Wednesday 29 January 2014

Butterfly Winter by W P Kinsella

The final novel from legendary Canadian author WP Kinsella.

Butterfly Winter, W.P. Kinsella's first novel in 15 years, is the story of Julio and Esteban Pimental, twins born in the Caribbean country of Courteguay, an enchanted but impoverished enclave on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic where time moves at its own pace and reality is open to question.

The brothers are born to play baseball, they even played catch in the womb, and at the age of ten they leave home for the American Major Leagues. Julio proves to be a winning pitcher who, much to the frustration of any team that signs him, will only throw to his catcher brother, who is a very weak hitter.
Amazon description

W P Kinsella's magic realist baseball novel Shoeless Joe, the book that was translated into the film Field of Dreams, was already on my to-read (and to-buy) list, when I got the opportunity to receive a review copy of this, his last book. Kinsella had given up on writing following being struck by a car but then after fifteen years at the age of 76 Kinsella published this book. 

Butterfly Winter reads like a book by someone who is overflowing with ideas and enthusiasm and enjoying the process of writing tremendously. The book revels in magic - a blanket of monarch butterflies cover the bodies of young lovers, foetuses play baseball in the womb, plants grow and flower upside down, soldiers are speared by herons - so much so that the realism plays a lesser part. Set in a fictional magical Latin American country instead of a magical USA this book is closer to the roots of magic realism.  

Although the book has baseball as a theme, it is also about writing and fiction. There are two narrators - a gringo journalist (perhaps a fictional Kinsella), investigating the story of the baseball-playing twins as well as the history and politics of Courteguay, and an old wizard, baseball guru, country's president and fraudster (perhaps also Kinsella). Kinsella has great fun with the latter narrator, whose identity shifts along with his name during the course of the book: I am what is known in literary circles as an unreliable narrator. The wizard's ironic comments allow Kinsella to explore the nature of fantasy and truth: Who's to say what is truth. People tell tales, and as the tales emerge they become as good as truth. In Courteguay, anything that can be imagined exists. The telling is the truth. Truth is spun like silk: truth is manufactured. 

All this makes for a fun and funny book, but then Kinsella ventures into the dark territory of Latin American magic realism as the pregnant partner of one of the twins is held and tortured as a political opponent of the sadistic dictator of Courteguay. The change of tone is a shock, but not nearly as shocking as the way the story then continues in a generally comic vein. 

Kinsella also plays with the chronology of the story, which moves backwards and forwards all over the place. As the wizard comments: This is Courteguay... The word chronological is not in our language, neither is sequence. Things happen. That is all there is to it.

The book isn't perfect. Kinsella has rather too much fun packing the magic realist kitchen sink into the seventy-eight short chapters. But readers of magic realism are bound to find much to enjoy.

I was given this book by the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Could it be Magic by Paul Magrs

The ordinary inhabitants of a small-town council estate turn out to hold extraordinary secrets in Paul Magrs' strangely compelling novel, Could It Be Magic?. Set in the grey wastelands of the north-east, Magrs has looked beyond the ravages of boom and bust Britain--with its council ghettos and widespread unemployment--to reveal a community brimming with passions. At first glance, the leading characters are exceptional only in their mediocrity: Elsie, old before her time, weighed down by a crippled son and depressive husband, whose only solace lies in a bottle of gin; tattooed Mark, who spends his days bodybuilding and nights babysitting his ex-wife's new baby; Penny, who left school too soon and fills her house with students; Andy whose gay lover left him for a better life. But the arrival of Penny's Mam on New Year's Eve (with her own startling secret) sets off a chain of astonishing events. Fantasy mingles with the mundane until it's hard to know what to accept as commonplace and what to dismiss as trivial. A frisson of sexual energy sparks from council roof to satellite dish as Magrs' characters discover their innermost secrets and how to live life to the full. 
Goodreads description

Magic realism set on a council estate in the North East of England, really? Yes, really. If you consider magic realism to be where magic appears in an otherwise realistic world. Not if you are one of those who subscribe to a definition based on two cultures. There is one culture in this book: that of the British working class.

