On the bookshelf: November 2018

A few of the books I have rejoiced in lately. 

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Photo by Caio Resende on Pexels.com

Marina Keegan had just graduated from Yale University when she was killed in a car accident in 2012. A bright and popular young woman, she was a promising writer and in The Opposite of Loneliness, her fiction and non-fiction has been collected.

It’s very hard to be critical of a collection conceived in such circumstances, and while it is uneven in places, I’m happy to report it is a good read. The title essay, which she read at commencement, has gone viral and justly so, as it’s a joyous capturing of the feeling many of us have in college.

Many of Keegan’s stories touch on death and relationship breakdown, and she details the tiny moments in a dying relationship exquisitely. Stories like Cold Pastoral­, which follows a girl dealing with the sudden death of her sort-of-boyfriend, hit like a punch in the gut. Some of the non-fiction is less successful, and I wonder would Keegan, had she lived, be overly thrilled that her college newspaper articles have been memorialised in book form. One article, about a pest controller, is a strong exception and is an engrossing read. Another absorbing and witty piece details the love affair Marina had with her car, which takes on extra poignancy when you consider the manner of her death.

Keegan details her hopes and dreams for the future, and it’s tragic she never got to fulfil her promise. I would have loved to have read her work as it would have undoubtedly become more polished and practiced over the years. The Opposite of Loneliness is an urgent reminder to create if you feel the need to, because you never know what could happen.

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Transcription follows Juliet, a a typist for MI5 during WWII (Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com)

Kate Atkinson is a favourite writer of mine, and one of the few that can bring me to tears. Her latest, Transcription, doesn’t have the emotional heft of Life After Life or A God In Ruins, but it’s a taut, tense spy thriller.

Atkinson specialises in protagonists, especially women, who find themselves adrift in life, and Juliet is a classic example. It’s 1940, and while Britain and Germany are technically at war, no bombs have fallen yet and life is going on much the same as usual. Juliet finds herself recruited as a typist for MI5, and her job is to simply type up what she overhears between Nazi sympathisers in a bugged apartment in London. Of course, things get far more complicated than that, and before long she is an unwilling spy.

The novel flashes between 1940 and 1950. After the war, Juliet begins work as a radio producer for the BBC. The grim post-war atmosphere is captured well, and at times the setting reminded me of the singularly English oppressiveness of 1984.

To say more would be to give away a satisfyingly twisty plot, but Transcription is a great read, packed with Atkinson’s trademark mordant humour and piercing observation.

A few months ago I picked up my mother’s elderly copy of Dublin 4 by Maeve Binchy. I had never, to my shame, read any of the first lady of Irish women’s literature before, and this was a good place to start.

Dublin 4 is a collection of four longish stories set in the titular Dublin district. Anyone who’s familiar with Ireland will know that Dublin 4 is one of the most well-to-do areas in the city, however, it covers quite a large area, from the docks and the less affluent areas of Ringsend and Irishtown, to the leafy avenues of Ballsbridge and Donnybrook.

The first story ‘Dinner in Donnybrook’ concerns a woman whose husband is having an affair with a much younger artist, and her efforts to seek revenge. This was an entertaining tale with some pithy observation, but I wish we had seen the plot actually unfold, and to me it is the weakest of the four. ‘Flat in Ringsend’ follows a young country girl as she starts her first job in the post office and moves into a flat share with two other girls. Binchy captures the homesickness, naivete and paranoia of the main character beautifully. Life for those new (and old) to Dublin can still be tough, but ‘Flat In Ringsend’ conjures the atmosphere of a bygone Ireland that had simultaneously low and high expectations of its young, single women. Another story that is an invaluable social document of its time is ‘Decision in Belfield’, skilfully dealing with that subject that up until recently was the ultimate taboo in Irish society: abortion. The last story, ‘Murmurs in Montrose’, also sheds light on another perennial issue in Ireland, alcoholism.

Binchy broke all the rules you could think of about adverbs, dialogue etc. but it’s as if her own warm and witty personality has taken the reins and none of that matters. She wrote convincingly about real world issues and she deserves no end of credit for taking on the things Irish people would rather not discuss with a light and deft touch.

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The real Underground Railroad did not involve trains (via Wikimedia Commons)

Finally, my last and most disappointing read was Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner The Underground Railroad. I wanted to like this one, not least because I’d used an Eason’s voucher code on it, but I never found myself fully engaged. The story follows Cora, an escaped US plantation slave in the early 19th century, as she moves through the Underground Railroad to freedom.

Whitehead made the decision to transform the Underground Railroad into an actual railroad, complete with trains and stations (in reality it was the code name for a series of safe houses and road routes to the free Northern States and Canada). He also messes with chronology a bit so that all the terrible things that happened to black people in the States (Jim Crow, the Tuskegee syphilis trials, forced sterilisation, to name but a few)  happens at once during Cora’s lifetime. The magical realism element is too subtle for the casual reader to grasp and they may just doubt Whitehead’s knowledge of history; that’s if they are familiar with US history in the first place. It seemed like he had an interesting concept, but did not grasp the nettle and really go for it.

The real sin though is that the story is told in a dry, distant way, and Cora and the other characters never feel like anything more than ciphers. Cora’s internal voice is all over the place. Until her escape she had never been anywhere but the plantation, yet she barely marvels at the new experiences thrown at her. Likewise, she is capable of articulating big ideas and concepts about the American nation, that sound very like Whitehead’s own ideas and concepts of the American nation. It’s not that a slave in that era was incapable of serious thought- far from it, as people like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass demonstrate- but Cora seems to go from zero to one hundred in terms of education level. She even knows about the Famine in Ireland, which would be simply inconceivable for a person kept deliberately illiterate and ignorant of the outside world, thousands of miles away in Georgia. Cora is less a rounded character that a vehicle for a narrative. As a result, although she is put through brutal tribulations, we are never made to care.

A story about slavery was never going to be a fun read, but Steve McQueen’s excellent 12 Years A Slave was a masterclass in keeping our attention rapt in new and ever more horrible brutalities. I studied Toni Morrison’s Beloved in university, and while the details are hazy, I remember it being an uncomfortably intimate fever dream of a book. While Morrison wasn’t afraid of throwing us right into the deep end of the emotional reality of slavery and its effect on future generations, Whitehead seems to be more comfortable intellectualising the past. As a result, The Underground Railroad never hits the heart.

The book did have one positive effect- when I finished it, I immediately googled the Underground Railroad and learned all about it and the amazing Harriet Tubman. A good historical book, or Beloved, would be more worth your time than The Underground Railroad.

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