‘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.

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys

This is my favourite book of the term so far. It’s also on my favourite module, which is probably my favourite because my seminar tutor is so enthusiastic! Before I continue, if you’ve never heard of this book you should know that it is a sort of rewriting back to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, ‘Jane Eyre’, telling the story of Bertha, Rochester’s ‘mad’ wife in the attic. I really enjoyed the links back to Jane Eyre and personally found it quite difficult to distance it from the 19th century novel, however despite this it can easily be read as  a stand-alone text completely separate from Jane Eyre if you haven’t previously read that – I don’t think I would define it as a ‘prequel’.

Even though I technically knew what was going to happen in the end, the novel was in no way ruined by this pre-knowledge of the text. The story is incredibly imaginative and so different from ‘Jane Eyre’ that there is no way you could predict any of the events that lead up to her move to England.

I really liked the different narrators and thought the use of more than one omniscient narrator was particularly effective as the novel is all about giving a voice to a character which gets very little representation in ‘Jane Eyre’. The character that we know as ‘Bertha’ in ‘Jane Eyre’ is Antoinette in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ – Bertha is the name that the elusive character of Rochester perversely forces upon her after their marriage. The novel is almost a grotesque parallel of the element of Bildungsroman in ‘Jane Eyre’ – it follows the life of Antoinette from her childhood to when she marries Rochester and leaves for England but there are significant similarities between Antoinette and Jane. Neither Antoinette or Rochester (who is not actually named in the novel) are very reliable narrators but this only adds to the mystery and suspense of the novel.

In a way the novel is trying to answer the many questions in ‘Jane Eyre’ about Bertha/Antoinette and Rochester’s previous life. However just as many questions are created as answered and I think ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ brings in wider social and historic contexts about colonialism and the effect that it had on the inhabitants of the islands which became British colonies and the people who were brought there through the slave trade. Antoinette’s identity as a Creole woman is a major theme in the novel and her difference from Rochester is something that is explored. The way the Creole people are perceived and their cultural difference from Europeans despite the sameness of their skin colour is something which concerns Rochester; I felt that the main reason Rochester begins to think that Antoinette is mad is because of the cultural stereotypes and gossip he is exposed to.

The question of ‘madness’ is very ambiguous in the novel – both characters seem to become consumed by it. The definition of what ‘madness’ actually means is questioned; is Antoinette actually mad or does she only appear more and more ‘mad’ to Rochester because she is different from him? This was definitely the thing that most interested me about the novel. In ‘Jane Eyre’ it is never really questioned that Bertha/Antoinette is ‘mad’ – the episode where she bites the hand of her relative seems conclusive on the matter – yet ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ makes you consider the part that gets overlooked: how she became to be ‘mad’. To be honest I think I’d turn a little bit mental if someone started calling me a name that wasn’t mine and then locked me up in an attic!

Rochester also appears influenced by this ‘madness’. His desire to possess Antoinette and own her even after admitting that he did not love her is definitely irrational, if not neurotic. I think his ‘madness’ borders on a kind of frenzy; the island is so different from everything he had ever experienced in England and this ‘otherness’ is prevalent throughout the text so that even Antoinette starts to feel estranged from somewhere she once felt at home.

There is so much more that could be said about this novel – I have barely scratched the surface of the themes that the novel touches on! It is a complex and compelling story and very well written.

Starting ‘Ulysses’

So here I am, sitting at home (when I should be at uni) after having my second pneumothorax of this year. The only thing that could possibly be good about this is that I’m physically incapable of doing anything other than sitting around and reading…and writing this blog (which I have neglected over the past couple of weeks as I’ve just had too much to do!).

UlyssesCover

One of my modules for this year is titled ‘Modernisms’ and we spend a good few weeks studying the literary monument ‘Ulysses’. So far, I’m up to chapter 7, which, I feel, for approximately a week and a half’s worth of reading is reasonable. Ulysses is difficult!

In our first lecture the module leader assured us all that once we’ve finished the book for the first time we’ll want to pick it up and start again and we’ll probably turn into big literary nerds that want to be a part of Bloomsday every year. I’m not so sure about the re-reading part, I think I’ll just be glad to have reached the other side of 700 and some pages! Although I would actually quite like to be in Dublin for Bloomsday (incidentally it’s the day before my birthday – what a cool birthday present, hint hint!).

First ever Bloomsday 1954

First ever Bloomsday - 1954

Besides this, I am quite enjoying Ulysses. Well, perhaps ‘enjoying’ is a bit of a strong word at the moment, as my progress is very slow and I have to reread passages a couple of times sometimes before  I properly understand what’s going on. I also have a really useful ‘companion to Ulysses’ book which is helping me through – I’m working on a chapter by chapter basis. I’ve come to the conclusion that reading Ulysses is a bit like reading Shakespeare – when you first read a Shakespeare play the old language seems really difficult to understand but after you’ve read a few, everything becomes a bit easier and you begin to understand what’s going on without having to analyse every sentence. Ulysses seems a little like that, and even though I’m not that far through, it does seem to be becoming easier to get through – I don’t find it so difficult to comprehend the changing style  of prose and the difficult passages of free indirect discourse and interior monologue. However I have yet to come to the second section (of the 2 that Ulysses is sometimes divided into) which is generally excepted to be after chapter 10 when Joyce becomes more experimental (!!!!) in style and so I don’t want to start congratulating myself too soon.

