Wednesday 27 May 2015

A Hungry God by Pia Chaudhuri

Aruna is born with an unusual gift, which despite its extreme significance, leaves her with the ghastly side effect of burning red hot, and in turn causing her to soak everything she comes into contact with in rivers of sweat. 

Her mother despises her, the villagers fear her, and her new husband is repulsed by her. But when her marriage takes her to London, Aruna’s new life finally drives her to face up to her nature and carry out a deed she will always regret. 

Maya was abandoned by her mother at just six years old. When she makes an unexpected discovery as an adult, she questions the circumstances surrounding her disappearance for the first time. She leaves London and embarks on a journey of discovery to India, her ancestral homeland, to find the truth. 

While Aruna and Maya’s lives collide, weather patterns shift, an enchanted forest opens its heart, a sister appears only at night, dreams become messages, sacrifices are made, and an unusual gift is finally understood – ensuring the circle of life remains unbroken forever. 

Goodreads description

Pia Chaudhuri's A Hungry God is a book that shows that some really excellent new authors are using the self-publishing route to bring high quality fiction to the market. Pia is also a member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group. 

 As you will have realized  I really enjoyed this book, which is part of the strong tradition of magic realism that arises from the meeting of Indian and European cultures, and which is most exemplified by the books of Salman Rushdie. Chaudhuri's story moves from India to the UK and back again, and from the heat of South Asia to the cold winters of London. Heat, as you will have seen in the description above, is carried by Aruna within herself.  

The book focuses on two strong young women who grow up in two very different worlds and yet are strongly linked. I am unable to say more without giving away a key plot element. I am not sufficiently au fait with Indian mythology and the Hindu religion to put the magic element in context, but as a result of reading the book I want to learn more. And to my mind Pia Chaudhuri succeeds better than Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does in The Mistress of Spices in creating credible magic in a realist setting.  

The realism is also very strong and the author is not afraid to tackle harsh subjects like domestic abuse. As I have said before on this blog it is the realism that makes magic realism work. 

An excellent first novel from a young author I will be watching with interest. 

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

Wednesday 20 May 2015

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

"The Nose" is a satirical short story by Nikolai Gogol. Written between 1835 and 1836, it tells of a St. Petersburg official whose nose leaves his face and develops a life of its own.
Amazon description

Whilst in 1915 Gregor Samsa woke up to find he had been transformed into a monstrous bug, in 1836 Major Kovalyov woke to discover that he did not have a nose. Kafka's The Metamorphosis is often said to be the first piece of European magic realism, but Gogol's The Nose is every bit as magic realist. 

This is a delightful and witty short story with that very Russian sense of the surreal combined with satire, that one sees in Bulgakov's writings (Bulgakov was an admirer of Gogol's work). I could go into all sorts of linguistic and psychological analysis of the symbolism of a man losing his nose, or I probably could if I knew Russian. But I suspect that rather misses the point. As the story says: Nonsense really does occur in this world, and, sometimes, nonsense altogether without an element of plausibility.

Major Kovalyov clearly cares a lot about social status and appearances, with the result that the loss of his nose, which one suspects had been held in the air rather more than it merited, is a major blow (if you forgive the double pun). Things take an even more surreal turn when the Major encounters his nose dressed in the attire of a senior civil servant (of a higher grade than the Major's). 

As is the way in magic realism, there is no attempt at an explanation for the errant nose and in some ways the story drifts at the end, as Gogol starts to directly address the reader. An early version apparently revealed that the story was in fact a dream, but this resolution was abandoned by the author. I am glad that Gogol chose not to take this course - dream resolutions always seem something of a cop-out and the weirdness of the story works for me. It has worked for many other people as well, inspiring an opera by Shostokovich, various theatrical productions and the animated film (above) by Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker, which uses pin-screen animation, probably one of the most time-consuming forms of film production ever invented, with over a million pins creating shadows on a white screen.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

The Vorrh by Brian Catling

Prepare to lose yourself in the heady, mythical expanse of the Vorrh.

In B. Catling's twisting, poetic narrative, Bakelite robots lie broken - their hard shells cracked by human desire - and an inquisitive Cyclops waits for his keeper and guardian, growing in all directions. Beyond the colonial city of Essenwald lies the Vorrh, the forest which sucks souls and wipes minds. There, a writer heads out on a giddy mission to experience otherness, fallen angels observe humanity from afar, and two hunters - one carrying a bow carved from his lover, the other a charmed Lee-Enfield rifle - fight to the end.

Thousands of miles away, famed photographer Eadweard Muybridge attempts to capture the ultimate truth, as rifle heiress Sarah Winchester erects a house to protect her from the spirits of her gun's victims.

In the tradition of China Mieville, Michael Moorcock and Alasdair Gray, B. Catling's The Vorrh is literary dark fantasy which wilfully ignores boundaries, crossing over into surrealism, magic-realism, horror and steampunk.

