Book Review: 4 3 2 1, by Paul Auster

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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: The Atomic Weight of Love, by Elizabeth J Church

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cv_the_atomic_weight_of_loveIn 1941, Meridian Wallace begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago, determined to prove worthy of the sacrifices her mother made for her to enable this to happen.

Although dating a student similar in age she falls in love with her physics professor Alden Whetstone who is twenty years older than her. “When I was with Alden –discussing listening, leaning across tables and fully animated –life was painted in more vibrant colours; birdsong was more elaborate, rococo.” But when Alden goes to Los Alamos in a secret government project (later known to be the atomic bomb), Meri has to decide whether to continue with her studies or be with Alden in New Mexico.

“By morning I’d found a place of compromise. I agreed to a one year trial period. I’d still do what I could in terms of crow observation, and then I’d use that research as a foundation for my master’s degree.”

The reader feels Meri’s frustration as the storyline continues to map out her life attending a women’s discussion group in the town as well as exploring the area studying her crows. When in 1970 she meets Clay, a young geologist and veteran of the Vietnam War, her life gains new meaning and she begins to question her life with the professor.

The Atomic Weight of Love examines the changing roles of women following the Second World War and the Vietnam conflict when it was still the expectation that women would fit in with a man’s plan, sometimes at the expense of their own dreams.

This is the first novel written by Elizabeth J Church, who has practised law for more than thirty years. She was born in Los Alamos and still lives there now and her writing reflects her intimate knowledge of a fascinating area. “Hardy adaptive plant life managed to wedge itself into dust-filled cracks in the lava, and there were bluffs where rainwater collected in shallow pools.”

Church has given each chapter a title which includes a different bird such as “A Deceit of Lapwings” and she has then cleverly included aspects in the chapter which is reflected in the title. I found it a slow read to begin with but was soon gripped with the story and its surprising ending. The cover of the book is stunning with birds beautifully displayed in a periodic table setting.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

The Atomic Weight of Love
by Elizabeth J Church
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008209308

Book Review: Autumn, by Ali Smith

Available in bookshops nationwide.Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_autumnWhile this novel was promoted as the “first post-Brexit novel” it is far more than a story about opinions and divisions. Rather, it reads like poetry and narrative twisting together. The chapters are interspersed with reflections, lists, words, musings which create an impression rather than telling a straight line story.

But there is a story line, or rather two. Elisabeth (the spelling matters) is an art history lecturer struggling with the down-sizing and marginalising of her subject. The second story is about a 101-year-old Daniel Gluck who was her neighbour and babysitter in her childhood. He is now in a care home and she acknowledges the part he played in introducing her to, “arty art,” in which she majored at university. Even the subject of her dissertation, Pauline Boty, is based on a real person and the real events surrounding her life and works. It is this movement between worlds which are real and imagined that gives the book such beauty.

Autumn is the first of a quartet based on the seasons. Ali Smith has already established herself as an inventive writer and the way she plays with words, thoughts, time and events is innovative and exciting. This is not a straight-line story. The plot moves forward but slips sideways to fill in the spaces at the edges. Amid such innovation she uses an ageless framing device for the overall story. At the beginning the young Elisabeth is asked for a” Portrait in Words of my next door neighbour”. Towards the end of the story we are given the completed exercise. It is written in the unpunctuated language of a young girl, but the portrait includes much of what has been uncovered in the story.

I enjoyed Autumn more as a drifting, reflective read than a gripping tale. It reminded me that language can be so much more than words on a page. Language can paint, can emote, can create.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Autumn
by Ali Smith
Published by Hamish Hamilton Ltd
ISBN 9780241207017

Book Review: The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride

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cv_the_lesser_bohemiansThe woman in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, is still a half-formed thing. The Irish 18-year-old arrives in London to study drama and to “make myself of life here for life is this place and would be start of mine”. She meets a brooding troubled actor twice her age and their relationship unfolds in a series of excruciatingly lovely and excruciatingly awful episodes.

