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Friday, 26 August 2011

Delirium by Laura Restrepo


Delirium is one of those books where I just looked at the blurb and thought 'yes, this will be good', because the premise is really striking. A man goes on a business trip for three days and in the time that he's gone his wife goes mad, so he decides to delve into her past, to see what could have caused it. Did the book live up to the possibilities that the premise presented? I would say mostly.
Delirium's narrative structure is quite odd at first, as it switches between four different narratives. There's Aguilar, the husband, who recounts his desperate attempts to find out what happened while he was away and the effects that his wife Agustina's madness have on home life; there's Midas, a former lover of Agustina's and a drug dealer, who recounts his downfall and the inadvertent effects that he and Agustina have on each other; there's Agustina's fragmented memories of her childhood; and finally there's a third person narrative telling the story of Agustina's grandparents Nicholas and Blanca, essentially showing that madness could be hereditary. Together, these four narratives create the story of a family that is entrenched in lies and constricted by the 'necessary' behaviours of an upper class that is slowly dying out. To be honest, I think that the narrative about the grandparents could have been cut, because, despite the fact that it is interesting to read, it doesn't really add anything to the story apart from a confirmation of what the reader could figure out for himself: that Agustina's family are a bunch of screwed up people. Overall, it's a very well-written and engaging storyline.
But, of course, a good plot isn't the only thing necessary for a book to work. The characters here are similarly well-written, with such variant personalities as Agustina who oscillates between carefree sanity and various violent expressions of insanity, Midas who starts as a cocksure materialist and who eventually becomes a ruined man and Bichi, Agustina's younger brother, who is constantly berated and beaten by his father for not being enough of a man. The only two characters whose characterisation I wasn't fond of were those of Aguilar and Aunt Sofi, for very different reasons. In Aguilar's case, there really wasn't anything to make him especially interesting; this may be down to his being surrounded by other characters who are more obviously interesting, but my personal feeling is that he would still be uninteresting no matter who was in the rest of the cast. My problem with Aunt Sofi, who comes to help Aguilar care for Agustina, was that I didn't really feel that her past and present selves matched up quite right: to me the past Sofi, with her real sense of sexuality and sensuality, felt like a different character to the present Sofi, who could be any grandmother you care to think of; I know that people do change as they age, but it felt like too much change in the context.
My only real problem with this was the ending. Skip to the end if you want to avoid spoilers, should you decide to read this. My problem with the ending was that she just gets better. I can understand that she might have gotten better after a long period of therapy and whatnot, but up until she got better, she had been getting progressively worse and progressively more deranged. So to suddenly just be better seemed a bit of a cop-out to be honest.

So overall, a very strong piece of literature, but I'm still a bit annoyed by the abrupt nature of the ending. I'd still recommend it though, despite its flaws. 3.5/5

Next review: Stranded by Esther Tusquets.

Signing off, 
Nisa.  

Battles in the Desert & Other Stories by Jose Emilio Pacheco

Battles in the Desert & Other Stories is a short story collection, and one of the many Latin American books that I've had to read for university this year. This one is slightly different in that there's no magical realism in sight. Is this a good or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.
So, let's start with the good. The lack of magical realism gives this a grittier, more realistic edge which can be sorely lacking in novels with magical realism (anyone who has seen the film version of Like Water For Chocolate will know exactly what I mean). Instead, the stories in this collection include more references to everyday life and the culture of Mexico.
The problem with the lack of magical realism is probably the reason why magical realism is so often used: magical realism is memorable. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work may not be my cup of tea, but I certainly remember the girl who was whisked up to heaven along with her aunt's washing in One Hundred Years of Solitude; the film of Like Water For Chocolate may be very silly with its' unusually flammable/combustible surroundings, but you don't forget it. So if you're going to write something that deliberately avoids a narrative technique as eye-catching as this one, the everyday occurrences have got to be written in an engaging and sympathetic way. In this case, that was something Pacheco did not achieve. Don't get me wrong, the stories aren't badly written, I just can't really remember them. Considering that this is only the day after I finished reading this and it isn't a long book, that's really rather damning in my eyes. I think another problem that makes these stories generally unmemorable is that they all seem to be very similar to one another: they are all narrated from the points of view of pubescent or young adolescent boys, many of them concern love or at least the immature view of love that the narrators have of it and there seems to be a running criticism of Mexican politics and the gap between rich and poor throughout. The last point is a particularly annoying one for me, as I can see so much potential in it: personally, I would have loved to read stories about Mexican or Latin American politics in their literature, but these stories just seem to have tacked on the political message in the background so that it doesn't actually interfere with the plots; either make a really strong point about the politics of the day or cut out the political stuff entirely, don't just let it linger awkwardly in the background.

