Wednesday, August 04, 2010

trapido, fitzgerald, oksanen

Backlog-clearing restarted with a vengeance, but none of these reviews, curtailed as they are, obliged me by confining themselves to a line each.

#68 Sex and Stravinsky, Barbara Trapido

One-line summary: Star-crossed couples, lonely daughters, the long arm of art.

Curiously half-hearted: even the title seems like a gimmicky ploy to capture airport readers who know not of the wonders of La Trapido. The bright-eyed, velvet-suckerpunch fatalism of her other books plays out astonishingly like bitterness here, which is not a bad thing in itself, but combines poorly with Trapido's uncharacteristic failure to pull off her usual narrative coup, infusing modern-day fairy stories with the grandeur and terror of classic grand narratives. There's so much possibility here, as the story criss-crosses hemispheres and continents; Trapido's return to South Africa is accompanied as ever by her delightful ability to paint real, lovable characters with quick, sharp strokes, and her musical ear for dialogue and voice. But her deprecatory sense of humour serves the big tragedies (bigger than the usual Trapido tragedies, even) of this book only partially; the glimmering of her wit and intelligence inconsistent, if lovely and fulfilling in their flashes. An interesting, thorny sort of specimen for Trapido enthusiasts, perhaps, but not, I think, a book for first-time readers.

(More on Trapido in Book Munch here.)

#69 The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald

One-line summary: Florence Green opens a bookstore in a slumbering English hamlet.

I was going to say, 'even the classic Fitzgerald wit is unable to mask the what a great tragic novel this is,' but the classic Fitzgerald wit is never meant to mask tragedy, only to co-exist with it, as a Donne-esque rein to its pride. Perhaps The Bookshop is meant to caution humour in its turn: life goes on, sure, but so does grief, and so, perhaps, does shame. Everything about this book is small: a small town, a small idea, small people. (Quite literally, two of its most vibrant characters are also children). In that smallness is the big, seemingly implacable tragedy of Fitzgerald's story. The quiet, almost comforting elegance of her voice masks a fierceness and impatience with the language of ruefulness. But there is no cleansing of the poisoned gulf of human habit in this story, only the acknowledgment that a hero, even an unlikely one, cannot always win; a hero cannot even always be a hero.

(My review of Fitzgerald's delightful Human Voices earlier on Book Munch, here.)

#70 Purge, Sofi Oksanen, trans. Lola Rogers

One-line summary: The tragedies of the nation-state played out in the lives and on the bodies of its women, across generations.

Terrifying and very good if you have access to a cup of tea and a chaise-longue after. Not sunny, not redemptive, not concerned in the least with sunniness or redemption, but resolutely free of all the self-aggrandising trappings of tragedy (I seem to be giving tragedy a hard time in this post) as well. Secrets are bound up in the lives of people here: from the days of Estonia in World War II, to its Communist generations, to the unlikely and unpremeditated return of a Russian citizen who is Not What She Seems, silence is a historical imperative. How this is bound up with the secrets that accompany birth and survival is a story told through the complicated history of Aliide, of the violently damaged Zara who lands up at her doorstep one day, and the occasional glimpse of written records from another time. Readers who find Stieg Larsson's pamphleteering use of graphic sexual violence against women questionable will find Oksanen's forthright use of the same tactic both less grotesque and less bearable. Oksanen also uses gender hatred as a means to talk about the betrayals of the state's responsibilities, but her narrative is a revisitation of a country's history, not a musing over its future as Larsson's books are; it can accuse, but it cannot pass sentence.

Next backlog update will be a special one for Teh Menz: Tom Rachman, Siddharth Chowdhury, John Kampfner, Samanth Subramanian, and Roberto Bolano.

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