Book Review | The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

In a city readers of the previous three novels will know well, we are back in Barcelona – only this time, it’s the late 1950s. The ripple effects of the civil war are unforgotten but unspoken, while many still reel from the horrors committed in the name of Francoism. In the midst of this, Don Mauricio Valls, Franco’s culture minister, vanishes, and in comes Alicia Gris, the formidable female heroine we’ve been waiting for. Alicia is relentlessly driven, smart, and by all accounts, mesmerisingly beautiful. She also takes no prisoners.

Alicia and the policeman instructed to work with her, Juan Manuel Vargas, begin to piece together the mystery surrounding Valls’ disappearance. It’s a journey that takes them to the bowels of decaying Barcelona mansions, luxury suites at the Gran Hotel Palace, and, of course, the winding and interminable passageways of the cemetery of forgotten books.

Because of course, books are at the heart of this story, just as in the stories that preceded this one. The threads of literary mystery run deep, pulling us back to the questions about fact and fabrication, truth and lies, and the power of books to commemorate, to heal, to live long after their authors are gone. And with the reappearance of the cemetery of forgotten books, we find ourselves with the Sempere family once more. For the horrors of the Franco regime and terrors of the war aren’t an abstract piece of history – this family, as with so many others, have suffered greatly.

“There, in the heart of old Barcelona, where neither machines nor their disciples could penetrate, Alicia wanted to believe that time flowed in circles and that if she didn’t venture beyond those narrow streets through which the sun only dared to tiptoe, perhaps she would never grow old and would be able to return to a hidden time, rediscover the path she should never have left.”

Alicia and Vargas dive deeper into the underbelly of a past that many people want forgotten, and they begin to learn more about how and why Valls disappeared, and what he was responsible for as governor of the notorious Montjuïc prison. They have an unwavering commitment to the truth, to bringing justice upon those responsible for unspeakable suffering. But it will come at a cost.

“Bea watched Fermín leave in a blue twilight that threatened sleet. She stood there, looking out as people filed along Calle Santa Ana, hidden under scarves and coats. Something told her that winter, the real winter, had just collapsed on them without warning. And this time it would not go unnoticed.”

Both intricate and expansive, this final instalment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series is a testament to Zafón’s masterful skill, his ability to hold you in rapt attention for over 700 pages and nine decades as we explore the final mysteries of the Sempere family. The characters Zafón has created are a pure joy to read, the incomparable Fermin Romero de Torres being one of the most memorable and funniest characters in all of modern literature, and the city of Barcelona itself, as many have noticed, as much a life form in these novels as any person.

It isn’t flawless – it took me a little while to warm up to the novel, and I found that picking it up and putting it back down was not going to work for me – I had to truly invest and devour hundreds of pages at a time to keep up with all the narrative threads. The ending was, I felt, a little drawn out, but I could understand that Zafón would not want to put this series to rest without giving the characters a fitting, holistic farewell. I adored visiting Zafón’s universe for a final time, and most of all what I loved is what is at the heart of this novel – the unwavering reverence for the enduring power – and immortality – of books.

“Tell our stories to the world, and never forget that we exist so long as someone remembers us.”

Book Review | Self Portrait With Boy by Rachel Lyon

Lu Rile inhabits a crumbling tower block of artists in residence, part of an early 1990s Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification. She struggles to make ends meet working in the local health food shop while pursuing her dreams of photography. The art world is a ruthless one, and Lu’s life isn’t easy.

To impose some kind of structure and meaning on her days (and by extension, her life at large), Lu begins taking a series of self-portraits in her crumbling apartment. But it isn’t until portrait #400 that she strikes gold. Only it happens to be in the most macabre and devastating of circumstances.

Her neighbours on the upper floor have a young boy, Max – who on that fateful day, loses his footing up on their roof and falls to his death. It just so happens that at the moment the shutter closes on Lu’s 400th self portrait, Max’s body is falling past her window.

