Category Archives: literary

Review: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

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I think I was too old for this book.  I think I would’ve appreciated it when I was in my twenties at university when the world was newish but I’m old and jaded now so the story of a 17 year old girl plotting to ruin the life of her libertine father’s new fiancée seemed all a bit fanciful, a bit yawn-making.

Set on the French Riviera, Cécile is living a high and hedonistic life with her forty-something-year-old father Raymond and his girl of the moment, redheaded Elsa.  They live a life of drinking, gambling, staying out late and not thinking too much.  When Anne, the seemingly level-headed and intellectual forty-something-year-old family friend comes to visit, her presence changes the louche dynamic forever.  Raymond proposes marriage to Anne, Elsa is forced to find comfort in the arms of someone else, while Cécile has to study daily for an exam she has failed previously.

Cécile dislikes these changes so with the help of Cyril, her 26 year old boyfriend in the next villa, and using Elsa’s continuing feelings for Raymond to further her own ends, she concocts a plan to destroy Anne.

Sagan has created a morally ambiguous character in Cécile.  By turns young and old, wise and stupid, tragic and ridiculous, she embodies the flightiness of youth, with its penchant for melodrama and a narcissistic appreciation of its developing talents.  Cécile is also that thing that fails to recognise when it’s being cruel or callous and if it does, continues in the same way anyway.  Sooo, like, adolescent.

Apparently this book caused a stir when it was published in the 1950s.  And with the sexually and morally emboldened Cécile at its core, I’m not surprised.  In 2012 it’s a bit passé.

Book details:
Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, published by John Murray books 1954, Penguin 1958, 108 pages, personal copy mooched from BookMooch.

BOOK REVIEW: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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BOOK REVIEW: Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fiction, Fourth Estate – Harper Collins, large format paperback, 2004, 307 pages.

se-duc-tiveadjective

tending to seduce; enticing; beguiling; captivating: a seductive smile.

Purple Hibiscus is a seductive book.

Set in Nigeria during a military coup, it charts the development of Kambili, the 15 year old protagonist, from petrified, silent schoolgirl, terrorised by her zealously religious father, to awakening young adult, learning to stand up for herself.

Adichie_Purple HibiscusThe catalyst for this change is her Aunty Ifeoma, and the joyful approach she and her three children have towards life.  Kambili and her elder brother, Jaja, holiday with their aunt and, during this time, filigrees of change are wrought.

You’re starting to undress already, aren’t you?  Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Let me explain what I mean when I say Purple Hibiscus is seductive.

When I think about this book, there are a number of elements to it that are identifiably cliched.  For instance, there’s the young girl who awakens to an awareness of her self and others; there’s the poor but joyful relation who remains buoyant and optimistic in the face of poverty and political uncertainty; and there’s the oppressive father who terrorises his children but is outwardly perceived as a pillar of the community.

Now, cliches are generally thought to be the last bastion of the unimaginative.  And they’re often uninteresting because we’ve seen them so often before.  But cliches are double-edged creatures.  The reason why they’re cliches and why we’ve seen them so often before is because, quite simply, they work.

What Adichie has done is take a few cliches and make them work for her.  They provide structure and plot, and she infuses them with a sometimes joyous, sometimes horrifying, reality.  But she also slightly subverts them, which not only showcases the less-than-perfect world we live in but also creates a book strong on complexity, intelligence and real world colour.

For example, if we take a look at the storyline of the young girl awakening to adulthood, Kambili awakens to a reality that’s far from pleasant, involving as it does tragic parental behaviour and, to a lesser extent, the state of Nigeria.  It’s not the fairytale arrival which often accompanies coming-of-age stories.

Similarly, in relation to the cliche of the oppressive father, Adichie uses the friction inherently generated by such a character to sustain the writing over many pages.  But she chooses to cloud our condemnation of him by ensuring that we see that Kambili loves him even though she also fears him.  Kambili’s love shows us that he is a father and has a relationship with his daughter even though it’s an undesirable one.  It creates a complex reality that isn’t easily reconciled.

In case I’m making this book sound somewhat bleak and possibly, difficult, I want to point out, it’s not.  Not completely, anyway.  As the title suggests, ‘purple hibiscus’ is the metaphor that grounds the book.  At the very beginning of the novel Kambili says:

Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence.  Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup.  A freedom to be, to do.

