Monday, October 22, 2018

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan


That was the word that kept coming to my mind in the first half of Esi Edugyan's Booker Prize nominated novel Washington Black.  This is the first time I've ever read a novel set in the West Indies where I felt like I was there.  And everything made sense.   And I could see it in my mind (which happens rarely when I read) and I could feel the heat and I could sense the fear.  

And when the story moved on to the Artic and Canada I felt the same way. She was able to evoke the cold and the blinding snow and the sense of the vastness. 

It was a delight to my senses. 

The plot was pretty good too.  Washington Black, a slave born on the plantation Faith in Barbados, is the eponymous title character of this novel.  As a young boy he is chosen to become the personal servant and assistant to the brother of the plantation owner, whom he is invited to call Titch. Titch is an early 19th century scientist who, at that moment, is interested in building a balloon that can cross the Atlantic. Through a series of events that I feel no need to spoil, Titch and Washington (or Wash, as he is called) end up escaping Barbados in the balloon and embarking on a series of adventures that take them all the way to the Artic.

But is Titch really the enlightened fellow that we would like him to be or is he just using Wash?   And why can't Wash move on and forget about Titch after they part ways?  These are the questions posed in the second half of the novel.  The second half is much less evocative (or maybe I've just read too many novels set in London) but is where Wash, still young but an adult, begins to ask these questions.   And we the reader ask them too.  And if you are like me you have arguments with yourself and with Edugyan about it. 

This is a novel of ideas and the questions that are raised are good questions, ones that I'll be thinking about for a while.   The characters are well drawn.  She doesn't answer all of our questions about them but gives us enough to see them and understand them and care about what happens to them.

I will say that the plot of the novel does rely on us believing a number of coincidences.  (All novels rely on coincidence to move the plot along; a great writer makes us forget that).  A few times I rolled my eyes.  But then I shrugged and moved on - they didn't really affect my enjoyment. 

My only complaint about the entire novel is the very last paragraph.   I won't say too much other than that I like my novels with definitive endings that I understand.   But up until that last paragraph, I was hooked. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Warlight and The Witch Elm

I blame the Senate Judiciary Committee.


After the last few weeks of focusing on the Senate Judiciary Committee and their Supreme Court confirmation hearings I was just not in the mood to read a novel in which a white youth can't be bothered to see the world through anybody else's eyes.  I definitely wasn't in the mood to read TWO novels with that kind of protagonist.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje, and The Witch Elm by Tana French, are two novels that couldn't be more different.  Warlight is the story of a boy growing up in post-World War II London.  His parents leave he and his sister for a year, ostensibly to travel to the other side of the world due to his father's job.  The people that they are left with are unusual to say the least and it becomes clear very soon that the parents have lied to the children and there is more going on than meets the eye.

The Witch Elm is a crime novel in which the protagonist is beaten to a pulp in the first fifty pages by two burglars, causing a loss of memory.  This becomes important when skeletal remains are found and the protagonist can't remember details that might lead to the discovery of who killed the victim.

But despite their differences, they seemed to have basically the same premise.  The male protagonist  is so self-centered that he spends his youth oblivious to what is going on around him.  In Warlight, Nathaniel can't even be bothered to know the real names of the adults who are ostensibly in charge of him.   Ostensibly he can't remember them years later because he was so traumatized by his youth. 

Oh c'mon.

In The Witch Elm, Toby remembers his teen years at school as being a pleasant time where people occasionally play pranks on each other.  He is shocked to learn, years later, that others have memories of bullying and sexual assault.   HE doesn't remember that.

Oh c'mon. 

I rapidly lost interest in both of these characters.  I found myself utterly bored by Nathaniel's story.   But it's a short novel so I finished it.  I was annoyed by Toby and his white male privilege from the first few pages of The Witch Elm and rapidly found that I didn't care what happened to him.   I kept reading because, up until now, I have loved Tana French's books.  It never improved.  I was never shocked (or even surprised).  Even her writing style in this novel annoyed me - far too much exposition.

So all in all, I didn't care for either book and I can't recommend either one.  Especially after the last few weeks and the Senate Judiciary Committee.  

Monday, October 8, 2018

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

The thing about time is that it changes everything and nothing.  Juliet Armstrong, the main character in Kate Atkinson's new novel Transcription, considers this as she dies.  Juliet is hit by a car while crossing a street in 1981 after a Shostakovich. In her dying moments, she remembers attending the 1942 premier of the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony at the Royal Albert Hall while World War II was being fought:
The Russians had been their enemies and then they were their allies, and then they were enemies again.  The Germans the same -- the great enemy, the worst of all of them, and now they were our friends, one of the mainstays of Europe.  It was all such a waste of breath.  War and peace.  Peace and war.  It would go on forever without end. 
Atkinson opens the novel with Juliet's death in 1981.  But time in an Atkinson novel doesn't always run in a straightforward linear fashion.  Transcription is no different. We are immediately transported back to 1950, when not-quite-30 year-old Juliet is a producer of children's radio programming for the BBC, and then even further back to 1940 when a very young Juliet is recruited to work for MI5, Britain's domestic counter intelligence agency.

