Monday, June 25, 2007

Fiction roundup

I have been reading a lot of fiction lately – the most I’ve ever read for fun in years!

World War 2 is a favourite setting for many novelists, and I remember reading many young adult novels that used it as a teenager, eg. Joan Lingard’s Tug of War, Summer of my German Soldier (I can’t remember the author offhand). As far I can tell, the supply has not been exhausted – the 2005 Carnegie Medal winner Tamar (Mal Peet) is a WW2 novel. But Scott Turow’s Ordinary Heroes is the first so-called “adult” WW2 novel I’ve ever read. Turow, of course, is well known for his legal thrillers, and I’ve always wanted to pick up one of his books. At the same time, I had been looking for a war novel to read, and so this proved to be the ideal choice.

Mourning the death of his father, Stewart Dubin decides to find out more about the man he has always looked up to, but who always remained something of a mystery to him. "All parents keep secrets from their children," Dubin says. "My father, it seemed, kept more than most." He digs through personal letters and discovers a portrait of a conscientious legal officer in the army, who is nevertheless court-martialled when he fails to obey orders. The mystery lies in the motivations behind his act of defiance.

The story is told through flashbacks, and effectively touches on the corrosive effects of war, the way it transforms people, the moral ambiguities and the startling clarity of how a desperate need to survive overrules everything else. Turow was especially praised for one particularly pivotal battle scene, and it lives up to the praise. It was evocative and I felt like an eyewitness. Another big theme was the importance of memory and how much the past should be allowed to shape the present. The book did drag in places, although I felt the pace really got going once he parachutes out of the plane about a third way through the novel, and I suppose some will accuse Turow of breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule towards the end, but those are minor complaints.

Atonement is Ian McEwan’s masterpiece, by all accounts, and it was another book I greatly enjoyed. In it, he shows how one misconstrued event can change lives forever. Like Turow, WW2 also serves as a backdrop of this novel, although war is not really its concern. The first third of the novel is the strongest, as McEwan effortlessly shows life in an upper-class mansion pre-WW2. His big theme is that of the power of the imagination. He also shares with Turow, although it is emphasised more strongly, the question of how our past affects our present. What makes McEwan different though, is that he questions the reliability of memory and how dependent we are on textual mediation. Classic postmodern themes. Expect plenty of musings on the role of the author-narrator and how the distinction between the external world and that of the inner life (imagination, consciousness etc.) isn’t so clear-cut, i.e they affect each other in suprising ways.

The biggest (pleasant) surprise, though, was George Pellecanos and The Night Gardener. Prior to the aforementioned novel being hailed as the best American crime novel of 2006, I had never even heard of the writer, although crime aficionados have been in the know for years. I was expecting a straightforward police procedural, but Pellecanos transcends all the generic conventions and turns it into a social commentary on race and society’s ills. A lot of the novel is spent simply detailing the day-to-day family life of Gus Ramone, the protagonist, as well as painting what life in inner city Washington DC looks like. He painstakingly chronicles what racial prejudice sounds like in the daily banter and conversations of normal people, and he shows us his beliefs that escape from the ghetto of drugs and violence is somewhat of a lottery, aided in part by good education and upbringing. The actual solving of the crime is almost incidental. I suppose if you want to place him on the spectrum of crime writing, he will probably belong in the James Lee Burke/Dennis Lehane category of so-called “literary” crime fiction.

Anne Tyler. Wow. I devoured both Saint Maybe and Digging to America in the space of 5 days. Tyler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, delights in following the lives of oddballs in her hometown Baltimore, and her art lies in that she manages to accomplish so much with such simplicity of language. The former follows Ian Bedloe, who is saddled with guilt after some ill-informed accusations leads to his brother’s suicide and the mental breakdown of his sister-in-law. (Atonement would also have been an appropriate title). He finds solace in a rather strange if endearing version of Quaker/Anabaptist religion and in bringing up his brother’s orphaned children, and Tyler simply just lets us vicariously live Ian’s life. The latter, not quite as strong as Saint Maybe, deals with what it means to belong: two Korean babies are adopted by an Iranian immigrant and classic American families respectively. Both sets of families have very different parenting philosophies, but somehow manage to forge a friendship in spite of the inevitable cultural clash. Tyler is always gentle with her characters, we love all of them in spite of their flaws.

If you’ve read any of the above or read something you’ve enjoyed lately, I look forward to hearing from you!

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