Wednesday 25 September 2013

The Finno-Ugrian Vampire by Noemi Szecsi

Everybody wants to be a vampire these days . . . don't they?

Not Jerne, who just wants a normal life, a steady job, and to be allowed to make her own way in the world. But her attempts at independence are resisted by her 200-year-old grandmother, who has more traditional ideas about Jerne’s future, and concocts a plan to make sure she gets her way.

Funny, intelligent and sexy, this novel will make you see vampires in a whole new light. 

Amazon description

It has been suggested to me that magic realist books cannot include books that are part of a sub-genre, such as ghost stories or in this case vampire novels. But then not all books conform to genre memes, even if they have ghost as an essential element or in this case a vampire or two. This book is so many things - it's a coming of age tale, it's about following one's calling and ignoring the demands of family tradition, it is political and social satire, it plays with words, language and literature. One thing it is not is a conventional vampire story. If you are expecting lots of blood, thrills, and sharp teeth, then you will be disappointed in this book. This is very different to the books of Stephanie Meyer and Anne Rice. And as I am not a great reader of those books, that's fine by me. In fact this book was fine by me in all sorts of ways. 

The book is as the blurb says funny and intelligent and had me giggling and snorting in an embarrassing way in a Prague cafe, as I waited for my husband to arrive from England. But then this book is a very central European in its references to history, to literature, fraught national identity and dry humour.  

Jerne is the most wonderful narrator. She may have been born into a family of vampires, but she wants to write children's stories about rabbits. Admittedly, being a vampire, she has none of the empathy or saccharin needed by a successful children's author - her first collection of stories is called Rotten Animals, the problem with which, as the editor points out, is "These rabbits, foxes, wolves, polecats, moles and gophers—they’re all cynical and evil." There are lots of jokes and wry comment on the world of publishing in the first half of the book, as Jerne works for a publisher which produces self-help books. Jerne is always comparing herself with her literary hero, Hans Christian Andersen, but her dry sardonic style is as far from Hans Christian Andersen as you can get.

Jerne's vampire grandmother is also a wonderful creation. She keeps rats as pets (and to annoy the neighbours), decorates the walls of her flat with bullet holes, chops up grandfather and puts him through a meat mincer and (appropriately for a vampire) makes huge amounts of money on the financial markets: 'For two hundred years I lived in the lap of luxury but I have realised its vanity. Then I moved into a run-down block of flats in Pest and I have been happy ever since. The flat leaks, the cockroaches roam free, but I know my money is in a Swiss bank account and I can get the hell out of here anytime I want. Knowing this, you too can go and work. Treat work as your spiritual exercises.'
'You're telling me this as my grandmother?'
'No. I am giving you knowledge from a higher spiritual plane and as a sadistic old woman.'
Grandmother is also proudly Hungarian. Before she leaves for a stay abroad Jerne describes her grandmother in a frenzy buying up Hungarica. It is Jerne's grandmother who uses the phrase Finno-Ugrian Vampire. Finno-Ugrian is a family of languages of which Hungarian is one. I am sure I missed out on all sorts of injokes about Hungary and its language, but it doesn't matter.  

These two are the main characters in the book, but there are other characters (human and vampire) that are shown to be as self-centred and amoral as Jerne and Grandmother. Oscar, the gay guardian appointed by Grandmother to keep an eye on Jerne, appears to be dedicated to culture and Marxism, but is waiting for his grandmother to die and leave him a fortune. There is O - Jerne's preening female love interest - and there's the xenophobic vegetarian cook. Is the characters' cynicism because we are seeing these people through the eyes of a vampire? Or is it because people really are that way? Whatever the answer, this book is a delight.

