Birdy by William Wharton

I really enjoyed this novel – I think it’s brilliant. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages as my Mum recommended it and it turns out it’s pretty relevant to what I’ll be studying at uni this year too. ‘Birdy’ tells the story of two friends’ experiences of the Second World War and how brutally they are affected, both physically and mentally. The novel also interrogates our perceptions of what it means to be “crazy”; what does the word actually mean and is it something you become, or something that is ingrained within certain people?

The novel is narrated in separate sections by each of the protagonists, Al Columbato and Birdy. Al is visiting Birdy in an institution for people who have been ‘mentally damaged’ by the war, his own face covered in bandages from the injuries he has suffered. Both look back on their shared childhood and their passage into adulthood with Al trying to ‘bring Birdy back’ by remembering the things they used to do together. It is a touching and powerful narrative which really gets you thinking. It is also funny and, especially Al’s no-nonsense narration style, makes it really enjoyable to read.

Throughout his childhood, Birdy is obsessed with birds. Firstly he and Al breed homing pigeons but when Al loses interest and Birdy’s mother intervenes, Birdy moves on to canaries. Soon Birdy’s reality becomes blurred with the lives of his canaries and Wharton demonstrates how when somebody is different they are easily labelled as “crazy”. My only criticism of the novel would be that sometimes the sections about the canaries seem to drag on for slightly too long, however these passages show the depth with which Birdy has become absorbed into the lives of his birds and become distanced from his own. I feel that Wharton asks you to assess the way you perceive Birdy; is his behaviour crazy or is it simply different from society’s norms? This particularly apparent in one episode when Birdy bunks off school and spends much of his day sitting up in a tree. His parents are angry but don’t believe him when he says what he has been doing and Birdy wonders what it is they want him to have been doing, if they don’t believe the truth. Birdy’s passion for canaries is set alongside Al’s love of sport and boxing, something which is fuelled by a desire to ‘beat’ his father. Birdy’s love of birds is defined simply as an ‘obsession’ by his peers and his parents but why is Al’s hobby not treated in the same way? What is it that makes the two things different?

The ending of the novel is my favourite part, which is not something that can be said of a lot of books, where sometimes a great book is let down by its anticlimactic denouement. We never really learn what actually happened to Birdy but Al tells Birdy about his own experience and I think this section is what makes it one of the best books about war that I have read. Although I have no experience of war myself, somehow what Al describes seems full of truth and honesty about the realities of combat.

There are some fantastic quotes in the novel – one that seems particularly poignant to me is:

We’re crazy because we can’t accept the idea that things happen for no reason at all and that it doesn’t mean anything  … there’s no end to the absurd things people will do trying to make life mean something.

I would definitely recommend this novel. Its treatment of madness is insightful and thought-provoking. I’m now really interested to try another of Wharton’s novels.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I think the most amazing thing about this book is that is was written over 80 years ago and yet its critique of modern society and technology is just as biting and as relevant, if not more so, now than it was when it was published in 1932. The world of cloning and genetic engineering that Huxley imagines is scarily closer to our own world than Huxley’s, as the rapid advancement of technology and scientific knowledge has made similar things actually within the realms of possibility. The thought that any of these things could be introduced into our own society fills me with a sense of unease and the fact that the novel is capable of making me feel this way is a testament to its mastery.

The brilliance of Huxley’s critique, I think, is in the way the futuristic world is presented to those living within it as a utopia yet to the reader it seems so dystopian. It’s not particularly excitement and suspense that makes you keep reading but more of a fascination with the horror of the characters’ existence. The conditioning of each of the ‘classes’ even from before birth (if it can be called ‘birth’) to feel intrinsically happy with their lot in life and to believe that they have achieved the highest accolade of their aspirations is extremely chilling; the absolute control that the conditioning achieves by essentially removing any independent thought that varies from the laws of their society is frightening.

The focus on control and a warped sense of social stability is equally nightmarish. Happiness is achieved in opposition to freedom and this casts a dark shadow over an assumed philosophical truth that freedom and happiness make the other possible. This ‘happiness’ that the people experience relies on promiscuous sexual behaviour and essentially a reliance on drugs – these things exacerbate (?) a lack of emotional attachment to any other person. The characters (I have trouble calling them characters as somehow they don’t seem human enough) have no parents or siblings, no partners or spouses, and children are conditioned from an early age to naturalise the process of dying so that grief is not associated with the passing away of friends. Huxley presents an emotionally barren landscape yet very few of his characters express any desire for change; they are happy without love, a pretty sinister idea.