Juliet, still recovering from her mother's death, doesn't particularly like the man who interviews her for the MI5 job and doesn't seem to particularly care if she gets the job.  The answers she gives to many of his questions are out-and-out lies mostly because she doesn't think it is any of his business but partly because hiding the truth seems to come naturally to her.
Later she learned that Miles Merton (for that was his entire name) knew everything about her - more than she knew herself - including every lie and half-truth she told him at the interview. It didn't seem to matter. In fact, she suspected that it helped in some way.
Being able to lie with a straight face is a good talent for a spy, but at first Juliet is not given any spying duties.  Working for MI5 may sound exciting but Juliet's principal job is typing transcripts of meetings of "fifth columnists" - British citizens sympathetic to the Nazis - whom Juliet and her MI5 team refer to as the "neighbors." (The fifth columnists meet in a flat in Pimlico while MI5 is right next door listening to everything they say.) Juliet makes tea, cleans things and types.  She wants to do more.  She is also somewhat enamored of her boss, Perry Gibbons, whom everyone except Juliet seems to know is gay. The lynchpin of the operation is an MI5 operative named Godfrey Toby.   It is when 1950's Juliet runs into Godfrey Toby on a London street, and he pretends not to know her, that she begins to think back about that operation and her life during the war.  Then she receives a mysterious message warning her that she will "pay" for what she did.  What exactly did she do?

Atkinson has written an old fashioned spy novel, combined with a 1950's paranoid thriller all wrapped up in a post-modern novel. (Actually, not being an English major I have no idea if post-modernism is the correct term, but it seems right.) 

In some ways the novel is an homage to John Le Carre and his George Smiley novels.  Godfrey Toby even looks a bit like Smiley:
It was him, she knew it was him.  The same (somewhat portly) figure, the bland, owlish face, the tortoiseshell spectacles, the old trilby.
As George Smiley is breathtakingly ordinary, so is Godfrey Toby.
Juliet used to think that someone who seemed as ordinary as Godfrey Toby must be harboring a secret -- a thrilling past, a dreadful tragedy -- but as time had gone by she'd realized that being ordinary was his secret.  It was the best disguise of all really, wasn't it?  
In some ways, the novel reminded me a bit of the (unfortunately cancelled) BBC television show The Hour:  a bright, woman producer dealing with red tape and bureaucracy and sexism of the BBC during the paranoid 1950's.

But, as with all Atkinson novels, this novel is its own unique self and not a replica of anyone else's work. This is, as with Atkingson's other novels, a novel of ideas.  The "true self" is a theme of this novel.  Not just Juliet's true self but also the other people that Juliet encounters during her life.   In the 1950s Juliet thinks about this:
She fingered the strand of pearls at her neck.  Inside each pearl there was a little piece of grit.  That was the true self of the pearl, wasn't it?  The beauty of the pearl was just the poor oyster trying to protect itself.  From the grit.  From the truth. 
Also, as with other Atkinson novels, this is a novel about women and how they must deal with a world in which they must often hide their true selves.  Especially from their bosses, who are inevitably men.  Here, Juliet is listening to Perry, her boss, ramble on:
A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. "Very nicely put, sir," she said.
Juliet is never what she seems and she constantly reminds herself that means no one else is what they seem.  She has a "long-held belief that appearances were invariably deceptive". 

In the 1940's Juliet is given the opportunity to take on false identities and actually be a "spy" for a short time as part of one of Perry Gibbons' operations.  As "Iris Carter-Jenkins" Juliet is asked to infiltrate a right wing group.  As "Madge Wilson" Juliet pretends to be a bereaved sister. Juliet is a natural at this but in the 1950's, looking back, she thinks that she has been "too many people"  and wonders about her true self:
And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the "real" Juliet.  But then, what constituted real?  Wasn't everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?
As a snapshot of life in two of Britain's oldest establishments (MI5 and the BBC) and a snapshot of life during the war and immediately after the war, this is a fascinating novel.  I did think, however, that the plot slightly got away from Atkinson at the very end..  

However, all in all, I greatly enjoyed this novel.  For me, the best parts (as with all Kate Atkinson novels) were the touches of humor that Atkinson brought to an otherwise serious story.  Juliet's private thoughts can be very funny.  For instance, here is  the first time that Juliet eats a lobster and is instructed to pull the legs off and suck out the meat:
Despite some reluctance, she followed his instructions.  After all, it seemed a shame to be boiled alive for nothing.
Or Atkinson's description of the miniature schnauzer, Lily, when one of the MI5 bosses informs Juliet that the dog is to be looked after by Juliet until her owner returns:
The dog, which had been gazing uneasily up at Oliver Alleyne, now turned its attention to Juliet. She hadn't realized that a dog could look doubtful.
Any Kate Atkinson novel is to be savored for the writing and this one is no different.