Lu is paralysed by excitement and fear. It’s undoubtedly the best photograph she has ever taken. But it is capturing the death of a child. Sick to her stomach, she resolves to tell Max’s bereaved mother, Kate, and hopefully get her blessing. Kate is also an artist – surely she’ll understand the objective value of the piece as art?

The image becomes an obsession – and with it, the spectre of the dying boy. Lu becomes convinced that he is haunting her and is desperate to get the image out of her apartment and into somewhere safe. But she wants to get the image in the hands of someone who can appreciate it for what it is, someone who can give her a stratospheric rise into the annals of New York art fame.

He was both visible and invisible, both real and unreal. He was ripples and he was dust. He was wind and memory and dream. More than anything else, he was real – not in the sense that he was tangible but in the sense that he was actually there.

This book is not faultless, but it is fascinating. As a mediation on art and morality, ambition and perception, it succeeds – it’s uncomfortable reading, but it forces the reader to confront their feelings about art and its ultimate purpose. The writing is lyrical and intensely visual, but in a slightly detached, abstracted way. There are no speech marks, the dialogue is melded in with the prose like the novel is one long recall, a retelling of events from a Lu who is looking back in time.

The very act of recall is like trying to photograph the sky. The infinite and ever-shifting colors of memory, its rippling light, cannot really be captured. Show someone who has never seen the sky a picture of the sky and you show them a picture of nothing.

The premise of the novel is simple, and it really is about that single act of taking the photograph and its ramifications – but when other narrative threads are introduced, for example, Lu’s father and absent mother, I didn’t feel that these were sufficiently fleshed out to add much to the story. It was almost as if that train of thought was dropped as Lu’s obsession with breaking out into the art world took over everything. It’s hard to like a character who is so single-minded and wrapped up in her own world. But you don’t have to like characters to empathise with them, and I understood their behaviour even when I didn’t like it.

Where the novel excelled was in painting a picture of early 90s Brooklyn, without shying away from the grubbier parts of life, and illustrating the conundrum of the meaning of art and what duty it has – or otherwise – to the world.

Book Review | Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

The hot, languid days of a mid-1980s June on the Italian Riviera. For Elio, a restless, precocious seventeen-year-old, it’s a summer that he’ll never forget. The family’s house guest that year is twenty-four-year-old Oliver, an Italian-American university professor.

There have been guests before – stretching years back – but none quite like Oliver. Affectionately nicknamed ‘la muvi star’ and ‘cauboi’ by Elio’s mother, he leaves an indelible impression on Elio. The two while away days talking literature, music and languages; indulging in each other’s perceived wisdom. Quickly, with an almost electric intensity, Elio is pulled into a deep infatuation for Oliver, craving his presence, the sound of his voice, the touch of his skin, to the point at which it occupies all his waking thoughts.

‘…why this thing that could so easily cause panic felt like hope sometimes and, like hope in the darkest moments, brought such joy, unreal joy, joy with a noose tied around it. The thud my heart gave when I saw him unannounced both terrified and thrilled me. I was afraid when he showed up, afraid when he failed to, afraid when he looked at me, more frightened yet when he didn’t.’

And yet for a story that begins with such rapidity, a fast spiral down into the depths of obsession and desire, the six weeks that shape that summer are both meandering and all too brief. The poeticism of Aciman’s prose both articulates the headiness of young love in a perfect, astute way, and yet sometimes the prose weighs us down, there is a feeling of being lost in the narrative and not knowing what day it is or what has transpired, not being able to see the wood for the trees. There’s a desire to pick apart each word and savour it, but the prose sometimes gets unwieldy, and it feels all too much. But perhaps, after all, simulating that utter disorientation of first love is the point.

I love it when love stories exist not in a vacuum but as inextricably linked with a space, a place, a moment in time. When the environment is fused with a story to the extent that the place will never be the same again, will always bear the mark of what happened there.

‘They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon – smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever coloured by the events of that summer.’