Their happiness also relies on a dependence on consumer products and goods, in order to maintain commerce and trade. The wastefulness exhibited by the characters and the pointlessness of many of their activities which require so many products harshly criticises modern consumerism and our desire for objects that have no use value.

Huxley presents us with a society that has solved poverty, social unrest and unhappiness yet to me seems anything but utopian. This is a very thought-provoking novel; a definite must-read.

Harvest by Jim Crace

I can’t really make my mind up about whether I liked this book or not. I picked it out from an otherwise disappointing selection at my local library and it definitely showed promise at first. It tells the story of  a tiny rural village several hundred years ago and how the community is destroyed by several dramatic events, starting with a fire in the manor stables and the appearance of three strangers on the edge of the village lands. It certainly seems as though there will be drama and intrigue after such a beginning but I found that rather than intensifying, the mystery surrounding the turmoil, while not being solved, seems to lose its momentum.

Harvest

Barring a couple of individuals, including the novel’s narrator, the people of the village have lived there for generations and have almost no connection to other clusters of civilisation. This setting, so distant from the modern world of travel and communication we live in, and the rhythmic, poetic prose (especially of the opening chapter) make the novel seem almost mythical; altogether the novel seems from a forgotten time and I think because of this, a sense of reality seems missing from the characters and the plot throughout the novel.

To slightly contradict myself, the novel exhibits a whole spectrum of human emotions and impulses: sadness and loss, greed, love, lust, anger and frustration, guilt, empathy, loyalty and something akin to pack mentality when events in the novel turn to violence. In this way the secluded way of life of the villagers aids the power of Crace’s storytelling; the simplicity of their lives leaves room for Crace to examine primal human feelings and responses. Removed from the complications of calculated thought, the characters act instinctively and spontaneously. However, while this is certainly merit-worthy, the simplicity also works against Crace’s characters as I felt detached from their world and never really got into the story.

Detail of a harvesting scene circa 1577 from Holinshed’s Chronicles

In one review of the book that I read, it likened the novel to William Goulding’s ‘Lord of the Flies'; there are definitely certain echoes of Goulding in ‘Harvest’ but I felt that it was lacking the impact of Goulding’s work. Despite the violence and apocalyptic fire, I was disappointed by the ending of the novel, and I think it falls short of the climatic horror of ‘Lord of the Flies’.

I think the novel is well written and it is not lacking in substance but it still failed to grip me. Somehow its pace is too leisurely and it lacked the ability to provoke curiosity, excitement or feelings of empathy with its characters. I quite enjoyed reading it but my general feeling towards it is a bit ‘meh’. I don’t think I would recommend.

‘Disgrace’ by J.M. Coetzee

I began reading this novel on the train on the way to meet my uni friends for a day on Bridlington beach and by the end of my return journey later that day I had almost finished it. I pretty much entirely ignored the beautiful countryside views from the train window as I was so engrossed in reading. This novel is definitely deserving of its Booker Prize winning status.

Initially I disliked the novel. Its protagonist, David Lurie, a lecturer at Cape Town University, is an anti-hero who becomes embroiled in a sleazy affair with one of his students, Melanie Issacs. There is no redeeming feature about the affair; it is entirely seedy, sordid and distasteful. From the huge age gap between the two (and his continual references to his almost paternal affections for her despite their sexual relationship), Melanie’s passive behaviour which verges on non-consensual, and worse still, his stubborn and unapologetic way of dealing with the consequences once their affair is discovered, the whole thing does not endear you to Lurie’s character. Unsurprisingly I did not feel warmly towards his character and I did consider not reading any further.

However I did persevere (it’s only 200 pages long and I still had 40 minutes of train journey to go) but I’m pleased that I did. Following his fall from grace, Lurie leaves Cape Town and goes to live with his daughter for a few weeks on her farm in a remote part of the Eastern Cape. Shortly after Lurie has settled into rural life, they experience a horrific attack which ruptures the bond between them and throws both characters into a state of shock. While not written in very explicit detail the attack is nevertheless difficult to read and its effect on the characters, particularly, Lucy, David’s daughter, is palpable. Afterwards neither father or daughter can understand each others different responses to what happened and so they are unable to communicate without frustration. Coetzee explores what creates the ability to empathise and questions whether differences in gender, age, race or family ties have the power to influence our capacity for empathy.

