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I have other things to do, like studying for the GRE or packing for London, but let's face it: reading fiction is the best and funnest. In this entry: I (belatedly) make good on my 2013 resolution to read more novels by POC. More novelists to explore: Xiaolu Guo, Sanjeev Sahota, Taiye Selasie (yes, I am using the Best of Young British Novelists 2013 as a resource, a gambit that has so far paid off), Teju Cole, & Mo Yan. Also: new Claire Tham novel about CRIME AND IMMIGRATION! Exciting! ... anyway, to the books:

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh

The Ibis, fate has thrown together a truly diverse cast of Indians and Westerners. The motley crew of sailors, coolies and convicts includes a bankrupt Raja, a Chinese opium addict, a lissom French runaway and a mulatto freedman from Baltimore." This was a very, very ambitious novel - Ghosh follows the separate strands of all his ensemble cast o' characters' narratives until they converge together on the Ibis, and keeping them all straight in my head was tricky, but it paid off. This is a brilliantly detailed (and painstakingly researched) portrait of the British Empire and the politics of China & India, as narrated from all different walks of life. Ghosh is amazing with language and pidgin - like most contemporary readers, I find many writers' attempts to transliterate geographical/classed accents embarrassing or condescending at the worst of times, but Ghosh has such an instinctive sense of the way language works that it's all to the good.

Ghosh knows how to tell a compelling story, and this was it, but the only criticism I would make is that he sometimes overburdens himself with the weight of too much historical detail at the expense of moving the plot along - the novel contains a very open ending, for one, and of course this is part one of a trilogy. Based on what I've heard part two is about, had it been up to me I would've published parts one and two in a single volume and condensed it to 400 pages (part one alone is 468 pages).

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith.

If I had to sum up my reading year, 2013 would surely be the year of Zadie Smith - I don't think I've fallen as hard for any other "new" author as I have had for Smith. (I've also had a great time rediscovering Margaret Atwood.) Pity, then, that her third novel doesn't play to what I think are Zadie Smith's strengths: comic satire, her take on race & class (which this novel doesn't elide - she's just not as funny about it as she is at her best), the self-aware character... in fact, the novel opens to three rather plodding emails that, again, don't let Zadie play to her strengths: that of narrating characters too dull to narrate themselves at their most interesting.

What the novel's about: (ripping off the blurb here) "Howard Belsey is an Englishman abroad, an academic teaching in Wellington, a college town in New England... after Howard has a disastrous affair with a colleague, his sensitive elder son, Jerome, escapes to England for the holidays. In London he defies everything the Belseys represent when he goes to work for Trinidadian right-wing academic and pundit Monty Kipps. Taken in by the Kipps family for the summer, Jerome falls for Monty's beautiful, capricious daughter, Victoria. But this short-lived romance has long-lasting consequences, drawing these very different families into each other's lives." So far, so good: again, this novel could have been great, given theme: race, class, England/America, the conservative/liberal divide, marriage, university... but, I don't know. I felt that Zadie Smith mostly took these themes Very Seriously!!! and couldn't write her usual transcendent prose about it all. Which led to compelling passages, sure:

Levi sensed women getting ready all over New England: undressing, washing, dressing again, in cleaner, sexier things; black girls in Boston oiling their legs and ironing their hair, club floors being swept, barmen turning up for work, DJs kneeling in their bedrooms, picking out records to be placed in their heavy silver boxes - all of which imaginings, usually so exciting to him, were made sour and sad by the knowledge that the only party he was going to tonight would be full of white people three times his own age.


And:

'Yo, my man Tom - how's it hanging,' said Levi and tried to knock fists with Tom, always a mistake. 'For real - we're having a meeting. I'm heading there now. This Christmas Day thing is bullshit.'

'Good, it's total bullshit,' said Tom, pushing his thick blond bangs back off his face. 'It's cool that you're taking... you know... a stand.'

But sometimes Levi found Tom a little too fretfully deferential, like right now - always anxious to award Levi a prize that Levi didn't even know he was in the running for.


Yeah, I don't know. This novel is on beauty, and in general I found it hard to connect whatever the novel was supposed to be about with what I took from it, and it's been just as frustrating to review as it was to read it, so. Blurgh.

