This week I have asked students to write short introductions to books that they have found really striking from their summer reading. We go from Canada to New Zealand, we have short stories, novels and poetry, texts in English and texts in translation – such a range to inspire readers.
The Doll’s Alphabet
Perhaps the most interesting and unsettling book I read over the summer was The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova. This collection of short stories contains some of the most haunting yet fascinating images and ideas I have ever read; Grudova could quickly capture the attention of any reader. The magical realism throughout the collection reimagines several folk and fairy tales. In ‘Notes from a Spider’, a half-man half-spider takes the city by storm and falls in love with a sewing machine, but I don’t want to spoil the surreal outcome of that relationship. Some of these stories could be seen to have a social relevance: in ‘The Mouse Queen’, a husband leaves his wife and their two children to pursue his own dreams, seeing her as damaged goods. Yet, once you factor in the dead woman in an organ and a shapeshifting wolf, any easy meaning is rapidly overshadowed. Feminist consciousness is discussed in ‘Unstitching’, although you have to recover from the shock of seeing women ‘unstitch’ themselves, as ‘clothes, skin and hair fell out from [them] like the peeled rind of a fruit’, to see it. The motifs of sewing machines, pregnancy and dolls are carried throughout the text, making for a disturbing read. It couldn’t be said that Grudova’s stories are those that will get adrenaline running but they certainly stain your mind. I don’t think I can ever look at a sewing machine the same way again.
Having only developed an interest recently, some may call me a late developer in the realm of confessional poetry. This is the poetry where one finds oneself staring at objects with brooding eyes, trying to contain barrages of feelings which have been evoked by lines as tender as
‘Dying is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.’
(‘Lady Lazarus’, Sylvia Plath)
In the search for more emotional provocation, I stumbled across The Bell Jar, Plath’s only novel and an excellent one at that. It is a harrowing roman à clef dealing with issues of despair, depression and disassociation. I could write pages on that book alone, but instead I’ll focus on how it led me to a similar novel. I found By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart to be nothing short of a masterpiece. There is an air of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in the way in which the reader has to do piece together information from a text that can be described as prose mixed with poetry. Smart achieves an almost apotheotic love by subtly comparing herself to legendary heroes such as Daphne. The novel can be challenging at times, but the reader is rewarded with vibrant imagery, intriguing conceptions of love and sorrowful endings.
The wide variety of different characters in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth made the book an enjoyable and effortless read. The plot, however, did not come to the satisfying end that I expected but left me wanting more. Smith herself described the book as ‘calamitous’ and admitted that the ending could ‘do with some touching up’. Nonetheless the book itself contained engaging scenes that tackle the plethora of cultures that make up the ‘mixing pot’ of Willesden. Zadie Smith described Willesden Green as an ‘extremely successful’ example of how people of different ethnicities and beliefs can live, work and study together. She spoke about how kids of every colour would walk to school and bond with one another in a way that is portrayed through the characters of the book. In the novel, the Iqbal and Jones children do much the same thing. Her writing kept me hooked until the end despite some confusing and often absurd parts of the plot. The writing was touching and funny and although I didn’t particularly connect with any of the characters, I was invested in their own individual journeys throughout the book. This is perhaps because the outcome of most events within the book has a habit of going wrong. Without spoiling what happens, I think the book expertly covers how environment plays a vital part in the development of people’s relationships with one another. Zadie Smith also tackles the difficulties of history and devotion to tradition that immigrants face in modern society.
War and Peace
Never before have I read a book of which I had such high expectations. My first taste of Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, made a deep impression on me and motivated me to read more Tolstoy. Although Ivan Ilyich is a very short story, it introduced me to aspects of the human condition that I had never before considered. War and Peace is very long, which may put many readers off. I was undeterred and decided to re-enter the world of Russian fiction and history. This remarkable story is set in the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and in the setting of the extraordinary opulence of aristocratic life in the highest classes of Russian society. As war ensues, Tolstoy depicts the extreme suffering of both French and Russian soldiers, at mercy of battles with extreme bloodshed and the unforgiving Russian winter.
