Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_4321.jpgPaul Auster’s novel 4 3 2 1, his first in seven years, is a sweeping river of a book, taking us on a ride through the heady events of America’s 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, and all told through the eyes of one young man called Ferguson. Or, rather, told through the eyes of four different versions of that young man Ferguson. Ferguson’s genetic makeup and personality stay the same, but from the moment of his birth, Ferguson’s life splits four different ways and the novel travels down four increasingly divergent paths, following four increasingly different Fergusons. In so doing Auster writes four versions of the great American novel, all running alongside each other at the same time.

Written in alternating chapters, the first Ferguson’s life story focuses on his romance with Amy Schneiderman, the great love of his adolescence and young adulthood. By contrast, Amy never even enters the story of the second Ferguson, and in the third Ferguson’s story, Amy is much longed for but eventually set aside in exchange for the confusing and exhilarating experiences Ferguson 3 experiences in Paris, where he eventually moves. In Ferguson 4’s story, his home life is vastly different — eventually his family becomes a blended melting pot of step-siblings and step-uncles.

Having said that, each Ferguson stays in many ways the same — baseball and books seem like the most important things in all the Fergusons’ lives, as well as his family, especially his mother. As such, Auster doesn’t seem interested therefore in seeing how much he can make each Ferguson’s path diverge from the others (though they do in some cases diverge widely). Rather, Auster is interested in the ‘what if?’ What if I had journeyed down the path less traveled? What if that relationship I wanted so badly had actually worked out? What if I had moved to Paris like I always wanted to? What if I had been born rich? What if I had been born poor? What if my father, or my grandfather died, or I died when I was a child? How would things be different? Who would I be, and what world would I be living in?

4 3 2 1 always gives you the feeling of movement – flowing or running through the years like a boat borne on a swift tide. Auster’s long spinning sentences, some of them lasting a full, hefty, paragraph, contribute significantly to this effect. But these sentences never become annoying or tiresome. They only speed you along, making this novel something of a page turner (which sure helps to make this 800-page tome more digestible). And the pace of the book itself is quick without being rushed. We move swiftly through the fifties, sixties and seventies but we still manage to get a good sense of how those decades felt — especially the sections set in the late sixties, where scenes of young anarchists marching on campus and disenfranchised black New Jerseyans rioting in the streets were hair-raising to read, and in some ways hair-raisingly familiar.

I cannot pretend that I didn’t get a bit confused between the different Fergusons, especially in his adolescent years when the Fergusons were all living fairly similar lives. But that confusion was never enough to make me want to stop reading. And amazingly, after having made my way through all 800 pages, my first thought was: I want to read it again. A great plot, written in an athletic style, with above all the central character of Ferguson, a Jewish everyman whom you grow to love. Why wouldn’t I want to read it again? I can’t think of a single reason. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

4 3 2 1
by Paul Auster
Faber and Faber
ISBN 9780571324620

Book Review: My Sister Rosa, by Justine Larbalestier

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_sister_rosaMy Sister Rosa, the latest from YA author Justine Larbalestier, is a superlative example of how damn good today’s YA fiction can be. Engaging from the first page, packed with a diverse and distinct cast of characters, smart, real, and insanely creepy, My Sister Rosa is a psychological thriller where the character that makes you squirm with fear is a ten year old blond girl with dimples—a Shirley Temple psychopath.

The story is told from the point of view of teenager Che, who loves his little sister Rosa even as he worries about her lack of empathy, her manipulativeness, and her tendency to use her formidable intelligence to play ‘pranks’ on people—pranks that start off as not quite harmless (like stealing a passport) and escalate to alarming, near lethal heights. The tension in this novel is skilfully ratcheted up, chapter by chapter, to the point where you start to fear for the safety of almost any character Rosa talks to. Just knowing that Rosa has found out that one of Che’s friends is afraid of heights made my stomach churn.

One of Larbalestier’s strengths is clearly her characterisation. Her portrayal of Rosa teeters right on the line between truly creepy and melodramatic, a tough balancing act but one she pulls off to uncanny, sinister effect. Despite Rosa being the flashier character, I was (even) more impressed by Larbalestier’s drawing of Che. Here was a deeply felt representation of the kind of young man I could recognise from everyday life: close to his friends, self-conscious about his acne, yearning or home, yearning (and horny) for a girlfriend, an inveterate texter and messager on his phone, and full of love and care for his family. Despite his family being any other family’s worst nightmare.