The Icarus Girl, by Helen Oyeyemi.

Half-English, half-Nigerian eight year old Jessamy develops an imaginary friend, which is all well and normal, until TillyTilly (the friend) reveals that her malevolent magic is not limited to Jessamy alone, but that she has an unlimited ability to hurt those around her...

Reading this novel grew increasingly frightening, which was remarkable for how precious it started off being ("One day, Jess spent six hours spread untidily across her bedroom floor, chin in hand, motionless except for the movement of her other hand going back and forth across the bed... The haiku phase lasted a week before she fell ill with the same quietness that she had pursued her interest. When she got better, she realised she didn't like haiku any more."). The real fascination in reading this novel was, for me, in fighting for some explanation of what was going on: was it the dead twin theory that would rule the day, or the split personality, or the trauma engendered by being caught between two cultures... in the end, though, there is no explanation, Jessamy's story cannot be taken as representative of anything except what it is, and that will have to be enough.

Lady Oracle, by Margaret Atwood.

Seriously, comic - like if Atwood tried to sit down to write a Julian Gough novel (although I'm not sure if she ever would - Atwood being a feted literary master of novels about women and their hidden nastiness; Gough being a fairly known or unknown Irish writer). Lady Oracle, or Joan Foster, is a woman who blunders into her experiences (marrying a myopic activist, writing lurid gothic romances, becoming Canada's new feminist superpoet) and runs away from them when the scene gets too nasty. I liked this novel for how kind and funny it was: women don't die (except from old age) in this novel; Atwood lets them off the hook. Which of course gives us as readers a bit more space to like them. Which doesn't necessarily make them fascinating, but it can be a relief. (Atwood on unlikeable characters)

Which of course doesn't make the content of this novel any less feminist:

To all these monstrosities and injustices I listened faithfully, partly out of a hope that I would gradually come to understand him, but mostly from habit. At one stage of my life I was a good listener, I cultivated listening, I figured I'd better be good at it because I wasn't very good at anything else.


(Which, of course, was the moment that punched me in the stomach. I've been there? We've all been there, right?)

And:

My father didn't come back until I was five, and before that he was only a name, a story which my mother would tell me and which varied considerably. Sometimes he was a nice man who was coming home soon, bringing with him all kinds of improvements and delightful surprises: we would live in a bigger house, eat better, have more clothes, and the landlord would be put in his place once and for all. At other times, when I was getting out of hand, he was retribution personified, the judgment day that would catch up with me at last; or (and I think this was closest to her true feelings) he was a heartless wretch who had abandoned her, leaving her to cope with everything all by herself. The day he finally returned I was almost beside myself, torn between hope and fear: what would he bring me, what would he do to me? Was he a bad man or a nice man? (My mother's two categories: nice men did things for you, bad men did things to you.) But when the time came, a stranger walked through the door, kissed my mother and then me, and sat down at the table. He seemed very tired and said little. He brought nothing and did nothing, and that remained his pattern.


Unlike The Robber Bride, where all the men in the novel bring nothing and do nothing, I would say that in Lady Oracle all the men who have been important to Joan, save for her father, have both done things for her and did them to her, which is potentially a cipher for lived experience, etc.

And, see, the comic gift of Atwood here:

I had a lot of trouble with these books, and, I discovered, with theories and politics in general. I didn't want to be blown up by an atomic bomb, but on the other hand I couldn't believe that anything I could do would prevent it. I might as well be trying to abolish the automobile: if I got run over by one, I'd be just as dead, I reasoned. I thought Lord Russell had a very appealing face, though, and I immediately gave him a bit part in Escape from Love as a benevolent old eccentric who rescues Samantha Deane in Hyde Park by beating her assailant over the head with his umbrella. ("Take that, sir! Are you all right, my dear?" "How can I ever express my gratitude?" "I see you are well brought up, and I believe your explanation. Allow me to offer you asylum for the night... My housekeeper will lend you a nightgown. Mrs. Jenkins, a cup of tea, if you please, for this young lady.") I even supplied him with a hobby - he raised guppies - which made me feel quite friendly towards all his frontispieces and able to tolerate his policies and the awe-tinged admiration with which Arthur regarded him.


So, yeah, this was pretty great. \o/

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