This is a novel that gets under your skin. I read it in twenty-four hours, on a transatlantic journey, and couldn’t put it down, even as I saw the writing on the wall, sensed what was to ultimately transpire.  It’s an achingly beautiful and sad testament to a fleeting summer that ends up shaping a lifetime.

‘I look back on those days and regret none of it, not the risks, not the shame, not the total lack of foresight. The lyric cast of the sun, the teeming fields with tall plants nodding away under the intense midafternoon heat, the squeak of our wooden floors, or the scrape of the clay ashtray pushed ever so lightly on the marble slab that used to sit on my nightstand.’

Book Review | Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Michael and Melissa and Stephanie and Damien are Londoners, slipping quietly into their late thirties and into a stifling domesticity that comes with the ordinariness of mortgages and children and responsibility.

Pink Floyd talked about hanging on in quiet desperation as ‘the English way,’ and while this song is not part of the soundtrack of this novel – a novel punctuated throughout with the sounds of the nineties and noughties – the ‘quiet desperation’ these multi-racial families feel is the beat that thrums relentlessly throughout the narrative. At a time that should be signalling hope, change and progress – the novel opens at a party to celebrate Obama’s inauguration – the ordinary lives of our protagonists are anything but hopeful.

Diana Evans explores the now almost-forgotten delight of new love, unadulterated love untinged by the mundanity of everyday life and the stresses of staying afloat in a city made increasingly difficult to inhabit. Evans takes us back to those moments, if only to throw into sharp relief the present impasse at which our characters find themselves.

‘…When they had returned home from some other party, and oblivious to the new day beginning, the requirement for sleep, had continued the music in the soft silence of the sheets with the mist receding and the light rising and the calling of the birds outside.’

‘His love for her was still deep and wide, it shattered him, it was destroying him, and while he knew that this was so he wanted it to carry on until the last drop was poured out of him, even though he knew that there was no last drop, no end, no way out.’

London is as much as part of this book as the characters are; Evans depicts the city as a living, breathing thing with almost Dickensian levels of detail and animation. Living in London’s deep South (Michael and Melissa) or out in the suburbs (Damien and Stephanie), the city proper comes alive in the way no other place can.

“By now it was evening and darkness had fallen on the river. Whenever he came to the South Bank he always got off the tube at Embankment rather than Waterloo so that he could walk across this river, and feel what it meant to be a part of it, containing as it did in its spirit the abundance of the city, the history of it, the souls of its people. He watched the silver of the lights on its ever-moving surface, felt the deep breathing of the tide out towards the ocean. He relished it, this power of London to allow an escape from the self, for just a little while, in a munificence of surrounding, an enormous activity and excitement.’

The shifting female identities that come with motherhood are explored in a way that felt very real; an erasure of the self. Melissa’s past life – high-flying fashion journalist – couldn’t be more different to her current existence as a mum of two trying to freelance in precious stolen hours – where a visit to a mum and baby group is akin to torture. The transformation of parenthood has an unique effect on mothers, Evans shows, while fathers can continue with their identities still in-tact, the option to start afresh a hovering – and sometimes tempting – possibility.

Evans resists a traditional trajectory; the novel instead moves through these normal lives in a profoundly sad way that is also beautifully depicted through her exacting prose. Things rise and they fall, but there is no overarching plot or satisfying denouement –while the lives of the rich and famous play on in the background – Obama, Michael Jackson, the soundtrack of John Legend – these, instead, are just the lives of ordinary people.

Book Review | The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

These are stories that need to be told. There really is no such thing as ‘too much’ writing about the atrocities of the holocaust: no amount of literature can ever capture the horror or fill the void left by the slaughter of innocent millions.

Lale Sokolov’s story deserves to be told. A young Slovak, Lale arrives at Auschwitz in 1942 and is soon assigned the Tatowierer of the camp, instructed to forever mark those arriving at the camps with numbered tattoos. From now on, the prisoners are property.