They each bring some serious baggage to the relationship, recalling some of the dark themes and the damaging nature of secrets that McBride covered in her first novel A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, which won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and a slew of other awards.

There’s drugs and drink, squats and bedsits, drama and literature and many of the other accouterments of a ‘bohemian” lifestyle, albeit the lesser one of the title.

And there’s sex, lots of sex. McBride pulls this off (excuse the pun) with explicit but not graphic descriptions, and with a female sensibility that will resonate with many readers. It took me back decades to when I thought my own virginity was a millstone which held me back from experiencing LIFE because I too had run fast and far from a small town to university in a big city.

However the great strength and enjoyment of The Lesser Bohemians is a continuation of the starkly original style which almost defies definition, that McBride introduced us to in her first novel. Her sentence structures can almost run backwards, there’s unconventional word use, using nouns as verbs, and the word spacing and kerning is erratic. It’s almost stream of conscious narrative but is much more than this too – the technique enables us to tap directly into the psyche of the woman making for an intense and surreal read. It is like slowly driving on an unsealed road. Sometimes it’s smooth and familiar, then a pothole jolts you to a new consciousness and you have to retrace your steps. This slows you down but makes for a most satisfying and rewarding journey.

For example, only a few pages in, we are settling into a lonely Saturday in her bedsit when “Waiting, behind the distractible time, a little bit of pain. Just a tipple. Hardly a thing. Almost pretty pink petals cigarette burns on my skin. Bouquets exist, rosiest at the shin, contemplating though up my thigh. It’s a pull rope for the wade of hours on my own, and matches slice for slice all diversions I know”. It’s a hang on, WTF moment. Did that mean what I think it meant? And The Lesser Bohemians is full of these moments.

It’s a book that is also about identity, reinvention and the power others have over our view of self. We are two thirds into the book before she is named, by him, and he is named, by her, only 40 pages from the end. In A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, the final sentence is ”My name is gone.” In The Lesser Bohemians the naming signals a form of redemption and personal reconciliation, although not necessarily an unequivocally happy ending.

So if you like your fiction dark with shocking shards of brilliant illumination, and your characters flawed, sometimes unlikeable but utterly human; and a style that can pull you through a hedge with just about every sentence, this is a book for you. If you don’t like that kind of stuff, I’m sorry for you but look elsewhere.

The Lesser Bohemians has just been nominated for the avant-garde Goldsmiths Prize, which McBride won in its first year, 2013.

Reviewed by Rose Boyle

The Lesser Bohemians
by Eimear McBride
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355161

Book Review: Everyone is watching, by Megan Bradbury

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cv_everyone_is_watchingThis is the first novel from Megan Bradbury, who has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia; it’s hard to know quite what to make of it.

Allegedly a work of fiction, it’s a novel which recounts some of the recent history of New York, as it was experienced by the town planner Robert Moses, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and writers Walt Whitman and Edmund White. Since Edmund White is still alive and writing, it’s a bit odd that there is no note about having permission to write about him in the forthright tone which Bradbury uses. Another unusual thing is that she has chosen to write entirely in the present tense. It feels a little odd but then again, perhaps it helps hold the narrative together, since all the main characters are from different time periods. She does write well.

The difficulty I have with this novel is that there is sufficient factual detail about the main characters and their interactions with one another (particularly White and Mapplethorpe) for it to seem not really fiction. Yet it is clearly written in the form of a novel, and the stories of the characters do come through well on the whole. (The exception for me is Walt Whitman, who feels like a bit part when compared to the main roles played by the others).

There is a great deal of attention, it seemed to me, given to the sexual proclivities of Mapplethorpe and White. I learned more about some of the grittier aspects of the homosexual scene in New York city than I was expecting – but in the event, what remains with me from reading this novel is the vision – and the passion and bludgeoning singlemindedness – of Robert Moses. He was accustomed to getting his own way, regardless of method, but it’s clear that the Big Apple would not be what it is today without his determination. There was indeed opposition to his ideas, as he was ruthless in pulling down whole neighbourhoods in pursuit of his dream, and Jane Jacobs is portrayed well as a battler for local rights. She and others were however unable to withstand the sledgehammer of Moses.

