April 24, 2011

The Swimmer - Roma Tearne

The Swimmer is yet another read I found through the Orange Prize Long List for 2011 and as I loved it so much I am relieved to see that it is the author's fourth novel - so I will now be able to go back and read her earlier books.

In some ways The Swimmer focuses intensely and directly on the lives of a few people but one of the things I loved about it was the way in which the author broadened her focus to allow the book to say so much more about important global issues such as fear, war, racism and the plight of refugee people.

One of the stories in The Swimmer is the story of 43 year old poet, Ria. Ria lives in a small English coastal village - separated from her husband after they were unable to have a child Ria is grieving the loss of her relationship and her sense of self while trying to write her next book of poetry. The house she lives in is a bequest from an uncle and aunt and is the cause of much conflict between her and her younger brother Jack who would like to see Ria sell the home and share the profits with him. Ria is tied to the home by her love for her uncle and aunt and her much beloved father who died when Ria was a child. The home is much more than a house to Ria - it brings her a sense of comfort and sanctuary. The house is also the place where Ria first meets Ben, a Sri Lankan doctor who has escaped the violence of his home country to come to England in the hope of building a peaceful and productive life for himself only to find that violence and prejudice has found him in this new country.

A tender, beautiful and tentative relationship begins to form between Ria and Ben and we learn more about each of their pasts through their getting to know each other.

I won't say anymore about the book for fear of ruining the drama for those of you who would like to read it for yourselves - and I would definitely encourage you to do this.

I felt this book carried so many powerful messages - on reflecting maybe it tried to cover too much for one small book but at the same time I felt that the narrative and the story itself never lost it's intensity or its purpose - a wonderful read.

April 18, 2011

The Pleasure Seekers - Tishani Doshi

The Pleasure Seekers is another book that was long listed for the 2011 Orange Prize but did not make it to the short list. Unlike with Whatever You Love I would have liked to have seen this book make the short list - I'm not sure if I really have any idea about the criteria judges use to take a book to the next level (surely it must be subjective to some degree??) but I felt this was a beautiful story told brilliantly.

The story starts in India in 1968 when Babo Patel, the eldest son of Prem Kumar Patel and his wife Trishala, is about to set out for London to continue his studies, make a success of himself in business and return to India to marry a nice Indian girl of the Jain faith. This plan is all set to succeed until Babo meets and falls in love with Welsh girl, Sian.

On many levels this is an ordinary story about an ordinary family going about the ordinary tasks and events of daily life - love, study, employment, death, trauma, conflict, happiness. What makes this book special is the way in which the story is told. These ordinary events which could be told in a fleeting, superficial way become rich stories of character - you feel in some ways as though you are a member of the Patel family too, living the story along with them. This is true skill in a writer for me - I could have read about this family for another 500 pages easily and not become disinterested.

A beautiful story with memorable characters (the character of Babo's daughter Bean would have to be one of the richest, most fully developed characters I have read in a long time - loved her!) - one to savour and read again.

April 15, 2011

Whatever You Love - Louise Doughty

Whatever You Love was named on the Orange Prize Long list for 2011 but I see it has not made it to the short list. I'm not sure how I feel about that - I think this book deserves a lot of praise and recognition but on the other hand I'm not sure that it is "short list worthy" (whatever that may entail!).

Whatever You Love is the story of Laura, her relationship with David and their two young children, Betty and Rees, and the moment her world comes crashing down when 9 year old Betty is killed after being hit by a car.

This book is intense in topic and feeling - the raw grief being demonstrated by Laura following Betty's sudden death felt empathic, gut wrenching and real. I have worked with families in a hospital setting following the sudden death of someone they loved and I don't think I have ever read a piece of fiction that more accurately captured that intense grief and pain that is expressed soon after the death.

The novel follows Laura trying to function in her day to day life after Betty's death. David had left the relationship some time ago (not in an amicable way) and has a new partner and baby - Laura is still grieving the loss of their relationship and "perfect family" when Betty's death occurs. Laura is also focused on gathering more information about the person who was driving the car that hit Betty and exacting some sort of revenge on them.

It was this part of the book that didn't ring as true for me. I could certainly empathise with and understand Laura's feeling of wanting to gain revenge for her loss - but the way her character went about it felt a little false - everything in the book up until this point had felt so true to life.

Aside from this disappointment I still found this book extremely moving and rich - not an easy read in terms of the feelings it can bring up but certainly a rewarding one.

April 11, 2011

When God was a Rabbit - Sarah Winman

When God Was A Rabbit is the type of book you would be drawn to just from its title alone - quirky, cute and a little bizarre! The title is clearly explained in the course of the story so I won't ruin it for you here...

When God Was A Rabbit is narrated by Elly and starts with her birth in 1968. Elly describes the key relationships in her life, with her parents, a beloved aunt, neighbours but the two most significant connections in her life are with her older brother, Joe and her childhood friend, Jenny Penny. It is through these two relationships especially that we see Elly's life evolve and develop.

This book is simply magic - the writing is authentic and intense - I felt a connection with Elly at every stage of her life's journey and I felt the writing and events described related well to Elly at that particular stage of her life. The story was believable while at the same time having a sense of being somehow just out of reach of normality.

Elly's is a family that goes through some pretty eventful experiences - at one point I remember thinking "not something else surely!" but having said this - nothing ever felt forced or written in just for the sake of it.

I realise I haven't given any real specific detail of the plot and that's because I truly think this is one of those books that you just have to experience and interpret for yourself. I will say that I absolutely loved it - it had me hooked from beginning to end.

April 05, 2011

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

A reading goal I have had for a few years now has finally been accomplished. This afternoon I finished A Suitable Boy after 3 months of (not constant) reading.

The question I am now left with is - was it worth it?

The short answer to that question would have to be "yes" but I think this book is so huge - in both length and depth that I feel my reading has not done it justice in so many ways. By this afternoon I just wanted to get the book read - I am looking forward to giving the space in my head over to some other reading now!

So many people rave about this book - and it is an incredible piece of writing - but as a novel for pleasure and entertainment it certainly wasn't perfect for me. I was in love with the beginning and end sections (although I have to say I didn't "like" the ending I could appreciate it - if that makes sense?!) but the overly large middle section did drag for me. The book is incredibly detailed (as you can imagine) and I certainly feel more informed about Indian politics and social history of this time period but I just wanted to engage further with the characters and although a certain amount of contextual information is required in order for this to happen I could have survived quite happily with a lot less!

An amazing piece of literature and I think when I have had some time to get some distance from it I will look back and be glad that I have read it.