In general, this novel (like so many others) is shaped such that we steadily climb a steepening slope of tension towards the climax, and then we topple down the other side into the denouement as the tension relaxes and all our remaining questions are answered. The building of tension and ramp up to the climax are handled expertly, but the handling of the climax and denouement seem slightly off somehow. Without giving too much away, the climax seems somehow less forceful than one might expect, and given how much our tensions have been ramped up,  the denouement feels a little too extended (perhaps understandably, given how many plot threads needed to be tied up).

Nevertheless, My Sister Rosa is a great read—well-written, fast-paced, exciting, engaging and eminently re-readable. This book is a keeper.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

My Sister Rosa
By Justine Larbalestier
Published by Allen and Unwin
ISBN  9781760112226


Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: A Korero with Patricia Grace

Grace_Patricia_2Two greats of New Zealand, and particularly Maori, literature – Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace (right) – sat down for a chat in front of a nearly full St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday. Both are well known for their work being written from and expressing a Maori world view, so it was interesting to see that Ihimaera’s first question was about Grace’s Irish background, and why she hadn’t written a lot from that point of view. As it turns out, she had written a few from that point of view, especially early on in her career, but no one seemed particularly interested in publishing them. It wasn’t until she started writing from the Maori point of view that her writing career came to fruition – curious, since both Ihimaera and Grace encountered resistance from publishers regarding publishing their Maori-focused work. Perhaps this was more because the Maori point of view made up a larger part of her ‘voice’.

cv_frank_sargesons_storiesGrace talked about the impact of Frank Sargeson’s work early on in her career, and how she could hear ‘that Kiwi voice’ in his stories and then realising that writing came from within and that it was about finding one’s own voice. She was also aware that, in writing the Maori existence, she was writing about people that at that time had never been written about before. An interesting point to note was that one of the main themes in her work was the importance of land, and the fact that many of her (Pakeha?) readers may not have realised that land issues were part of everyday Maori life. This struck a chord with me – every life has details in it that are perfectly ordinary to the person living it, but are totally foreign to others, and often that ordinary/extraordinary disjunct happens across cultural boundary lines.

Gcv_the_kuia_and_the_spiderrace was a teacher for a long time, and I could sense that old teacherly concern when she talked about The Kuia and the Spider, her classic picture book, and the circumstances that inspired it. She had noticed, as a teacher, that “it was not good to be brown or black in children’s literature” – she asked the audience rhetorically, “Where was the Maori child […] being legitimised in literature?” – and that the kids she was teaching didn’t relate to stories with European settings. Her concern was with representation of other cultures, and it extended to ethnic groups other than Maori, hence the theme of her second children’s book Watercress Tuna and the Children of Champion Street.

Overall, the session was an understated affair, but the audience remained attentive, and we were rewarded with a reading by Grace from her new novel Chappy, to be released at the end of the week.

Reviewed by Febriani Idrus 

by Patricia Grace
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143572398

Released Wednesday 27 May

Book Review: Tenderness, by Sarah Quigley

cv_tendernessAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

This new collection of short stories by Sarah Quigley covers a lot of territory. Not only do the settings of her stories vary widely—London, Japan, New Zealand, the US—they also jump around stylistically, from the more conventional, realist style to more experimental and postmodern. But all twenty two stories circulate around the theme of tenderness, or, perhaps more accurately, intimacy—or the lack of it.

Despite all the stylistic diversity on display in Tenderness, Quigley seems to be able to handle it all with total control and ease. It doesn’t matter if the story you’re reading is in first, second or third person, if it’s a fable or a firmly grounded slice of real life, or if it’s from the point of view of a boy in Berlin or a very tall man in Japan—always, you feel Quigley’s firm hand on the rudder, steering us calmly through the story of your choice.

And what an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Every story is genuinely unique from the others in a way that is, to me, pretty remarkable. In a collection of so many stories, it would be easy for conflicts and story lines to start blurring together, but each story stands out clearly and distinctly in the mind’s eye. It helps that Quigley has that special skill of coining the perfect turn of phrase to describe something in a fresh, enlivening way; poached eggs “spill their blossoming yellow hearts over thin slices of dark rye bread”, and when a woman laughs to avoid articulating her feelings, “the room cupped her careless laugh as a shell cups the murmur of the sea”.

