Wednesday 26 September 2012

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

It's 1899 and all of Europe is agape at the arrival of the new century. The world crackles with possibilities and people dance to the irresistible rhythms of money, sex, love and freedom. Swinging above them all is a showbiz sensation: a fierce, vulgar, pant-droppingly sexy trapeze artist called Fevvers.
Goodreads description

Wow! This book doesn't so much begin as launches - "Lor' love you, sir!" Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. What follows is a rollicking good read, full of invention, humour, earthiness and magic realism. This is a circus world in which chimps take over the management of their act, tigers waltz, a pig acts as management consultant to the circus owner spelling out advice in alphabet cards, clocks repeatedly strike midnight and of course a buxom Cockney aerialist hatched from an egg and now flies on dyed purple wings. Or do they? As Fevvers wonders at one point  Am I fact or am I fiction?

The book opens in a theatre dressing room strewn with underwear, discarded costumes and empty bottles where Fevvers assisted by Lizzie, her assistant and adoptive mother, tells a cynical reporter by the name of Walser the story of her youth and life to that point. Throughout the interview Fevvers constantly uses slight of hand and word to bemuse the young reporter, combining her physical presence and some apparently verifiable references to put him off the scent. We, the readers, watch as the game is played out and Walser is reeled in. This section sets up the rest of the book. Like a magician's dupe Walser is encouraged to focus on the wrong things, like the clock constantly striking twelve, while not focusing on the major (whether Fevvers really has wings). The clock episode is mirrored later in the book in which time passes at different speeds for the two protagonists. Indeed we readers sometimes feel like Walser in the dressing room and we certainly do at the end.

So is the magic just artifice - as in Life of Pi? No, this is more than a story told to befuddle. Everything is larger than life, in Fevvers' case quite literally. As I indicated above there are plenty of magic realism elements in the story, which we accept without question, perhaps because we are watching to see if Fevvers can really fly. The questions we are left with rather than diminishing our capacity to imagine increase it. The picture Angela Carter is painting is bigger than the canvas and we are left to think outside the frame. 

An important element in this book is its feminism. In addition to the wonderful Fevvers, an earthy goddess albeit one who flies, there is the ex-whore Lizzie who is politically active and scathing about men and authority and too can perform magic: For the things my foster mother can pull off when she sets her mind to it, you'd not believe! Shrinkings and swellings and clocks running ahead or behind you like frisky dogs. Then there are a series of women in Fevvers' life who have been the sexual and abused objects of mens cruelty and who find strength and love in other women. Men have always seen woman's body as at once real and magical. Fevver's body is a larger than life example of that, but it is one which Fevvers denies the men who crave to control and own it. For women Fevvers' wings are an assertion of a woman's right to soar. My body was the abode of countless freedom. It is often said of magic realism that it is a means of the oppressed to express themselves. If women's experience of reality is a denial of access to power then it becomes necessary to create an alternative reality. It is therefore appropriate if magic realism is used to explore the magical strength of women. This is something that interests me as a writer. I too have chosen to use magic realism to explore the potential of women in my trilogy about the healer Judith. 

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, The Snow Child was a bestseller on hardback publication, and went on to establish itself as one of the key literary debuts of 2012.

Alaska, the 1920s.  Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before.  When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration,
The Snow Child is an instant classic.
Amazon description

This book seems to be everywhere – the publisher certainly has been pushing it. I bought my hardback copy at a price of a bargain paperback. At the time I was not considering my magic realism challenge, so for a while it sat in my to-read book pile waiting for an appropriate time. That time came with the challenge. So is the book worth the publisher’s efforts? In one word – yes. This is my sort of book – undoubtedly magic realism, beautifully written with well-drawn characters.

In plotting terms the book is not overly complex, it can’t be being so closely based on the fairytale. Fairytales are a wonderful source of ideas for books, but by definition they tend to be short and stripped down. The fairytale is referred to throughout the book including the various endings of the different versions, this sets up part of the plot driver of the book – which ending will the writer opt for or none. Will, as in the Life of Pi, we be told at the end that there is a rationale reason for the magic? Some of the characters, including at times Jack, try to explain away the unearthly nature of Faina. There are times in the book where the story appears to be going in that direction. I will not spoil the ending for you by revealing which the path the books takes in the end. Another plot driver is the nature of Faina – is she a real human child, is she created by the couple from the snow or is she both?

As I seem to be saying a lot in my reviews on this blog, the setting of the book – the Alaskan wilderness – is almost as much a character as the humans who inhabit it. Eowyn Ivey lives in Alaska and describes it superbly – its beauty, richness and starkness. It is a landscape of contrasts. The seasons are extreme, with the winter dark and deep with snow, the summer with endless sun "the colors were too sharp full of yellow sun and blue sky" the spring "a damp, moldy dreariness, something like loneliness." The landscape and its weather impacts on the feelings of the characters. Faina of course is of the snow, which fills the books pages in drifts, she has the delicacy of a snowflake and the toughness of a cranberry bush in winter. The Alaskan wildlife features prominently in the book, Faina has a fox companion and both she and the other characters are very capable of hunting, killing and gutting animals for food, something described in some detail.

