Home – Marilynne Robinson

Book # 7b

Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

HomeThe accolades for Marilynne Robinson’s Home are splashed across and inside the cover of the copy I borrowed from my local library. “One of the saddest books I have ever loved”, said one reviewer. “A powerful piece of writing”, stated another. I wasn’t skeptical, for there are good reasons why any book appears on this list, but I will admit to being hesitant to have too high an expectation, in case Home didn’t live up to the hype.

I needn’t have been so cautious; Home left me with a rather profound sense of sadness mixed with hope, and I was disappointed when I realised I’d read the last page.

Home tells the story of Glory Boughton and her older brother Jack, who both return to their family home and ailing father. Glory is an English teacher, fleeing from a failed relationship with a disappointing man; she is the youngest of the Boughton children, determined to put the past behind her and tend to her father. Jack Boughton hasn’t been in contact with his family for twenty years. As a child, he was always getting into trouble; as an adult, not much has changed. Growing up, the two siblings felt quite separate from each other, and as the story unfolds, they begin to form a relationship and offer each other the support both need.

This is a story about family, loyalty and love, strongly woven together with faith and redemption, and the uncertain desire to make peace with the past. There is a very strong sense of spirituality and belief, which is at the heart of the Boughton family; I don’t feel qualified to comment much on this aspect of the novel, but it raises some interesting points and the characters are often found in deep theological discussion. Set in the 1950s, there are also elements of politics and race, which, while barely mentioned, prove to be important in shaping Jack’s behaviour and the situation he finds himself in.

Police were pushing the black crowd back with dogs, turning fire hoses on them. Jack said, “Jesus Christ!”
His father shifted in his chair. “That kind of language has never been acceptable in this house.”
Jack said, “I –” as if he had been about to say more. But he stopped himself. “Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry, Jack. Young people want the world to change and old people want it to stay the same. And who is to judge between thee and me? We just have to forgive each other.”

Of the eight Boughton children, we meet just three throughout the novel: Glory, Jack, and Teddy. The others are all mentioned in passing, but do not feature at all; in the beginning, I wondered when we might meet them, but the story didn’t need them to feature, and nothing would have been gained by adding more to the limited cast. The sense of separation in the family is poignant (Glory keeps in touch with all of her siblings; Jack was sought for a number of years but proved elusive), and as Jack and Glory come to rely on each other, there is a sense of uncomplicated loyalty and fondness, not marred by the opinions or experiences of the others. Their relationship is quite hopeful and the trust builds as they open up to each other, but it is full of despairing moments and tears. Glory’s tears could have come across as weakness, but she is incredibly strong and perceptive, with a tenderness and kindness that Jack feels he doesn’t deserve. He has hit rock-bottom a number of times but underneath his self-loathing there is a small spark of hope and willingness to believe he can change, if only someone will give him the opportunity to prove it.

He said, “You get used to kindness. After a while you begin to count on it. You miss it when it’s gone.”
She said, “I know a little bit about that,” and he nodded, and the lilacs rustled, and the sun shone, and there was quiet between them, a calm that came with being of one mind. So she had to say, “You shouldn’t lose hope.”
He laughed. “Sometimes I really wish I could.”
She said, “I know about that, too.”

Throughout Home, there are moments of such hope and happiness that the Boughton family seems grossly normal and successful, but there are also moments of such sadness and desperation that make them seem dysfunctional and distant. Reverend Boughton is desperate for all of his children to get along, and as his health fails further, he struggles to separate the present from the past.

She stepped into the dining room and asked Jack to play, and then she went back to help her father. “‘Softly and Tenderly’,” the old man said. “A very fine song. Is that Gracie?”
“No, it’s Jack.”
The old man said, “I don’t believe Jack plays the piano. It might be Gracie.”
She brought her father down the hallway. He stopped at a little distance from the piano, released her arm, and stood looking at Jack with puzzled interest. He whispered, “The fellow plays very well. But why is he here in our house?”
Glory said, “He’s come home to see you, Papa.”
“Well, that’s very nice, I suppose. No harm in it.”