The relationship between a few Russian aristocratic families evolves and collides, resulting in death, love, marriage as well as the collapse and growth of fortunes. Tolstoy develops each character with deep emotional individuality. Throughout the novel, and especially in the epilogue, Tolstoy dips into historical and philosophical narratives, which affect the reader’s appreciation of not only the novel but the Napoleonic Wars and history itself. He presents a view very different from Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man theory’, which states that history is shaped by the will of great men. Tolstoy argues that no individual is more important than another in shaping history, rather that each individual is inexorably pushed along by the tides of fate in the river of time. However, despite the lavish presentation of Russian high society, that society’s complete disregard for the serfs does not conform with modern moral standards.
We Germans by Alexander Starritt intricately unpicks the gritty journey that an otherwise perfectly ordinary young man makes through the desolate tundra of the Soviet Union as he tries to rejoin his regiment and return home after the failed invasion of Russia in 1944. What makes this novel so fascinating is Starritt’s success in sensitively and seamlessly alternating between the present day and the 1940s. The result is a perfect blend of war guilt, remorse and acceptance in fewer than 200 pages. I found myself, at points, sympathising with the protagonist, who looks only to survive and resume his studies but, in the same breath, also condemning him for some of the unspeakable crimes he commits in the name of these goals. This ambiguity is also presented in the modern day through Callum, the protagonist’s grandson, and his efforts, and the efforts of so many other future generations of Germans, to come to terms with what their ancestors did. Duty and loyalty take centre stage at the novel’s exciting climax as both the reader and the protagonist come to realise that guilt is a burden that everyone, no matter their role, has to shoulder.
The Bone People
The Bone People by Keri Hulme, set on the coast of New Zealand, explores the unorthodox trinity of three individuals moulded by completely different personal circumstances and cultures. We are first introduced to Kerewin, a part Maori part European woman adrift from her family and the outside world, isolated within the confines of her tower by the sea. One night she is disrupted by Simon, a mute, yet unconventionally charming boy, who is rarely able to explain himself because of his impediment. This in turn leads to the introduction of Joe, a deeply troubled Maori man with a past full of pain, that causes him to tread an incredibly fine line between great affection and brutality towards Simon. Hulme as a result refuses to shy away from taboo topics such as abuse, instead taking the approach to sympathise with Joe and write this element as more of a temporary character fault than a defining feature of his personality, a controversial decision. Ultimately however, the main thrust of The Bone People is the utopian vision of Maori and Western unity that Hulme and many others strive for, and despite each character being somewhat of an outsider, Hulme expertly knots them together with authentic and genuinely heartfelt moments to create a sort of patchwork family, a metaphor for the hope of unity in New Zealand.
And here, finally, is my contribution:
The Underground Railroad
Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel was recently adapted for TV and released as a series on Amazon. It had some brilliant reviews – ‘extraordinary’, ‘magical’, virtuosic’ were adjectives used. Such adjectives could also be applied to the original novel, without which the series could never have been made. Whitehead’s central device is to make the underground railroad, a network of activists and sympathisers who smuggled slaves out of the southern American states to freedom, into a real, chugging, impossible network of engines and box cars running between secret stations through tunnels hewn out of the subterranean rock. The magical element is juxtaposed with the brutal reality of slavery, beginning on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Young independently minded Cora, impelled by memories of her mother who abandoned her in order to escape slavery, embarks on the impossible journey. The railroad takes her to different states, whereby Whitehead explores the different ways in which different states treated slaves and runaway slaves, including the apparently enlightened North Carolina. Throughout, her journey is propelled by the chasing slave catcher Ridgeway, an avenging nemesis. It is also propelled, though, by Cora’s spirit and courage, a young woman of extraordinary resilience, and Whitehead leads the reader towards a possibility of hope. It’s a novel which explores the fractured history of America, but in that also goes wider, assessing the history shared too by Britain and Europe.
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Harlem Shuffle has just been released. He discusses it here.