Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer I would consider to be very subtle with her emotional insight. In her fourth novel, The Lowland, she ambitiously exposes readers to a complex moment in India's history, the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, and the ever painful aftermath revolutionary violence can have upon a family.

Brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra are only separated by fifteen months, and have always been mistaken for one another desptie Subhash, the eldest, being so reserved and cautious, while Udayan the youngest, is the more precocious counterpart. Both brilliant in school, it is during their twenties that Udayan grows frustrated with post-colonial politics, and slowly becomes involved with the Naxalites of Calcutta. While always aware of their differences, it is Udayan's political zeal that slowly pushes the brothers apart, especially once Subhash leaves India to study in Rhode Island. 

Impulsive and passionate, Udayan falls for quiet philosophy student Gauri, and is unceremoniously married to her, in spite of his parents wishes. Despite the hope typically implicit in expanding a family, the Mitra family grows segmented and cold with one another. Udayan crosses the line from political activist to enemy of the government, and begins to live a double life of secrets and unexplained absences, afraid even to confide in Subhash, whose temporary visa status as a student in the United States could be jeopardized. Tragedy strikes early in the novel, and the Mitra family as it remains shatters into both large and breathtakingly small pieces.

The novel is propelled forward by the amazing contrast between careful Subhash and daring Udayan; indeed, their early relationship with each other creates a lovely mirror for the two incredibly powerful ways that nations are either changed, or left to stagnate. The whole family must move on from unbelievable tragedy, and at first Subhash and Gauri believe that the only way to escape their grief is to flee India. They slowly come to realize that Udayan's absence can only eat at their hearts even more over time, especially while they struggle to make a place for themselves in the stark landscape of coastal Rhode Island.

I have always admired the truly beautiful way that Lahiri describes the powerful isolation inherent in leaving ones' home country behind, or in grieving. The Lowland is powerfully ambitious because it shows the multi-generational effects these massive life events can have upon identity. The loss of country as well as family rolls from one generation to the next, leaving empty rooms, empty houses, empty furniture, and broken hearts.

It's a beautiful novel, full of loss and emotion, brave in it's handling of three generations' differences and grieving. Lahiri calls all possible different familial roles into question, fearlessly discussing the ways we can fail others, even as we fail ourselves. It is a very sad book, but one I'm eager to recommend as it is so wonderfully crafted. It became available today, and don't forget that it is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize of 2013! If you haven't read my review for Ruth Ozeki's shortlisted novel A Tale For the Time Being, make sure you check it out.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

"Bring up the bodies!" the famous cry to bring the accused of London's Tower to stand trial, words uttered the days of Anne Boleyn's trial, as well as the cases of those accused of treason alongside her. Hilary Mantel won a second Man Booker in 2011 for this novel, steeping even greater anticipation upon a novel retelling such a dramatic turn of events; Henry VIII can not divorce a second wife yet would be rid of the tempestuous Anne Boleyn, despite the great lengths he resorted to in making her Queen of England. I will spare you more back story; yet Mantel breathes furious energy into a histoical moment that has become 'old hat' in modern fiction.

Mantel's characterizations are even more important in the follow up novel to Wolf Hall, as Anne's fiery personality goes under the microscope as the mousy Jane Seymour attracts the King's attentions. And so Thomas Cromwell is called in again, to make legal the parade of women it may take Henry to get a son, an heir to the throne. Tensions burn even hotter in this novel, and the pacing increases as Mantel tells this particular story with even more dialogue, relishing in the various personalities and their power-mongering ways. It makes for a more accessible read than Wolf Hall did, with less background and slow simmering, but all of the elegance in phrasing of the 
Master Cromwell shows his first signs of fear, as he knows that his loyalty to the King will not protect him from all of the ambitious courtiers, especially when he moves to put the grasping Anne aside the only resounding way possible: execution. 

The political witch hunt as Mantel portrays it may not have every last historical detail. It's an overwhelming chess board of names and titles, and I personally don't believe that Mantel's fiction loses any power or integrity by dropping some subtle elements of the history. Better to pace it just so, flesh out wholly what is represented, than become tedious, especially as so many have commented that they found Wolf Hall such work. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood

What a thrill for me, to have an opportunity so early in the existance of this blog to share an author I have never written about yet truly enjoy, with the release of her most recent book! Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer, who has truly changed the way I read. She effortlessly creates such complete dystopias, from the classic stand-alone novel The Handmaid's Tale, to the trilogy that Maddaddam finishes.

“There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too.”