Even though I don’t always enjoy the prose style of the text, I am enjoying the challenge of it when compared to some of the very traditional works we cover in other modules. The lectures on ‘modernism’ so far have been interesting and I feel like I have actually learned something new – new literary concepts, new ideas and new technical terms to learn!

 

 

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Moshin Hamid

It’s appalling that I haven’t written for my blog for nearly 3 weeks, although I have been busy revising for my driving theory test (which I passed yesterday, go me!) and organising the music for the student orchestra which I recently joined the committee of (a much more stressful task than anticipated!). This has meant I haven’t made such a good start on my reading list for the start of term as I would have liked.

The book I finished most recently was ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ and I’m not sure how I feel about it to be honest. I picked to read it as it appealed as a book I might well have chosen to read myself even if it hadn’t been on my reading list and I must say the fact that it has been made into a film somehow made it seem more favourable. Yet when I finished it, I couldn’t quite make up my mind about whether I liked it or not.

reluctant fundamentalist

The narrator, a native Pakistani, tells the story of his years spent in America; his education at the prestigious Princeton university, his high-flying job in an American corporation and his relationship with a society girl who commits suicide. This all happens around the time of the 9/11 attacks and the narrator describes how he felt the city of New York changing around him.

The way that the novel opens is intriguing – not many books start in the first person addressing another person: ‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?’ I imagine that when we study the book at university this opening line could well be a topic of discussion just by itself. Not only is it a question itself but it poses several questions to the reader immediately which is pretty impressive for the first nine words: who is the speaker? Who is he addressing? Why the formality? Are the characters strangers or is there a connection between them that will be uncovered?

The first person narration continues throughout the book and I’m not sure why but at the start of each chapter I kept expecting the narration to switch. Looking back I think it is because there is a huge amount of tension that it is built up by not revealing who this man is whom the narrator is talking to. However there are continual suggestions that the man is more sinister than first thought. I kept expecting the big reveal which never comes, which is perhaps why I can’t make up my mind about this book. At the end the tension and mystery reach unbelievably high levels but I personally felt there needed to be some relief. Who is this man?? What happens?!? The ending feels a bit like an anti-climax because you just don’t get to find out.

However I think that one of the books achievements is to show a perspective that is not widely expressed in Western literature and culture about the 9/11 attacks and the relationship between America and Pakistan. Hamid has managed to create a character in Changez who you still feel sympathetic towards despite his opinion on 9/11 which could have caused a lot of controversy within the novella. Instead I found I could appreciate his viewpoint even if I couldn’t fully understand.

 

My 48-hour exam

For the past two days I have been chained to the desk in my room doing an exam. Yes, a 48-hour exam. I missed doing the exam the first time round in April because I had a spontaneous pneumothorax (a leaky lung if you don’t know what that is, although you’re probably better looking up the proper medical definition!) so here I am doing an exam in August. Although it doesn’t feel too much like an exam because I can do it in the comfort of my own home and I had 2 days to write an essay. So, probably pretty good as exams go.

The subject of my essay was the play ‘Saved’ by Edward Bond (I did have two choices of question but this was the one I picked). It’s quite a grim play and certainly shocking – a baby gets stoned to death in scene six. Although incidentally not the worst thing I read last year for my course – if you’re familiar with Shakespeare’s ‘Titus Andronicus’ or ‘Blasted’ by Sarah Kane you’ll know what I’ve been subjected to. However, studying this play in so much depth over the past 48 hours has made me appreciate it as a really affecting piece of theatre.

saved

The murder of the baby is so horrific but nobody mourns for it. It becomes this huge, unspoken, elephant in the room. I think the play captures the hopelessness of not being able to move on from something that cannot be spoken about. Almost all the way through you can just feel the tension of what is unsaid between the characters and how this affects their relationships with one another.

saved2

Bond described the play as ‘almost irresponsibly optimistic’ but I found it really hard to find this optimism. I imagine that if I had been to see this performed in the theatre, I would be left still staring at the stage even after the curtain has come down, still waiting for the happy ending. In my essay I wrote specifically about the last scene because, unusually, it’s almost entirely devoid of speech and I think this would just add to the feeling of waiting for something else to happen – something to lift the characters out of their hopeless existence. The scene shows the power of silence and I think it would make an audience feel incredibly uncomfortable. It is unsurprising that the play caused so much controversy when it was first performed in 1965.

However reading the author’s note in the front of my copy of the play made me think differently about the idea of optimism. Bond writes:

The play ends in silent social stalemate, but if audiences think this is pessimistic that is because they have not learnt to clutch at straws. Clutching at straws is the only realistic thing to do.

After all that happens in the play, Len’s modest act of mending the chair shines as tiny light of hope in an otherwise dire situation. The play offers a sharp social commentary that cuts painfully close to life and it still feels relevant to today’s society despite being written nearly 50 years ago.

This article from The Guardian about the most recent performance of ‘Saved’ is really interesting:

http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/oct/09/edward-bond-saved-original-cast