Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

I began Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje with very few preconceived ideas or expectations aside from the fact that I had enjoyed The English Patient when I studied it for A level several years ago. As it is very rare to find a book which you can still love and enjoy after pulling apart and analysing each sentence I should not have been surprised at how carefully structured and intricately balanced Anil’s Ghost was. Nevertheless, this book quickly became my constant companion and I could almost not bear to finish it. It follows Anil, a forensic pathologist, who returns to the country where she was born, Sri Lanka, to investigate crimes against human rights for the UN during the ongoing civil war. She arrives in the country after a long absence, more of a foreigner than a citizen since she has forgotten how to speak Sinhalese and no friendly face awaits her. Whilst there she is teamed with a reputable archaeologist, Sarath, who shows her a selection of skeletons, three are centuries old but the other is much newer, buried with them in an attempt to disguise its provenance. Anil then uses this as a focal point for her investigation into the government’s actions as well as using its supposed antiquity as an excuse for when her curiosity becomes too dangerous.

However, while the immediate plot is fascinating, as it demonstrates how the civil war fractured Sri Lankan society in a myriad of ways, it was the individual anecdotes woven into the central narrative which affected me the most. They allowed Ondaatje to explore how grief can possibly be approached or acknowledged when a whole country is overwhelmed in tragedy and violence continues to engulf them. People still die from disease and old age even as their surroundings are overtaken by the war and they act as a reminder that normalcy continues to find a place in their world. These deaths still need to be grieved even as unexplained disappearances demand sorrow and lives adapt to new circumstances. One doctor is kidnapped from a luxurious life in private practice and forced to aid the rebels but finds his new life strangely satisfying while another exhausts himself through constant work at an overcrowded hospital, often being mistaken for a patient. An old man becomes blind and lives in near solitude in a forest monastery but he cannot escape the outside world forever. Anil’s encounters or experiences with these people and others are also intertwined with her memories of life in America and London – her thoughts of noisy bowling lanes accentuate the silence of the rice paddy she stands in and questions what normalcy actually means. The Sri Lanka that is described in the book is seen through this filter of Anil’s interpretation as she learns to accept her status as an outsider even when remembering her homesickness in the past for Sri Lanka. Ondaatje’s pride in his Sri Lankan heritage is apparent throughout the book as even at the darkest points in the narrative everyday Sri Lankan people are shown to be compassionate and have great inner strength which helps them survive the brutal period in their country’s history.

Anil’s Ghost is one of the few books that I was already planning to reread before I had finished it and I expect that I will have reread it at least once by the end of the year. Ondaatje’s writing is so subtle and his characters reveal themselves so carefully that I know I will discover more with every visit. Since finishing it I have continued to think about Ondaatje’s characters, and their experiences and eventual fates have continued to affect me. I would highly recommend it and am very happy to discuss it at great length if anyone is interested!

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The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollingshurst

The Line of Beauty is not a book that I would normally pick up in a bookshop – I didn’t know a huge amount about it and my only previous experience of Alan Hollingshurst’s writing (The Stranger’s Child) had not encouraged me to read more. I am therefore very grateful that I trusted the judgement of the Man Booker prize and spontaneously bought a cheap copy. As soon as I had read the first page I knew this was a book which I would be completely absorbed in and continue to think about long after finishing. It is the story of a young, openly gay man in 1980s London who is exploring the possibilities that life currently offers him. Throughout the book Nick Guest, the shy and naive protagonist develops into a mature, worldly-wise adult but he still continues to question and observe in a wistful manner which originally made him endearing. The book opens in the summer that Nick graduates from Oxford and chronicles his time as a lodger with the family of his wealthy friend, Toby Fedden. As he occupies this ill-defined position of both guest and tenant the intricate snobberies of the society he has entered become apparent. Nick joins dinner parties to ‘make up the numbers’ but is privy to all the Feddens’ secret. His sexuality is politely not discussed unless completely necessary but he still remains divorced from those around him as he obviously does not conform to the heterosexual norm of the many weddings he attends.