To be honest, this is one of those reviews where I can't really say much about it simply because it didn't leave enough of an impression. Not bad writing, but not particularly memorable either. 2.5/5

Next review: Delirium by Laura Restrepo.

Signing off, 
Nisa.  

Friday, 12 August 2011

Love is a Solitary Game by Esther Tusquets

Warning: This review contains spoilers for The Same Sea as Every Summer, as this is a kind of sequel.

So, as I said in the warning, Love is a Solitary Game is sort of a follow-up to The Same Sea as Every Summer. How are they similar? In two main ways: the love affair that the story is based around and the character of Clara.
I'll start with Clara, as I may as well get the spoilers over and done with. From the description that the reader is given of Clara, I came to the conclusion that this was the same Clara as the Clara in the other Esther Tusquet novel that I've read. In this case she's now living with her parents after her unnamed lover betrayed her at the end of The Same Sea as Every Summer. To be honest, the change of scenery hasn't done her any good.
The other similarity is the focus on the love affair between a dissatisfied housewife, named Elia, and a university student. In this case, however, Clara does not play the part of the younger lover, much as she would like to be. No, in this case the younger lover is a poet named Ricardo. To be honest, I never knew how to feel about this love affair. On the one hand, they do seem to get along well and, while the love affair is undoubtedly only a summer fling, it does seem to be largely harmonious. That is until one considers Clara's position in all this. She is quite obviously in love with Elia and quite obviously finds Ricardo utterly repulsive, despite acting as his confidante, so to consider this pairing is utterly bewildering to her. It's made even worse by Ricardo giving her a blow-by-blow account of the affair. The climactic scene at the end of the novel makes this situation dip to possibly the lowest of lows; I shan't spoil the ending, but suffice to say that it nearly made me physically ill and is thus a testament both to the absolute lack of compassion in Ricardo and Tusquet's writing ability.
Speaking of the writing, it is once again very dreamy and languid in tone which works very well in building up atmosphere, whether it be dread or something more positive. There are a lot more obviously erotic scenes in this than in The Same Sea as Every Summer, which are, thankfully, very tastefully written.

This is another fantastic effort from Tusquet, which makes me immensely glad I got them, considering their obscure nature. This was more uncomfortable than her previous novel, but no less interesting and considering the increased part afforded to Clara, I'm looking forward to reading her next, and last, entry into this loose trilogy. 4/5

Next review: Battles in the Desert and Other Stories by Jose Emilio Pacheco.

Signing off,
Nisa.

P.S.
If you're wondering why I suddenly have Internet, I'm visiting home for the weekend.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Another spell away without internet

Moving in to my new house near my university for a couple weeks, because I've got work experience up in London (in the Orion Publishing House, which I'm absolutely ecstatic about). Unfortunately, because we've only just started the actual renting part, we have no Internet. This means that I'll employ a similar system as I did while I was on holiday, writing the reviews as I finish the books that I'm on, then posting them as soon as I get an Internet connection again.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Having read One Hundred Years of Solitude last year, as I mentioned in my last review, I had some ideas or expectations of what I could find in Of Love and Other Demons. These expectations turned out to be more or less accurate, but to be honest I partly wish they hadn't been.

So the story in Of Love and Other Demons is essentially that of a girl named Sierva Maria, who is locked up in a convent after her father is convinced that she has been possessed by demons after she is bitten by a rabid dog. During her time at the convent she is left in the care of Father Cayetano Delaura, who quickly falls in love with her which leads to their ultimately tragic fate. To be honest, I found this a bit too miserable. Love affairs are thwarted everywhere, married couples end up despising one another, children are neglected or spurned completely and a girl is subjected to a horrific fate because she is different and the Church can't see that as anything other than demonic possession. It seems more like a tirade about intolerance and the dangers of religious fanaticism, instead of a story of a tragic love story. To be fair, the writing is solid and it is very quick and easy to read.
There are several characters who make a fairly important impact on the story, which surprised me considering that this is only about 140 pages long. There's Sierva Maria's parents, an apathetic man who makes a few attempts to bond with his daughter but ultimately sinks back into his solitude and an unlikeable woman who despises her daughter for looking like her father. There's Abrenuncio, the only sane man in the story, who is the only doctor content with the fact that Sierva Maria won't catch rabies. There's the Bishop, who decides that Delaura is capable of exorcism and the Abbess who is convinced that every bit of bad luck or unusual circumstances is because of Sierva Maria. The only character who failed to have a real impact on me was Sierva Maria herself; because she appears so little compared to other characters, there is very little that the reader actually finds out about her other than that she makes really powerful first impressions.