Goodreads description

Okay, let's get one rather important thing out of the way first. This novel may be many things - steampunk, surrealism, horror, mythic fantasy, historical fantasy - but one thing it is not is magic realism. Magic realism is defined by its realistic context. Hence you can have any one of a number of realist genres, e.g. mystery, women's fiction, or historical fiction, and add an element of magic realism to it, but you can't add magic realism to fantasy. Yes, there are real historical characters, but that is not enough. 

Despite this and the fact that this blog is dedicated to magic realism I wanted to review the book anyway. This is partly because the claim to magic realism is made by the publishers in the product description and so some of you might pick it up under the impression that you are buying a magic realist book and partly because it is an ambitious and interesting book and one that might appeal to many who follow this blog.

If we are going to play the genre game, I suppose I would put this book on the mythic fiction shelf. To quote the Wikipedia entry on that genre: Mythic fiction is literature that is rooted in, inspired by, or that in some way draws from the themes, symbolism, myth, legend, folklore, fairy tales... Mythic fiction overlaps with urban fantasy and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but mythic fiction also includes contemporary works in non-urban settings. Mythic fiction refers to works of contemporary literature that often cross the divide between literary fiction and fantasy. 

As I read this large book (over 500 pages) I found myself reminded of two trilogies - The Gormenghast books by Mervyn Peake and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Peake's works because of the strangeness of the characters and the evocation of place and Pullman's because of the way the mythic forest at the heart of the book is depicted as the Garden of Eden. No doubt were I more widely read in fantasy fiction other books and authors would have come to mind. It should perhaps be said that I had problems with both of these much-lauded works and so it should not be a surprise that I also had problems with The Vorrh

My responses were so mixed. I loved parts of it. The opening of Part One with the death of bowman's lover and the start of his journey was spectacular, moving and vivid. I enjoyed the book's mythic and archetypal nature. I admired its ambition. But the book was constantly switching from the story of one character and that of another, in a way that could be confusing and was frustrating. I kept thinking that the stories would all come together somehow and yet it didn't happen in some cases and I was left wondering why the author devoted so much time to characters that were not integral to the plot. The Vorrh is, I understand, the first book in a series, so maybe that is something that will be resolved over the course of the trilogy.

The author's writing style is as lush as the fabled forest. Sometimes it worked brilliantly and sometimes it had me shouting "What!" at the page. For example a doctor sits behind a Jurassic desk - what the hell is a Jurassic desk? And the author clearly does not believe in the principle of using adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Take this from the book's opening: The hotel was ponderous, grand, and encrusted with gloom. Its tall baroque rooms were grudgingly fortified by vicious light that desperately tried to penetrate the heavy curtains and starched formalities. After a while I stopped being distracted by the overblown style, but instead allowed myself to become absorbed in the story.

So, as you can see, I found this to be a curate's egg of a novel. Maybe the problem lies in me. Maybe the fact that I like realism with my magic made me less tolerant of this book. I don't know. I am glad I read it.

I received this novel free from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Under The Same Blue Sky by Pamela Schoenewaldt

A shopkeeper's daughter, Hazel Renner lives in the shadows of the Pittsburgh steel mills. She dreams of adventure, even as her immigrant parents push her toward a staid career. But in 1914, war seizes Europe and all their ambitions crumble. German-Americans are suddenly the enemy, "the Huns." Hazel herself is an outsider in her own home when she learns the truth of her birth.

Desperate for escape, Hazel takes a teaching job in a seemingly tranquil farming community. But the idyll is cracked when she acquires a mysterious healing power--a gift that becomes a curse as the locals' relentless demand for "miracles" leads to tragedy.

Hazel, determined to find answers, traces her own history back to a modern-day castle that could hold the truth about her past. There Hazel befriends the exiled, enigmatic German baron and forges a bond with the young gardener, Tom. But as America is shattered by war and Tom returns battered by shell-shock, Hazel's healing talents alone will not be enough to protect those close to her, or to safeguard her dreams of love and belonging. She must reach inside to discover that sometimes the truth is not so far away, that the simplest of things can lead to the extraordinary.

Goodreads description

I read this book a fortnight ago and I have started writing this review several times only to give up. This was not because I did not like the book, but because my feelings were mixed about it. 

One topic at the heart of the novel - the experience of German immigrants to the United States in the period leading up to and during the First World War - is a timely one in the light of that war's centenary. It is also a subject that I am interested in, being an immigrant in another land myself. And I felt that Pamela Schoenewaldt did an excellent job in portraying the mental and emotional turmoil Hazel and her family feel as their mother (Germany) and bride (America) move towards a terrible war and they find themselves alienated from the neighbours. The anti-German feelings are however not overdone and do not constitute a major threat to the central characters. The focus is on the corrosive emotional pain of loss (of both family and identity) and how some sensitive people, like Hazel's father, is unable to cope with it. 