And does it work? Absolutely. This is a very realistic portrayal of the lives of the inhabitants of a council estate in a bleak town sitting near a motorway. Each character is drawn in detail and with love, but in such a way that you don't get overwhelmed with back story. You come to understand and even like people that in real life you might consider avoiding, such as the local busybodies. I don't know Magrs' background but I would guess that he grew up in a place like his fictional Phoenix Court. There is a sense of unease about the place, a sense of threat partly from the gang of lads at the Forsyth's house, partly from the ever present desire on the part of most of the inhabitants to know everything about everyone else and worse to meddle. There is a sense of hopes unfulfilled, lives going nowhere, a desire to get away that for most of the novel is not realized. And yet this is a community and, as the ending reveals, one that continues to call its members back.

The magic just slips in. The first time it happens you have to check that you really did read that. Then slowly it grows. In Magrs' book there is clearly a link between magic and sex. The leopard boy is a product of a one-night stand between Andy and the tattooed Mark. The clubfoot of Elsie's son Craig appears to be cured following fellatio with Penny. I was really impressed by how well Magrs writes about sex, both gay and heterosexual. There is a lovely sex scene at the end between Fran and her husband, which concludes with: tonight is quite a shock to her. She had forgotten how she and Frank were, after all, experts in each other.  

The Independent's reviewer Michael Arditti has rather snootily dubbed Magrs' style as magic soap opera and compares it unfavourably with the magic in Allende's work. Soap operas play an important part in the lives of the characters and indeed in a key moment in the plot at the end of the book. But that is only right. Soap operas are important, as Andy's grandfather commented when he first saw Coronation Street: It's like real life! They're talking like real people on here.  
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Wednesday 15 January 2014

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfield

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.
Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

The book takes its title from the notice that sister Vi posted on the girls' room when in fifth grade:
Population 2
Do NOT enter without permission

But that is what we as readers do in this novel - we enter sisterland. I am not a twin, but I am very close to my younger sister, and can identify with the push and pull of the relationship between Kate and Vi, although now my sister and I are adults we do not have the strains that Kate and Vi feel. 

The differences between Kate and Vi almost seem cliched - Kate is the conformist, Vi the rebel; Kate the thin one, Vi overweight; Kate married and a stay-at-home mother, Vi has just announced a lesbian relationship; and in particular Kate repressing her special powers, Vi embracing and celebrating her special powers. But in Sittenfield's hands the portrayals of the sisters are not cliched. Kate is the narrator of the piece and she is not a sympathetic character. She lacks any sense of self-awareness, unable to see how irrationally she behaves, how demanding and peevish she seems. Inevitably we see Vi through Kate's eyes and she too at times seems selfish and unaware. Although we do get the impression that Vi is the more interesting sister, but she never comes fully into focus. 

Given that the two sisters are meant to have psychic powers and are twins, it is interesting that Sittenfield does not give them the ability to read each other's minds, although at one point Kate does hear words spoken to Vi over earphones. Kate is so afraid that everything she dreams of or imagines is a prediction that she is jittery and a fussy mother. Rather than try and tune her powers, she decides to abandon them. The book seems to accept, as Kate does, that the powers do exist, and in that sense is magic realist.

The book might seem to have a plot driver in the question of whether Vi's predicted earthquake will materialize, but to my mind the plot really is about the relationship between the sisters and whether Kate will become more self-aware. The earthquake forecast is a medium for that. As the allotted time for the earthquake approaches, Sittenfield alternates the chapters between the present and accounts of significant events in the sisters' past. 

There is a lot of detailed realism in this book. The writer goes into detail about Kate's mundane life - the nappy changes, what's for lunch, etc. I know some readers really like that in a book, but I confess I don't, and I thought at times "Get on with it, already!" I would have liked more of a character arc too, particularly for Kate. But having set up Kate as the narrator, Sittenfield was trapped by the limitations of Kate's character, although part of the fun of the book was trying to work out what was really happening despite the narrator's inability to see it. 