I received this book from the publisher in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Weaving Water by Ryhaan Shah

An adopted child puzzles and enlightens those whose lives she touches in this moving exploration of the little-told history and mythology of Guyana—perfect for fans of Eowyn Ivey's Snow Child In 1917, the last ship taking indentured laborers from India to the sugar plantations of British Guiana sets sail, taking with it Rampat and Parvati, a childless couple looking for a new future. During a furious storm at sea, a child is born and is put into their arms as the unwed mother dies. They adopt her and call her Neela. From the beginning, Neela's birth has given rise to talk of the mystery surrounding the legend of the sea goddess Ganga and, some 15 years later, Neela is seen as being human and divine, a destroyer and a savior, to be feared. Neela's story, told against a backdrop of slavery and indentureship, of family and community, and of the growing racial conflict between Indians and Africans reveals a country and a people shaped by history and mythological superstition.
Goodreads description 

When my son was small he had a wonderful childminder. She was from Guyana. I had no idea about the history of that country and was surprised to discover that she was Indian and a Hindu - a small statue of Ganesh sat in her front room. This book tells the tale of a couple of indentured Indians who made the daunting journey from South Asia to the Caribbean coast of South America and the orphaned baby they adopt whilst still at sea.

Their stories are set against the wider history of Guyana and in particular the violent tensions between the majority Asian community and the community of former African slaves, which followed the end of British rule and has continued until the present day. 
The book reminded me of the South American magic realism of Isabel Allende and (to a lesser extent) of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In many ways it stands up well to the comparison with these heavyweights, although inevitably it falls short. Hinduism, it seems to me, is well suited to the magic realist treatment, with its multitude of gods, spirits, and demons, who are present in the everyday lives of their followers, in a way that South American Catholicism combined with indigenous beliefs is in the Allende's and Marquez's work.

I understand the story was inspired by the idea of a child born at sea. Neela, the child whose roots are in the sea, who may or may not be a devi (an Indian water goddess), is full of references to the water - she flows, she wades through air. The author keeps us guessing at her true nature. We see her through the eyes of her doting father, her mother who wants to ground her nature with a marriage and Billa, her parent's Tamil friend, who had seen magic everywhere, even in the air itself, and who could always pluck a story from it and make it live.

Neela never comes into focus. She sings, she combs her hair, she goes for night-time swims. She disappears and briefly appears again. In the last third of the book the story shifts to the political situation, away from Neela and her parents. The political story fascinated me, but structurally something felt wrong. Unlike in House of Spirits where the last generation is active politically and falls foul of the regime, in this book Neela's story is not woven into the politics. There is violence, including the death of a key character, but somehow there is less tension.

Ryhaan Shah has a fascinating writing style, often repeating phrases and rhythms, in long sentences which mount to a climax: There came a day when he wished he could go back and undo all of his foolishness, undo all of his unbelief for he was sure that it was that that had angered the gods: that he had given himself over to the happiness, to the moment's happiness and become unmindful of all the signs, all the warnings that had been revealed to him, for he had no sooner walked away from the club and its music and its laughter, had no sooner turned his back on the singer in red that the news came of the troubles that were to unravel all around them. It's wonderful to read a writer who is unafraid to write like this.

I enjoyed this book and am grateful to the publishers who gave me a copy in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

In a thin place, according to legend, the membrane separating this world from the spirit world is almost nonexistent. The small New England town of Varennes is such a place, and Kathryn Davis transports us there - revealing a surprising pageant of life as, in the course of one summer, Varennes' tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of a threatening outsider, worldly and otherworldly forces come into play, and a young local girl finds her miraculous gift for resurrecting the dead tested by the conflict between logic and wish.
Goodreads Description

This was an interesting read and reminded me of Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Like Bradbury's novel this is a magic realist account of life in small town over a short period of time. Don't let the description fool you: this novel has a slow and gentle start and it isn't until the last few chapters that life in the town is threatened. 

Davis weaves a tapestry made up of many threads. Not only does this mean the portrayal of the, sometimes mundane, daily lives of the many residents, but also the lives of animals (local dogs, cats, a beaver, moose) and even lichen. These portrayals are imaginative and insightful. We see the town through the eyes of a dog, and also smell it: Many deer beds and some human pee in a bush and also birds in trees and lots of squirrels too high to eat and then a house. Never a good idea to go too near a house unless you knew the person put out suet. 

At other times Davis steps out of the present day, to a community disaster in the 19th century, which one feels running as a dark current under the local lake. And sometimes she describes the area before human habitation or even as the world was created. On several occasions she talks about Julian of Norwich, and clearly the medieval  Christian mystic has influenced Davis' approach. 