A second theme in the book is the post-traumatic stress or shell-shock suffered by the survivors of conflict and how little people understood what it entailed at the time. There are two men in the book who survive war (two different wars in fact), but are psychologically wounded by it. This theme appears at the beginning of the book and reappears at the end, thus tying two very different parts of the story together. 

The magic realist element of the book is that Hazel may have the power of healing. This may or may not be related to blue paint and a previous murder in the house she is given when she becomes the schoolmistress in a small town. What the blue paint and the murder have to do with her healing powers is not explained, nor why her powers fail sometimes. I confess I got confused about this. In fact I have to say I found the magic realism bit the least satisfying aspect of the book. I don't see how it moves things along nor that it works as some sort of metaphor. I was much more interested in the enemy alien strand in the story. 

Indeed for me the book picks up when Hazel arrives at the castle of German baron. He too is exiled from his homeland by his family for reasons that are hinted at. The strongest section in the book is when Hazel travels with the baron to a destroyed Germany after the war to try and save his mother, who has not protected him. Now that I think about it, there is another thread in the book about mothers who turn their backs on their children - Hazel is looking for the mother who abandoned her when she arrives at the Baron's castle and whilst in Germany the two of them adopt a lost boy. 

There are perhaps too many themes and too many strands that are picked up and never fully examined. And through it all goes Hazel, a strong-minded young woman, but one whose emotions were not depicted as strongly as they might have been. All of which made this book a frustrating read, as tit could potentially have been very good indeed, as it was good in parts.

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

Saturday 2 May 2015

Interview with Dennis Vickers

This is a new development for this blog: interviews with writers of magic realism. First up is Dennis Vickers, whose book Mikawadizi Storms I reviewed a few months ago. Any other authors interested in doing an interview should check out the interview tab above. 

Welcome, Dennis. Before we start, here's a bit of introduction: Dennis is a member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group. He has quite a few books to his name, check out his Amazon Author page for more info.

1. Who are your favourite magic realist authors and why?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude was the first Magical Realism book I read. I found the story charming, but didn’t think much about why until later. I also enjoy Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie.

2. What is your all-time favourite magic realist book?
Surprisingly (given Laura Esquivel isn’t among the authors I listed above) I thought Like Water for Chocolate was a marvelous story. I especially like how Esquivel infuses the magic into the characters. It’ s probably the MR book I think about most and the one I’ll most likely reread one day.

3. Why do you write magic realism?
The real world is filled with events that are beautiful or delightful in a way that seems removed from everyday life (one definition of magical), but we often don’t notice. Sometimes twisting or exaggerating these events highlights them. For example, greed often leads to consequences greedy people struggle to deal with. In my last novel, a greedy mining engineer’s hands grow, leading to all sorts of difficulties for him. This story element is my way of drawing attention to the everyday development that greed leads to life-draining consequences, usually debilitating absorption in the acquisition and retention of money.

4. Can you give us your definition of magic realism?
Magical realism is a literary genre in which two cultures are presented together, usually embedded in characters that represent both. One culture accepts magic as an everyday factor; the other rejects magic. Thus, some events are everyday events from one cultural perspective, but magical from the other. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, José Arcadio is shot in his bedroom. Blood flows out of his ear, down the street, around some corners, up the stairs of Úrsula's house, and through the rooms there, until it finds her. Garcia Marquez tells this story as if there’s nothing unusual about it, and indeed, it’s an everyday occurrence that a person would come to know that a tragic misfortune has befallen a loved one – from one perspective it’s quite real. Yet, of course, blood doesn’t do that – from the other perspective it’s magic.  

5. Tell us about your latest magic realist book?
Mikawadizi Storms tells the story of a freelance journalist who reports on the controversy surrounding an open-pit iron ore mine dug into idyllic woodlands just up river from an Indian Reservation. The plot mirrors a conflict that unfolded near where I live: Gogebic Taconite sought to put the largest open-pit iron mine in the world in the Penokee Hills upstream of the Bad River Ojibwe. Interestingly, the outcome predicted in my novel, i.e. the Earth rejects the mine, is in fact what came about – the Penokee Hills hold too much ground water for such a mine to be feasible. No doubt the conflict will resume one day when the value of iron ore has increased to the point where massive pumping of ground water seems a good idea.

I am struck by how many people are involved in conflicts like the Penokee Hills mine, and so I structured the novel into forty-six small stories, each a chapter focused primarily on one character. I found the subtle perspective shifts implied by that structure to be useful when presenting the worldview of the Native American characters, many of whom were intently concerned about the mine but only indirectly connected to the main plot (namely the politics of mine approval and the actual construction of the mine). Magical Realism elements include sentient animals (with a ghost cat), karmic developments (for example, the greedy mine engineer with growing hands), an old man who transforms into a butterfly, all set against the background of conflict between perspectives of the indigenous culture and the mining company.