple sentences, Smith creates a feeling of foreboding and dread even while staying in the heads of her ignorant and all too human characters. They have no idea what they’ve lost, or what they’re likely to find.

This haunting and deeply disturbing book reminded me of the truly classic dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. It’s a story that makes you glad to look around and realize you’re safely home, that you can wake from the nightmare.

Genre: literary dystopia

Read it if: You are still haunted by the ending of 1984 and would now like to be haunted by something else.

Skip it if: You just love happy endings.

Movie-worthy: Very hard to imagine how anyone could do it justice.

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Review: Absolution by Patrick Flanery

AbsolutionThe intersection of fiction and memory is a puzzling place, with unclear boundaries. In Absolution, South African author Clare Wald has agreed to discuss her work and past with a biographer, a young man from Cape Town who has since moved to America. As Clare struggles to make sense of her guilt over the past, memories of her long dead sister and her missing daughter haunt her.

Alternating texts offer different vantage points on the events at the heart of the story. Who was Clare’s daughter, Laura? What role did she play in the life of a young orphaned boy? Clare tells her own version of the actions that led to Laura’s disappearance, striving to apply her talent for fiction to generate some element of truth about her daughter. Meanwhile, her biographer, Sam, attempts to sort through Clare’s words on paper and in person, in hopes of arriving at the truth of her life. Yet Sam also harbors a secret and his new role in her life is no coincidence. By the time the story draws to a conclusion, this novel calls into question whether you can really know the truth about yourself, let alone another person; whether you can ever expect forgiveness, let alone absolution.

Remarkably, the author is an American currently living in the UK. This was particularly startling to me because the novel assumes a certain degree of background knowledge about South Africa. There is very little general description of apartheid, no discussion of the circumstances that transformed the country, no lengthy explanation of how South Africa might be different in 1989, in 1999, in the present, all times when different parts of the story take place. This made the story more challenging to follow in some ways, but intensified the focus on the characters and their actions, highlighting one of Clare’s fundamental questions: does a lofty political motivation make an otherwise evil act justifiable?

As a side note, I can’t imagine the South African Board of Tourism is particularly thrilled with this novel. Living in constant fear of being murdered would presumably have a serious impact on your quality of life.

Genre: Literary historical fiction

Read it if: You enjoy puzzling out the truth on your own and don’t mind ambiguity, and/or your favorite movie is Rashomon.

Skip it if: You lose patience when the narrative skips around in time, offers conflicting perspectives on the same scene, and includes a novel within the novel.

Movie-worthy: It would take a truly brilliant director to transform this into a movie. Maybe Christopher Nolan, a la Memento.


Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

In the Shadow of the BanyanRaami is seven when the Khmer Rouge take over Phnom Penh. She is a princess, the daughter of a prince, and despite the fact that polio has left her with a limp, she lives a charmed, almost magical existence surrounded by people who love and care for her. The beauty of the initial scenes in this lyrical, heartbreaking novel are made all the more poignant by the fact that the reader knows what is coming. When Raami’s father celebrates the news that the war is over, we know how wrong he is.

The author, Vaddey Ratner, based this novel on her own experiences as a child in Cambodia, and I can only imagine how excruciating it must have been to revisit the events she describes. The title comes from a cryptic statement made by Raami’s grandmother, that only as many shall survive as can fit in the shadow of the banyan tree. Tragically for Raami’s family and for Cambodia, her words are all too prophetic.

Raami’s mother is strong and resilient; she has not led the sheltered life she hoped to give her children. Clearly, Raami is her mother’s daughter, but she feels closest to her father, a poet. His sensitivity and eye for beauty are a source of both meaning and pain to her throughout her struggle to survive, as the world around her becomes completely incomprehensible.

Seeing the brutality of war, the domination of ignorance, from a child’s perspective makes it somehow that much worse. Unlike in Room, where Emma Donoghue’s five-year-old narrator does not understand the horror of his mother’s situation and provides narrative distance, Raami sees too much, understands too much. Her resilience is the only note of hope in a powerfully heartrending story of a country destroyed.

Genre: Literary historical fiction

Read it if: You want to know what it would be like to lose almost everything and still find a way to survive.

Skip it if: You are sensitive to scenes of violence, especially cruelty toward children.

Movie-worthy: This would make a fascinating but extremely intense movie.