Sisterland is not my favourite book of the year, but one I know a lot of people will enjoy. 

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review
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The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town. Her routines are few and small. One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea. This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.
     Now that Frida is in her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat? Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency? How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with her her own troubled past? And how far can Ruth trust herself?
     The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s hypnotic first novel, is no simple tale of a crime committed and a mystery solved. This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be. Here is a new writer who comes to us fully formed, working wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.

Goodreads Description

Psychological suspense, with its emphasis on disorientating the reader and challenging reality, is a sub-genre highly suited to magic realism. This debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane is an excellent example of this.

The book starts normally enough with the retired elocution teacher Ruth pottering around in her seaside home. Even the arrival of the careworker, Frida, seems normal.  Into her life comes an old crush from her youth and everything looks set for a gentle love story, but then suddenly you feel the book jolt into more alarming territory, when Ruth discovers Frida is living in her home:

“You assumed I was leaving, obviously. Who knows why.”

“And why I wouldn’t I assume you were leaving? It’s not as if you live here.”

“Oh, dear.” Frida lifted her feet from the towel ... remember, we talked about George, all my trouble with George? And you said I could stay as long as I needed to. So here I am.” ...

“That isn’t true, Frida, what you’re saying to me now, it’s not true. I’d remember.” Ruth was certain; but there was a feeling of unraveling, all the same; an unwound thread. She did recognize the part about trouble with George.

“You know your memory’s not what it used to be.”

“I do not know that.” 

You find yourself looking back at what has gone before - Frida's arrival, the tiger in the house and Ruth's reaction to it and you realize that a) you have been seeing the world through Ruth's eyes, b) that she and you have missed clues and c) something very strange is happening and you cannot make out what it is.  From then on the story plays with your lack of certainty. Is Ruth hallucinating? Is it a very accurate picture of dementia? The mother of a friend of mine was convinced that she had a second doctor lived in her attic. Or is Frida plying her with hallucinatory drugs and playing with her mind?  The relationship between Frida and Ruth is fascinating and by no means a simple black and white affair, as there seems to be some real connection between the two. At the end of the book another character remembers how Ruth and Frida had run together like lovers.

 A key element in this uncertainty is the magic realist tiger.  Does it exist? Is it a sign of Ruth's  mind deteriorating? Is Frida play-acting? The tiger was Frida's now... She was proud of him and of her arm; the heroics of the night before seemed to give her precedence in all household matters. Nothing is clear, everything is uncertain. Maybe the tiger is even real. 

This is a story which will have you checking up on your elderly relatives and wondering what your life might be like when you become old and vulnerable. It is truly unnerving and brilliantly so - beautifully written and constructed. Fiona McFarlane is an author to watch.

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

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Wednesday 8 January 2014

Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu

What would you do if you found out your girlfriend laid an egg every time she had sex? Who would you be if you were invited to a party in Beijing but had to make up a brand-new identity for six weeks?

Peter Tieryas Liu's Watering Heaven is a travelogue of and requiem for the American dream in all its bizarre manifestations and a surreal, fantastic journey through the streets, alleys, and airports of China. Whether it's a monk who uses acupuncture needles to help him fly or a city filled with rats about to be exterminated so that the mayor can win his reelection bid, be prepared to laugh, swoon, and shudder at the answers Peter Tieryas Liu offers in this provocative debut collection.

Goodreads Description

From the beginning I was impressed by this collection of short stories, which is very different from other short story collections featured on this blog. The fusion of Chinese and American cultures was not one I had experienced before and gave the stories an interesting perspective. Cultural dichotomy is, as has been noted elsewhere in this blog, ideal for magic realism. In these stories there is an additional layer. Peter Tieryas Liu sometimes references Chinese myths and folktales in these tales, however the China that features in these stories is a 21st century urban modern China. Interestingly the stories often express the fusion in the form of food: I absolutely recommend their spaghetti sushi broccoli hamburger. As you can tell from that quotation, Liu brings an ironic and amused eye to what he finds. 