Some might say that faith is the strongest theme of this story, but I believe it is the power of love – to support, buoy, forgive and fix, but also wound, hurt, disappoint and destroy – that is the strongest theme. The ending leaves the story wide open, but it is hopeful and almost up-lifting; Home is a simply but beautifully written story that won’t bring you to tears, but will leave your heart wishing for more.

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Atonement – Ian McEwan

Book #42

REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

AtonementOn the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.

By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, Atonement is regarded as Ian McEwan’s “masterpiece”, and it isn’t hard to see why it is lauded so.

The novel starts slowly; the first eight or nine chapters serve to set the scene, a mundane commentary on everyday life:

There was really no point trying to arrange wild flowers. They had tumbled into their own symmetry, and it was certainly true that too even a distribution between the irises and the rose-bay willow-herb ruined the effect.

However, McEwan writes a narrative that is simple and elegant, full of fire, excitement and suspense. His prose is beautiful and evocative in its subtle simplicity; as the story unfolds, we are drawn quickly into the narrative, and fall heavily for the characters, which have been captured skillfully without excess explanation.

We watch as our protagonist, Briony, matures through each part of the novel. We watch as she loses her childish innocence while struggling to atone for her mistakes. We are with Robbie in the sobering, stark realities of war:

There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go.

and we learn more about Cecilia and her strength through the letters she exchanges with him:

They turned on you, all of them, even my father. When they wrecked your life they wrecked mine. They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back.

There is, of course, a plot twist. A twist that makes the reader smile and at the same time, scratch their head and turn back a few pages to hunt for clues. This is a novel about love, guilt and the desire to atone for one’s mistakes, and the inequalities (and impact) of social class.

Atonement is a clever and wonderfully-written novel; if you haven’t yet read anything by McEwan, this is guaranteed to leave you wanting more.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Book #92

REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

The God of Small ThingsIt’s been a number of years since I first read The God of Small Things, and in order to write this review, I had to flick through a few pages to reacquaint myself with the story. After choosing a few pages at random, I soon found myself lost in the magical world that Arundhati Roy has created, and an hour passed before I surfaced for air.

The opening paragraphs set an amazing scene; Roy’s ability to capture the everyday so profoundly is evident throughout the entire story. The reader is captured and consumed by her descriptive passages – it is too easy to imagine the scenes as they unfold, given Roy’s astounding skill at awakening every sense, so we smell, see, hear, touch and taste everything the characters smell, see, hear, touch and taste.

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.

The God of Small Things is a little bit magical. Roy has created a reality that is unlike any I’ve read before – it is beautiful, painful, exquisite and yet far more real than any other novel I’ve read. Jason Cowley (The Times) is quoted on the dust cover of my copy as saying, “She has a heightened awareness of the natural world, of smells and sounds, of colour and light…” and I think he has captured the writer perfectly. Her gift to weave such a tale rewards the reader with something like a sensory explosion – Roy manages to capture life and the mostly mundane in the most sensationally poetic way.

It is a witty novel, with so much passion and humour threaded throughout:

She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage. As for a divorced daughter from an intercommunity love marriage – Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject.

The God of Small Things is a novel about love, life and death. It is about relationships and the unseen, intangible forces that draw two people together, as well as the bonds within and between a family. It is about forbidden love and consequences, about society and class. All of these themes are weaved through a beautiful, poignant tale, forming a novel that is nearly impossible to put down.

A highly recommended, unforgettable read.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

BOOK #496
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

LolitaLolita is one of those books that I’d heard of, but knew very little about before picking it up from our local library. It is considered one of the best novels of the 20th-Century, and therefore I had high expectations….which sadly, weren’t met.

Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a 38-year-old scholar with an obsession for young girls (“nymphets”), who, after a failed marriage and a stint in a mental hospital, falls for his landlady’s 12-year-old daughter. He is infatuated with young Dolores (who he nicknames Lolita), partly because she reminds him of his childhood sweetheart who died prematurely.

