Wednesday 26 June 2013

Missing in Machu Picchu by Cecilia Velastegui

High in the Andes Mountains on the legendary Inca Trail, four thirty-something professional women embark on an Ivy League hike to help them confront their online dating dependency––only to find themselves victims to a predator’s ruse, and soon in a fight for their very lives. The women are eager to leave relationships behind for a while, but their intent to cast off their search for a soul mate falls by the side of the trail when handsome, magnetic Rodrigo, their hike leader, proves too mesmerizing to resist. One by one the women fall for his charms, and friend is pitted against friend as each woman brazenly vies for Rodrigo’s attentions.

Thoroughly under his sway, Rodrigo manipulates the women into participating in a heinous ancient sacrifice that will guarantee the success of his megalomaniac dreams. But unbeknownst to the hikers, they have been under the vigilant presence of Taki and Koyam, two elderly indigenous women who understand the danger the women are facing at the hands of Rodrigo. By following the wisdom of their mummified Andean ancestor, Taki and Koyam work to save the women and act with spine-tingling resolve against the sinister forces of Rodrigo and his minions.
 Amazon Description

When I was approached by the publishers about reviewing this book, I was surprised to discover that I had overlooked it on Netgalley. But having looked at the cover I could see why: it didn't look like a magic realism book and the plot summary didn't make it seem like it was magic realism either. It looked like a chick-lit book, which is not my personal choice of reading matter. But having read Missing in Machu Picchu I can now say that a) it is magic realist fiction and b) it is not chick-lit, or at least not just chick-lit. It is in fact very hard to place this book neatly in any genre. I see that is listed under mystery/thriller in Netgalley, and the group of women travellers at the centre of the book are certainly in great danger from the psychopathic Rodrigo, but there is more to this book that that.
As for the magic realism this rests with my two favourite characters, Taki and Koyam, old indigenous women who uphold the old traditions in the face of the modern ideas of their children. Cecilia Velastegui was born high in the Andes Mountains and has a personal understanding of the ancient beliefs in the spirits of the ancestors which dictate the old women's actions. Even after she moved to California as a child she feared the wrath of the soul of great-great-great grandmother if she failed in her exams.
One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the clash between the commercial exploitation of the Inca customs, artifacts and remains and the beliefs of the descendants of the Incas and that exploitation continues to this day as Koyam notes These foreigners are tricky. You invite them to your house and pretty soon you're the one sleeping outside. And as the writer makes clear, this exploitation goes back to the "discovery" of Machu Picchu by American Hiram Bingham. Exploitation of the indigenous people sits in the background to the book. Rodrigo is involved in the human trafficking and the writer donates a proportion of the income from the book to tackling this terrible crime.

As you will have gathered by now, I soon got past my initial worries about the story of four online dating addicts going on a trek to find true love and my lack of empathy for them and found much more to enjoy in this book. I had some problems with the dialogue, which at times jarred and nowhere more so than when the author was using it to inform us about the local traditions: "You know" Taki explained "in the olden days, in Camay, what is now our month of January, the boys..." But these were minor and I soon found myself swept along by the story.

Overall this is a good example of magic realism being used in popular fiction. I admire the way the author has integrated it into a book which will appeal to many readers who are unfamiliar with the genre. I admire also her ability and willingness to tackle important issues in a way that is accessible and enjoyable. Missing in Machu Picchu has already won The International Latino Book Award and is featured in the Huffington Post's recommended summer reads. Let's hope that it is to be found in many a beach bag over the next few months. 

The book is currently available to download as a free e-book from all online booksellers from June 25th - 7th July.

I was given this copy by the publisher in return for a fair review.

The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

Jessamy "Jess" Harrison, age eight, is the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother. Possessed of an extraordinary imagination, she has a hard time fitting in at school. It is only when she visits Nigeria for the first time that she makes a friend who understands her: a ragged little girl named TillyTilly. But soon TillyTilly's visits become more disturbing, until Jess realizes she doesn't actually know who her friend is at all. Drawing on Nigerian mythology, Helen Oyeyemi presents a striking variation on the classic literary theme of doubles -- both real and spiritual -- in this lyrical and bold debut.
Goodreads description

I am not sure what it was about this book that didn't engage me. I have to admire the fact that it was written when the author was in her last year at secondary school.  And there is some very good writing in this novel. But somehow the book just misses the mark.