It did occur to me though that there are character types that recur with slight variations in several stories. Though each story has its own distinct feel, several stories feature a man and woman in a relationship where the man is, frankly, kind of a jerk. Sexually somewhat demanding or even forceful, often overbearing, sometimes needy, and certainly emotionally insensitive or obtuse, this type appears several times, ranging from “slightly jerk-y” to “very seriously jerk-y”. Though I did come to find it somewhat repetitive, I had to admit, I did recognize that obnoxious force of personality and that swamping of other people that occurs when someone like that is around.

Quigley’s stories are also often told from a woman’s point of view, and, when coupled with that recurring male jerk, that woman protagonist often has to escape him, separating herself from the facsimile of intimacy she has with him. Perhaps that’s what I found most interesting in Tenderness: the amount of time Quigley spends exploring not tenderness or connection but rather the breaking off or losing connections, and of separating oneself (or being separated from) others.

There are too many good stories in this collection for me to single out a favourite, but there is definitely something in there for everyone. Tenderness as a whole is thoughtful, thought-provoking, and honest—deeply satisfying for the mind and the heart.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

by Sarah Quigley
Published by Random House NZ
ISBN 9781775536390


Book Review: The Voyage, by Murray Bail

This book is available in all good bookstores. 

cv_the_voyageThe Voyage begins with its main character, Frank Delage, on board a container ship travelling back home to Australia after a mishap-ridden trip to Europe. Delage, a piano manufacturer, has travelled to Vienna to market his new invention, the Delage grand piano, which boasts a cleaner, ‘new’ sound. But despite his best efforts, he’s met with Viennese “Old World” indifference, and instead gets snagged in a love triangle between Amalia von Schalla, a rich Viennese arts patroness, and her daughter Elisabeth.

Bail’s writing style is extraordinary. In what often seems like a throwback to Mrs Dalloway, Bail’s sentences dart from the present day to two months previous to Frank’s thoughts and back to the present day, with a quicksilver ease. These jumps to and fro through time are balanced out by the length of the paragraphs, which can flow on steadily for pages. It’s as if the novel’s form mimics its content, with the long paragraphs acting like the container ship steadily chugging along, carrying Frank Delage’s grasshopper mind along as it bounces between past and present.

The total mastery of style is enough to keep pulling you through the book—but what Bail uses that style to describe stopped me dead in my tracks. The innards of the book—its characterisation, its plot, its themes, its preoccupations—are, in my opinion, preposterous.

I already mentioned its stylistic throwback to 1920s modernism, and in a lot of ways the whole book is a throwback—to times when it was apparently all right to characterise women based on whether they had good breasts or not. In all my life, I’ve never read a book that 1) mentioned breasts so much, and 2) was so blatant in highlighting cleavage as apparently the most important attribute a female character can have. And twice Frank Delage puts his hand on Amalia’s breast, just—because. He doesn’t even know why he does it, and it’s unclear whether Amalia actually gives him permission to do so. In fact, it’s unclear whether Amalia and Elisabeth have any real thoughts or opinions at all, since they are barely characterised beyond Amalia being aloof and Elisabeth being a little reckless and the both of them, again, each having an excellent pair of … assets.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Reviews of his previous books have noted Bail’s tendency to eschew good old-fashioned depth of characterisation in favour of experimental technique, and maybe that’s what he’s doing here too. But if that’s the case—if he’s favouring the new over the old—then it jars with the overall tenor of the novel, where repeatedly the old triumphs over the new. Frank Delage returns to Australia with his tail between his legs, having been whupped by the Old World, and while in Europe he’s taken around a strangely old-fashioned Vienna, as if the upper classes there have been stuck in amber since the 1850s.concert_vienna_golden_hall

And yes, yes, the book is set in the world of classical music—but I am a classical musician and I know the classical music world isn’t actually as old-fashioned as its reputation would have you believe. In a world where the Vienna Philharmonic has both a Facebook page and a Twitter account, and where maverick organist Cameron Carpenter is taking his newly invented organ around the world and getting rave reviews, it seems ridiculous to then read about characters sitting down in their pearls at a musical soiree that seems straight out of Mozart’s time.

I’m sure defenders of The Voyage will say I’m missing the point of the book and I wholly accept that I might be. But, regardless, the fact remains that I went into this book expecting to enjoy and be interested in it, and I came out of it exasperated, disappointed and bored.

At the end of the day, Bail failed to make me suspend my disbelief. Despite its obvious allegiances to experimental “new” modernism, this book just seems old, old, old.

Reviewed by Febriani Idrus

The Voyage
by Murray Bail
Text Publishing