Coetzee’s novel is an exposé of human error and obstinacy; none of his characters are faultless and all must cope with mistakes and hardship. Coetzee has a fluid writing style and an effortless talent for capturing the humanity behind his characters decisions. He also offers the reader a revealing slice of post-apartheid South Africa and how tension still exists, recent history still being in within a memorable epoch. Yet in my opinion the novel doesn’t become political, which is refreshing; the novel is much more about the people, the characters themselves.

disgrace

In contrast to its small page count this novel is not a light read but I would definitely recommend it. It is very good.

‘Annabel’ by Kathleen Winter

One of my friends is writing her research project on ‘Annabel’ and ‘The Wasp Factory’ so when I spotted this novel in the library I decided to take it out. I have previously read ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, which I thought was really good (would definitely recommend!), so I was interested to see how another author would approach the subject of inter-sexuality.

Annabel_Kathleen_Winter

‘Annabel’ is set in remote Labrador in Canada and it is the story of Wayne, a child born with both male and female genitalia. Only his (?) parents, Jacinta and Treadway, and a family friend, Thomasina, are aware of this but his father decides that the child should be brought up as a boy and so he undergoes surgery and hormone therapy to ensure his development into a boy. Treadway is always desperate for Wayne to be a ‘real’ boy in the uber-masculine environment of hunting and trapping in Labrador. However Wayne’s mother always feels guilty that they repressed the girl ‘inside’ him and that she has somehow ‘murdered’ her daughter. Thomasina is more free-thinking and is always keen to tell Wayne the truth and to nurture both male and female personalities.

Winter tells the story with sensitivity and compassion for all her characters. Even Treadway who is determined to repress his son’s ‘femininity’, has redeeming qualities and cannot be labelled as the bad guy. The characters are considerately and carefully developed; the main characters are by no means two-dimensional and I think Winter was keen to free her characters from societal constraints. However I’m not quite sure that she achieved this. The whole novel is reined in by traditional gender conventions and, while I think that Winter was limited by the reader’s need for some kind of closure, her treatment of Wayne’s supposed liberation from hormone treatment is questionable. Why does Annabel have to be girly, sweet and emotional? And why do Annabel and Wayne have to be two separate people? Winter creates a split personality, almost like twins within the same person, but by having two  identities – Wayne and Annabel, one masculine and one feminine – she is perpetuating the idea that there cannot be something in-between, something different from the male and female binary that is a societal norm.

Before I read the novel, I had read a review of  ‘Annabel’ by the New York Times in which it was questioned why Wayne must represent a symbol of freedom rather than being simply given the freedom of a character, which I didn’t quite understand until the conclusion of the novel. The ending although positive and obviously trying to show how Wayne can fit in to ‘normal’ society and leave behind the isolation in Labrador, it seems to fall a bit short. Is the resolution really that Wayne sees the more open androgyny of students in Boston compared to the sexist society in Labrador, where men and women must fulfil gender roles, and he is completely content? The solution is for him to move from a remote and rural area to city so he can blend in?? This suggests that freedom is not standing out from the crowd and this is definitely a problematic statement.

I feel like I have been overly critical of this novel, which tries very hard with a difficult and sensitive topic. However there are some implausible  elements which personally left me feeling a bit unsatisfied and I felt at times that the descriptions of the Canadian landscape were overly metaphorical which made the setting seem just a little bit romanticized.

Overall it is an aspirational novel and was an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I just think that the boundaries surrounding literature about inter-sexuality need to be pushed a bit further in order to create something truly progressive.

‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy

I love Tess of the D’Urbervilles!

tess of the d'urbervilles

This is the second time I have read Tess (the first time being several years ago so I thought I best read it again so I could talk intelligently about it in my seminar) and I like it even more this time round. I would even go as far as to say it is my favourite novel from the Victorian period that I’ve read so far.

Hardy is the master of tragedies and the story of Tess is most definitely heart-wrenchingly tragic. Perhaps, I am morbid for thinking so but I think this is what makes it so good; the unending sorrow is kind of realistic and so emotive that it is refreshing to read. I’m usually a sucker for a happy-ending (I’ve probably said that before) but in this case a happy-ending would completely ruin the mastery of the novel.

