“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa, whose name may have been inspired by the celebrated American writer Willa Cather, has inherited a suburban house in New Jersey which is unfortunately falling down through lack of foundations. This is perhaps a metaphor for a middle class family fallen on hard times, so “unsheltered” from both personal problems plus those of a world threatened by climatic change and the collapse of capitalism, to name a couple of issues. Willa has to cope with a handsome, charming but unreliable husband who seems unable to keep his academic posts, even when it is not his fault, in addition to disabled father-in-law “Old Nick”, free-spirit, prickly daughter “Tig”, and son Zeke, traumatised by his wife’s post-natal suicide leaving him with an infant son he will inevitably dump on his mother.

This storyline interweaves in alternate chapters with that of a family from 1871, a century and a half previously, who occupied the same house in Vineland, one of the “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell”. Willa’s unlikely counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, the earnest new science teacher whose passion for Darwin’s theories and other fresh discoveries such as the existence of molecules, are ahead of the times, even judged “heretical” in the conservative, pious small town community. With his pretty but shallow wife Rose, who cannot come to terms with the need to economise, nor give her husband the support he needs, the situation is reminiscent of Doctor Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in “Middlemarch”. Thatcher finds a kindred spirit in his neighbour, the eccentric investigator of spiders and carnivorous plants, botanist and thinker Mrs Mary Treat.

Such is the standing of the bestseller, “The Poisonwood Bible”, with its brilliant first part on the inflexible American missionary who drags his family off to the Congo to cultivate the land and convert the local people without understanding either, that it feels presumptuous to find fault with this book. I was also sufficiently fascinated by the idea of climate change causing Monarch butterflies to migrate to the Appalachians to forgive the tedious passages in “Flight Behaviour”. Yet much as I wanted to enjoy “Unsheltered”, written by a scientist with a sincere desire to explore environmental and social issues, and based on thorough research of the real-life Vineland and Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, I found it intolerably heavy going, bogged down in the flaws increasingly evident in earlier novels, without enough redeeming features despite the potentially interesting themes.

The style is too convoluted, digressive and crammed with indigestible detail. The mostly undeveloped, two-dimensional characters indulge in contrived, stilted conversations which are an all too obvious device for information dumps and debates on what we should think about important issues, with “incorrect” ideas given a put-down, if only in thought, by right-thinking people like Willa. There’s also a tad too much of the saccharine tone: when Mrs Treat unexpectedly “twinkled” over Thatcher’s admiration for her tarantula house, my heart sank.

In the midst of all her domestic ties, former journalist Willa is intrigued to find out more about Mary Treat, but there is not enough to tie together the two strands which might have been more eengaging if divided into two separate novels, or as some have suggested a straightforward piece of non-fiction on the state of our society.

“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller – Doomed Beauty

Despite as a rule giving supernatural and magic realism a wide berth, I find Greek and Roman myths and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey intriguing examples of storytelling and creative writing from nearly three thousand years ago. With an academic background in the Classics, Madeline Miller has produced a vividly imagined modern take on the famous drama of the warrior Achilles and his friend and lover Patroclus. After a decade of research, she has crafted a tightly plotted tale to which we can relate, despite the different values and customs of the day, through the well-developed main characters and dialogue which is modern, without jarring.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, a Greek prince who is exiled from his unloving father’s kingdom at the age of only nine for having accidentally killed a boy who bullied him. At the court of the kindly King Peleus, Patroclus catches the eye of his charismatic son Achilles, and the two become firm friends and eventually lovers. With the sea goddess Thetis for a mother, Achilles is fated to become immortalised in memory as the greatest warrior of his generation, the price being that he will die young. This seems likely to happen sooner than he and Patroclus might wish, since the Greek kings and princes are bound by an oath to fight for the return to Menelaus of his beautiful wife Helen, who has been abducted (perhaps willingly) by the reckless Prince Paris of Troy.