Keeping his wits about him and using his language skills to his advantage, he manages to navigate the dangerous territory of prisoner whilst simultaneously trying to win favours with the enemy guards and procure contraband for his fellow inmates. Never once does he forget that his life is ultimately disposable. Even as he reaches a tenuous understanding with Baretski, his Nazi minder, he never fails to remember that he could be shot dead at any moment.

Despite being one of the most harrowing chapters in modern history, Lale’s story shows how good human impulses: friendship, generosity, empathy – persist in even the darkest of places. It isn’t long before Lale meets Gita, and quickly – despite everything – they fall in love.

‘Back in his room, Lale carefully places the precious flower beside his bed before falling into a dreamless sleep. But the next morning when he wakes, the petals from his flower have separated and lie curled up beside the black centre. Death alone persists in this place.

It isn’t easy to be in love in a camp of death. But we are reminded that some semblance of life went on in these places, against all odds.

This narrative is a true story told not only through a fog of history and distance of memory, but also with the flair of poetic license. There is no doubting that this is a remarkable story and I have nothing but respect for those brave enough to tell their stories after enduring such unspeakable suffering. And I wanted to love this book – as so many thousands of others have.

The problem I had was with the way the story was told. There was a sense of detachment, a lack of immediacy and an absence of true character development or atmosphere crafting. We were given surface information, and the history was retold in a transactional way that lacked the depth and emotion befitting of a story about the horrors of the Nazi regime.

The final few chapters, told in a summative fashion with disconcerting brevity, consolidated how I had felt during the rest of the novel: this story simply fell short on craft, and as such it didn’t pack the punch or wield the power it should have done.

That said, the author should be admired for her work in capturing Lale’s story and her commitment to making sure his history endures – lest anyone dare to forget how easily humans can inflict acts of unimaginable cruelty upon each other, and how important it is to remember our not so distant past.

”He never considered himself naïve. Like so many living in Europe at that time, he was worried about the rise of Hitler… but he couldn’t accept that the Nazis would invade Slovakia. They didn’t need to. The government was giving them what they wanted…”

 

Book Review | The Absolutist by John Boyne

The First World War is now a century behind us. The last survivors are gone, and the horrors of the conflict are now only accessible through the foggy lens of history. With this temporal distance, it’s easy to forget the sheer magnitude and horror of the conflict. A hundred years seems like a vast gulf in time, an entirely different world. And it is and it isn’t. The boys sent off to die in their millions were just that – boys. They had their own dreams and loves and lives ahead of them.

Tristan Sadler is desperate to fight for his country. Swept up in the fervour of valour and patriotism, with misplaced ideologies about what being sent to the front line means, he lies about his age and signs up at the age of seventeen. His father has disowned him and he doesn’t have much to lose.

During basic training at Aldershot, he meets the enigmatic Will Bancroft. He struggles to hide his burgeoning feelings and the two grow closer in friendship. Will’s attitude to the war is more ambiguous, and he befriends a conscientious objector whose case is being put before a tribunal. Tristan steadfastly holds onto the belief that fighting is what is right, even as he is put through the most physically and emotionally gruelling experience of his life. And that’s before they’ve even departed England.

‘At Aldershot, they weren’t teaching us how to fight, they were training us how to extend our lives for as long as possible. As if we were already dead, but if we learned to shoot straight and to use a bayonet with care and precision then we might at least have a few more days or weeks in us. The barracks were filled with ghosts. Does that make sense? It was as if we died before we left England.’

Before long, they are both headed out to France, to face whatever horrors await.

Boyne doesn’t hold back in the visceral and relentless depravity of life in the trenches, giving an unflinching portrayal of the futility and barbarity of war. Human life is debased to the lowest levels, and one by one members of their platoon meet their fates. Of the pair of them, only one will come home, to live with the consequences of his actions.