The book is split into several parts which span the majority of Nick’s twenties and it is striking how each section includes a different cast of characters as people move through his life. As Nick embarks on his first relationship, unsure of who to tell, whether to introduce Leo as his boyfriend or even whether he should introduce him to his other friends I experienced every concern and hope. However, at the start of the second part, several years later, this lack of confidence was gone and replaced by a totally new attitude to relationships. Nick now leads a glamorous lifestyle, fuelled by coke and an insatiable desire for new and luxurious things. The ‘line of beauty’ begins to take on several meanings as his aesthete’s habits focus both on the clear, swirling ironwork of a bed and the white power ordered by a credit card. Inevitably the weight of the AIDs epidemic begins to make itself felt across the pages as 1980s gay London is stricken and Nick is painfully reminded of mortality as lovers and acquaintances quietly grow gaunt. I felt this section was particularly poignant as characters which have long been forgotten or avoided by Nick return and force him to assess his life, both emotionally and philosophically. Just as The Great Gatsby‘s Nick Carraway is unable to relax, throughout The Line of Beauty Nick Guest compares himself to his hosts, friends and acquaintances to his detriment. Lasting attachments appeared to escape Nick throughout the book because he was unable to wholeheartedly trust those who befriended him or did not believe he deserved the love he received. His status as an outsider pervades even his closest relationships.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Line of Beauty as not only does it present a heart wrenching portrait of the reality of being openly gay only two decades after homosexuality had been legalised but it also carefully dissects privileged 1980s British society. I could imagine the power suits and the arrogance which each character wears just as clearly as I felt Nick’s disappointments or expectations. This experience has motivated me to reassess my judgements on other authors who I have dismissed after reading only one of their books. The next author to re-evaluate is Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea is one of the least enjoyable or interesting books I have ever read!

The Happy Reader

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I was very excited to receive my copy of the first edition of The Happy Reader in the post recently. The magazine is a joint enterprise between Penguin and Fantastic Man to celebrate the luxuries embodied by print and the art of reading itself. They promise that each issue with feature a lengthy interview with a famous reader, whether they are primarily known for reading or not, followed by an in depth exploration of a classic book, in this case The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. They have had a very strong start with an interview with actor and Booker prize judge Dan Stevens which meanders over studying literature, reading to children and not least starring in a range of literary adaptations. This is all accompanied by black and white photos of the man himself to make the experience even more luxurious. At times it felt that unnecessary amounts of detail were reported in the interview, such as discussions with a waitress regarding a glass of water, but overall it was very interesting to read about how Stevens approached reading around 140 books when judging the Booker prize whilst still being on set for Downton Abbey – apparently his Kindle was never far from his hand. The interview ended with several recommendations from Stevens and it has prompted me to search out Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog which sounds fascinating and heartbreaking.

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The Woman in White is a book which I have read many times and so know the twists and turns of the Victorian Gothic plot inside out. The opening scene where Walter Hartright glimpses a woman dressed solely in white in the dead of night on Hampstead Heath sets the tone for unexplained and unnerving events throughout the book which does not let up or disappoint. It involves an evil count, one frail invalid with a fiercely devoted sister and a dastardly plot to steal an inheritance which Hartright stumbles upon when he takes a new job as a drawing master. The Happy Reader takes this intricate tale of love, betrayal and deception and produces fashion pages, recipes and recommendations for walks alongside reminiscing around the book itself and pieces on its history and genre. I particularly enjoyed the article on the links between the colour of a character’s clothes and their identity in film and literature. Emily King suggests that single-coloured outfits pigeon-hole women as either saint, whore or crazy while men are allowed to reveal more of their identity through their clothes.

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There is a great feel to the The Happy Reader and it really does make its reader appreciate the print form, with its thick pages and accompanying book marks. It also has lovely wide margins which are occasionally filled with an informative or whimsical side note, ranging from the timetable of a Brooklyn Ferry to information about Peter Capaldi or fan fiction. The magazine plans to produce a new issue every quarter and they have already announced that the next book to be featured is The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakuro. I’m already looking forward to the next issue and will definitely track down a copy of The Book of Tea to ensure I am ready for The Happy Reader‘s arrival. I’ll also be looking out to see if I can spot any other readers preparing and reading the book! At the moment they are doing some great deals on their subscriptions so if you’re likely to be interested I’d definitely recommend investigating the opportunities as The Happy Reader is likely to become popular fast.

Grayson Perry

The current exhibition by Grayson Perry entitled Who Are You? at the National Portrait Gallery is one that I have already returned to several times and thought about a great deal. Perry has created fourteen pieces of art to reflect the people that he met while making a TV programme for the BBC which shares the exhibition’s title. The works include tapestry, pottery and silk along with other mediums and so there is a completely new experience with each piece. This is also encouraged by placing the objects alongside the gallery’s permanent collections. There is a feeling of being a treasure hunter as you follow Perry’s map to discover each new object, unsure of what it could be made of and how easily it might blend into the background of older paintings featuring established personalities. I am still tempted to drop in again as the layout ensures that it is easy to view a section or two without a huge time commitment.

Each object within the exhibition is accompanied by a small plaque which explained a little about the person who inspired it and why Perry represented them as he did. There are couples, fathers and celebrities involved as well as friends and soldiers. Perry acknowledges that the identities which he is attempting to reproduce in three dimensional forms are multifaceted and can change due to circumstances such as hardship, illness or necessity. The description alongside his pot for Chris Huhne, the disgraced Liberal Democrat MP, explained that Perry had smashed the carefully patterned pot before reassembling it using gold, an ancient Chinese technique. He felt that the recent destructive events had actually improved Huhne’s identity by forcing a greater degree of individuality into his life therefore making it easier to now sympathise with him. The pot was indeed enhanced by the addition of gold and I thought this was an interesting interpretation of such a well known public drama. However, I would be interested to see what Huhne himself has to say about this representation of his life.