For a Me Too protagonist this book may seem beyond the pale, the treatment of women as booty along with golden goblets, slavery and rape of women being taken for granted, often at the hands of the men who have slain their male relatives in battle. Even female deities do not escape this: the virtuous Peleus was rewarded by the gods by being allotted the sea-nymph Thetis to give him a child, but was expected to use brute force to overcome her resistance.
In a confined Mediterranean natural world where so much is unknown or inexplicable, no one in this book questions long-held superstitions, the role of the capricious gods in determining the course of events or the “pecking order” of the deities, in which Thetis, though powerful by human standards may have to beg Zeus for a favour, or be unable to explain a prophecy from the Fates, “well-known” for their riddles. With her eyes “dark as sea-wet rocks and as jagged”, her clinging dress “shimmering like fish-scale”, she sustains a vicious contempt for Patroclus. “He is not worthy of you” she tells her son, although events may prove otherwise.

I liked the lighter moments of humour in the blend between fantasy and practicalities as when kindly centaur and teacher of men Chiron is disappointed to hear that the boys have been taught to ride: “Forget what you learned. I do not like to be squeezed by the legs or tugged at”. Patroclus found “the centaur’s gait was less symmetrical than a horse’s…I slipped alarmingly on the sweat-slick horsehair.” On first meeting, Patroclus is fascinated by “that impossible suture of horse and man, where smooth skin becomes gleaming brown coat”.

Although the love between Patroclus and Achilles is portrayed with sensitivity, it seemed to me like a rather feminine take on male love. Similarly, the blood and guts of battle appear somewhat sanitised in the protracted Trojan War, with the Greeks setting off from their camps on the beach across a plain to reach the city walls, rather like a road construction gang going off to work. Admittedly, the book builds up to a violent climax, perhaps all the stronger for brutality having been underplayed earlier.

As Achilles loses the innocence of youth and starts exploiting his reputation as a fighter to challenge the corrupt actions of the unpleasant war leader Agamemnon, the unthinking acceptance of the glory of prowess in battle gives way to more complex considerations of the misuse of power, even with good intentions, which may lead to stubborn pride and hubris. Apart from a rather sentimental final paragraph, if you can cope with a ghostly spirit “the faintest shiver in the air” as the deceased narrator, the novel achieves a condensed but quite neat and thought-provoking ending. The simple value of human love, like that between Achilles and Patroclus may be shown to have more worth than artificially god-fuelled fighting skills. The desire to be a mere mortal may win out over the heartless arrogance of Pyrrhus, the unfortunate son of Achilles whom Thetis tried unsuccessfully “to make.. a god”.

I was prompted to read this by reviews of Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls”, which has a feminist take on the story of Achilles and Patroclus from the viewpoint of Briseis, cast as a Trojan king’s daughter rather than the Anatolian village girl of this version. Although women play a much smaller part in Madeline Miller’s story, I found her tale less viscerally violent with a more subtle and satisfying plot and the characters of Achilles and Patroclus much more fully developed, complex and arousing empathy. It’s worth reading the two novels for comparison.

“Unsheltered” by Barbara Kingsolver

Willa, whose name may have been inspired by the celebrated American writer Willa Cather, has inherited a suburban house in New Jersey which is unfortunately falling down through lack of foundations. This is perhaps a metaphor for a middle class family fallen on hard times, so “unsheltered” from both personal problems plus those of a world threatened by climatic change and the collapse of capitalism, to name a couple of issues. Willa has to cope with a handsome, charming but unreliable husband who seems unable to keep his academic posts, even when it is not his fault, in addition to disabled father-in-law “Old Nick”, free-spirit, prickly daughter “Tig”, and son Zeke, traumatised by his wife’s post-natal suicide leaving him with an infant son he will inevitably dump on his mother.

This storyline interweaves in alternate chapters with that of a family from 1871, a century and a half previously, who occupied the same house in Vineland, one of the “Nineteenth-Century Utopias Gone to Hell”. Willa’s unlikely counterpart is Thatcher Greenwood, the earnest new science teacher whose passion for Darwin’s theories and other fresh discoveries such as the existence of molecules, are ahead of the times, even judged “heretical” in the conservative, pious small town community. With his pretty but shallow wife Rose, who cannot come to terms with the need to economise, nor give her husband the support he needs, the situation is reminiscent of Doctor Lydgate and his wife Rosamond in “Middlemarch”. Thatcher finds a kindred spirit in his neighbour, the eccentric investigator of spiders and carnivorous plants, botanist and thinker Mrs Mary Treat.