The novel forces us to look at the murky spaces between bravery and cowardice, morality and duty. It captures a moment in time and pays homage to the senseless victims of the war. And the emotional impact should be vast – and yet, it isn’t. John Boyne writes beautifully, there’s no doubt about that, but there is a sense of this narrative staying too close to the surface, being too hurried to reach a conclusion. It doesn’t allow the breathing space to develop the characters and their relationships, and there is no space for absolution. Perhaps that’s what I wanted – some kind of absolution.

Book Review | The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

The post-war Irish political and social landscape was one bordering on theocracy: a nation held in the vicelike grip of the Catholic church. And 1940’s Ireland is not a good time to find yourself unmarried, pregnant, and alone on the sprawling streets of Dublin. Catherine Goggin has been banished from her hometown by the village priest, and throws herself at the mercy of fate when she gets on a bus for the capital, with nothing but a few pennies in her pocket. Shortly afterwards, her baby boy is born, and handed over to the care of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun. And then his story takes the reins.

We meet her son, Cyril, at seven years old. He’s been adopted by Charles and Maude Avery, an unconventional couple with no real interest in parenting, who encourage him to think of his place in the family as an eighteen-year tenancy. For Cyril, inquisitive, quiet, sensitive, everything changes the day he sees Julian Woodbead at foot of the stairs. He quickly becomes utterly devoted to and obsessed with Julian, realising that his feelings aren’t altogether platonic.

‘But for all that we had, for all the luxury to which we were accustomed, we were both denied love, and this deficiency would be scorched into our future lives like an ill-considered tattoo inscribed on the buttocks after a drunken night out, leading each of us inevitably towards isolation and disaster.’

So there we have the crux of the story: Cyril is growing up in a society that not only abhors, but out rightly criminalises his feelings. The freedom to love who he wants is not a freedom that he is afforded, and the struggle to conceal something so fundamental to his identity causes a seismic rupture in his sense of self and belonging.

‘It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contrary to my nature.’

It’s an odyssey through seven decades of a life, and Boyne keeps us enthralled throughout. The novel jumps forward in seven-year increments, as Cyril grows up and attempts to find his place in the world – a journey that takes him from Dublin to cosmopolitan Amsterdam, a New York City in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, and then finally back home, to a city that has irrevocably changed.

But this was Dublin, the nation’s capital. The place of my birth and a city I loved at the heart of a country I loathed.

This book is both expansive and profound. It is achingly funny and achingly sad. John Boyne’s ability to pepper bleakness with levity and humour is so deftly handled that one page had me laughing out loud whilst on the next I had tears streaming down my face.

‘I’m twenty-eight!’ I said, appalled and insulted.

‘Wow,’ he said, laughing. ‘That is so ancient. You’re like a dinosaur. I prefer stories about things that really happened. And the war really happened, didn’t it, so I want to know about it. Did you fight in the war, Mr Avery?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘On account that I was born a few months after it ended.’

‘I find that very hard to believe,’ said Jonathan, shaking his head. ‘You look so old that if you said you’d fought in the First World War, I wouldn’t have fallen off my seat in surprise!’

The characters are brilliant, three-dimensional, complex beings who are everything in this novel. Parts of the story are fantastical – an excess of tragic events, many a wild coincidence – but this is a story, and it’s what makes this story so absorbing and sprawling and epic – so moving, funny, tender and sad. It makes us look critically at how far society has come in acceptance of perceived difference, and how far we still have left to go. Ultimately, it’s about our very human longing for acceptance, belonging, and happiness.

Book Review | Lethal White by Robert Galbraith

It’s London, 2012, and there is a “tinge of excitement and nervousness about the capital,” a feeling which those of us who were in London in 2012 will remember only too well. Set within this moment of fragile national unity, Robin Ellacot and her business partner, private detective Cormoran Strike, receive a visitor. An emotionally disturbed young man, Billy, bursts into the office, telling them that he saw a child strangled many years ago, and that the body was buried “up by the horse.” And then he vanishes without a trace.