It’s an interesting book. Readers who have visited New York will find many points of familiarity, and there are many allusions to photographs of the city – a city which indeed everyone is watching, all the time.

I’ll be intrigued to see what Megan Bradbury comes up with next.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Everyone is watching
Megan Bradbury
Picador, 2016
ISBN  9781509809745

Book Review: This Must Be The Place, by Maggie O’Farrell

cv_this_must_be_the_place_smlAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Some people have complicated lives, complex families and confusing memories. Daniel O’Sullivan is one such person, and while he is a New Yorker by birth, this love story is set mainly in the wilds of Ireland. Throughout the book, we follow his journey to discover what really matters in his life. His marriage to a reclusive ex-movie star adds mystery to the tale and it takes some time to unravel his children and hers, his friends and her secrets, his mistakes and her quirkiness.

Maggie O’Farrell has written a sophisticated book which draws you into a love story with a difference. I am always surprised to see how a writer gets inside relationships and identifies the issues which surface years in to the partnership. It is not obvious where this story will lead and the changes of location as well as the people on the journey add variety to the telling.

Daniel is a linguist who embraces change in language, and wonderful words are very much a part of this story. While he lectures on words, he himself struggles to use language clearly to communicate feelings. This reticence leaves confusion behind, and the events of his childhood and time at university, need to be re interpreted to find the real truth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the world painted between the covers. I love language and found it being used superbly to captivate me over a cold winter week in bleak Christchurch.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

This Must be the Place
by Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Tinder PRess
ISBN 9780755358830

Book Review: This Census-Taker, by China Mieville

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cv_this_census_takerChina Mieville is best known for his phantasmagoric world-building. Many of his books have given me nightmares, but I still go back there for more. This Census-Taker, which is a novella, isn’t quite in the same vein of most of his books, but it is a beautifully drawn book that carries a message about familial loyalty, and the intersection of law and decency.

The moment the book begins, you are running with the boy into the village. Mieville makes sure of it, using mixed third and first person point of view, taking the place of both runner and witness. His mother has killed his father. No, perhaps it was his father that killed his mother. Certainly, somebody killed another body, and he witnessed it. A team of men dispatch from the town, with guns and weapons, to ascertain the truth of the matter.

The setting feels like a reckless land. A far-flung village, sparsely occupied, with very little vegetation: brown soil, brown grass, brown seeds. People are living hand-to-mouth, with ragged orphans roaming around the streets, our protagonist becoming one of them for a period during the book. The thing this setting has in common with his other, urban settings, is an overall feel of despair. People are killed and disposed of without compunction, sacrificed to a spirit in a cave.

The boy’s father is a key-maker. Not of keys for doors, but of keys that solve problems. People come up the hill to see him and ask for a key, and the boy has noticed that none of them ever seem to return. They live high on the hill, among the ascetics and hermits, and magic-doers. It doesn’t occur to the boy that perhaps they are also magic-doers. The boy’s father is foreign, that much the boy knows, from finding scraps of paper with words in a foreign language lying around. The boy’s mother is from not far away. They may, or may not, be hiding from someone – possibly related to the Census.

There are fragments of the book that are written in the past tense, as the boy writes down his history in the census-taker’s book. We don’t completely understand this section, but neither does the boy. He isn’t sure what he is reading there, what it means yet, but perhaps that will come. I wonder whether it is his mother’s writing we are reading. We meet his line manager/ colleague in his first-person narration of his past, soon after the third time he runs away from his father thanks to witnessing some heinous depletion of humanity.

I don’t frequently read novellas, so I’m not sure if the sense of completion that I felt I was missing was a normal thing for a novella. While there is a narrative arc, the ending was the beginning of a new story, perhaps one for a novel set in the same world. I’m dying to know what the keys the father made did, and what it is that is so poisonous about the census-taker, besides the fact he works for the government. Definitely recommended, and worth a second read.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

This Census-Taker
by China Mieville
Published by Picador
ISBN 9781509812141