Such is the standing of the bestseller, “The Poisonwood Bible”, with its brilliant first part on the inflexible American missionary who drags his family off to the Congo to cultivate the land and convert the local people without understanding either, that it feels presumptuous to find fault with this book. I was also sufficiently fascinated by the idea of climate change causing Monarch butterflies to migrate to the Appalachians to forgive the tedious passages in “Flight Behaviour”. Yet much as I wanted to enjoy “Unsheltered”, written by a scientist with a sincere desire to explore environmental and social issues, and based on thorough research of the real-life Vineland and Mary Treat, who corresponded with Darwin, I found it intolerably heavy going, bogged down in the flaws increasingly evident in earlier novels, without enough redeeming features despite the potentially interesting themes.

The style is too convoluted, digressive and crammed with indigestible detail. The mostly undeveloped, two-dimensional characters indulge in contrived, stilted conversations which are an all too obvious device for information dumps and debates on what we should think about important issues, with “incorrect” ideas given a put-down, if only in thought, by right-thinking people like Willa. There’s also a tad too much of the saccharine tone: when Mrs Treat unexpectedly “twinkled” over Thatcher’s admiration for her tarantula house, my heart sank.

In the midst of all her domestic ties, former journalist Willa is intrigued to find out more about Mary Treat, but there is not enough to tie together the two strands which might have been more eengaging if divided into two separate novels, or as some have suggested a straightforward piece of non-fiction on the state of our society.

“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth – How accidentally a destiny is made.

 

This is my review of The Human Stain  by Philip Roth

Original and astonishingly articulate, “The Human Stain” forms the third part of Philip Roth’s trilogy of novels exploring major social issues in late 1990s USA.

After a distinguished career as a former Dean and Classics Professor who has chosen to return to classroom teaching at small-town New England Athena College, Coleman Silk falls foul of “political correctness” by describing two black students as “spooks”. He is referring to their ghost-like nature in appearing on his class register but never in person: the powers that be construe his words as racist. The irony of this situation, and the reasons for Coleman’s furious reaction to the charge are gradually revealed.

Proud and impulsive, he storms out rather than wait for the outrage to die down. His anger and isolation only fed by the sudden death of his wife Iris, which he attributes to stress over his treatment, he further scandalises the community by taking up with Faunia, an uneducated college cleaner and farm worker less than half his age. Their common bond seems to be that she too has been society’s victim, although in a very different way.

The narrator is Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s favourite alter ego who reappears in other novels, but Roth makes the maximum play with artistic licence, digressing into events and inner thoughts (as when Faunia thinks about why she likes crows so much) which Zuckerman could not possibly know. The device for getting round this is that Silk’s story inspires Zuckerman to go on to research, expand upon and dramatise his whole life in the “The Human Stain” which we are actually reading. This goes far beyond Coleman’s emotional demand that, as a professional writer, Zuckerman should write about the monumental injustice which has been done to him.

Roth makes much of the parallel between Coleman’s plight and what he sees as the inordinate and hypocritical uproar over Clinton’s dalliance with Monika Lewinsky. An additional apparent inspiration was the experience of an academic friend, Melvin Tumin, who was subject to a “witch hunt” but was ultimately found blameless for the alleged use of racial language as regards two African American students. The plot is also a vehicle for exploring practical difficulties of gaining racial equality. An ambitious individual bent on achieving “The American Dream” may choose the controversial path of “passing himself off” as white, but this may be at the price of cutting oneself off from blood relatives and denying one’s children a sense of their true heritage.

Meanwhile, Faunia’s violent, vengeful stalker ex-husband Les Farley serves to reveal the problem of the traumatised veterans unable to adapt to “normal” life after the living nightmare of Vietnam. Roth shows his skill in arousing a sense of sympathy for almost everyone in this book, even the French academic troublemaker Delphine Roux who pays lip service to what Coleman (and probably Roth) sees as phoney literary “deconstructionism”. Perhaps, though, there is just a tinge of the flaw of subjective anti-feminism and academic conservatism in Roth when it comes to writing about Delphine.