“‘I said, they’re supposed to be bad luck, aren’t they? … White horses. Isn’t there a play where white horses appear as a death omen?'”

The next person to call upon Strike’s assistance is Jasper Chiswell, Minister for Culture, whose moment to shine is being tarred by the appearance of some unsavoury blackmailers. Not one to take the moral high ground, Chiswell asks Strike and Robin to uncover their own dirt, giving him some leverage in the bargaining stakes.

We have characters on all ends of the political spectrum and they are ripped apart on both sides – there’s Jimmy Knight, a predatory anti-capitalist who is rallying the troops and attempting to incite class warfare in his disdain for the Olympics, and Galbraith equally lambasts the wealthy, disdainful, land-owning Tories and their seedy underbelly hidden behind a good name.

“I’m here to talk about the encroachment on human communities. They’re concreting over our common land, and for what? Are they putting up the social housing or the hospitals we need? Of course not! No, we’re getting stadiums costing billions, showcases for the capitalist system, ladies and gentlemen.”

“People of Charlotte’s class all seemed to know each other. Even if they had never met, they knew siblings or cousins or friends or classmates, or else their parents knew somebody else’s parents: all were connected, forming a kind of web that constituted a hostile habitat for outsiders. Rarely did these web-dwellers leave to seek companionship or love among the rest of society.”

Galbraith is able to keep so many plates simultaneously spinning, that in the hands of a less-talented writer, readers may become dizzy with the sheer complexity of the plot. And yet, we are pulled through the 600+ pages, as Galbraith deftly manages the suspense and revelations. We are taken on a journey into the halls of Westminster, the crumbling manor houses of the rich, and asked to unflinchingly look at the class system, the self-righteousness on both extremes, the mind games played in the halls of power and on the streets of Camden.

“He was a rich white Conservative male, Mr Strike, and he felt the corridors of power were best populated exclusively by rich white Conservative males.”

Of course, there’s also the personal lives of our protagonists to add into the equation: Robin has recently settled into a state of not-so-blissful nuptials, and Strike’s on-off – now married and heavily pregnant – fiancé is starting to edge back into the picture.

It’s hugely readable, and whilst others have grumbled about the length, I loved getting sucked into a novel of Potter-esque proportions. It’s not as if Galbraith doesn’t have enough material to keep the novel going over this period, and it works with the careful management of the pace. Whilst the plot – with all of its twists and turns – might lose the less judicious reader, there’s a lot to be enjoyed in the wonderfully-drawn characters, their developing relationships, the exquisite detail on places and spaces and the intensely likeable protagonists, Robin and Strike, who propel the novel forward. I, for one, eagerly await the next installment.

Top 5 Wednesday | Books I Want to Read Before the End of the Year

‘Top 5 Wednesday’ is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads, and while I haven’t participated in ages, I thought this would be a good opportunity to reflect on my TBR for the rest of 2018.

  1. Into The Water by Paula Hawkins
     The Girl on the Train was undoubtedly a tough act to follow. I’m aware that the reception to Hawkins’ next novel wasn’t unanimously positive, but I am still intrigued enough to want to read it.
  2. Birds Art Life Death by Kyo Maclear
    Image result for birds art life deathA good friend who has excellent taste in books recommended this one to me, saying it was the kind of book that makes her want to write. I got it earlier in the year and want to get around to reading it before the year is out.
  3. Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China by Leta Hong Fincher This one isn’t released until September, but I’m excited to get my hands on it. I love anything China-related and anything Feminism-related, so I look forward to this one.

  4. The Only Story by Julian Barnes
    35570812I read The Sense of an Ending many years ago, and saw the film version last year, which reminded me how much I enjoy Julian Barnes’ storytelling.
  5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng 
    Image result for little fires everywhere After enjoying Everything I Never Told you, a friend lent me a copy of Ng’s second novel, which has been on my radar for a while (aren’t they making it into a film or TV series)? I love the cover and title, and hopefully will love the content too, if her last book was anything to go by.