These approaches, as much as Mees' gift for raising the dead, are magic realist, but magic realist in the sense of Roh's definition. 

There will be many readers who will find this book boring and/or confusing. There are so many characters that one is inclined to forget who is who. I at one point had read the first page of a chapter about a character, Margaret, before I remembered that Margaret was a dog! There will be others, myself included, who felt the sudden shift to action and even violence at the end of the book to be jarring. 

So is this poetic book worthy of the comparison with Bradbury's? Despite its quality, I don't think it is in the same league. Bradbury's book may have portrayed a community, but the world was seen through the eyes of a ten-year old boy and that helped provide focus. The Thin Place lacks a centre. Maybe that is what Davis intended - after all it is world of diaphanous layers - but I for one wanted more solidity. 

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Wednesday 4 September 2013

Wishing Thread by Lisa Van Allen

The Van Ripper women have been the talk of Tarrytown, New York, for centuries. Some say they’re angels; some say they’re crooks. In their tumbledown “Stitchery,” not far from the stomping grounds of the legendary Headless Horseman, the Van Ripper sisters—Aubrey, Bitty, and Meggie—are said to knit people’s most ardent wishes into beautiful scarves and mittens, granting them health, success, or even a blossoming romance. But for the magic to work, sacrifices must be made—and no one knows that better than the Van Rippers.
When the Stitchery matriarch, Mariah, dies, she leaves the yarn shop to her three nieces. Aubrey, shy and reliable, has dedicated her life to weaving spells for the community, though her sisters have long stayed away. Bitty, pragmatic and persistent, has always been skeptical of magic and wants her children to have a normal, nonmagical life. Meggie, restless and free-spirited, follows her own set of rules. Now, after Mariah’s death forces a reunion, the sisters must reassess the state of their lives even as they decide the fate of the Stitchery. But their relationships with one another—and their beliefs in magic—are put to the test. Will the threads hold?

Goodreads Description

This book is women's fiction with a touch of magic.  This type of fiction isn't my normal choice, but as part of my magic realism challenge I try to read widely and it often pays off, as with this book. I enjoyed this book. It wasn't particularly challenging in subject matter or technically, but it is a good story told well. Just when I thought I knew where the story was heading, there was a unexpected twist towards the end. 

Is the magic in this story real? Is it coincidence? Is it wishful thinking? Bitty, the eldest sister, doesn't believe in it. Bitty would have been happy to believe it was real. She would have been the first person to say "sign me up!" But in the end, magic was a false security, a grasping at power that humans didn't have but desperately wished for.

The fact is that the magic of the Stitchery is unreliable. None of the guardians of the Stitchery (including Aubrey and Mariah) is able to guarantee that the spells, which they knit into the garments they create, will work. Nor does there seem to be any logic or explanation about which spells fail, which sometimes happens heartbreakingly. This questioning of the magic runs through the book, not just in the doubts of the characters like Bitty, but also in the narration - Chapter One ends with The magic of the Van Ripper family, they said, was in the knitting. If it was magic at all.
In the end it comes down to whether you are like Aubrey, who sees the magic and some sort of order in the world, or like Bitty.

It is interesting that in this book, as in The Threads of the Heartthe women's magic is based in a traditional woman's craft. In other magic realism books about women the magic is to be found in the preparation of food. I have spoken elsewhere about magic realism as a vehicle for showing women's strength. What does placing the magic in traditional female activity say about women?  Speaking for myself knitting doesn't exactly float my boat. It seems a very passive activity to me, but I can see that a lot of readers will enjoy and understand the knitting symbolism more than me. 

As the eldest of three sisters, I found the relationship between the three very different Van Ripper girls both interesting and well drawn. Both Bitty and Meggie have for different reasons turned their backs on the Stitchery and now are drawn back by Mariah's death, Aubrey's need for her family and, whilst they do not admit it, their own needs. I would have liked more about their relationships.  

This book has been recommended to people who enjoy Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It is light and gentle, with a little but not too much romance. All in all it is an enjoyable read.

I received this book through Netgalley in return for a fair review.
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