The premise is interesting, if familiar, and suited to magic realism. A highly sensitive and imaginative child divided between cultures (the Nigerian of her mother and white British of her father)  goes visit her grandfather in Nigeria where she meets TillyTilly who may or may not be a figment of her imagination, who may or may not be a ghost or spirit of her dead twin. But the book's ending comes in a rush and doesn't resolve matters.  It leaves you in mid-air. I have no problem with ambiguity, I wouldn't like magic realism if I had, but this ending did not work. I think that as a white Brit I probably needed more clarity about the Nigerian folk beliefs that lie behind the story.

The book is written very much from the point of view of Jess, although on a few occasions the viewpoint slips, for example becoming that of Jess' friend Shivs, before flicking back to Jess once more. Whilst having a single person point of view can strengthen a book and the reader's empathy with the main character, it can also cause problems. As Jess is alienated from her friends, teachers and parents, so I found my understanding of them tended to be limited and two dimensional. The other problem was that I lost empathy for Jess, who came over as a hysterical and possibly manipulative little girl. 

I realize this review has been pretty negative so far but the book does have a lot going for it, including some lovely writing. The concept is ambitious and the subject matter - sisters, friends (imaginary and otherwise), twins, alienation and dual nationality - is promising (maybe the writer was trying to do too much as is so often the case with a first book) and overall I would give the book three stars, were this a blog that graded books. It's just that I have read some incredible books as part of this challenge and I would recommend you read them first.

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Wednesday 19 June 2013

Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo

As one enters Juan Rulfo's legendary novel, one follows a dusty road to a town of death.Time shifts from one consciousness to another in a hypnotic flow of dreams, desires, and memories, a world of ghosts dominated by the figure of Pedro Paramo - lover, overlord, murderer. Rulfo's extraordinary mix of sensory images, violent passions and unfathomable mysteries has been a profound influence on a whole generation of Latin American writers including Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. To read Pedro Paramo today is as overwhelming an experience as when it was first published in Mexico nearly fifty years ago.
Amazon description.

Wow! This is one of those books, which when you read the last sentence you want to immediately turn back to page one and start again. I have never read a novel like it. It is as the description states an extraordinary mix of images, passions and mysteries. So much so that it seems to me to be prose poetry. Indeed the works it most reminds me of are the verse plays by Federico Garcia Lorca, in particular Blood Wedding. This is in part because like poetry the book is a distillation of a story: only 122 pages long, it is what is left after Rulfo cut and cut a much longer book. Having written it, Rulfo wrote no more books, but then why, after writing such a masterpiece, would one feel the need?

This book profoundly influenced South American magic realism. Marquez has said that it is the book he would most like to have written and he is able to quote large chunks of the book. It is hard to credit that such a modern feeling book was written in 1955.  

The book is not an easy book to read and those readers who need to be clear about what is going on and who is speaking will hate it. The book is multi-voiced. It starts simply in the first person: I came to Comala because I had been told that my father, a man named Pedro Paramo, lived there. It was my mother who told me. The speaker is Juan Preciado. But as he arrives in the ghost town of Comala, more voices press in, in the third and first person and in the past and present tense. They are the voices of the dead, confused and confusing, for it becomes clear that Comala is a sort of purgatory. At one point Juan dies: There was no air; only the dead, still night fired by the dog days of August. Not a breath. I had to suck in the same air I exhaled, cupping it in my hands before it escaped. I felt it, in and out, less each time…until it was so thin it slipped through my fingers forever. I mean, forever.  

Juan lies in the ground, listening to the whispering of the dead all around, and we lie there with him. From the words of the dead the picture forms of Pedro Paramo's life. But the dead, like the living, do not always tell the truth and seldom tell the whole truth. The best approach to this book is, to my mind, to relax and let the words and images form, as you cannot get it all at first reading. Then read it again and more will become clear.  