So purple hibiscus represent freedom and though rare, remain something to seek, something to try and attain.  Similarly, Kambili’s attempts at freedom — to be who she wants to be — while rare, remain something to hope for, something to try and attain.  Hope is at the core of this novel and it’s hope that we’re left with at its end.

Part of the charm of Purple Hibiscus – an additional reason why you might want to take your clothes off again, metaphorically speaking, of course – is its characters.  I’ve already mentioned the honest portrayal of emotions from Kambili towards her father — well, there are additional relationships in this novel which are as complicated.

In fact, one of the things this novel does well is display the relationships that exist or develop between characters, particularly those involving Kambili.  There is a sense of real depth in her relationships with her brother, mother, aunt, cousin and then a young, good looking priest whom she meets while staying with her aunt.  How is that last relationship resolved?  I can only say, read the book.

Opulent characterisation and defiant twisting of cliche, hovering over twin heartbeats of freedom and hope — can you see why I think Purple Hibiscus is seductive?

Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel.  Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction.  Her latest release is a book of short stories entitled The Thing Around Your Neck.

I haven’t got anything much else to add except to say, I really liked this book so I reckon you should go out and read it, nude or otherwise.

BOOK REVIEW: Grace and Truth by Jennifer Johnston

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BOOK REVIEW: Grace and Truth by Jennifer Johnston, fiction, REVIEW, paperback, 2005, 250 pages.

Jennifer Johnston is an Irish author that I’d heard of only recently thanks to various posts over at Reading Matters.  She seemed like the kind of author that I’d like to read, sounding strong on characterisation and exploring what makes human beings tick.  So I snaffled a copy of Grace and Truth at a cheap bookshop near my local supermarket.

And I read it.

Johnston, Grace and truthAnd now I don’t really now what to make of it.  Despite its 250 page length, I’m not 100 per cent sure what it was about and I suspect I could write a PhD trying to figure it out.

On the surface, the story is about Sally, an actress returning home to Ireland after playing the role of Pegeen Mike in John Synge’s, The Playboy of the Western World for a number of months.  She is weary, needs a rest and is looking forward to seeing her husband, Charlie.  But once home, Charlie leaves her and there is a war on the TV.

In the shock and grief that envelop her after Charlie’s departure, she decides to make contact with her only living relative, her grandfather, a bishop of the Church of Ireland.  He is initially reluctant to have anything to do with her but eventually begins to want to see her, asking Sally to take him on drives around the countryside.

This makes the book sound more straightforward than it actually is.  Sally is the narrator and I found her quite slippery – hard to get hold of.  You’d think that after breaking up with your husband, you’d be somewhat distraught.  But Sally is a strange one and there’s a large disjunction between the crisis she’s undergoing and the language she uses to express herself.  Her interior monologue is almost like a sequence of musings characterised by a distance and lack of involvement.  For instance, when contemplating contacting her grandfather, Sally thinks:

What do bishops do on Saturday?

I shall go and find out.

Interrupt his prayers perhaps?

I think not.

He’s never seemed the praying sort to me.

Maybe he spends Saturday in bed.

Anyway I bet I’ll surprise him.

The only sign of Sally’s grief is the morbid interest she takes in the war that is being broadcast on tv.  It’s almost as though she’s subsumed the pain in her own life to experience it vicariously on tv.

As the book progresses, it becomes clearer that Sally’s grief is not new.  She has carried a grief for most of her life and the cause is not knowing the identity of her father.  It’s eroded her own sense of identity and caused her to distance herself from her life — a kind of sleepwalking of which, she admits, acting is also a form.

I just act.

The very act of acting being a form of sleep.

The book, then, seems to explore the need for identity and, by extension, truth.  It plays out the consequences of Sally’s search for truth when Sally eventually discovers her parentage and it blows her life wide open.  In this case, the truth hurts.


What Johnston seems to propose is the idea that truth about identity does not have any existential value.  In other words, you can know the facts about someone – or your self – but it doesn’t satisfy a deeper need or a deeper yearning for some kind of truth about who we are as individuals and human beings.


Sally awareness of truth’s lack grows as she ponders lines from Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot:

Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today?

That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night,

I waited for Godot?

That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us?

Probably.

But in all that what truth will there be?