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”

Humbert takes every opportunity to be alone with his Lolita, and when they aren’t alone, he finds ways to watch her inconspicuously, or touch her in a seemingly paternal way. While she is away on summer camp, her mother, Charlotte, gives Humbert an ultimatum: marry her, or move out. Humbert doesn’t want to be away from Lolita, and agrees to marry Charlotte; she has no idea of his feelings for Lolita until she reads his diary. She threatens to expose Humbert, but before she can take any action, she is struck by a car and dies.

Charlotte’s death gives Humbert the opportunity to become more than just a step-father to Lolita; they begin a sexual relationship and spend a couple of years on the road, until settling in a town where Lolita can attend a girls’ school (Humbert is possessive and jealous, refusing to allow her anything to do with boys of her own age). While at the school, Lolita becomes involved in drama, and her quest for freedom from Humbert begins here.

The subject matter of Lolita is uncomfortable at times, but it is less so than I thought it might be. The novel is written in such a way that the language and humour took a prominent position for me – this might not be the case for everyone, however, and if you do plan on reading this book, please go into it knowing it has been classified by some as “erotic fiction”. Nabokov’s style is typical of other Russian authors, but unusually, his novel is set in America, not Russia.

I think that the main reason, however, that I didn’t find Lolita as uncomfortable as I expected is that the underlying theme of love, regardless of societal norms:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”

There was just something about Lolita that missed the mark for me. It was poetic, and beautifully-written, but it didn’t grab me, and I found reading it a bit of a chore. This novel wasn’t for me, but I accept that others have and will love it, in order for it to take its place on the 1001 Books list.

Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

BOOK #134
Reviewer: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

TrainspottingIt has been a number of years since I read Trainspotting, but both the novel and the movie have stuck with me with unsurprising clarity. If you have read the book, you will know exactly what I am talking about: it is memorable in both content and style, and while I don’t know that it’s  book you necessarily enjoy, it is one you will urge others to read, if only to have someone to discuss it with.

Trainspotting is written as a series of short stories, collated to become an oft-incoherent but certainly cohesive novel. The stories revolve around a group of young adults living in Edinburgh, who all are heroin users, friends of heroin users, or engage in other self-destructive, addictive behaviours.

There’s Mark Renton, the depressed, intelligent main character who sometimes appears “normal” and at other times is stealing to support his drug habit. His tales are darkly-funny, full of crazy anecdotes and abhorrence of many of his friends. One of Mark’s oldest friend is Sick Boy, who indulges in frequent sex with random women for whom he feels nothing but contempt. He thinks very highly of himself, even when binging on heroin, and appears to have no morals whatsoever. Another childhood friend of Mark’s is Tommy, who doesn’t use heroin but dabbles in speed. When his girlfriend leaves him, however, he begins to experiment with heroin, and his experiments do not end well.

Spud is perhaps the most likeable of all the characters in this novel, despite being sent to prison for theft; he is a sweet character with a kind heart, who unfortunately will never have the skills or opportunity to make anything of himself. In stark contrast to Spud is Franco Begbie, a violent character who constantly bullies his “friends”, despite being quite loyal. He is an alcoholic, and addicted to speed. Davie Mitchell is the complete opposite to all the other characters in the book; he has a university degree and a job, and is seemingly “normal”. However, being part of such a group of friends can not leave someone unscathed, and unfortunately, Davie is no exception.

Each chapter is told from differing perspectives (with Mark’s being the constant voice throughout), and this makes it challenging to read: Welsh has written in the varying “dialects” of Edinburgh, which takes quite some time to get used to. A lack of quotation marks to identify speech also adds to the challenging nature of the story, but I think these quirks merely serve to accentuate the difficulties and horrors faced by the characters.

The subject matter isn’t pleasant, and there are scenes that are uncomfortable and difficult to read, but overall, I think Trainspotting is worthy of its place on this list. It may not be a story you enjoy, but it’s likely to make you think, and it will undoubtedly register on some level.