This book was listed by the Guardian newspaper in the top 100 novels of all time. I have to agree. I can't tell you how excited I have been to discover it. It alone makes this magic realism challenge worthwhile.  This book is out of print and is hard to obtain. Beg, borrow, besiege your local library, but get it! 

Sunday 16 June 2013

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In this epic, mythical debut novel, a newly-wed couple escapes the busy confusion of their homeland for a distant and almost-uninhabited lakeshore. They plan to live there simply, to fish the lake, to trap the nearby woods, and build a house upon the dirt between where they can raise a family. But as their every pregnancy fails, the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world: the song-spun objects somehow created by his wife's beautiful singing voice, the giant and sentient bear that rules the beasts of the woods, the second moon weighing down the fabric of their starless sky, and the labyrinth of memory dug into the earth beneath their house.

This novel, from one of our most exciting young writers, is a powerful exploration of the limits of parenthood and marriage—and of what happens when a marriage’s success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the sorrow that marks their absence.

I was totally torn by this book. I should have loved it - it is poetic, it is mythic, which are both things I normally love, and yet I couldn't get into it. I found the non-specific nature of the book unnerving. For example the writer does not give his characters names; they have only titles - wife, foundling, bear. I suppose this was because Matt Bell was myth-making, but even so most mythic characters are identified.

Maybe my problems were because I was approaching the book thinking it was magic realism. As you know, my definition of magic realism is the commonly held one that "magic realism is a literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction." This book, although tackling real issues such as parenthood and the relationship between man and wife, does not have enough realism in it to my mind. Other people may differ and have - some reviewers have talked of this being magic realism and indeed compared the writing with that of magic realist writers such as Marquez. I leave you to decide for yourself, but to me Bell is writing ambitious mythic fiction.

The mythic elements of the book are strong. Bell creates a strange world where objects can be sung into life, where man literally battles with beast, where a child can exist inside his father. Animals and nature play an important part in this mythbuilding. But for some reason I found myself detached from this world when I wanted to sink into it.

The language is lush, extremely poetic at times, with the result that the book can't be read at a rush, but rather savoured and revisited. There is a section in which the writer lists a series of rooms that the wife has sung in to being, and in which the husband finds her secrets. This was extremely successful. But at other times Bell's style was just too slow and repetitive for me and I found myself losing the plot and my interest.

Ultimately this is one of those books that some people will love (and have done, given the rave reviews) and some will hate. But, as I hope I have made clear, it is not always obvious which camp you will fall into. If you decide you do want to read this book, give yourself time. One thing is certain: this book cannot be rushed.

I received this book as free review copy via Netgalley.

Wednesday 12 June 2013

A Floating Life by Tad Crawford

A nameless narrator awakens to the muddle of middle age, no longer certain who or what he is. He finds himself at a party talking to a woman he doesn't know who proves to be his wife. Soon separated but still living in the same apartment, he is threatened by a litigious dachshund and saddled with a stubborn case of erectile dysfunction in a world that seems held together by increasingly mercurial laws and elusive boundaries. His relationship deepens with an elderly Dutch model maker named Pecheur whose miniature boats are erratically offered for sale in a hard-to-find shop called The Floating World. Enlivened by Pecheur's dream to tame the destructive forces of nature, the narrator begins to find his bearings.

With quiet humor and wisdom, A Floating Life charts its course among images that surprise and disorient, such as a job interview in a steam room with a one-eyed, seven-foot-tall chef, a midnight intrusion of bears, and the narrator’s breast feeding of the baby he has birthed. 

From Amazon Description

I often read blogs, in which writers give advice to other writers. Some of the advice is good, some of it obvious and some of it suggests the writer has not read many books. One example of the latter sort of advice is “Don’t write about dreams.” Clearly that person has not read Lewis Carroll. And nor have s/he read Tad Crawford’s A Floating Life.