Like the character in Beckett’s play, Sally has learned facts but wherein lies the truth?  Facts dressing up as truth neither help her to feel better about herself nor shift the existential weight she carries.  Importantly, though, it’s not something that Sally resolves nor seems overly concerned to resolve, because she discovers that love is more important than truth.  Love is the answer, and her final actions are acts of grace — they provide a moving conclusion to the book.

I am ambivalent about this book.  There are aspects that are very good: the writing is tight – not a word wasted; the first person narration provides access to a complex and complicated character; and the naturalness of the characters’ speech and behaviour is both cinematic in its brevity and musical in its rhythm.

But it’s not easily understood and it’s not easily pinned down.  There are loose ends of meaning I can’t account for – particularly references to the bible with their mention of ‘grace and truth’ – but that problem is probably compounded by my ignorance of such matters and an irrational, yet human, need to have everything neatly wrapped up.  But I’m not sure.

I like to think that there is more to be discovered in this book and that re-reads will help unearth its secrets.  What is achievable on a first reading, however, is an awareness of a kind of poetic beauty and a shifting yet canny intelligence — a combination which is both intriguing and mystifying.

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

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BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry, fiction – paperback, Faber and Faber, 2008, 312 pages. 

 

Sebastian Barry’s, The Secret Scripture, is an affirmation of fiction.  It’s one of those books whose sum is greater than its parts and which, as a consequence, says something vital and necessary about who we are as human beings.

 

Barry, The Secret ScriptureIt begins with two epigraphs.  The first highlights our inability to see ourselves; the second points out the uncertainty inherent in authenticated history.  Both ideas have the capacity to undermine The Secret Scripture because it’s a book that contains two narrators who rely on memories and documentation to present a picture of the truth.  But Barry carries the whole thing off with great success for while The Secret Scripture’s main narrative is inconclusive, it offers a truth about human nature that can’t be refuted.

 

Let me explain.

 

The first and main narrator is Roseanne Clear, a 100 year old woman in a delapidated Irish mental institution penning a ‘Testimony of Herself’.  Incarcerated at a relatively young age, she commits to write out her life in order to ‘leave an account, some kind of brittle and honest-minded story of myself’, which includes the early death of her father and a rapid decline into madness by her mother.  She is also involved in an event that is part of the Irish civil war in the early twentieth century that affects her for the rest of her life.

 

Alongside Roseanne’s ‘Testimony’ is the ‘Commonplace Book’ of Dr William Grene, the second narrator.  He is the Senior Psychiatrist at the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital where Roseanne is a patient and it is up to him, as Roseanne’s psychiatrist, to assess her fitness for transfer to a new hospital.  He meets with Roseanne on a regular basis and in his own ‘Book’ reports on his conversations with Roseanne.

 

The purpose of these dual narratives was not immediately transparent.  Grene’s dry, tone was an unwanted intrusion into Roseanne’s story, which is written in a beautiful and lyrical language:

 

I am only a thing left over, a remnant woman, and I do not even look like a human being no more, but a scraggy stretch of skin and bone in a bleak skirt and blouse, and a canvas jacket, and I sit here in my niche like a songless robin …

 

Grene’s voice, on the other hand, speaks the language of his profession – analytical, and seemingly objective.  He also likes to follow any one of his stray thoughts (and, maddeningly, there are quite a few, including reports on the state of his marriage and his growing up in England, even though Irish).

 

But Grene’s seeming objectivity serves an important function.  His reports in his ‘Book’ on his conversations with Roseanne not only counterbalance Roseanne’s telling of her story, they also start to make us doubt the reliability of her narration.  Discrepancies between the two narratives begin to appear and our focus switches to Grene as the agent who will tell us the truth.

 

Soon it’s clear, though, that neither narrative is reliable.  Elements of Roseanne’s story are in doubt while documents that Grene relies on to establish the truth of her story are themselves dubious because of their origins.  

 

As readers, we are in the unusual position of not knowing exactly what the final truth is.  When we read a book, we expect to learn answers to the questions generated by the narrative but in The Secret Scripture, these answers – this certainty – is not forthcoming, which seems to me to be the point of the book.

