The Gathering – Anne Enright

Book #9b

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily


Published in 2007, this novel won the Man Booker Prize in the same year and two further Irish book awards the following year.

Set predominantly in Dublin, the narrator is one of the large Hegarty clan, Veronica.  She starts the winding tale with a wistful desire to revisit a specific time in her childhood,

I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen.

And that is the beginning of a long, slow, meander through current day events, Veronica’s memories, thoughts and imaginings.

The main story begins with Veronica visiting her mother in order to tell her that her older brother Liam has died.  Veronica gets this duty from being the “the careful one” and because she is “the one who loved him most” of the siblings.
From this point on, the narrative jumps from the current day to her memories to her imagination and back again.  She spends a lot of time musing about her grandparents, Ada and Charlie, and their contemporary Lamb Nugent. She also recalls many aspects of her childhood and reflects on the way her family was, and how that plays out to their individual present day situations, including Liam’s manner of death.

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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.

Regeneration – Pat Barker

BOOK #170
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (review previously published February 5, 2014)

RegenerationThe books in this trilogy have received awards and huge critical acclaim, but I was having trouble getting excited about starting them.

Once again I have learned that I irrationally fear historical fiction, but love it once I begin to read. This book was particularly interesting to me as a psychologist and faculty member teaching psychology. I am far from psychoanalytic in orientation, but this novel does a marvelous job of illustrating how some of the techniques of psychoanalysis can be tremendously useful in understanding psychological phenomena.

The novel also beautifully illustrates the many potential psychiatric manifestations of war trauma. It is written with tremendous compassion for the men whose lives it portrays, soldiers suffering shell shock in the first world war and the doctors treating them. This was a very moving account of the impact of combat in WWI on both the men at the front and those who treated them after the psychologically traumatic events they lived through. It’s based on real people and real events.

It is beautifully written, combining some of the real poetry written by soldiers in their time convalescing in a military psychiatric hospital with the author’s own equally well-crafted prose. This novel, which is the first of the trilogy, explores questions about the morality of war, about the ways in which the military and political aims of those safe and in power are played out at great cost by those who actually do the fighting, about the morality of returning psychologically traumatized individuals to relative mental health only to send them back into the trauma.

It juxtaposes two very different ways of treating conversion symptoms which translate conflicts about returning to combat into debilitating physical symptoms, and provides excellent examples of psychodynamic psychotherapy complete with analysis of dreams. I used it to teach my personality theories course the day I started reading it, because it was so perfect for illustrating some of what I was teaching about.

I am really looking forward to the rest of the series! 5 out of 5 stars.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby – Charles Dickens

Book #917

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (first published March 2012)

Dickens had a genius for revealing the social ills of the England in which he lived through poignant tales of worthy characters who battle and suffer from those ills. In the process, he lightens the reading experience with his marvelous wit, his gift for characterization, and his clear compassion for the protagonists he creates.

In this tale, the protagonist, Nicholas Nickleby, is the son of a widow, well-meaning but amazingly circumstantial and self-involved, and his namesake, who was a respectable landowner until an unwise investment at the urging of his wife lead him to financial ruin. At the opening of the tale, Nicholas, his beautiful sister Kate, and their mother have traveled to London to throw themselves on the mercy of Nickleby Sr.’s brother Ralph who is wealthy. Ralph is as nasty as he is rich, and this leads the family to experience a number of the country’s ills which they might otherwise have been spared. Nicholas is packed of to the Yorkshire countryside to work under Mr. Squeers, a horrible schoolmaster who takes in vulnerable boys and starves and beats rather than educates them in exchange for their tuition. Kate is consigned to work in a seamstress’s shop, and she and her mother are lodged in a tiny unkempt property of Ralph’s. In the course of the tale Kate is placed at the mercy of lecherous gentry, Nicholas escapes, rescuing a runaway boy, and joins a theater company, and various other adventures ensue. Eventually joins forces with various other reputable and kind hearted folk to battle back against the various evil schemes of his uncle.

This book is VERY long, but it is an enjoyable, if not gripping read. At times it reminded me of A Christmas Carol, but Ralph is not so easily influenced as was old Ebeneezer Scrooge, despite being at one point visited by a Marley-like figure from his past (not yet dead, and not yet fully repentant, but nonetheless offering a chance to make reparations for one of his early evil deeds). I’m glad to have hung in there through this lengthy read, although at times I thought I might never get to the end.

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Book #6b

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published August 2011)

The White Tiger
is the winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, and was easily the most enjoyable Booker that I have read to date.  It is also the third Booker set in India or about Indians which I have read; the other two being In A Free State which has a story about an Indian manservant in the US, and The Siege of Krishnapur which is set during the Indian Mutiny.
This book is set in modern India, starting out in Laxmangarh, moving briefly to Dhanbad  then through to Delhi and finally resolving in Bangalore.  It follows the life of Balram Halwai, also known as the white tiger.  Balram is the son of a rickshaw puller, whose father wants him to be the first in the family to get an education.  Sadly for Balram he does not get to remain in school, and considers himself to be half-baked because of it.

The story is told in the form of a conversational letter written by Balram to the soon to be visiting Premier of China, Wen Jiabao.  Balram recounts his life from Laxmangarh to Bangalore and how he is a great example of an Indian entrepreneur.    The humour is all pervasive.  All the way through the book the descriptions and language are full of it.  But it isn’t straightforward humour, it is the sort that is full of very large porcupine quills.  From a distance it looks sleek, but get too close and it will poke you firmly in your soft bits.

It is crammed full of social observations, and shows the dichotomy of country and city, rich and poor, and traditional ways versus technology driven modernisation.   It was highly entertaining while being quite enlightening about the life of the crushingly poor of India. Social commentary in humorous form.

So, here are a few examples of Adiga’s writing, the first is about the way elections are bought from the illiterate and the poor by coercion:

“It’s the way it always is.” my father told me that night.  “I’ve seen twelve elections – five general, five state, two local – and someone else has voted for me twelve times.  I’ve heard that people in the other India get to vote for themselves – isn’t that something?”

The “other India” is a reference to those who do not dwell in the Darkness – the poor, rural communities where the landlords are rulers of all and decide just about everything.

Then, a tongue in cheek commentary on the life of a city driver, which Balram becomes.

You can develop the chauffeur’s habit – it’s a kind of yoga, really – of putting a finger in your nose and letting your mind go blank for hours (they should call it the ‘bored driver’s asana‘).

And some irony to finish.

The dreams of the rich, and the dreams of the poor – they never overlap, do they?
See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich.  And what do the rich dream of?
Losing weight and looking like the poor.

Part of me feels badly about enjoying this so much.  There is so much injustice, mistreatment and general dishonesty and nastiness described in this story that you really feel that you shouldn’t be enjoying it at all.  You should be feeling some sort of ire, anger or horror.  But you don’t.  Maybe it’s the irrepressible way that Balram looks at life that allows you to read his story without wallowing in the misery of the lifestyle he describes.

I really loved reading this.  If you want to read a Booker this year, then choose this one.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.