Overall, this left me feeling neutral. I neither like it nor dislike it, which is kind of what I was expecting when I began reading. I would like to like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's work, but it just doesn't seem to be. 3/5

Next review: Love is a Solitary Game by Esther Tusquets.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the Spirits is one of those books that always ends up in countdowns like the "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!", much like Lolita, so it has quite a reputation to live up to. This is made especially interesting, for me at least, when I find out in the author biography that this was Isabel Allende's d├ębut novel; I mean, it really has to be special if a novice author is the centre of all that attention. So, without any further rambling on my part, here's my review.

Currently stuck in a bit of a mental rut at the moment, so this will probably be a very simple and straight-forward sort of review. So, first of all is the plot. To be honest, there isn't much of a "plot" as such, seeing as The House of the Spirits is essentially a character study of the members of three generations of the Trueba family, who live somewhere in Latin America; to be honest I'm not entirely sure where, as it's never directly stated, combined with the fact that my geography is absolutely abysmal and thus would be unlikely to know anyway. In any case, the novel tracks the various immediate family members through financial highs and lows, love affairs both fulfilled and unrequited and through monumental shifts in government, from conservative to socialist and so on. In terms of plot, this book reminds me very strongly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, due to various similarities such as the focus on the family saga, the strong political context, the largely pessimistic outlook on the consequences of love and the atmosphere of spirituality permeating the entire narrative. So, to be honest, there were several moments where I was seriously reminded of other Latin American magical realism books that I've read over recent years, but I didn't really mind too much as it gave the proceedings a nicely familiar feel to it despite this being my first time reading this book.
There are so many characters that turn up in this novel that I don't think I'll really get to talk about them all that much unless I allow this review to last forever. I will limit it to the more important members of the family, much as it pains me. One of the most important characters is undoubtedly the family's patriarch, Esteban Trueba; a man who has decided that his family would have all the things that he lacked growing up, making himself a fortune in order to do that. Unfortunately, having worked his way to prosperity, he allows his temper and his unwillingness to change to emotionally isolate him from the majority of his family; he's a character who is easy to sympathise with, but not easy to like due to his extremely conservative, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. His wife, Clara is easily the lynch-pin of the family, an eccentric woman who just about keeps her family from exploding into out-and-out conflict by imposing a base level of politeness for them to adopt. She's also psychic, which I'm just coming to expect from Latin American novels now. There's Blanca, Esteban and Clara's daughter, who causes the main source of conflict when she falls in love with a peasant on her father's farm, Pedro Tercero Garcia; unfortunately she is discovered mid-coitus by a colleague of her father's, leaving her pregnant and firmly in Esteban's contempt. Blanca has younger twin brothers as well, Nicolas and Jaime. Nicolas is a bit of a waste of space really; I rejoiced when Esteban made him move to the USA. Jaime, on the other hand, has to be my favourite character from The House of the Spirits. He's a very shy, studious man who dedicates his life to helping others through his occupation as a doctor; unfortunately this dedication leads not only to a despair based on his inability to save everyone in his care but also to a near total lack of social skills that prevents him from confessing his feelings to anyone. The other main character that I'd be good to mention is that of Alba, Blanca and Pedro Tercero's daughter. She takes up a great deal of focus in the last third or so of the story, as she is used mainly as a contrast between the more openly expressed desire for social equality compared to her grandfather's firm belief in the system that has always been there; this is especially evident in her choice of lover, Miguel, a guerilla who believes that change must come through violent revolution. Overall, I found the characters nicely varied and the large cast turned out to be a real blessing: while there were characters I didn't find that interesting or likeable, such as Nicolas, there were also characters that I could really sympathise with instead, like Jaime.

So overall? I really enjoyed it. There was a beautifully melancholy tone throughout and the character interactions are some of the best that I've seen in a while. I didn't absolutely love it, but it's very solid writing and a phenomenal first effort from Allende. 4/5

Next review: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Signing off,
Nisa.