Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Lives of Others By Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others

Neel Mukherjee

ISBN: 978-0-701-18629-6

It’s not beyond the realms of reasonableness, when sitting down to a tale of over 500 pages, to prepare to settle into a tale of depth, complexity and expansiveness. But before you do so with this book, bookmark the family tree in the fly pages; you will need it throughout; I certainly did.

A simple tale of three generations of family, all living under one roof. But not a simple tale at all; there is scheming, there are secrets, and there is a mix of lifestyles, both traditional and contemporary and finally there is a time span that moves from the time just after the World War Two to the 1970’s. Oh, and add blame into the mix too!

The story shifts in your hands. Seamlessly, it moves between each micro family, telling us of the trials and tribulations of each. Some appear to run with an iron rod by the man of the family, but  the reality shows that quietly, the women rule their husbands, parents, in-laws and, of course, the servants. The timeline will also move without any jarring of the brain. When we are transported back to the origins of the family and their history, it is a logical time to do so and relevant rather than just being a page filler.

And then, right in the middle, comes the contra tale. We are taken, still in a seamless fashion to another world, another aspect of Bengal life that is likely to strike a chord with everyone who has witnessed or has knowledge of the struggle of the poorest to better their lot. So, now the story is moving between family, history, and now ideology. As the story progresses to its tumbling somewhat inevitable conclusion, the real character of each of the protagonists comes to the fore, given all manner of emotion when they reach the point where we leave them by the author, but offering no surprise to the reader. I don’t mean that the end has been given away too early, the characters are so under your skin by the end that there seems to be only one logical outcome for each of them; the sign of good writing.

I didn’t like any one of the characters, if fact I could quite happily punch some of them on the nose; some for being ugly in character, some for their naivety. Some, I wanted to shake, to rouse from their apathy. Others I just didn’t understand. But that, I think, was the whole point of the book. I have been transported into a whole way of life that is a world apart from the western world, where life was such a more comfortable place to be. This is not a tale where we are asked to suspend disbelief, more on an insight into a world where we would not necessarily like to be.

Would I read this book again? Probably not. Not because it’s badly written, it is very well written, and not because of its tone; it does have a ‘Pandora’s Box’ feel to it, but because I simply didn’t enjoy having to endure the indignities and pain that this very clever book dragged me into. The only way I can think to remove myself from those difficult times was to turn the last page. Be prepared!    

Sunday, 11 January 2015

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler

This blog is specifically for comment on the Man Booker Prize for fiction, based in the U.K. There are, at the moment, six shortlisted books each year, and as I read them, I will offer my review, without revealing the plot! I want to talk about the readability, style and the amount of quality reading to be enjoyed (or not!) I have no affiliation to anybody, so my comments are without outside influence. enjoy my thoughts, and please feel free to comment...

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN: 9781781254967

Starting a story in the middle is a confusing thing to do; both for the person telling the tale and certainly for the person hearing it for the first time. It requires an immediate concentration of the mind, with an adroitness of imagination to keep up with an explanation of something where you have no idea of context. Then, half way through the tale, the penny drops and everything makes sense. So it is with this story.

We are told at the beginning that the story is not starting at the start, so a certain amount of readiness helps move the story along. However, there is an equal amount of head scratching as you try and keep up. Then, half way down a page, a good way into the book, a single sentence, almost as an aside, makes all that has gone before make logical, reasonable, and above all, understandable. I can imagine audible calls of ‘ahhh’ around the reading rooms of the world as we all reach this point. After that, it should become a straight forward tale. But it isn’t as it tackles a subject that is certainly new to me and a first for the shortlist of the ‘Man Booker’ prize for literature. There is no spoiler in this blog, so I’ll not speak of that revelation but it will become a source of familiarity to lots of English readers of a certain age.

Once the ‘cat is out of the bag’, a different type of interest is invoked, an interest in how the conclusion is reached, if indeed there is a conclusion. Was it a satisfactory end? I don’t think so, but then I’m not sure such an end could ever be suitably imagined.  That is, if it all came from the author’s imagination in the first place. There is an authoritative manner in which the prose is carried forward that suggests more than an imaginative mind; an element of experience in the subject comes through. Either that or a very fertile mind that makes me want to read more from this splendid author.

The book itself is a page turner; well written, at a pace to keep the reader wanting more. Considering the content, there is little political bias, which is a feat in itself. During the course of the tale, we learn to like and dislike each of the characters, and even the main protagonist, writing in the first person, puts herself up for us to judge. During the tale, I changed my mind about her several times, the only constant was that I was fully engaged with what she was trying to do now. Her history, along with other members of her family swing between selfish and caring, ending with...well, you will have to read it to discover what happens, why it happened, and everything in between.

I didn’t think I would enjoy it when I first picked it up, but it did make me late to bed two nights running, and that can only be a good thing. Well worth sticking with, I’ll listen out for your ‘ahhh’!