 

In shying away from narrative closure and in proposing that we can’t ever really know the truth about someone else or indeed ourselves, the author is questioning the value of factual truths.  Because in a far more valuable way, Roseanne’s testimony enables us to know a different truth about her — the truth of her spirit.  We may not know the facts of her life, but we know what makes her happy and we know that she is capable of great joy despite her suffering.  In writing her story, Roseanne redeems her life from the institution in which it’s been locked; and by showing us her capacity for joy and persistence and endurance, she highlights – and redeems – humanity.

 

This is The Secret Scripture’s greatest strength.  And although I was less than impressed with the way the plot tic-tacked between the two narratives – in one instance giving the ending away in spectacular fashion – the book’s ability to establish something essential and magnificent about human nature, in rather beautiful and lyrical language, made it an emotional and thought-provoking read.

 

The Secret Scripture is a great book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 

Note:  The Secret Scripture was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and was the Costa Book of the Year (formerly the Whitbread Prize) in the same year.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Room by Christopher Koch

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Room by Christopher Koch, fiction, Vintage, 2007, paperback – pp.432.

I’ve been aware of Christopher Koch ever since the film adaptation of his book, The Year of Living Dangerously, was released in 1983 and made Mel Gibson a star.  The film was directed by Peter Weir and the screenplay written by Weir, Koch and Australian playwright David Williamson.  Yet despite Koch’s prominence with this film and his other prizewinning books, I’d never got around to reading any of his work.

Koch, The Memory RoomWhen I found out that Koch had written a book about spying, one of my favourite subjects, I realised that this was my chance to read a book by a seminal Australian author on an ancient and complex subject.  ‘What is a spy?  Are they born, or are they made?’ asked the blurb.

The book is set in Tasmania, China and Canberra (Australia), in the 1970s and 1980s, and follows the lives and careers of Vincent, Bradley and Erika as they grow from teenagers to adults in their early 30s.  Vincent and Bradley enter Foreign Affairs after university while Erika becomes a journalist.  But this is no coming-of-age story.  Vincent is attached to ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, and it’s primarily through him that we learn why someone might become a spy.

I found Koch’s writing style takes some getting used to.  He likes to describe things — from landscape to the contents of a room to what someone is wearing — and he likes to switch between characters’ different points of view to the extent that he seems unsure about who is his main proponent.  The book opens from Bradley’s perspective and ends with Vincent’s.  Problematically, for me, these switches helped to obscure the reasons for Vincent becoming a spy in the first place.

There’s a section in the book where Vincent is reassigned to the File Registry after a major diplomatic incident in China.  He’s sent back to Canberra and is charged with the responsibility for selecting which data to transfer from files to computer.  It provides him with an overview of all gathered intelligence and and enables him to make new and creative links between different bits of information in different files.  In some sense, The Memory Room is a bit like this.  It’s up to us to put together all the different bits of information to find out what Koch is proposing.

This idea seems to be a common theme because at the end of the book, Vincent admits that he observed and noted everything in the hope that ‘by writing things down – by simply recording them … that their hidden meanings might somehow emerge, as more mundane clues emerge in those records to do with espionage’.  If it is Koch’s intention for the reader to do something similar, then it’s a rather clever book.

Overall, I found The Memory Room a relatively engrossing read.  A plotline involving Erika, Vincent and Erika’s lover takes off about two-thirds of the way through the book, there are descriptions of Canberra that this former resident found unusual (see my earlier post) and there are insights into being a spy that stand out, such as the idea that spies are liable to nervous breakdown in middle age because of a life of dissembling, or that spying might be a faculty inherent in human nature that only some of us take up.

But – and there is a but – my main reservation about this book stems from its overuse of description, which seems to be a symptom of a storyline searching for a structure.  It felt as though we were right alongside Koch as he wrote, wondering where the book was going, and I found it difficult to ignore.

I was also nonplussed with the depiction of Erika.  She is drawn as the classic femme fatale – a beauty existing for male interest only – and there is little sympathy for her from Koch with one character describing her to another as ‘an hysteric’.  It’s an old-fashioned term, one that used to be applied to difficult women, so it not only dates Koch as an author but also patronises half the population.  It gives no insight into Erika or her life, which is a shame because there are hints that her story might have been an interesting one.

Being in two minds about The Memory Room has left me curious about Koch’s other work.  I suspect that I’ll file away his name for future reference, perhaps moving at some stage to read, The Year of Living Dangerously.  For now, though, the ideas discussed in The Memory Room will keep me going for quite some time.