A Dissection of Evening

9780375700262_p0_v2_s192x300   Discussing Susan Minot’s novel Evening did not change my view.  Minot’s language is beautiful and her stream of consciousness narrative promotes attention to the underlying current of a dying memory, however faulty, but her plot has the unrealistic dramatic tone better suited to the movie it later became.

Ann is dying at sixty-five from cancer, and as she slowly falls through to the last stages, with her daughters and son at her bedside, and the trusty nurse who administers regular doses of pain killers, she remembers a weekend when she was twenty-five.  As Ann relives the steamy love affair with Harris, a Don Juan secretly engaged to his pregnant fiancee, Ann mourns the loss of her one true love.   Minot would have the reader engage in the fantasy that the brief affair with a near stranger matters more than anything else that has happened in her life since then.  All of the realistic complications of her life as she goes on to marry (three times) and have children, seem to disappear in the morass of passion.  D.H. Lawrence would be proud of Minot’s evocative descriptions, but other authors (George Eliot, Edith Wharton) might question the power of a youthful passion to separate feeling over reason over a lifetime.

As Ann’s past slowly is revealed, her children and others around her speak of her as they know her now.  Minot has her main character slip away in the end, secure in her secrets.  No one knows her as well as she knows herself.

Have you read the book or seen the movie?

The Many – Suspense on the Man Booker Longlist

TheMany11       Throughout Wyl Menmuir’s short novel – The Many – Gothic undertones play on scenes full of dark and murky possibilities.  A sense of foreboding permeates the narrative, and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall with an abandoned house on the coast helps to set the scene.

The narrative alternates between the two main characters: Ethan, a local fisherman, and Timothy, an outsider who is renovating the old house left empty by the death of Ethan’s friend Perran for ten years.  Each character is battling personal demons, and as it progresses the story evolves into a fable with strange symbolism.

Death and grief figure prominently – the death of Perran, leaving a hole in the fishing community  so large the inhabitants fight to preserve his memory yet refuse to talk about him to Timothy – even resenting Timothy’s attempts to restore his old house.  When Timothy’s struggle with the death of his infant son surfaces later, with obscure dream sequences and haunting memories, the story falls away and changes – just like the flooding sea overtakes the village in the end. Suddenly, the reader must rethink the meaning of everything – the dead fish killed by chemicals, the blockade of large ships circling and imprisoning the cove, the mysterious woman in the gray suit who patiently watches from afar.  Are they more than they seem?  What do they represent in Timothy’s mind?  What is their connection to his solitude and his haunted existence?

Timothy struggles with the question the villagers do not want to hear or answer – “Who is Perran?”  And, the unspoken question – Why did he die?  When the name of his dead son is revealed, the reader cannot help but wonder if the village and the broken house were all a reason for trying to explain the unexplainable.

The Many is a gripping story, but the questions it raises and leaves unanswered could provoke a lively discussion, and the reader may need to reread this short book several times before getting close to understanding all of its complexity.

The Vegetarian

410gorh9G-L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_   The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is not what I had expected. With an innocuous beginning, the story quickly progresses from someone who has decided to become a vegetarian to a disturbed protagonist straddling fantasy and reality.  Like my recently reviewed Man Booker Finalist, A Little Life, The Vegetarian questions  whether it is better for the protagonist to survive or to die, and answers “…is it such a bad thing to die?”

Reviewers have used Kafka as the model for Han Kang’s storytelling.  Kafka was always a mystery to me, yet I remember a philosophy professor expounding on Kafka’s parables. His stories represented a world of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, but mostly strangeness, and always with a haunting ending. The Vegetarian meets all the criteria.

Although the focus of the book is Yeong-hye, the vegetarian, this slim book is narrated in three parts by others: Yeong-hye’s husband, who has an unsatisfactory office job; her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful visual artist; and her older sister, who owns a cosmetic store and works full-time to support her child and artist husband.

Yeong-hye’s mind crumbles slowly; at first, her demand to throw out all meat and refuse to eat meat seems reasonable, but she faces the fierce opposition of her father and her husband.  She battles tradition and becomes a victim of abuse.  Gradually, she loses weight and suffers from insomnia, eventually abandoning  any normalcy in her life.

After her husband leaves, her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her and lurid yet strange erotic sex scenes follow.  Finally, her sister places her in an asylum  and the reader is treated with scenes of force-feeding and depression.  In the end, everyone deserts Yeong-hye – family, physicians, friends; all but her loyal sister, who at times thinks about abandoning her to find relief from watching her sister’s decline.

In the end, her sister’s wondering just how close she is herself to losing her own mind makes a case for the slim thread of sanity with which every person struggles.

Although The Vegetarian is short – under two hundred pages – it has a heavy and thoughtful impact and is not for everyone.  Underlying its themes of abuse, eating disorders, sexual assault, and violence, however, readers may find some relatable truth in the vegetarian’s journey.   Porochista Khakpour in a review for the New York Times  calls it “a parable of personal choice, submission and subversion.”  Kafka would be proud.

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Prague Kafka Statue

Related Review:  A Little Life

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

9780525954682_p0_v2_s260x420Brooke Davis offers a humorous and thoughtful view of death, grief, and growing old in Lost and Found.  Motivated by the sudden death of her mother, the Australian author uses the voice of Millie Bird, an abandoned seven year-old, to examine loss. Millie’s mantra may seem harsh, but it is also reassuring:

You’re all going to die. It’s okay.

The story revolves around three main characters and a mannequin:  Millie Bird, a seven year old with an unusual interest in death  – abandoned by her widowed mother in the ladies underwear department; Karl the Touch Typist, an elderly refugee from assisted living, still mourning the death of his wife; Agatha Pantha, an 82 year old recluse, bitter over the death of her unfaithful husband; and Manny, the life-sized store dummy dressed in an Aloha shirt.

The four fugitives connect and start a road trip in search of Millie’s mother.  Led by the perspicacious Millie, who has dubbed herself superhero Captain Funeral,  the elders discover strength in breaking the rules – they are not dead yet.   As she changes voices, from the wise young heroine to the two adventurous elderly protectors, Davis observes and philosophizes about old age and death – and inserts a variety of irreverent scenes for comic relief.   The ending is hopeful and realistic, but not happy.

Davis includes her journal article “Relearning the World” in the appendix of this short tale (289 pages), offering clear insights into her mindset as she wrote the book. Telling the story as a seven year old gave her permission to be funny and quirky while revealing a thoughtful perspective on a difficult topic.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel

51Byag2ZQwL._SX200_She’s baaack…  When Flavia de Luce was shipped off to boarding school in Canada at the end of Alan Bradley’s last installment of the precocious detective, I sadly thought the series was over.  Happily, Flavia returns in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, with a charred and mummified body falling from the chimney in her dorm room at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy before she has a chance to settle in.

With Flavia’s penchant for chemistry, as she concocts imaginary ways to eliminate annoying characters, she rivals Agatha Christie for powerful and effective ways to murder.  You wouldn’t want Flavia for an enemy.  Bradley’s tongue-in-cheek humor appeals to adults; where else can you be a twelve year-old again, planning revenge for perceived slights.

But the discovery of the murder, and the journey to whodunit drives the plot with suspects and motives.  Flavia always uncovers key clues, and following her to the final reveal through several plot twists is fun.  What a relief to know she will continue to entertain readers as she solves unlikely murders.

For more reviews of Flavia de Luce novels, start with The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches