I have read a handful of books recently that I haven’t written up properly here; I thought I would say at least a little bit about them before my impressions fade away.
I chose John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies for airplane reading on my trip to London. This was a good choice even though (or possibly because) it is the least good Le Carré novel I have read so far. By this I mean I basically enjoyed it, but it was less intense and intricate than the others and so it didn’t matter that much that I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions. Alternatively, it is a much better novel than I realized because I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions! In either case, I felt indifferent enough to it by the time I finished it that I left in my hotel room when I headed up to Leicester. (I hope it ended up with another reader and not in a recycling bin!)
The other book I packed in my travel bag was Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, because I am teaching it for the first time in the fall and wanted to reread it before I reread it yet again specifically for class preparation. I wouldn’t necessarily warn you against reading this novel while alone in hotel rooms with creaky floors, but I will say that there are down sides to doing that! When I read this novel for the first time, I struggled with whether the novel was, as some critics claim, a feminist novel that critiques the misogynistic violence it depicts:
In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny.
This time, primed by Megan Abbott’s introduction and also because I now know the basic elements of the story and so I could pay less attention to the crimes and more to their presentation, I felt more confident that we are positioned critically in relation to Dix from early on, that we are not just not voyeuristic if horrified spectators to his crimes (and in fact, one subtle and clever feature of the novel is precisely that we don’t witness his crimes, thus limiting the kind of prurience other crime novels and especially TV shows often show towards dead and violated women). The women’s roles too, this time, seemed artfully subversive rather than simply clever plot twists. Still, I think there’s a debate to be had about what exactly Hughes does with her noir elements, and I look forward to having that discussion with my class.
One of the books I bought in London was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. I follow Harrison on Twitter and typically find her observations interesting, so I paid attention when the book came out and thought it sounded interesting, plus it got rave reviews–a phenomenon I should surely be immune to by now but am not. And so when I spotted it in the London Review Book Shop, I decided to get it. I’m not sorry: I actually thought it was quite good–gripping, very atmospheric, and beautifully written. But I didn’t think it was “a masterpiece,” “astonishing,” or “startling” (as per the front cover). In fact, when I got to the end I felt uncertain what all the parts, individually successful as they were, added up to, which made me think I had missed or lost an important unifying idea along the way–maybe my fault, maybe the novel’s fault, or some of both perhaps. Here’s a sample of the scene setting that for me was the novel’s strongest aspect:
On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.
Like Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, All Among the Barley is a novel full of rich details of country life and especially of farming at a highly particularized moment in English history. While Malik’s characters work hard, their landscape is ultimately, and quite literally, a supportive one. Harrison’s characters, in contrast, though they too make their living from the land, seem menaced by it or in tension with it–the whole atmosphere of her book is of implicit threat, as both social and political changes make the certain routines of crops and harvests seem fraught and precarious.
At a block party recently I mentioned to a neighbor that I was curious about Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, so she kindly lent me her copy. I read it with interest at first but found my attention flagging. It too, in its own way, is a very atmospheric novel, but there didn’t seem to be much more to the novel than atmosphere: not much happens, even in the retrospective spy story that sounds as if it should be suspenseful and, if not action packed, at least eventful. There are events, but they always seemed strangely at a distance; I found Ondaatje’s style portentous, always promising but deferring some deeper meaning that I didn’t think was ever actually delivered. I read The English Patient years ago and I remember liking it, but that was in the dark days Before Blogging, so I can’t go back to an old post to see what I liked about it. A bit of Twitter discussion suggests Ondaatje is a divisive writer. I can see why, given how self-conscious his style is. I liked a lot of moments. One near the end suggested to me the principle the novel itself may be built on:
We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken–Rachel, the Wren, and I, a Stitch–sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete, ignored like the sea pea on those mined beaches during the war.
I guess I wanted a story held more firmly together, with more visible shape and purpose.
Finally, I just finished reading Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for my book club. This novel is, of course, a Canadian classic, and I think I must have read it before, though I did not have any specific memory of it. It is a very powerful novel, and a very artful one as well. It is also a depressingly timely one: so much of the racism and anger directed at Japanese Canadians, vilified and scapegoated in the 1940s, is echoed in current anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially but certainly not exclusively in the United States right now. “Which year should we choose for our healing?” Naomi asks, reading through her aunt’s archive of documents about “Canadians of Japanese origin who were expelled from British Columbia in 1941 and are still debarred from returning to their homes.” “Restrictions against us are removed on April Fool’s Day, 1949,” she notes,
But the “old sores” remain. In time the wounds will close and the scabs drop off the healing skin. Till then, I can read these newspaper clippings, I can tell myself the facts. I can remember since Aunt Emily insists that I must and release the flood gates one by one. I can cry for the flutes that have cracked in the dryness and cry for the people who no longer sing. I can cry for Obasan who has turned to stone. But what then? . . .
What’s is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme.
“Nothing but the lowest motives of greed, selfishness and hatred have been brought forward to defend these disgraceful Orders,” the Globe and Mail noted. Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speech-making and story-telling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways? Is there evidence for optimism?
Reading this novel immediately after the terrible shooting in El Paso, which was motivated by racism, xenophobia, and hatred, it was hard to summon up much optimism, but Obasan itself surely stands as a testament to the power of story-telling: Kerri Sakamoto’s introduction notes that it “touched a nation’s conscience and gave a voice to a movement to redress the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians during World War II.” There is at least some room for hope, Naomi concludes: “This body of grief is not fit for human habitation … the song of mourning is not a lifelong song.” Obasan provokes sorrow and anger and shame, but at least it closes with tenderness: “How gentle the colours of rain.”