This is the first exhibition by Grayson Perry which I have had the chance to go to and I was excited to see his work, due to already knowing so much about his public persona. However, I quickly realised that although his transvestite alter ego Clare has become as famous as him this became immaterial when facing the artwork. It is clear from the exhibition that Perry enjoys producing art through a variety of media and his choice of crazy and exuberant dresses are another method for him to demonstrate how porous the art world can be. He asks in Playing to the Gallery (more on this later) whether it is not possible to be both loved by the public and a serious artist and Perry’s numerous television and public appearances are encouraging these boundaries to blur.

One of my favourite pieces was The Ashford Hijab, a beautiful silk hijab scarf which also depicted the life of a white girl in Ashford who had converted to Islam and was now married with children. Perry explores why the religion might have attracted her and why she chooses to wear the hijab, something which Western cultures often cannot understand. In the scarf she turns her back on the constant demands of a Western consumerist society and instead reaches out for the solidarity and sisterhood provided by other Muslim women. A sense of community emerges which cannot be matched by the culture she has left behind. I found it fascinating that Perry could present such a sympathetic portrayal on what is a very controversial topic and also create a very beautiful, and possibly useful, object.

Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery provides an insider’s viewpoint on the art world to explain the decisions and conversations that happen behind closed doors. Alongside Perry’s engaging prose are also many amusing drawings which refuse to allow the art world to be too serious and question some of the established assumptions. I found it an easy and enjoyable read that nevertheless challenged my automatic construction of what constitutes art. Perry believes that anything can be art but that does not mean that everything should be called art. While I disagree with some of the reasoning he gave behind this I would argue that it is important to be able to keep art distinct so that it can be critiqued differently from objects which are meant for more commonplace uses. I would definitely recommend the book both for those who are well versed in the art world and for complete newcomers as I think it will provide valuable points of view for all in its assessment of how the worth of art is valued and how it is accepted into society.

If you want some further thoughts on the exhibition check out this blog by Emily, who I went with and who gave me Playing to the Gallery, here. Otherwise you have until 15th March 2015 to go to the National Potrait Gallery as many times as you like – it’s free and easy to dip into. http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/graysonperry/display.php

Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

If Charles Dickens had been alive in the 21st century I think he is unlikely to have been a novelist but would have been entranced by the possibilities of the screen. The meandering plots of his hefty novels transform easily into TV miniseries and each episode can use the cliffhangers which Dickens tantalised his audiences with. Dombey and Son, published between 1846 and 1848, is no exception to this and its lengthy overarching plots would be worthy of an HBO drama. The story begins in Dickens’ conventional bildungsroman style, as the eponymous son, Paul, is born and struggles through the first years of his life under the weight of his father’s expectations. However, it soon becomes clear that the story cannot remain solely Paul Dombey’s as Dickens includes increasing detailed accounts of the lives of those who surround the little boy. Florence Dombey, Mr Dombey’s elder child, might be ignored by her father but the reader watches her every disappointment and how her young hopes struggle on.

As with all of Dickens’ novels Dombey and Son is awash with eccentric characters and unlikely friendships. Nevertheless no matter how ridiculous an individual might seem the reader quickly comes to know, understand and sympathise with them as Dickens demonstrates that similar worries are experienced throughout social classes and across England.Throughout this cast of characters there are very few who are portrayed as irredeemably evil since there is always an understandable motivation or foible. Mr Dombey’s concern regarding his rank and the standing of his house is not so very different from the boasting of a proud mother or a young man’s nervous entry into the adult world. It is only Mr Carker, the right hand man of Dombey’s business, who becomes even harder to like as aspects of his personality and past are revealed to the reader throughout the novel. In this character I was reminded strongly of Uriah Heep of David Copperfield and I wonder if Charles Dickens had a particular reason for such a strong dislike of stewards and managers.

Although I felt that the book took a while to engage me due to the apparent lack of plot direction this later grew to be a strength. It was completely impossible to predict whether the narrative would twist or forgotten characters would rear their heads again. I’ve struggled to summarise what happens throughout the book as it is so concerned with social situations and conversations that ultimately there is rarely great action scenes. Instead there is shock as Mr Dombey’s fate is decided by a manipulative beggar woman and despair as social pressures force a range of characters to act against their will. They are trapped in their gilded world and it soon becomes apparent that money can be worth very little when love, whether familial or spousal, is not present.

