I continued my summer of reading literary thrillers with Will Fergusen’s 419. I was late to the party on this one, with folks suggesting I read it for years. Something about it made me resistant to reading, and it wasn’t until it was the *only* book to have come in to the library from my list of requests that I gave in and picked it up. That 419 is terrific only (once again) proves that I am ridiculous for following my arbitrary whims when it comes to book covers and gut feelings.
It follows a sort of three part structure with three distinct characters and plots that (eventually and inevitably) insercet. All story lines are tied to the Nigerian economy. The effect of having the three distinct threads is to demonstrate in character and plot the complexity of the titular 419 scheme. I say complexity and mean both in how such a scheme is set up and executed, but also – and more importantly – the moral ambiguity of the scheme as the reader comes to appreciate the motivations of those setting up the scheme, just as we come to sympathize with those who fall victim to it. It is in this complexity that 419 does its best work – demanding that the reader simulatenously occupy multiple points of sympathy, and rendering all positions around the issue as at once explotited and powerful.
There were a few parts in the initial descriptions of the Nigerian oil economy that I found dragged; likewise in the initial scenes of desert crossing. I suspect this had as much to do with the contrast between these opening scenes and the opening scenes in Calgary, which are plot heavy and familiar as it did with the return to an emphasis on setting and mood as opposed to plot. I also found the characterization of Lauren a bit thinly drawn: her moodiness and loneliness felt declarative rather than earned, and I was annoyed with her more often than I ought to have been when the aim was to cultivate my sympathies.
Putting these minor complaints aside, the novel offers an (at times) gripping exploration of global economic inequalities without it feeling like you’re reading a book about global economic inequality (always a plus). And it has a snappy little mystery to hook you in, so if you’re at all resistant (as I was), give it the first 30 pages and you’ll be snagged.
So I know I said I was (I am!) taking a blog holiday, but I couldn’t resist checking back in to let you know about the excellent Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. You’d think that a novel about the life of Achilles and the Trojan war could only be dull (that was certainly my impression going in), but wowbamzonk but this book is great. (I’ll admit I decided to read it because it won the Orange Prize – one of the few literary prizes that I find consistently delivers an exceptional read). I’d especially recommend it for a trip to the cottage as it’s entirely engrossing, and is neither candy-fluff-mindless, nor emotionally/mentally taxing. It strikes an ideal cottage/beach balance of smart, character-driven (with the well established plot) and entertaining.
Narrated from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s companion and lover, the novel explores the great love of these two figures and the way ‘forbidden’ love is navigated by family, nation and gods. The novel is roughly divided in two with the first half setting up the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, along with establishing Achilles’s god-like (or godly?) powers and the future the two men want for themselves (along with the likely future). The second half takes on the Trojan War itself, narrating battles, but more interested in how a ten year war/seige is waged and the impact on the local communities/the flourishing of camp life.
Fascinating throughout is the extent to which Achiells is motivated by his desire for historic longevity – to be known as a hero on par with Hercules (the reader is of course more than aware that he certainly succeeds in establishing himself as a legendary hero) – and his willingness to sacrifice – almost – anything to gain this longevity. For Patroclus motivations are more nobel, but no less ambitious: he wants the same for Achilles, but he wants – more modestly – their life together to continue in perpetuity. The way the two work together to secure Achilles his heroic claim is a study in expressions of love and sacrifice for love. I do think the rendering of Patroclus as (ultimately) the ‘greater’ Greek is fascinating as it sets up an alternate portrait of heroics: not battle success, but self-sacrifice, gentleness and, crucically, care for the vulnerable.
So yes. I resolve to get back to vacation, but let my eagerness to post this be evidence of the quality of the book and not (as is also likely the case) my inability to take a proper rest.
Here’s how it goes: ‘ill’ protagonist + alienation (from family, school, life) + unlikely romance = bonanza bestseller. So, too, goes Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe, Continue reading
The Best Kind of People is the sort of book you take on holiday and read quickly and find yourself enjoying (despite of or because of) its content and then you finish it and move on to playing volleyball and eating BBQ and you forget about it. Even though the subject matter is such that it should probably linger: rich, white man is a high-school teacher and community leader; he is accused of several counts of sexual assault; the reader follows the impact of the legal proceedings on his family: his teenage daughter who goes to the same school where he taught and where the young women who were assaulted attend, his wife – a nurse and community leader, his grown son – now living in New York who came into his gay identity in the same homophobic small town.
One of the things to admire about the novel is that it tells this story without narrating the perspective of George Woodbury – the father and abuser. Nor does it narrate the abuse itself. Focusing instead on the ripples of the crime on the family of the criminal, the novel offers a vision of guilty by association, or monster by proxy. It considers the way individuals are framed in relation to crime and the criminal: what should have been known, who should have known it and when. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about trust and belief and forgiveness. And in its shifting narrative point of view, asks the reader to take on different perspectives of those around George in order to imagine a sort of empathy for those in the orbit of crime who are neither victims nor perpetrators.
I’m not sure then why I find it forgettable. I enjoyed reading it (as much as you can enjoy being asked to enter a world of emotional distress and disruption and empathize and discover): the pacing was neat (with a structure of examining the week after in detail, and then the week before the trial – giving a sort of telescoping of time while still allowing for character development and change) and the moral questions and actions for the characters complex. I suppose I didn’t find any of the three key characters: daughter, son and wife, all that compelling. Their reactions made logical sense, their decisions and their choices in the aftermath were scripted such that they felt like the ‘right’ set of responses one might be expected to experience. Yet they lacked a certain something that made me want to really feel alongside them and so was left in a sort of observational capacity when the book was clearly calling me to empathy.
All that said I do think it would make for a compelling summer read or a great book club discussion. Again – not for anything stylistic so much as the questions it raises and then fully explores.