Reading the description on the back of Strangers With the Same Dream, I was skeptical. I felt no immediate urge to read about Zionist settlers in the 1920s and the kibbutz movement. But a little part of me thought, hey, isn’t this what reading fiction is all about? Reading about topics and people and places you find no immediate interest or resonance with? Or might have existing assumptions about? So I let the small part of me take over, and I thought, I like Alison Pick, I’ll put myself in her capable hands and see where this goes.
So glad I did! The novel is beautiful, told with an inventive narration and thoughtful about how it positions the Zionist project through self-conscious reflection from its narrators on the relationship with the Palestines the group is displacing. The story is told in three parts, each narrated from the perspective of a different character recounting the same events. The shift in narration has the effect of inviting the reader to see how – even within the same community with shared politics and ambitions – the truth of the story, the beliefs about motivations and goals, are malleable and personal. Wikipedia let me know there’s a name for this phenomenon – the “Rashomon effect,” which were I a trivia player or better at life, I’d already know about (and you probably do). In any case, tis’ when the same event is told differently by the people who were all there. Underscoring the point I suppose, that if history/fact is contradicted even by those who all shared the same experience, what little doubt is there that those of us encountering the event from a distance – whether geographic or historic – are only ever going to get a partial (both incomplete and biased) version.
I did find the introduction of a ghost in the first chapter, and the recurrence of this ‘character’ distracting and irritating. The ghost of the murdered/suicide character doesn’t offer much to the narrative, instead layering a heavy-handed Doom and Gloom vibe, as well as Aura of Mystery that I found myself all too happy to ignore. And it was easy to do so as the ghost would (seemingly randomly) appear and make some Ominous Statement and then disappear again and I was like who cares.
You’ll probably read Lincoln in the Bardo because everyone is talking about it and because George Saunders is some kind of savant of literary genius who writes sentences that are so particular in their detail and yet so vast in their evocation of feeling that while reading you sort of stumble between the narrative itself and the awareness that you are reading the work of a master of language-to-mean. Not unlike my own opening run-on-sentence, right? Right. Continue reading
Published just after (like months) the first season of Downton Abbey began, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger shares the basic plot features of the show (well, sort of): British aristocratic family falls on hard times after the end of the War (this time, WWII) as they are without fortune, but more importantly without a ‘place’ in a world that has moved past the need for lords and ladies.
Place is significant in The Little Stranger as the deteriorating manor house that forms the claustrophobic setting for the novel parallels the degradation of the family’s wealth and social standing. As a good gothic tale, the creaking house is a character in its own right, taking action – at first to protect and then to threaten – the family and any guests. Further gothic elements of maidens in distress, haunting figures and would-be heroes, The Little Stranger is as much an exercise in genre as it is an exploration of the consequences of changing social mores brought about by economic and political turmoil.
That exploration, while complicated and rich in the abstract, is captured in the novel in the minute interactions among characters, casual glances, waylaid gloves and dogs barking at the wrong time. That is to say, the fascination of changing social attitudes falters under the microscopic and magnified lenses of the novel. I am not ordinarily drawn to pages and pages detailing a parlour visit and the composition of the tea tray. Nor was I drawn to it in this instance. I suspect that if you have interest in the time period, or in ghosts and haunted mansions (or in considering how ghosts might be manifestations of our own interests) and mysteries, you’d enjoy the read.
My complaints registered, I should say that I found the mystery element compelling: how/whether the doctor-hero was, in fact, a murderous villain bent on protecting and seizing both the bodies and ideas of the aristocracy. And appropriately haunting. I’ve come back to did-he, didn’t-he in the days since finishing the book, more as wonder of how deceptive first person narration can be and how capable we are of deceiving ourselves – and the pleasure that comes from both.
I really loved A Time Traveller’s Wife. I really want to love Her Fearful Symmetry. And for most of the first half I was completely on board. I enjoy a good mystery, I appreciate a London setting and a fancy flat with loads of expendable income. As always, I appreciate good characterization – and the twins, Robert, and particularly Martin, are likable. Likable but not quite fully realized. The characteristics of each – Valentina as “mouse,” Julia as “bossy,” Martin as “OCD-ey” evolve, but without any justification for why such changes take place except that it is expedient for the plot.
In fact, all of the novel works towards advancing the plot and reaching the climax, at the expense of character development, consistency and motivation. While I appreciate that Neiffenegger takes bold and creative ideas and puts them to work in ways that allow the reader to suspend belief, unlike TTW, here the suspension of belief is only temporary, and the “magical” elements quickly become tedious and without logic, which is all the more disappointing given the success of TTW in sustaining believable unbelievability. Which is to say, the plot is engaging for the first 2/3rds of the text, and then becomes something to be completed if only to find out how the wildly loose ends might come together.
So a novel to be enjoyed for the fast-paced plot and the intensely readable early sections; a novel to be avoided if one values character development or consistency.