Sunday 25 September 2011

The Tiger’s Wife – Tea Obreht (2010)

One of my colleagues asked me what book we going to do next for the book club. I told him The Tigers Wife by Tea Obreht and without hesitation he asked whether she was young and good-looking. Well, she is indeed both. He then went on to claim that publishing houses are, for one reason or another, pushing young and good looking authors because, well, they are a sure bet when it comes to actually selling books. This is, of course, arguable, and perhaps there is something to it. However you can be young and good-looking, but unless you can write well you are not going to sell books. So can Tea Obreht write? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is more complex.

The Tiger’s Wife has won the Orange Prize. Obreht was named by The New Yorker as one best writers under 40 (she’s 25). Obreht is also the youngest author to have won the Orange Prize for fiction. Obreht studied in the U.S, her adoptive home after her and her parents fled Yugoslavia before the war, under author T.C. Boyle, learning to hone her craft. The Tiger’s Wife does read like a crafted piece of work, and you can sometimes see the joins. The narrator of the novel is Natalia, a young doctor trying to make a difference in post war former Yugoslavia. Over the course of the novel Natalia fails to engage the reader, as there’s something two dimensional about her character. This isn’t helped by the sometimes matter of fact and stilted writing. There’s just not much tension generated by pose that is just too careful and too crafted, which results in a curious lack of engagement with Natalia and some of the other characters.

The novel does have its strengths however, enough to make it worth reading and for the book to stay with you for a while. There’s the tiger of course, escaped from a zoo during bombing and ending up roaming outside and inside a remote mountain village. This is where Natalia’s grandfather, the most sympathetic character in the book, encounters the beast and the tale of the tiger’s wife unfolds. This is done slowly, interspaced with less interesting chapters set just after the Yugoslavian war that fragmented that country. The grandfather is a retired doctor set in his ways and full of tales and experiences. He tells Natalia about his encounters with the Deathless Man, perhaps the greatest creation in the book. The Deathless Man is both charming and sinister in an ambiguous way. He’s fascinating and it is here that Obreht’s possible future as a writer of note reveals its promise. I will not tell you too much so not to spoil the impact of this great character.

There are many other characters, many of which have long back-stories and some that engage more than others. It’s somewhat of a tapestry, set across disparate periods of time and told through fables and tall tales, some of which are very entertaining. There are also very realistic sections towards the end that portray what it may be like to live through the bombing of a city. These sections are both horrific and graphic, without being obvious, something that is hard to pull off. Finally there’s some tension is at play and it’s a pity that this isn’t present in the rest of the book.

Some readers will not be taken by The Tiger’s Wife, but for those willing to be seduced by its charms and are willing to overlook its flaws the book offers much to enjoy. Apparently Random House has bought out the rights to her next work, so the future is indeed bright for Obreht.

Friday 9 September 2011

The Ouroboros Wave – Jyouji Hayashi (2002)

I saw this sitting on the large book table at my favourite bookshop, Planet Books, and couldn’t resist it initially because it had a great cover. Then I read the blurb and thought that it could be my kind of book. It turns out that it was, although with some reservations.

I know almost nothing about Japanese science fiction and I have to admit although I’ve been reading science fiction on and off since I was about 10 my knowledge of the last 20 years or so is fragmented. No matter, I plunged in and immediately found that the writing style is quite dry, so much so that it almost reads like a textbook. The narrative suffers because of it, in particular the characters, most of which are rendered one-dimensional, at least until the latter half of the book. It’s a shame because the first half of the book would have been far more engaging otherwise.

The basic premise is that with humanity expanding into the solar system a division has emerged between the humans of Earth and the humans living and working in space that come under the banner of AADD (Artificial Accretion Disk Development Association). The opening section, dated 2123, concerns the initial stages of the building of a ring like structure around a newly discovered micro black hole. Humanity, at this stage, has the capacity to actually change the micro black hole’s trajectory from a potential collision with the sun to one in orbit around Uranus. Heady stuff.

The chapters are episodic, involve many different characters and are spread out over 48 years. There are political, psychological, and scientific aspects throughout this novel, all of which takes you to a conclusion that is predictable in its subject matter but fairly original in its ideas and concepts. This novel is hard science fiction to its core, with diagrams of the ring called Ouroboros and its habitat modules. There are also detailed explanations of the physics behind technological innovations and humanity’s successes in space.

Overall, despite the dry style (possibly as a result of being translated from Japanese), The Ouroboros Wave is a worthwhile read. I’ll certainly read Hayashi’s other books if and when they are translated into English. 

Monday 5 September 2011

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen (2010)

I missed all the controversy over Franzen’s The Corrections (2001), the book that sold by the millions and was on Oprah Winfrey’s book club list. I simply wasn’t reading current literature at that time as I was indulging in my love for 50’s Beat literature and science fiction. Franzen infamously upset Oprah by airing his misgivings about having her book club sticker on his book because he was concerned that it would put off male readers and effectively halve his readership. That’s a whole other story but it worked in his favour when Oprah removed the book from her book club list resulting in great publicity and something like 1.5 million sales.

Ten years on and Franzen has ended up on the cover of Time and Freedom has been mooted as a novel for our times and that worn out American concept of “The Great American Novel” has been trotted out. I love large weighty tomes and Freedom is 576 pages of ink and pulp.

The novel opens with a condensed synopsis of the principle characters lives, the Berglund’s, from the perspective of their neighbors. A risky move and for me this section is initially unsatisfying, but later serves to provide great insight and perspective. Perspective is a key to understanding this novel, as Franzen presents different sections of the novel from the differing perspectives of the principle protagonists. This device works quite well and gives the reader several looks at the same events, creating a great deal of psychological insight in the process.

The Berglund’s meet in college in the late seventies and their lives are entangled with fellow student and would be rock star Richard Katz. Richard Katz is a dead ringer for 70’s New York punk/no wave Richard Hell. It wouldn’t surprise me, as all of Franzen’s music references throughout the book are spot on and very entertaining for those who know their musical history.

The novel follows Patty and Walter Berglund’s decent into marital problems, complicated by the continual reappearance of Katz. Walter, a left-winger and bleeding heart for all the ignored problems of the world, most notably the population problem, ends up involved with a coal company undertaking mountain – top removal.

Franzen skillfully weaves the character’s personal issues in and out of the universal issues, finding links between the two. Franzen builds strong characters and the portrayal of Patty’s depression is accurate and poignant. The frustrated and compromised lives of the Berglund’s plays out in almost excruciating detail.

Personally I found the character of Joey to be both revealing and entertaining. In true Family Ties tradition Joey rebels against Walter’s leftist tendencies by aligning himself with the right. Psychologically Joey is compelling. A rugged individualist with sky- high confidence, he is also under the thrall of his neighbor, Connie, who grooms him and seduces him at a young age. Their relationship provides some of the most entertaining passages and also some of the most intense and perverted sex scenes, something that may be distasteful to some readers.

Although Freedom is a bit long and could have done with some judicious editing, it really does provide significant insight into the last 40 years or so of western culture and history. Franzen’s highly attuned descriptive powers lend the novel a degree of intense realism that can either repulse or attract the reader – mainly the latter I found. Thoroughly recommended.