Like Alice in Wonderland the whole of Crawford’s book has a dreamlike quality. There are dreams in the book, but which sections are the central character’s dreams and which not is not always clear. As a bear says at one point “I spent a lot of time imagining who the dreams might belong to. Finally, I thought of you.”

Yes I did say “bear”. During the course of the book the narrator meets with a family of bears who live under Central Park, a litigious dachsund, Numun, an estate agent who offers him a golden cage in a building which is being built downwards, a World War II Japanese soldier and a modern Charon and Cerberus (and more as the Amazon description makes clear). As magic realism goes this is definitely on the magical/surrealist side. The dreams are edgy and often disturbing. There were times when I was reminded of the short stories of Karen Heuler.

The book does have realist elements. The narrator seems to be living a normal life working in marketing with a wife who is fed up with the fact that he hasn’t matured and who has decided to leave him. But even these elements are dealt with in a dreamlike way – he has a conversation with his wife at a party without recognizing her or apparently she him. The most realistic element is perhaps Pecheur and his model shop A Floating Life. The fantastic maritime scenes Pecheur displays are explained as computer programmed, engineered, modelled, although I doubt such programming is possible in real life. But Pecheur's displays have significance for the dreams and magic that follow.

I enjoyed this unusual book. It is strewn with symbolism - Jung would have had a field day. On writing this review I realise that I really ought to read it again to see what more I can find.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Tilo, an immigrant from India, runs an Indian spice shop in Oakland, California. While she dispenses the classic ingredients for curries and kormas, she also helps her customers to gain a more precious commodity: whatever they most desire. For Tilo is a Mistress of Spices, a priestess of the secret, magical powers of spices.

Through those who visit and revisit her shop - Ahuja's wife, caught in an unhappy, abusive marriage; Jagjit, the victim of racist attacks at school; the noisy bougainvillaea girls, rejecting the strict upbringing of their tradition-bound Indian parents; Haroun who drives a taxi and dreams the American dream - we get a glimpse into the life of the local Indian expatriate community. To each Tilo dispenses wisdom and the appropriate spice: coriander for sight; turmeric to erase wrinkles; cinnamon for finding friends; fenugreek to make a rejected wife desirable again; chillies for the cleansing of evil. But when a lonely American comes into the store, a troubled Tilo cannot find the right spice, for he arouses in her a forbidden desire, and following her own desires will destroy her magical powers.

Goodreads Description

There seems to be a strand of magic realism that focuses on food, which is portrayed as having magical power. Examples already featured in this blog include Joanne Harris' ChocolatThe Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and Laura Esquivel's Like Water For Chocolate. This book is another - the spices are portrayed as spirits speaking to Tilo about how to treat her customers, punishing her when she goes against their wishes. It is interesting to consider why this should be - is it because our senses and sensations are so strong at times that we experience them as magical? In my own book I give my heroine synesthesia, which allows her to see smells, however I do not claim this ability as magical. But then where does a natural condition end and magic begin?

I really enjoyed the realistic elements of this book - the portrayals of the Indian community members in Oakland. Although not Asian, I worked in an area with several large South Asian communities and was involved in the setting up and running of a number of projects to meet the communities' needs, including a helpline for battered women. The stories rang true to me and to be honest I wanted more. 

The elements that didn't work so well were the magical/fantasy ones. I found the story of Tilo's childhood, youth and training as a Mistress of Spices too fantastical. There seemed to be no historical setting for them. Moreover the rules that Tilo must abide by didn't seem to have a logic other than to create tension. In fact there were a number of points where the internal logic of the story didn't work. Why did the "lonely American" see through Tilo's old woman exterior to the beautiful woman inside? What was the point of the lonely American's dream of Tilo helping him find the earthly paradise?  
I know some of you will be saying, "This is fantasy; magic realism doesn't need logic." I beg to differ. I think that in order for magic to work in magic realism there needs to be a framework of logic, otherwise magic realism can rightly be criticised as being a lazy way of dealing with storylines. Moreover I believe that magic realism needs grounding in realism, not just in terms of the realistic world in which the magic exists, but in something profound and real being revealed through the magic. Others may choose to differ. Your comments are welcome.