Roth’s writing sometimes reaches such a peak of broiling intensity, that one has to take a pause to recover, and his tendency to examine causes and motives from every conceivable angle sometimes seems obsessive. Some of the quieter passages have the deepest impact, as when Zuckermann, who has taken refuge from the “entanglement” with his “turbulent” past life in a two-room cabin by a small pond with a patient blue heron in the Madamska mountains, meditates on how hard it has proved to adapt to “radical seclusion” and how easily he has made a friend of Coleman and let “all the world’s malice” come back “rushing in”.

Sadly, watching the film of the book years ago deterred me from reading it, because I could not get over the problem that actor Anthony Hopkins did not “look the part” of Coleman Silk. Having at last read it for a book group, I shall now make a point of going back to the first two parts of the trilogy involving a different set of characters and dilemmas: American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

“Sing buried sing” by Jesmyn Ward

This is my review of “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.

This imaginative and unconventional novel links the experiences of two young black boys who suffer ingrained racial prejudice, two generations apart, in the US state of Mississippi. In the opening chapter, thirteen-year-old Jojo tries to prove he is becoming a man by helping “Pop”, his black grandfather, to slaughter and skin a goat. The explicit, unflinching description of this is a foretaste of what is to come. Jojo’s main concern is to care for his little sister Kayla, since his mother Leonie is neglectful between working long hours and “snorting crushed pills”, with his white father Michael is serving time in Parchman. This is a penitentiary in real life, notorious for its harsh treatment of black prisoners as farm labourers. The second boy, Richie, sent to Parchman when less than ten years old, is at first protected to some extent by “Pop” when also imprisoned there in his youth.

The bleakness of the accumulated circumstances, together with the tendency of two main characters to vomit as nauseam, came close to putting me off reading this, but I was drawn in by Jojo’s appealing character and the relationships between the family members. When the point of view switches to Leonie, she triggers more sympathy than one might expect, proving to be an immature mother infatuated with her partner Michael, rather than inherently evil, trapped in the vicious circle of wanting to love her children but not knowing how to show it, particularly since Jojo and Kayla have formed such a tight bond which excludes her. She is in fact traumatised, still grieving for her brother who was murdered in a racist attack.

I appreciate that the use of a first person narrative for Jojo, Leonie and Richie creates an authentic sense of immediacy and transports us directly into their thoughts, but I agree with reviewers who argue that too often their southern idioms interwoven with some vivid, quirky descriptions slip into the articulate, literary style of the author herself, which does not ring true in the context.

The theme is sufficiently powerful not to require the devices of magical realism and the ghosts which increasingly haunt the novel. Again, I can see that the title, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” reflects Jesmyn Ward’s desire to show how the suffering of past generations of slaves and exploited black Americans still burdens the present, with all its ongoing injustice, but this does not require the inclusion of ghosts, unless perhaps it is to indicate enduring superstitions.

Jesmyn Ward has a talent for creating a strong sense of place : “some kind of bad earth. Like the bayou when the water runs out after the moon or it ain’t rained and the muddy bottom, where the crawfish burrow, turns black and gummy under the blue sky and stinks”. Her lyrical prose has been compared to William Faulkner’s, but her style tends to become overblown, particularly towards the end of the book which seemed to me to run off the rails somewhat, with a rather contrived, mawkish ending. To admire this novel without major reservations, I think one has to believe in ghosts which can only be seen by those with psychic powers.

“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper

 

This is my review of Force of Nature by Jane Harper.

When Alice Russell fails to return from a corporate retreat involving a team-building exercise in the remote Australian Giralang Ranges with their sinister recent history as the haunt of a serial killer, Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper naturally assume a link with their undercover work to persuade Alice to obtain information which will incriminate her employers at BaileyTennants, a family firm suspected of long-term money laundering. As the story develops, alternating between the search for Alice and the flashbacks revealing the chain of events from the start of the four day retreat, it becomes clear that at least four of her work colleagues have a clear motive for killing her. Another possibility is of course the emergence of a new copy-cat serial killer. Or has Alice simply seized the opportunity to go AWOL for a whileas the least-worst option?

