Shrines of Gaiety: Extremely Fun(ny)

I’m here to report that Kate Atiknson’s Shrines of Gaiety is extremely fun and funny. Though, if you are at all like me, it will take you 75 pages to figure that out. I started out thinking ‘this is Serious literary fiction’ (and it is literary fiction!) and set in London after World War One and about gender politics and gangsters and so must be Dull But Important. Persist, dear reader, persist.

It is funny, smart, playful and entirely absorbing.

Perhaps another reason why it takes a bit of time to get your bearing in the book is that it flits chapter by chapter through third person limited narration among a motley cast of characters all interwoven with one another in the setting of London’s night clubs: a runaway teen ager arrived in London to find her fortune as an actress (spoiler: she does not find her fortune as an actress so much as nearly starve on the streets); a once-impoverished parochial librarian arrived in London with her fortune to take up a job as a spy (!); a newly arrived Detective Inspector tasked with solving a spate of murders; the head of a string of night clubs, Nellie Corker, who sees ghosts, reads fortunes and machinates to maintain her power; and the passel of Corker’s children half of whom are indistinguishable and the other half sharp and bright.

Threads of murder and mystery, romance, debauchery (a baby party! where adults dress as babies and fancy around with nannies and opium), theft, corruption and scheming. Delightful for the fun of it all, but woven through with substantial questions of how a society (or an individual) responds after a great trauma (say a giant war and then an influenza pandemic), of how that generation of women and men change as a consequence – both in expectations for their lives but of their roles in politics and the economy, of how little we can rely on the police.

I can’t promise you’ll love it, but I do think that if you make it through the first hundred pages without laughing you’re probably a bad reader and should just quit.

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Filed under Fiction, Funny, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

Ask Again, Yes: In which I read some things and then forgot them

I’ve read at least three novels since posting last, but can I remember what they are? I cannot. Gone are the days of coming back to a post three weeks later with a somewhat clear memory of what I read, let alone the title. Ah well. In this case I finished the book last week and the kids are still sleeping (at 7:09am!) so I’ll get this out to you without more meandering.

Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes is a warm fuzzy sort of socks and blanket book. Following Peter and Kate across their soul-mate lives together, the book (tries to) explores how people enter relationships not as individuals but within constellations of relationships, and that any romance is both between two individuals and those intersecting networks of people. In this case, the families of Peter and Kate have an incredibly fraught relationship after a “explosive event” (so says the book jacket) that changes the trajectory of the families and the individuals within. Whether the two can – or should – find one another again is the subject of much of the middle half of the book.

The other set of questions – beyond that of how and whether a loving relationship is possible amid family drama – is around if and how people can change because of or despite their childhood, and – strangely? – the role of the medical or penal systems in enabling and limiting this change. I say strangely as the book doesn’t seem conscious of the ways doctors, hospitals, rehab centers, courts, police and prisons are represented as uncomplicated in their ability to help. It’s worth saying – if it’s also obvious – that these systems are… not uncomplicated in their ability to help.

[SEVERAL DAYS LATER]

And then the last thing to say is that the book seems unable to let anyone suffer without that suffering meaning something, having that suffering both eventually resolve and in the resolution imparting something decent on the suffers. It is maddening, even while it is… cozy. What a triumph of escapism to imagine that All of This could eventually lead to something… better. Something… meaningful. So maybe not fiction after all, so much as cozy fantasy.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

To Paradise: It May Have Taken Me All Summer, But It Was Worth It

I have this memory of reading Infinite Jest in one week at the cottage. And memories of scoffing at people who took weeks to read a novel. Like, what, I thought, were they doing with their time? Well scoff no more because it took me all summer to read Hanya Yangagihara’s new novel, To Paradise. But I did. And you should, too.

Set in three distinct time periods – the late 19th century, the mid-20th and the near future of the 2060s – the novel grounds itself (not literally, but close to literally) in the setting of Washington Square park and the residents of a stately manor house on its edges. In these richly imagined sections of the book distinct characters with repeating (and for this memory fogged individual, sometimes confusing) names move through the house with recurring thematic questions explored through these unique yet layered temporalities.

Some of what the book focuses on is family – what kinds of responsibilities a parent owes a child, where parental and child autonomy start and end, and how freedom within a family is limited, found and exercised. Much of it is on how illness shapes a family. Written post-2020, and with the latter section of the novel (the 2060s section) written entirely from a frame of a post-pandemic, post-climate catastrophe state, the backdrop of Covid looms even while it is never explicitly named. The ways parents and children, partners and lovers, are asked and required to negotiate, to compromise, to mourn, and to sacrifice within the frame of contagion is… compelling and unsettling.

Yangagihara writes incredible characters. You’ll recall that I love A Little Life – so much so that I read and reviewed it twice – and what I loved in that novel – the exquisite imagining of the wholeness of characters – repeats here. Most reviews of To Paradise will tell you that the middle section, set in Hawai’i, drags a bit. And it does. But more because the plot is slow than the fault of fully imagined characters. Make it through that section and you are richly rewarded in the final third.

I suppose my only complaint is the unsettled questions at the end of each section. While I know the lack of answers is intentional, I do, I can’t help but remain frustrated that the responsibility for imagining the future falls to me. Of course there’s a thematic point in that formal quality, but still. Come on.

Thanks to my mum who urged this one on me and promised that I’d love it. I did.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner, Reader Request

Madness of Crowds: You Can’t Read This in a Covid Wave

So the opening pages of Louise Penny’s Madness of Crowds features the relief of our beloved Inspector Gamache at the end of Covid. The vaccines have saved the day and Covid is eradicated. Onwards to hugs and shared food and no masks and no complicated decisions about coughs. I started the book in January 2022 and immediately threw it across the room.

I tried again while on holiday and was able to suspend my heartbreak on the state of Covid in the world and to instead play speculative fiction of What If and then go with Penny on that journey.

What follows then is a regular Inspector Gamache book where I should probably stop reviewing them because they are all sort of the same: great descriptions of food, long meditations on Gamache’s kindness/deep scars from making hard decisions, cameos from the Three Pines villagers etc. It’s good and fine and exactly the sort of book I wanted to read on the beach, but besides the post-Covid-not-actually-post-Covid part nothing stand out. So sure, read it, don’t read it, but probably you should read Cloud Cuckoo Land instead.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery