THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2015)
Vietnam was a war that was technically won by the Viet Cong but which American are reluctant to concede to having lost. The unnamed Vietnamese Army Captain narrating this tale has sympathies with both sides but this only serves to place him between a rock and a hard place.
As a reluctant revolutionary he pleads guilty to the charge of being westernized, admitting: “If longing for riches made me a Occidentalist, I confess to it”. As a uncomitted communist he sees no attraction in the authentic “rustic realities” of village life in Saigon.
While not being blind to the faults of the US, he recognizes that there is more freedom of speech than in his homeland. This, together with air conditioning, an efficient traffic system and the modernist novel are among the other things that he admires. On the down side, he reviles the American knack for putting a positive spin on defeat and for hyping up the benefits of individualism. Continue reading
THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson (First published by Random House, 2012)
This is the story of a survivor who has nothing to live for.
Pak Jun Do is a North Korean John Doe and by all accounts a model citizen of a shitty nation.
Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel illustrates that when living within ideological systems it is too easy to get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hegemony functions to make any way of life appear to be ‘normal’ and/or beyond reproach.
Johnson asks plenty of loaded questions such as to whether it is nobler to be devoted to the ‘dear leader’ (Kim Jon II) of North Korea than to cling to an often elusive American dream. No middle way is offered. Continue reading
ALL THE LIGHT YOU CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (Fourth Estate, 2014)
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever"
This engrossing novel follows the parallel lives of a young German boy (Werner Pffnig) and a young French girl (Marie Laure) caught up in the mayhem and confusion of the second world war.
The novel’s year zero is 1944 and the complex yet brilliant plotted story shifts back and forward in time.
Short chapters give the urgency of a thriller yet patiently piece together the threads that briefly and movingly bring these two blighted lives together.
Doerr unsentimentally shows us how ordinary lives are corrupted by the horror of war.
One of the real strengths of the novel is that our sympathies lie with both of the main characters even though conventionally speaking they are mortal enemies and Werner is alined with the morally depraved Hitler youth. Continue reading
THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, 2013)
After her two previous bestsellers, Donna Tartt is in the enviable position of being able to call all the shots with any publisher.
She is like an esteemed movie director who knows her work is never going to be subjected to unwanted cuts.
Moreover, she has established herself a writer who works slowly and meticulously, preferring quality to quantity.
A book every decade is her current rate of production and she expresses no desire to change this. She says she’ll be content if her life work consists of five big novels.
Constant rewriting and self editing are among the reasons why she is not more prolific. In a recent BBC interview, Tartt describes how she decided to scrub 8 months work after realising she had taken the plot down a wrong track.
You can well imagine why, after labouring for so long, she would resist any further editing suggestions. However, I can’t help feeling that this degree of total control is a double-edged sword. The Goldfinch is a novel that cries out for some bold editing and in my view it is at least 200 pages too long. Continue reading
BIRD CLOUD – A MEMOIR OF PLACE by Annie Proulx (Scribner, 2011)
Place is a major part of Annie Proulx’s writing and life. Everything begins with the landscape.
However, as a feature in The Guardian notes, she is scornful of the adage that you should write what you know. She has said: “All it produces is tiresome middle-class novels of people who I think are writing about things they know, but you wish to God they didn’t”.
Proulx is a late learner and was a thrice divorced 53 year-old woman when she wrote her first collection of short stories (Heart Songs). Five years later came her Pulitzer-prize winning novel The Shipping News. The film version of her short story Brokeback Mountain introduced her to an even wider audience.
My collection of Annie Proulx’s books.
I am a big fan of her fiction and have made a point of buying any book of hers I see but this one turned out to be a big disappointment.
It is the account of an ambitious but ultimately misguided building project. The profits from her belated literary success was ploughed into what he hoped would be her dream home built on wild prairie land near a dramatic cliff in 640 acres of Wyoming, the least populous of the United States. Continue reading