Book Review, Text Post

The Glorious Heresies, by Louise McInerney (2015)

The Glorious Heresies. Wow. What a novel! A few days after being so captivated by the story that I read the last 120 pages in 2 hours and I’m still in awe. No wonder it won the Bailey’s Prize last year!

Set in contemporary Cork (Ireland), The Glorious Heresies pivots on the death of a man named Robbie O’Donovan. His demise influences numerous people in the city, whether they knew him directly or not. He is never alive in the novel’s world – he exists only in the memories of others. What this achieves is to show both how brief and fragile life is, and how one life, one death, one moment can have massive, unforeseen consequences. She weaves this wonderful web of interactions – individuals crossing paths often without knowledge of the connections they share or how they have influenced each other’s lives. Community is both real and imagined in this novel: felt keenly through harsh judgments or offers of solace, or understood only briefly at the mention of a name in conversation. It’s a beautiful and remarkable structure.

McInerney’s Ireland is harsh and brutal. So many fundamental aspects of Irish identity are changing or being erased in the twenty-first century landscape of her novel that the characters resort to desperate measures just to stay afloat. This is about people who do not or cannot ‘toe the line’ by conforming to Irish history and identities. Alcoholism, prostitution, drug addiction, rape, murder, child abuse and, perhaps most difficult to accept, the issue of the influence that the Catholic Church has on Irish identity and in Irish politics. There is an underlying anger towards religion itself coursing through the novel, but particularly towards the treatment of unmarried mothers in the Magdalen Laundries throughout the twentieth century. The characters face these traumas, often in the full knowledge of those around them, except no one wishes to confront the terrible truth directly. Neither the individuals nor their relatives, nor the authorities wish to accept the situation, allocate blame or receive the support they really need. People find their own ways of surviving – ways that both connect them with other characters and force them into further isolation. Those “glorious heresies” portrayed in the novel – glorious, because there is often or appears to be, no other option, meaning characters feel no need for shame- show survival of the fittest at its most raw, its most exposed. 

She presents in great detail how characters come to terms with their past, personal and national. This is particularly effective when it overlaps with parent-child relationships, or interactions between older and younger generations. While Maureen Phelan and Tony Cusack are trying to come to terms with their pasts, the younger characters are trying to escape theirs. In the cases of Maureen and Tony’s children, the past they are escaping is the fraught relationships with their parents.

Maureen Phelan is undoubtedly my favourite character. Her caustic humour provides some much needed relief from the often graphic scenes and subject matter that are portrayed – Chapter 10 is ‘laugh out loud’ hilarious. She is flawed, she makes mistakes and rash decisions, but her story and character remain affecting because she is so rarely self-pitying. She also genuinely wants to help people. She’s a perfect example of the ‘wise older woman’ trope from fairytales, except McInerney makes her ‘real’, with this complex past influencing her attitudes and actions. Our knowledge of her mistakes means we take to her advice to other characters much more easily. McInerney also doesn’t signpost that this is her ‘role’ in the story or that she fits the role comfortably – so often, the female characters written for that role are literally cardboard cut-outs of a ‘type’.

McInerney showcases a masterpiece of characterisation with Maureen. The other main characters are beautifully drawn, and often as endearing, but there’s almost an extra dimension to Maureen that makes her truly magical.

In short, I loved pretty much everything about this novel. The first couple of chapters are really great at introducing the main players, and then suddenly drawing them together and revealing the connections. 

Yes, it’s dark and graphic, but it’s also funny and affecting. There are some parts that seem a little slow, but this let you process events, and the underlying tension keeps you turning those pages.

This should definitely be added to your “To Be Read” list!

Book Review, Text Post, Uncategorized

Book Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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I love being an English Literature student for many reasons, but the main one is this: I get to read some truly fantastic literature that would not have crossed my path had I not been on this course.

Americanah is the latest of these revelations. Since reading this novel, I have noticed how prominently Adichie’s work is placed on the displays in many book shops. Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2005), received wide critical acclaim along with numerous shortlistings for literary awards, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, among others, and Americanah was named as one of the Ten Best Books of 2013 by the New York Times. In spite of all this, I’m almost certain that Adichie’s fiction would have gone under my personal radar if it had not been featured on the reading list of one of last semster’s modules, which meant I would have missed out on some amazing writing.

Americanah begins with Ifemelu visiting a hair salon to get her hair braided in preparation for her move back home to Nigeria, after 13 years living in America. The decision to move has come as a shock to many of her friends and relatives, and to Ifemelu herself – she has ended a relatively happy relationship, shut down her highly lucrative blog, all to move back home with no motivation other than that it feels like what she needs to do.

As she sits in the salon, Ifemelu emails her teenage love, Obinze, now a successful property developer in Nigeria, with whom we are told she cut off all contact many years ago. This prompts a sequence of prolonged flashbacks (and flash-forwards, back to the present but also to some scenes in the not-so-distant past), which tell us the story of how she arrived at this moment, contemplating seeing her home again.