The characters are so vivid and life-like that the novel could not fail to be compelling. The romance between Tess and Angel Clare (Angel: what a fantastic name!) is so touching in its naivety and how they idolise each other. The passage where Angel carries the milkmaids across the flooded lane is for me one of the most romantic moments I have ever read – literally swooning as I read it! (perhaps this is slightly helped by the BBC version of Tess in which Angel is played by the gorgeous Eddie Redmayne)

angel clare

Hardy is also fabulous in his criticism of contemporary Victorian society. While his descriptions of the Wessex countryside seem idealised and almost fairy-tale like in some instances, his realist critique of societal morality is sharply cutting in its accuracy. Tess is the epitome of a ‘fallen woman’ yet she is most definitely portrayed as  the victim (which she definitely is – you only have to read the creepy descriptions of Alec to know that he is, without a doubt, a bad guy) and this questions the excepted attitude of blame towards women who had “lost their virtue”. As I’ve said above, I love Angel and I can’t fully blame him for anything so I’m very biased, but the hypocrisy and inequality of traditional gender roles is very clearly exposed in Angel’s rejection of Tess after she has confessed her relationship with Alec. He admits to having had a pre-marital relationship with another woman before Tess, yet when she tells of her experience of something very similar, he cannot forgive her as she readily forgives him. She becomes somehow changed in his eyes, no longer ‘pure’ (what does that even mean?!) and this leads him to leave her and from then on it’s pretty much all downhill for both of them. Angel, you idiot!

 

tess book cover

I would thoroughly recommend reading Tess if you haven’t done so before. Victorian novels always seem like a bit of a challenge because of their length but this one is definitely worth the effort!

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

This is the first book that I’ve read for semester two…and  initially I really enjoyed it. I read it not thinking about studying it, but purely just for enjoyment (even though I’ll have to pick it to pieces a few weeks from now) and it was a fast-moving, easy read. However when I sat down to write this I discovered I have a few issues with the book.

extremely loud

My main concern is that there is just too much going on. Perhaps that seems a silly thing to say but I think Foer takes on too much. First and foremost it is a novel about Oskar Schnell, a ten-year-old boy who has lost his father in the 9/11 attacks, and while this seems to be a big enough challenge to approach – to explore the effect of grief on the boy and his family and the trauma of the attacks on the city of New York, America and the rest of the world, which is definitely a great topic for any author to explore! – Foer goes further than this and includes many other facets in his story, which I sometimes felt overshadowed what should have been the brightest spark.

Oskar’s travels across the city in search of what his father’s key unlocks overtakes much of the storyline about the loss of his father in 9/11. It seems the attacks and what they symbolised have been pushed aside and swept under the carpet; Foer seems to skirt round the edge rather than facing the issue of the attacks head on.  Along the way, I found myself becoming distracted from how the search for the key’s lock was an outlet for the boy’s grief and instead the people he meets and the obsession with the search becomes the main focus.

The novel also references the air raid attack on Dresden, Germany, in 1945 during the Second World War and the effect of this trauma on Oskar’s grandparents who lived through it. This was unexpected and, I felt, extraneous to the storyline. The Dresden attack and the horror of the event deserves more than a few pages of reference – it could have a novel of its own, not just merely a side-line in this one. By trying to include too much I felt the impact of these devastating historic events, the 9/11 attacks and the 1945 Dresden attacks, was, if possible, lessened by the attempt to include them both in the same novel. I think Foer was attempting to connect all the threads of these stories up into an intricate web of fantastic story-telling, but I don’t think he quite managed this. Instead, the story felt too complicated and neither thread was given the development it needed. Not to mention Oskar’s grandfather’s muteness and how he ends up living in secret in the spare room of Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment was a little weird, and dare I say it, too far-fetched. I felt guilty for not being able to empathise or sympathise with either of Oskar’s grandparents as they were portrayed in a way that seemed almost inhuman and devoid of anything I could connect with.

incredibly close

Having said all this, the novel wasn’t completely without merit. Despite it’s sensitive subject there is some humour within the novel and Foer handles Oskar’s mildly autistic character well. The boy is a character that you can form an emotional attachment too; his inventions, his turn of phrase and his innocence gave me an incredibly maternal feeling towards him and he is the reason for making you want to read on.

Overall the novel doesn’t strike me as being particularly well written. There are too many elements all vying for your attention and I must admit I feel a little disappointed. However I have heard much better things about Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated, so I might give that a try instead.