Jessie Burton again turns to the past to harness inspiration for her second book, The Muse. This time the plot moves back and forth between the 1930s civil-war-ravaged Spain and the 1960s London, yet the […]
This is one of the very few books that has managed to leave me in tears (of joy and uncontrolled laughter) after every few pages. Good Omens, written by the unsurpassable Neil Gaiman and Terry […]
Jessie Burton’s debut, The Miniaturist, derives inspiration from a 17th-century hobby for young wives, an ostentatious curiosity cabinet on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, that was built in the late 17th century, commissioned by Petronella Oortman, who wanted a replica of the luxurious townhouse in which she lived in the centre of Amsterdam. Burton’s Petronella Oortman is an 18-year-old country girl, from an impoverished aristocratic family, married off to a wealthy merchant, who, instead of his affection, presents her with the minute replica of the house that she was brought to. The purpose of the gift is to distract curious Nella from focusing on her rather distant husband, but she sees it as ‘no more than an insult to her fragile status.’ It all begins like a naive child’s play, but it eventually turns into something rather ominous with disastrous consequences. The Miniaturist is a true reading delight, well-structured, well-worded, with intriguing characters who go through a major metamorphosis by the time the novel reaches its thrilling denouement.
I enjoy carnivals, circuses, harlequins, masks, mystery, and the complete overturning and subversion of social norms, rules, and conventions that goes with them. One of my favourite books is Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus […]
The word feminist has been ladened with a load of negative baggage: you hate men, you burn bras, you hate your own tradition, you think women are better than men, you don’t wear make-up, you don’t shave, you’re always angry, you don’t have a sense of humour, you don’t use deodorant, etc. In her 2012 TEDx talk and later on, in her essay titled We Should All Be Feminists, award-winning writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie seeks to rectify the injustice done to the definition of feminism and show how necessary and significant it is today.
Most people swoon at the very mention of Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist who rose to prominence in the late 1980s with The Alchemist, regarding his every word as a droplet from some source of pristine knowledge and positive energy, leaving me (and most probably a handful of other skeptics) feeling like an utter villain for daring to cast even the palest shadow of doubt and critique upon any of his works. I read The Alchemist for the first time in high-school because a bunch of my amulets-wearing, guitar-in-the-park-playing, on-the-floor-sitting friends were drooling all over it, and then I read it again quite recently, and even though more than a decade ago I pretended to ‘totally get it’ and called it ‘deep’, now I realised that, essentially, my feelings have not changed – it is still a bunch of metaphysical mumbo jumbo, a pop-philosophical self-help book neatly wrapped in fiction. I tried giving Coelho some more chances after the initial debacle, but I never seemed to manage to get over the humdrum spirituality and constant attempts by the writer to give me plenty of unsolicited advice about love and life, and love. Then, a couple of weeks ago a friend came all moon-eyed and shoved a copy of Coelho’s newest, The Spy, into my chest saying that I had to read it because it was ‘great’ and ‘totally different than anything he wrote so far.’
Neil Gaiman’s mild horror novella Coraline (2002) is a book I keep returning to whenever I find myself missing my own mother, and that is definitely the case today, during the Mother’s Day weekend. The story of Coraline is one where numerous contemporary parents and children could recognize themselves: the desperately bored little girl looking for adventure and companionship, loads of time on her hands, the constantly busy, mildly disinterested parents, the geriatric part-senile neighbours, the appeal of the unknown. The straightforward third-person-narrative limited to Coraline’s perspective and matter-of-fact retelling of the events and conclusions drawn by the child-protagonist provides for a riveting story with a powerful message. As a masterful stylist that he is, Gaiman effortlessly pulls his readers into the story transporting them among the reality, the dream, and the dreamlike reality of Coraline’s world while leaving enough of murky space in-between to allow them to either embrace the button-eyed fantasy or hold tightly onto the clear-cut reality.
Each novel by Zadie Smith seems to be an independent stylistic experiment, from her initial omniscient narrators in the White Teeth (2000) and On Beauty (2005), to her polyphonic experiment in NW (2012), to her latest work Swing Time (2016), where she relies heavily on a loosely autobiographical, quite biased first-person narrator. The story is set in 2008, when the unnamed narrator is in her 30s and has been recently fired, for reasons to be disclosed afterwards, from her position as the longtime personal assistant to an immensely famous pop star named Aimee, the Madonna of Smith’s fictional universe. The masterful weave of the novel is what makes it a truly wonderful read, from grits to glamour and then back again, the narrator pulls herself out of the estates and into Aimee’s luxurious life only to be sent to an African village and then, in the end, back to her mother’s apartment. Swing Time is a female bildungsroman that tackles love, career, friendship, and motherhood, and in the end, after it makes its arabesque-like full circle, it gives the narrator another chance to make things right and to find a place where she truly belongs.
Since Jonathan Swift’s political satire Gulliver’s Travels, fantasy has often been used a means to an end, an imaginary stage with an unlikely cast of characters relied upon to obliquely transmit a very real and powerful contemporary message. Kazuo Ishiguro’s post-Arthurian epic The Buried Giant (2015) employs fantasy tropes in order to muse on the subjects of love and memory. An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice embark on a long and treacherous journey to visit their lost son, while struggling to overcome the fog of collective amnesia that has been inflicted on the land as a curse. Ishiguro, who himself is trying to find a way to cope with old age and gradual slowing down of intellectual faculties, emphasizes the value of memories. As Beatrice says: ‘If that’s how you’ve remembered it, Axl, let it be the way it was. With this mist upon us, any memory’s a precious thing and we’d best hold tight to it.’ At the end of the day, it is the memories that make us who we are.
Dark nooks and crannies inhabited by ghouls, trolls, and hags, the monsters under the bed, the suspicious stranger in the street, the thing that creeps outside the window as soon as the night falls – do any of these ring a bell? Numerous highly individualised and vivid fears worm their way into the mind of a child. The fact that the adults do not have the time to listen to your theories and even take into consideration that they might be true does not make things any better. You are left to your own devices, and finding ways to cope with your fears and keep the monsters at bay is definitely one of the challenging phases of growing up. You can consider yourself lucky if you have a friend who will lend you an understanding ear, otherwise you are in a very vulnerable and precarious position. The children’s vulnerability, the ability to see through the adults surrounding them, and the invisible supernatural ties palpable only to the child’s fingers are used in Neil Gaiman’s works to convey a deep message that does not divulge itself easily to an adult eye.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane the narrator returns to his hometown for a funeral and finds himself randomly revisitingsome key places from his childhood. The perception changes significantly upon one’s transition to adulthood and everything that had once seemed large and significant now assumes a somewhat shrunken and drab appearance. Thus the narrator comes to the ‘ocean’ at the end of his lane and finds that it is but a duck pond. However, the ocean at the end of the lane has a much larger significance as a trigger for all the memories from long ago to start flooding back. The childhood reminiscences and perceptions are seen through the prism of both the narrator’s and the reader’s adult perception and an excerpt from the narrator’s family story is revealed in a somewhat different light.