At the heart of the book is the relationship between Jack and Mabel. This delighted me, it rang so true. As a 50-something woman I was pleased to see that the writer showed the love between the two, whilst at the same time exploring how when we love someone so dearly we are sometimes afraid to express our feelings. The two still have moments of high spirits and it is in one of those that they create the snow child in the yard. I read on Goodreads a reviewer saying that the couple’s grief at the loss of a baby annoyed her because it suggested that people (women) were not fulfilled without children. I had no such problem - for some people the loss or absence of children can be a constant pain and such people are driven to do desperate things. Perhaps it is Mabel’s longing that it is the magic that initiates the snow girl. Mabel is not a weak little female, as the book progresses and as Jack is forced by circumstance to accept, she becomes an active participant in taming the land. 

Did the ending work for me? I’m not sure. It is one of those endings that niggles, I keep going over it, playing with it and seeing different angles. As Mabel’s sister writes to her: "We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel? To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow."

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, one solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The crew of the surviving vessel consists of a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan, a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger and Pi - a 16-year-old Indian boy. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary pieces of literary fiction of recent years. Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" is a transformative novel, a dazzling work of imagination that will delight and astound readers in equal measure. It is a triumph of storytelling and a tale that will, as one character puts it, make you believe in God.
Amazon description

This review is going to be impossible to write without it containing spoilers, so you are warned.

"So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can't prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or without the animals?"

That question is what the book is about. It is a story about how we tell stories about our lives giving them order and meaning and the greatest story, Yann Martel maintains, is that of religion: “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material -- any greater pattern of meaning.” 

The book begins with the boy Pi lapping up the stories of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism and adopting all three religions much to the shock of his religious teachers when they meet together with him. It then moves to the tale of Pi's survival on the lifeboat with a tiger and other animals for company. This story although maybe somewhat far-fetched is nevertheless logical, until Pi arrives on an island, where things just get weird.  

In the last tenth of the book, Pi tells a different story, the alternative story without animals and more horrific, and asks his listeners, two Japanese accident investigators, the question above. They, like most readers I suspect, prefer the story with animals. 

Ok, so what did I make of this book that everyone seems to claim to be magic realism?  Well if I use the definition giving to the right of this post, I don't think it is magic realism. It is about storytelling and therefore not about magic in a realistic setting. It is almost the opposite of magic realism, in that it questions magic, faith or what you will. For that reason I found the ending unsatisfactory. I know many others have loved it, enjoying how in the last thirty pages everything that has gone before is thrown into doubt, leaving you to question your own assumptions and your need for a good story. But I am sufficiently old-fashioned to have an affection for good stories and I felt cheated - as if the book was a bravura display by a conjurer and not a real magician. Maybe if Yann Martell had invested the same effort into the alternative story, not writing in the wonderful prose of the first half but in some other perhaps more factual style, I would have been happier, but he doesn't. The prose at the end just seems very clumsy, I assume Martell's many fans will say that it is how it is meant to be. 

As I feel my way towards a deeper understanding, I am acutely aware that many others have disagreed with me and claimed the book to be a fine example of the genre. Please feel free to explain your position in the comments below.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

The Wood Wife by Terri Windling

Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life-- and death.

Maggie is astonished by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home-- especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert's special power.

As she reads Cooper's letters and learns the secrets of his life, Maggie comes face-to-face withe the wild, ancient spirits of the desert-- and discovers the hidden power at its heart, a power that will take her on a journey like no other.

Goodreads Book Description

I always have a bit of a problem with books about writers or artists and this book has both. My creative English teacher, who first recognised my skill as a writer and poet, taught me to avoid writing about writers, regarding it as self-indulgent. Unfortunately there are a lot of books and art that are self-referential nowadays, indeed it seems to be highly popular with the people who give awards and other accolades. On the face of it I should have had a problem with this book, but I didn't. 

Why didn't I? Well, despite being on the face of it about art, it is actually about magic as reality. The poet Davis Cooper and his wife Anna are dead by the time the story begins and yet they are major characters in the book. Cooper's poems and letters punctuate a tale seen primarily from Maggie's point of view, Anna's mystical pictures are a dark presence in the book. The poems and art portray creatures which at first we might believe to be fantastic and archetypal, but during the course of the book are revealed to be real. These creatures are clearly drawn from the Native American myths, but as a Brit I was interested to see that they bore similarities to British mythic figures - such as the horned man and the wild hunt. I was reminded of the work of the British writer Alan Garner, who portrays a modern world in which the old gods are just below the service.  

The characters are part of the landscape: 
Windmage/Owl Boy: Sky
Rootmage/Root Mother: Earth
Floodmage/Drowned Girl: South etc.

The landscape, the flora and fauna that live within it, are beautifully portrayed in the book. I do not know the desert of the South West, but I felt I was walking through it. The other characters are also well drawn with complex personalities, which at times merge with the mythic. The only fault I would find in the characterisation is that Maggie and all the others accept the reality of the mythic creatures without any resistance. I would have thought that at least one of them might have struggled with the idea and thus given us a bit more conflict. But then I suppose I can't have it both ways!