As in “The Dry” which made the author’s name on the bestseller list, Jane Harper sustains her talent for writing psychological thrillers, keeping a tight control on her material to drip-feed dramatic events and clues, and developing her characters in-depth as she ramps up the tension, exploiting to the full with a strong sense of place the “force of nature” in the menace of the wild rain-swept landscape, in which one tree is indistinguishable from another, paths peter out or offer confusing choices, carpet pythons lurk in rotten trunks, and communication with the outside world is abruptly cut off, the sole mobile phone smuggled onto the retreat providing too weak and fitful a signal to provide more than the odd tantalising fragment of contact.

In a kind of adult Aussie take on “Lord of the Flies”, the force of nature is also revealed in the rapid disintegration of the façade of civilised behaviour between the five women once they are transplanted from their structured work environment to the wilderness where basic survival becomes the main issue. There are parallels of course, between the way people bully and manipulate each other in their “normal” everyday world and the more physically brutal and critical way they may compete for vital scarce resources in situations of physical extremity. As one character observes, “It wasn’t any one thing that went wrong, it was a hundred little things.” Each inexorably adds to the ultimate crisis.

Although, when one reflects on it afterwards, not much happens, and the power of the tale depends on how the facts are revealed, the novel proved a gripping read at the time. Any repetition can be justified as reinforcing the oppressive situation in which the team of five women find themselves, and I also liked the way that the author knows when to stop, having given us the denouement but leaving the details of the outcomes to our imagination.

Universal harvester: chaffing over the grain

This is my review of  Universal Harvester  by John Darnielle

I never came to understand why this novel is called “Universal Harvester”. It is well-written and original, but with its unresolved ambiguities, lack of development of the key characters apart from motherless Jeremy Heldt and his bereaved father, and rather limp conclusion, it left me feeling somewhat dissatisfied.

Part One of this short novel is very promising, a page-turning psychological drama  which subtly develops a sense of unease, even menace in a small Iowa town where nothing much happens and men pass the time of day talking about fishing. In danger of sinking into a rut at the local video rental store (VHS tapes because it’s the end of the 1990s),  Jeremy Heldt begins  to receive complaints about videos with “something” on them, and then becomes obsessed himself by  the unsettling shots someone has managed to insert into certain films.  The spare prose is effective not only in its vivid evocation of rural/ small-town life, creating a strong sense of place, but also in the portrayal of the relationship between Jeremy and his father as they try to provide mutual support and respect each other’s grief.

The second part dispels  the illusion that this is  working up to being a tale of horror or detective thriller, rupturing the narrative drive with an abrupt switch back to the 1960s with the focus on a different set of characters. The style become more “exposition” rather than reveal what goes on in Irene Sample’s mind to cause a dramatic  and life-changing action on her part.

Although it seemed clear who was responsible for altering the tapes, in the last two sections, my frustration grew over  the unresolved ambiguities as to why and exactly how this was being done, including what induced, even forced, others to take part as  “actors”.  The author begins the acknowledgements with:  “This is a book  largely about mothers”.  The only reason I can see for inclusion in Part Four of  the Pratts, who come to rent the house where the tapes were altered  some years previously,  is to introduce a “normal happy family” of comfortably off Californians to provide a contrast with those rendered dysfunctional by the loss of a mother. With perhaps rather thoughtless complacency, the Pratts display the confidence and resilience borne of good fortune that is only mildly or temporarily thrown off course by a troubling sense of other people’s distress. They also demonstrate how differently, partially and inaccurately strangers may view a place compared with previous occupiers unknown to them.

Having just read William Faulkner’s “As I lay dying”, I noted some similarities in the frequent focus on small details rather than the main issues, which one often has to deduce,  in the switches in viewpoint and in the idea that mystery of the altered tapes, even the effects of losing one’s mother, are not the essence of the story.  This seems to lie in the nature of being, in which, for instance, people may cease to exist for us when they move out of our lives,  or the difficulty of knowing what went on in a house or place before one lived there.

“She wondered what had gone missing from Iowa before she ever got there. There is no way of knowing. That’s what pictures are for, after all: to stand in place of the things that weren’t left behind, to bear witness to people and places and things that might otherwise go unnoticed”.