Adichie presents us with a Nigeria that is forward-looking and ambitious, producing a well-educated youth in spite of the political upheaval of the 1990’s. Even those people who do not attend university have hopes and dreams, and the motivation to succeed in those dreams (even if, for some, that means breaking the law – there are no rose-tinted glasses used here). This is not the Nigeria – seen through the eyes of her American characters and the global media – constantly in need of charity. Nigeria, and Africa more generally, is a vast and varied landscape. Yes, there are people living in poverty, but there are those, like Ifemelu, Obinze and their school friends, who have been taught to work hard, to dream of success, with the final goal being America, or England.

We see America as a place to achieve freedom, success and independence. The American Dream lives in all its glory and splendour in the minds of those who see it from afar. Ifemelu gets a scholarship to study in Philadelphia, leaving Obinze to finish his degree in Nigeria, planning to join her later. Alone, however, Ifemelu discovers an aspects of America that nowhere featured in her imagination, an America she wished had remained hidden. Her experiences lead her to suddenly cut off contact with the one person who had grounded her, made her feel hopeful for the future and safe in this foreign country: Obinze.

Obinze, confused and hurt, fails to get his American visa after graduation, moving to London in the hopes of somehow finding success, or at least a new path to America, there.

This is almost a ‘coming of age’ story – it’s a novel about the experiences one goes through in order to find or understand your true self, and what really makes you happy. For the Nigerian characters, this is especially important, caught as they are between the ties of home and the belief, instilled in them from childhood, that real success is something only achieved abroad.

It’s also a story about questioning our own understanding of the world and the people around us. Ifemelu is shocked, upon arrival in America, to ‘discover’ that she has a race. She is looked at differently, treated differently, not because she wasn’t born in America, but because she is black. She learns that there are words that are supposed to offend her because she is black; there are things that she is expected to do and things she is not supposed to do, because she is black. These observations become the subject of her blog. As an outsider, someone who arrives in America as an adult and is given this role to play, she questions the rules and regulations that others simply accept. Adichie places us next to Ifemelu, forcing us to question behaviours with her. We see the political rise of Barack Obama, and the implications this has for American society, through Ifemelu’s critical eye. We see the uneasiness with which race is contemplated and talked about (or rather, not talked about) in America, in the desperate attempts to make everything seem OK. Ifemelu encourages the readers of her blog to simply listen to someone if they tell a story about how race has affected them, and through listening, and asking questions, to understand the world better, by seeing it from someone else’s point of view.

The novel isn’t a grave preaching, however. It’s a hugely funny book, mainly achieved through the tone of the observations Ifemelu makes and the interactions between characters, all of whom are crafted magnificently. We understand each character, even if we become critical of their behaviour. Even Ifemelu is not drawn to be the perfect, objective observer – Adichie shows us her flaws, her selfishness and her snobbery, her tendency to judge too harshly.

This is what made the novel so real, so vibrant and so ceaselessly interesting for me. No, it’s not an adventure novel: there aren’t many cliff-hangers or dramatic showdowns. It’s a page-turner in the sense that we exist so much ‘in the moment’ with these characters, moving slowly with them through their encounters with new environments and new faces, that we just (for want of a better phrase) drift along, thoroughly engrossed, invited to care about how these stories will unfold.

Americanah is a novel about dealing with race, about politics, and the harsh realities of life, both in Nigeria and as an immigrant in America or in England. But it’s also a story about love – romantic love, the love between parents and children, love between friends, a love of home. Most importantly, it’s about learning to love and accept yourself. For that, it’s an extremely positive novel, and on reading it a second time, I enjoyed it even more.

I always think that the sign of a good book is if you’re immediately impatient to read the author’s other work.

Mentally, I’ve already packed Half of a Yellow Sun in my holiday suitcase.

Enjoy reading everyone!

Book Review, Uncategorized

Book Review: The Birds & Other Stories, by Daphne du Maurier

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Daphne du Maurier has been my favourite author since I read Rebecca 4 years agoI think reading that novel is the way most people first encounter du Maurier’s writing, and it should be. Nothing can ever prepare you for the power and magic contained in that first sentence. Since then, I’ve read most of her novels, but only recently did I consider reading her short story collections.

I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had made a film adaptation of ‘The Birds’, along with Rebecca, the former in particular being a highly regarded psychological thriller. Considering how well known and praised Hitchcock film continues to be to this day, I must say I expected more from the original story, ‘The Birds’, and it wasn’t until I did some research afterwards that I learnt that Hitchcock had basically taken the title and the basic concept of du Maurier’s text and allowed the screenplay writer to create his own story around that. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – Hitchcock’s film is great, and really taps into some dark psychological concepts through this adaptation. But I definitely fell for the assumption that films stay faithful to the original story, which meant that my already high expectations of du Maurier’s storytelling were raised further.