These contemporary illustrations for Dombey and Son perfectly capture the scenes and characters they depict. I was reminded of forgotten moments and characters were exactly how I had imagined them. The characters seem so wrapped up in their worries, and in Mr Dombey’s case self importance, that is difficult to believe that this is a drawing rather than a snapshot of real people living their real lives.

Dombey and Son might not be the best Dickens book to read first as there is less obvious momentum to the storyline to help keep you glued to the 900+ pages but it contains some of my favourite Dickensian characters. As a small example of such favourites; Miss Tox, a lonely spinister, unexpectedly grows in the reader’s estimation throughout the novel as changes from a cruel, small-minded sidekick to someone with ambitious, and unreachable dreams of her own. Captain Cuttle initially seems a ridiculous figure of fun but he clearly cares deeply for the younger characters as they face the everyday dangers of life. The pride of Edith Granger made her both tragic and fascinating as I felt the anger over her powerless position still resonate today. Of course, I also cannot finish this post without mentioning Diogenes the dog who acts exactly like a dog should and clearly enjoys being Florence Dombey’s pampered and beloved mongrel.

Dubliners – James Joyce

James Joyce is named, by some, as one of the greatest writers who has ever lived. Whilst I did not unhesitatingly accept these suggestions I did approach Dubliners with some trepidation and high expectations. However, within the first couple of pages these feelings were allayed and I experienced genuine enjoyment as I read. The book has remained just as approachable as it would have been when it was published in 1914. The covers of each edition might change but they remain focused on the human aspect which is at the heart of Dubliners, as is apparent from the title itself.

The book consists of a collection of short stories which focuses on experiences of both a particularly Irish concern as well as universal human problems. Mrs Kearney in ‘A Mother’ tries her hardest to do the best for her daughter by creating a position of prominence for her in the Irish Nationalism movement. While this might not be every mother’s desire it is clear that she is motivated by her pride and belief in her daughter above all else. However, attempts to break down the stories and describe character motivations and plots misses the point of Dubliners. The plots might occur everyday but the stories are far more ethereal.

There is definitely a feeling of some sort of culmination as the collection ends with its longest short story – ‘The Dead’. Joyce uses this length to expand on details which allow the scene to become inescapably clear and for each character’s foibles to be sympathetically but carefully emphasised. Gabriel Conroy, the main character, has his thoughts carefully detailed by Joyce and this leads us to greater knowledge of Conroy and his surroundings, both material and human. It is this precision that hooks the reader although they remain unsure as to what the significance of certain events might be. If everything in our own lives was observed so minutely I expect that people would quickly experience revelations similar to that of Gabriel Conroy.

Although I would recommend Dubliners this is not a book that will cheer you up and this atmosphere is unlikely to change even if you read it by an open fire. Nevertheless, as I read it I did feel like I was reading some of the best examples of the short story genre and I am even tempted to begin further adventures into Joyce!

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

I’ve been meaning to read Persepolis for some time now as I’m trying to widen my knowledge of graphic novels and the book is often mentioned. From the first page I could tell that this would be a book that I would return to again and again – there is a richness to both the story and the pages that will only be discovered on multiple viewings. The book tells is an autobiographical account of Marjane Satrapi growing up under the shadow of the Iranian theocracy.

The illustration is simple to the extent that it is in black and white but beyond that it inventively echoes scenes visually throughout. Without the imagery the story would be diminished as it brings Iran alive to those who have never had a chance of seeing both public and private aspects of its culture.

Her parents were liberal and encouraged Satrapi to be educated despite the theocracy attempting to cut down on women’s rights both through the enforcement of the veil and a restriction of their movements. Satrapi’s parents eventually send her to Austria in the hope that she can experience freedom there that is no longer possible in Iran but this transition also presents Satrapi with difficulties. This is both a bildungsoman and an exploration of the hidden split in Iranian culture – she chronicles her increasing isolation from both cultures and a struggle to understand her evolving identity. Although she adapts to Western culture as she goes to university, lives in a house of gay men and has a boyfriend Marjane remains an outsider to her Austrian life. However, on returning to Iran she finds those friends who she has looked forward to meeting again are now also strangers to her and look down on her “Westernised” ways.

The considered narrative is emotive whilst also restrained,uncovering a side of Iran that remains hidden too those who only experience it through the news. It recalls those who were locked in prison or died at the hands of both the Shah and the theocracy, the continued attempts at rebellion that must become more secretive as protests become too dangerous and parties involving alcohol appear too risky. Instead, in one instance, like minded individuals meet and hold private life drawing classes in response to the regime preventing women attending. They refuse to allow their lives to be narrowed due to close-minded leadership.

If there is any one that sneers at graphic novels they only need to be handed a copy of Persepolis to be proved completely and utterly misguided. This book will remain relevant and fresh for many years and is an excellent entry point for those who wish to understand aspects of Iranian culture, both old and new, better.