The stories contain a lot of surreal conversations between the male narrator and a (usually eccentric, witty) young women, with whom he is besotted. These exchanges are very clever and impressive at first, but after a time they begin to pall. Indeed that was my feeling generally about the collection. For the first third of the book I thought that it was wonderful, reminding me at times of Murakami's writing, but in the second third I found myself thinking that the stories were becoming too familiar and by the last third I confess I was skipping paragraphs.

The subjects of the stories were at times imaginative and original - the woman who lays an egg every time she has sex, the girl who sells dead moths, the man who has so much plastic surgery no one recognizes him, the levitating man living in post-crash run-down amusement park. But at other times it seemed the writer was revisiting an earlier story. The writing was often poetic, with interesting imagery: Outside our cab, there's (sic) convoys of trucks from Inner Mongolia and Hebei floating between cities like dead whales carried by convex currents. 
But as this quote reveals, the book could have done with better editing, not just in picking single verbs when they should be plural but in spotting the repetition. 

My view of this book therefore is that it is a curate's egg - wonderful in parts.  

I was given this book by the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review

Wednesday 1 January 2014

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak


1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.
Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.


It's a small story, about:
a girl
an accordionist
some fanatical Germans
a Jewish fist fighter
and quite a lot of thievery.


Publisher's Description

The Book Thief is a beautiful book about an ugly period of history.  There are many books about the second world war and the holocaust, but this book is one of the greats, precisely because it doesn't focus exclusively on the horror, but on the lives of ordinary people living in a small town near Munich. It is the contrast that both humanizes the story and throws the horror into relief: For the book thief, everything was going nicely. For me [Death], the sky was the colour of Jews. 

The heroine of the book is Liesel, whose story moves from tragedy (the loss of her brother to Death and of her mother) to finding a relatively normal life in Himmel Street. There her victories are those of a child: learning to read, entry into the local gang and standing up to the boys at school, but increasingly the sinister presence of Nazism begins to be felt, appropriately enough with the public burning of books. Liesel makes a wonderful spirited heroine: affectionate, loyal and resourceful. I am sure the book's young readers will identify with her.  She grows in maturity with the arrival in the house of a fugitive Jew, Max. She is as the narrator Death says, a survivor. 

Surviving, and the guilt that goes with it, is an important theme in the book. Max feels guilt having left his family behind when he went into hiding. A wounded Stalingrad soldier commits suicide after watching his brother die. And Liesel's foster-father Hans Hubermann is guilty about surviving the First World War when everyone else in his  platoon died. It is that guilt and feeling of debt to Max's father that makes Hans risk everything and hide Max in his house.For me Hans is as much the hero of the book as Liesel. 

Another theme in the book is bravery. Hans is accused by his Nazi-supporting son of being a coward, but Hans' bravery is that of a humane man retaining his humanity when all around him people are at best turning a blind eye to and worse actively participating in terrible crimes. The writer says that what inspired the story was the tale of a man helping a Jew being driven by SS guards and being whipped for his kindness. Hans offers a piece of bread to a Jew, when everyone else stand by watching, and is whipped for it. His gesture will not save the Jew,  but if nothing else, the old man would die like a human. Zusak doesn't leave it at that, because of Hans' impulsive act of kindness, he puts himself and his family at risk, but more specifically forces Max back on to the road.

The Book Thief was sold as a young adult book in the UK, but it gripped this 50+ adult. One reason is the way it portrays dilemmas facing ordinary people living under the Third Reich. We are aware of these, partly because the narrator, Death, uses foreshadowing in his tale and partly because he is trying to understand the human race: I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words so damning and brilliant...  I am haunted by humans.

I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed its style, at times poetic and striking. So is it great magic realism? It's great but not magic realism. It may appear frequently on lists of magic realist books, but having Death as a narrator does not make it magic realism. There isn't magic in Liesel's world. 

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