Maddaddam is a spellbindingly deep dystopia. The world has been ravaged by a devastating virus created by the mastermind Crake, wiping out humanity with a flood-like efficiency to clear the way for Crake's newest bio-engineered creation, the dangerously naive "Crakers." The few human survivors of the plague are a ragtag ensemble of former bio-engineers, God's-Gardiners (a farming co-op that takes the idea of hippy culture to an almost Jainist level), and Pleeblanders. Threatened by the violence and untrustworthiness of other potential survivors and their weaponry, as well as the dangers of wildlife, including bioengineered creatures like liobams and Pigoons, the group of survivors that came together in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood are left trying to protect themselves and the Crakers, whose simplicity and youthfulness makes them such easy targets.

This installment is a delicious ode to the power of storytelling, as former Gardiner Toby regales the Crakers with the histories of the plague, as well as their own creation, continuing from where Oryx and Crake's Snowman left off. She is bound by their deeply religious understanding of how the world as they know it came to be, as well as their painful reverence of Crake and Oryx. How to tell them the damage Crake's machinations truly created, without upsetting their sensibilities? How to tell them anything, when they were created without concepts like ownership, writing, or even sexual control. The story telling becomes very mythological and darkly comic, as Toby is intermittently offering poignant reasonings for the very things we take so for granted as parts of 'human nature.'

There is so much beauty in the interactions between the survivors of the plague and the Crakers; even within the dark end-of-the-world circumstances, the community that has come together shares food, shelter, and attempts to move forward with love. Couples bond, women become pregnant, and despite a narrative delving so deep into such a tragic past, the tone of this trilogy's conclusion is one of bittersweet hope.

Margaret Atwood has concocted an incredibly full future setting, bursting with creative nunaces and details. Atwood's acknowledgements at the end of the novel include the following:

"Although ‘MaddAddam’ is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or bio-beings that do not already exist, are not under construction or are not possible in theory.”

Now isn't that terrifying! This novel is set within our own century, and if that doens't make you savor every fine detail of this trilogy, nothing will. When fiction can participate in conversations about future technologies and bio-engineering ethics so insightfully, it is our responsibility to take note, especially when presented to us so respectfully by the prolific Margaret Atwood!

Atwood is always razor sharp, but in Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam, her darkly comic insights pack the pages, offering so much for discussion. Maybe you'll think twice about what's in that wrinkle preventative skin cream you use nightly, or read more about the preservatives in your food. Not to be too morbid, but this is the effect good fiction should have. Techies, science enthusiasts, literature lovers, all can unite in this brilliant dystopia creation!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

I dearly appreciate the book recommendations my friends share with me, and that is what led me to Kate Atkinson's newest novel, where Ursula Todd dies, and gets multiple chances to relive her life in its entirety.

Born into an upper middle class family in 1910, in a well romanticized English countryside, Ursula experiences her first reincarnation almost immediately, as she is born strangled by her own cord. Immediately the birthing scene begins anew, but this time Ursula survives the birth. As her life continues, she dies again. After multiple restarts on her own chronology, the child Ursula begins to feel imminent threats to her core, the vibrations of where her previous life lead her to her death, attempting to guide her away.

It's a very interesting concept. Ursula is seemingly the agent of most of the changes that either extend her own, or her family members' lives. Atkinson's novel never offers a reason for Ursula's reincarnations. It's an interesting use of magical realism to show the drama within the seemingly simple choices we make, and how they can effect our nearest and dearest. There is wisdom and economy in the various tellings of this family's experiences as they navigate The Great War, coming of age, abuse, and World War II.

Atkinson paints a fabulously sentimental picture of English country life, family love, and the Civil Defense during The Blitz. It's a lovely novel, but not perfect. There's a certain climactic moment where it crosses into alternate history, and this felt cliche. Ursula's changes were so focused onto the Todd's chronology, their survival specifically. It felt overly dramatic to suddenly have Ursula trying to change the course of global history, when her siblings are born again and again into the same jobs, the same marriages. It just didn't seem consistent with the nature of the other changes that Ursula puts into motion during her reincarnations.

Some incarnations follow up with some characters, and others leave their lives hanging, seeking only to resolve an issue brought up by the most recently ended "life". In this manner, I can understand why certain reviewers are comparing the novel to our childhood 'choose your own adventure' reads. Atkinson panders to our consumptive tendencies to seek out stories that have very clearly defined resolution (ie, Ursula manages to avoid the man she had married and whom subjects her to domestic violence in a previous incarnation).

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed reading about the Todds; Atkinson really beautifully plays with the different dynamics their relationships (as siblings, parents and children) could evolve into throughout each new incarnation Ursula experiences. The narrative does not suffer from a feeling of repetition, either. Every new start just added a new layer of familiarity and emotional connectivity to the family.

I feel like Life After Life is a very approachable novel due to its historical content and sensitivity for family relationships, and would be an enjoyable read for book club discussion. It just betrayed itself by stepping a little too far into the realm of alternate history.