That’s not to say that ‘The Birds’ isn’t a good story. Du Maurier very skillfully captures a real sense of the main character’s fear, isolation and, in the end, hopelessness when flocks of birds unexpectedly begin attacking the town in which he lives with his wife and children. She created in Nat Hocken a very real protagonist – by real, I mean that I read and understood the emotional integrity of his actions and reactions, which allowed me to engage with his plight (to the extent that I felt almost desperate for a means of escape to appear). Although not written in the first person, she attaches the reader so closely with Nat’s consciousness that the claustrophobia and entrapment he experiences seeps through the page. I certainly felt that I was sitting right there next to him, waiting for a government message of hope through the radio while the relentless sound of the birds seeking entry to the house continued.

I think du Maurier’s evocation of the threat posed by the birds primarily through oral imagery (focusing on the sounds of their wings beating as an example) was highly effective, and in fact works better than any overt visual description could. Although they pose a very violent, physical threat, du Maurier’s narrative also drives home the psychological terror of the situation. The sudden mobilization of the birds, large and small, into a group intent on attack, is left unexplained, highlighting the terrifying unpredictability and violence of the natural world, a fact that is easy to forget.

I won’t lie. I was expecting a more definite resolution to the story, but on the other hand, I can see the motivation behind ending the story where she does. Sometimes, allowing the reader’s imagination to take the reigns increases the tension, the terror and the fear. Whether this is achieved is based entirely on each individual’s immersion in the story.

Overall, a decent suspenseful narrative with a likable protagonist, but there is something missing or jarring that I can’t quite describe that left me feeling a bit let down once I’d finished reading. I can definitely see why Hitchcock was inspired by the basic concept, and also why he saw that there was scope to elaborate on it.

 

The other stories in this collection continue in the vein of wreaking psychological havoc:

  • Monte Verità, on the surface, is a story about what is assumed to be a female cult that kidnaps and imprisons young women in a monastery-style building high up on a remote, twin-peaked mountain. As the narrative continues, it soon becomes a story of freedom, of unrequited and unattainable love, and I suppose it could also be read as an exploration of what it means to be an an enlightened and liberated woman, and of understandings of femininity and masculinity (issues that were fiercely debated in du Maurier’s time, and continue to be so today). Much use is made of lunar imagery (being called to the mountain by the moon), and there is much focus on conceptions of female magic and mysticism. There is a rather strange, almost psychedelic sequence towards the end of the story, and some of the dialogue is frustratingly confusing (like someone talking in riddles). I thought that the pacing was strange, as though du Maurier was trying too hard to create suspense but the plot was too predictable for this to be achieved. Some of the descriptions, however, are truly stunning, and it is in these that the reader can truly appreciate du Maurier’s skill and creativity with language.
  • The Apple Tree I found to be a very humorous story, with a very pompous, self-important protagonist. One is never quite sure whether this man really is being haunted by his dead wife in the form of an unusually shaped apple tree or whether it purely his imagination, a result of some form of repressed guilt about the changes in his feelings and behaviour towards his wife (and vice versa) in the years before her death. It’s a very enjoyable story, albeit one with a rather predictable ending. As with Monte Verità, du Maurier explores the link between femininity and the natural world, and how men interact with or alter that dynamic.
  • The Little Photographer involves adultery, murder, and blackmail, all the result of one woman’s desire to satisfy her vanity and alleviate her boredom whilst on holiday in France. On the one hand, one may read the Marquise as independent, forthright and in control, not the stereotypical emotionally vulnerable, naive woman or well behaved wife. On the other hand, however, she is rather emotionally abusive, I felt, incredibly vain of her own beauty and position in society. I know not all characters can be sympathetic or likable but something about this character, or maybe the way the story was told, stopped me from properly engaging with it and enjoying it.
  • Kiss Me Again, Stranger – female empowerment reigns again in du Maurier’s story. We encounter the story through a narrator whose sudden infatuation with a cinema usherette leads him into an almost fatal encounter. I found the narrator’s lovesickness rather creepy, and wasn’t sure whether we were meant to find his metaphorical blindness/naivety endearing (I didn’t). The revelation at the end seemed a little clichéd but that may be the intervening decades separating my reading of the story and du Maurier’s writing of it. I’m guessing it would have been shocking to her contemporary readers.
  • The Old Man, although only 10 pages long, is my favourite story in this collection, purely for the skill in narrative deception on display here. I was speechless when I read the final paragraph. The narrator’s gossiping tendencies provide an effective humorous counterbalance to the dark, sinister portrayal of parent-child relations. I don’t trust myself not to reveal the ending so I’ll leave it here.

Running through all the stories are displays and evocations of psychological terror and manipulation, be it of characters or readers. All except ‘The Birds’ deal explicitly with the power dynamics in romantic relationships between men and women, and supply us with various imaginings of masculinity and femininity. Some stories are more well written and engaging than others, but as a group, the fit very well together.

Daphne du Maurier is still my favourite author, and I found many of the elements so intriguing and effective in Rebecca present here also. For me, her writing is more effective when she had to sustain a narrative for novels, bringing greater definition to her characters and imagery. Or maybe I just prefer novels to short stories in general.

Please feel free to leave a comment.